Nick Jones is an editor and blogger who relentlessly bangs on about old books at http://existentialennui.blogspot.com/
Largely overlooked these days, Desmond Cory – a pen name of name Shaun McCarthy (1928–2001) – had dozens of crime and spy thrillers published over a forty-plus year period from 1951 to 1993 – almost all of them now out of print. Sixteen feature British secret agent Johnny Fedora, who made his debut in Secret Ministry (1951), beating another, more famous operative, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, onto bookshelves by two years (Casino Royale didn’t arrive until 1953).
Half Spanish, half Irish, a former Spanish Civil War combatant, Chicago gangster and F.B.I. counter-espionage agent – not to mention a talented piano player – Fedora is essentially freelance, hired by British Intelligence on a case-by-case basis – often assisted by Sebastian Trout of the Foreign Office – and pitted against Nazi spies, trained killers and Soviet agent provocateurs, against whom he proves highly lethal.
The five books which close out the Fedora series are known as the “Feramontov Quintet”, and all see Johnny clashing with feline Soviet spymaster Feramontov. The first of those, Undertow (1962), is a contender for Cory’s best novel – which is why it’s a cause for celebration that it’s now been rescued from semi-obscurity by Top Notch Thrillers. Cory’s quiet facility with the written word is evident right from the off, as he describes the dead body of an escaped prisoner, Juan Guerrero, lying face down beside a Spanish road, a “black halo” of blood staining the ground around his head. Guerrero has been murdered by a fellow escapee from one of Franco’s jails, Moreno, whose extraction has been effected by Feramontov, orchestrating events from a yacht off the coast. Feramontov and his associates Meuvret and Elsa need Moreno to secure certain logbooks, which are hidden in or near a house overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar... a house owned by an Argentinian heiress and currently occupied by two idle Englishmen...
The Englishmen are, of course, Johnny Fedora and his pal Sebastian Trout. By this point in the series Fedora is practically retired, loafing around his girlfriend’s house in Spain (a country Cory knew well; he lived there for a time and eventually retired to the area around Malaga where Undertow is set), lounging by the swimming pool, drinking too much and playing the piano. It’s sheer bad luck on Feramontov’s part that Fedora happens to be in residence at Moreno’s target, but when the housemaid winds up dead in the pool, Fedora makes it his business (partly out of boredom, partly out of professional interest in a fellow killer) to hunt the man who murdered her, in the process getting sucked into Feramontov’s scheme.
Cory has been criticized in some quarters for his unhurried pacing and apparent lack of interest in plotting, but that’s to overlook his books’ very particular qualities as idiosyncratic thrillers. For sure, Undertow is characterized by long, languorous passages where seemingly little of note occurs, and yet those sequences are wonderfully vivid and descriptive, subtly delving into the psychology of the protagonists. Take the scene where Fedora, Trout and Elsa are diving in the harbour. Fedora finds himself, unusually, utterly at peace with the world, subsumed into the aquatic environs, “a pair of eyes and a brain behind a vaseline-smeared plastic panel... no longer human... a disembodied spirit”.
Looking up, he could see the sunlight broken by the wavelets on the surface into shuddering, boiling bands and flecks, into streamers of bright gold and orange that became suddenly alive with all the colours of the prism; and he could see the bubbles of his own breath rising swiftly, colourless like pearls, then glinting as though with flame as they reached that surface froth, mingled with it and disappeared...
Offsetting these calm interludes are moments of extreme violence and gripping bursts of action, which punctuate the prose at intervals. One of the most memorable of these is an assault by Feramontov-hired thugs on a police station where Fedora is being held. From start to finish this episode is just two two-page chapters long (the numberless chapters in Undertow are typically very short), but Cory packs a hell of a lot into that scant space, his economy with words lending the scene a shocking intensity.
Equally shocking are some of the things Cory’s cast do to one another. Elsa goads the dangerous, unhinged Moreno into attacking her (and then nearly kills him), while the antagonistic relationship between her and Feramontov explodes into sexualised violence twice in quick succession. That Feramontov is left gasping for breath after the first encounter and sporting a bloodied lip after the second speaks to Elsa’s strength as a character, but she’s as damaged as the rest of them, although nowhere near as twisted and sadistic as Feramontov himself.
The remarkable thing about Undertow is how fresh and modern it feels, certainly more so than many other spy thrillers of the period – the Bond novels included. On top of that, it’s beautifully written, and in the shape of Johnny Fedora features a lead who’s likeably feckless and yet every bit as ruthless as the modern day movie Bond. With the resurgence of interest in spy fiction in the wake of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film, here’s hoping Top Notch Thrillers see fit to bring further Fedora adventures back in from the cold.