Friday, January 15, 2016

Six Days of the Condor by James Grady

Run, bookworm, run!
Six Days of the Condor, an espionage thriller by James Grady, was published in 1974. Shortly thereafter it was adapted into the film Three Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford. The basic premise of the two are the same, though they differ quite a bit in plot details, bad guys, character names, and the basic underlying reason for it all.

Ronald Malcolm is an analyst in the CIA (code name: Condor). He works for an obscure department headquartered in an unassuming DC town house, masquerading as the American Literary Historical Society. Malcolm’s job is to read mystery novels and spy stories, analyze their plots, and report on their contents. Needless to say, this area of intelligence doesn’t see much field-agent action. One afternoon, however, Malcolm comes back from lunch to find that everyone in his office has been murdered. It’s only by a stupid mistake on the part of the assassins that he himself has been spared. He calls his CIA panic line, setting the entire DC intelligence community into action. Malcolm, realizing he’s still a target, wants to turn himself into his superiors for protection, but it soon becomes apparent that someone within the CIA had a hand in the killings. With nowhere to turn, he enlists, at gunpoint, the help of a young woman to hide him until he can figure out why all this is happening and how to stop it.

Grady, a former investigative journalist, peppers the story with insight into the inner workings of the CIA. How much of this detail of the American intelligence bureaucracy is true and how much of it fiction is unclear, but such expositional interludes ground the sensationalistic thriller and add welcome authenticity and gravitas to what might otherwise have been a formulaic spy story. These behind-the-scenes asides are the best part of the book. Malcolm’s actions as a secret agent, however, are less satisfying. Grady endows his hero with just too much dumb luck. Malcolm’s survival ends up depending more on the kindness of strangers than on his own smarts. Whenever he gets into a jam, some fortuitous samaritan always seems to come along just at the right time to proved convenient aid. On those occasions when Malcolm is required to con someone into assistance, they acquiesce far too easily. Perhaps people were that friendly and gullible in 1974, but four decades later such ready compliance defies plausibility.

Further annoyance is inspired by Grady’s treatment of the bad guys in the book. He conceals their names until the end, which is fine, but in the meantime he tags them with confusing generic appellations like the big man, the tall man, the old man, the distinguished man, the striking man. Perhaps only one adjective is the bare minimum required to distinguish one character from another, but for clarity and memorability, why not give each some more distinctive characteristics to set them apart from the rest of humanity?

The idea of a CIA bookworm getting in way over his head is an inspired one, and despite its imperfections, this book is a good ride. It’s lighter fare than a typical Robert Ludlum novel, but packs the same sort of electric thrills. If you liked the movie, you’ll enjoy the book. If you haven’t seen the movie, all the better; more surprises are in store for you. Grady eventually followed this book up with four sequels, the next installment being Shadow of the Condor.
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