In the classic spy thriller Six Days of the Condor, protagonist Ronald Malcolm has a shadow-fiction fan’s dream job: he works for the “American Literary Historical Society”, which is actually a front organization for Section 9, Department 17 of the CIA. Malcolm’s job is essentially to read spy and crime novels all day, analyzing them for hidden nuggets of intel or ideas that the Agency might be able to apply in its own operations:
The function of the Society and of Department 17 is to keep track of all espionage and related acts recorded in literature. In other words, the Department reads spy thrillers and murder mysteries. The antics and situations in thousands of volumes of mystery and mayhem are carefully detailed and analyzed in Department 17 files. …
The analysts for the Department keep abreast of the literary field and divide their work basically by mutual consent. Each analyst has areas of expertise, areas usually defined by author. In addition to summarizing plots and methods of all the books, the analysts daily receive a series of specially “sanitized” reports from the Langley complex. The reports contain capsule descriptions of actual events with all names deleted and as few necessary details as possible.
Fact and fiction are compared, and if major correlations occur, the analyst begins a further investigation with a more detailed but still sanitized report. If the correlation still appears strong, the information and reports are passed on for review to a higher classified section of the Department. Somewhere after that the decision is made as to whether the author was guessing and lucky or whether he knew more than he should. If the latter is the case, the author is definitely unlucky, for then a report is filed with the Plans Division for action. The analysts are also expected to compile lists of helpful tips for agents. These lists are forwarded to Plans Division instructors, who are always looking for new tricks.
It’s a fascinating, though perhaps fantastical, idea. But regardless of whether such a project would have much real-world intelligence use, it would certainly be a dream resource for the student of shadow-fiction. One could hone in on the precise types of stories one prefers, browsing for sources of ideas about any particular subject of interest. If you wanted to find crime novels featuring prison breaks, research Islamic terrorism in spy fiction, find men’s adventure novels set in South America or identify novels featuring ninjas published before 1983, you could quickly get a list of relevant works.
Which begs the question: why not create an open source version of Department 17 – a comprehensive database of spy, thriller, crime, men’s adventure, mystery and pulp fiction, broken down by genre, author, op types, plot synopsis, story elements, characters, series, etc.? There are nice sites that catalog science fiction/fantasy stories and comic books, but as far as I know nothing for shadow-fiction genres.
Below are some sample database listings for books recently reviewed on this blog to illustrate the idea:
Author: Lionel White
Publication Year: 1969
Genres: crime, noir
Op Types: heist, skyjacking
Plot Elements: femme fatale, Vietnam vets, alcohol
Plot Synopsis: A money-hungry ex-stewardess seduces an ex-Air Force pilot and tells him about a flight that carries millions of dollars in cash. The pilot assembles a team of misfits to hijack the plane, but the whole plan goes horribly and brutally wrong.
Title: The Betrayers
Author: Donald Hamilton
Publication Year: 1966
Genres: espionage, noir
Op Types: assassination, counter-espionage, terrorism
Plot Elements: femme fatale, sailing
Governments: USA, Russia, China
Series: Matt Helm
Series #: 10
Plot Synopsis: Counter-espionage assassin Matt Helm is sent to Hawaii to stop a traitorous rogue agent who is rumored to be working for the Red Chinese and planning some kind of terrorist operation. There he encounters two beautiful but dangerous female operatives whose allegiances are unclear.
Author: Donald Westlake
Writing As: Richard Stark
Publication Year: 2002
Op Types: prison break, heist, fugitive
Series #: 21
Plot Synopsis: Professional thief Parker is busted, sent to prison and must find a way to escape. He must also find a way to break in and out of an armory loaded with jewels and get away clean.
Title: Splinter Cell
Author: Raymond Benson
Writing As: David Michaels
Publication Year: 2003
Genres: espionage, techno-thriller
Op Types: espionage, terrorism, counter-terrorism, sabotage, infiltration, kidnapping
Plot Elements: stealth technology, arms dealing, supergun, Islamic terrorism
Agencies: NSA, Third Echelon, The Shop, The Shadows
Governments: USA, Iraq, Israel
Locales: China/Macau, Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Israel
Series: Splinter Cell
Series #: 1
Plot Synopsis: “Splinter cell” Sam Fisher, NSA covert operative and master of high tech stealth, is sent to the Middle East to track down the sinister cabal of arms dealers called “the Shop”, stop the Islamic terrorist group called “the Shadows” and rescue his kidnapped daughter.
Title: The Hong Kong Massacre
Author: Joseph Rosenberger
Publication Year: 1988
Genres: men’s adventure, pulp
Op Types: ninjutsu, assassination, infiltration, disguise
Plot Elements: ninjas, organized crime, triads, revenge
Locales: Hong Kong
Series: Shadow Warrior
Series #: 1
Plot Synopsis: “Shadow Warrior” Scott McKenna must avenge the death of a good friend at the hands of a triad gang. The story of how he became a highly skilled ninja is recalled, and his brutal assaults on the triad gang’s strongholds are described.
If I can find a simple platform on which to build such a site I might get it going. Hopefully others would see the value and contribute. Spy/crime/men’s adventure literature is a rich resource that deserves to be studied by present and future generations; it shouldn’t be allowed to fade into oblivion! I will post more about this project as developments warrant.