The XYY Man

The XYY Man

Cat burglary and espionage are two of my favorite categories of Shadow op; any story that combines them in a believable way is going to go on my to-read list.

The XYY Man, published in 1970 by Kenneth Royce, is such a story. It’s the first of a series of eight novels about William “Spider” Scott, a skilled “creeper” (cat burglar) and occasional British government operative. The novel was adapted as a 3-part British TV series pilot in 1976 and returned for 10 more episodes in 1977.

The story starts slowly as we’re introduced to the protagonist, a second-story man who has just been released from his third stay in prison and is determined to go straight. We also meet his devoted girlfriend Maggie and his square cop brother Dick, whose influence is the only thing keeping Spider from going back to his old life of crime. Meanwhile, a nasty copper named Bulman with a personal grudge is harassing Spider, accusing him of another burglary and preventing his brother from advancing in the force.

Things look bleak for Spider when a man named Fairfax approaches him out of the blue and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: Bulman will be called off, Dick will be given a promotion, and Spider will receive 15000 pounds to set himself up with a legitimate business and a new life with Maggie. All Spider has to do is steal some documents from a safe in the Chinese Legation in London–which turns out to be the most secure, unfriendly building Spider has ever seen. And if he’s caught, his sponsors will deny all involvement and Spider will have to face the music like a common criminal.

Spider initially refuses, considering it a mission impossible and not wanting to spend his best remaining years in a tough prison, or six feet under if the Chinese get him. But after casing the building carefully, the sheer challenge of it gets his juices flowing and he decides to give it a go. It’s the same old story we see time and time again with Shadow-oppers: the safe, square, daytime life just can’t compete with the buzz of breaking the law, living on the edge and operating in the shadows.

The story kicks into gear as Spider goes ahead with the op, breaking into the Legation building from an adjoining rooftop, creeping past alarms and into the safe room. But things go sideways when he discovers the shocking information the documents contain, and the next thing we know Spider is a fugitive–from British intelligence, the police, the Chinese, Maggie, Dick and soon, the CIA and the KGB. Spider has to evade them all and figure out what to do when you have nowhere to go and you’re the most wanted man in London, if not the world. In other words, it’s a Shadow operator’s worst nightmare, but a shadow-fiction reader’s dream scenario.

I liked the first-person, real-time perspective this novel gives you of the creeper Scott as he tries to complete his mission, evade his pursuers and extricate himself from an epic international clusterf*k on the streets of London. We get an up-close look at some of the tricks of his trade, the quick wits required and the intensity of being a most-wanted fugitive on the run. There were some twists at the end that I found a little confusing and the story wrapped up a bit too quickly, but otherwise it was a gripping story.

My only other criticism is that the writing was a bit awkward and difficult to follow at times, particularly for an American reading in 2021. It reminded me of an early Jack Higgins novel, with its unpolished style and street-level view of British Shadow operatives of a bygone era. But the plot was compelling, the action exciting but never over the top, and the main character Spider the kind of protagonist the shadow-fiction fan has to root for. I enjoyed The XXY Man and will be reviewing other installments of the Spider Scott series in the near future. Recommended for fans of old-school crime, spy and adventure fiction.

The Black Ice Score

The Black Ice Score

Black Ice Score, published in 1968 by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), is the eleventh entry in the incomparable Parker series about an ultra-tough but likeable heist-man.

This time the target of Parker’s heist is $700k worth of diamonds smuggled into New York by the corrupt leader of a small African nation called Dhaba. The diamonds are being kept on the top floor of a museum where the leader’s brutal brothers-in-law have taken residence and guard them 24/7. A diplomat from Dhaba wishes to steal the diamonds back on behalf of his countrymen, so he finds the best man in the business and hires him as a consultant. Parker’s task is to devise a plan to get into the building, past the guards and grab the diamonds. His job is complicated by a group of white colonials allied with a black general from Dhaba, who have learned about the diamonds and want them to fund their own takeover of the country. They are trying to strong-arm Parker into telling them where the diamonds are, going so far as to kidnap his steady girlfriend Claire and forcing him to cooperate. There’s also a joker in the pack in the form of a shifty, unpredictable character named Hoskins who has a bad habit of annoying Parker and appearing at inopportune times (Westlake loves these characters).

This is an atypical entry in the series in several respects. For one, Parker is not doing the job himself, but is only acting as a paid consultant for amateurs. He plans the heist and trains the Africans, but doesn’t participate directly in the theft. This is obviously a let down for Parker fans, sort of like going to an Elvis concert and being told that an impersonator is going to perform instead—though the author does a pretty good job of making the amateurs’ point of view interesting. The international political angle is also unusual for this series, which is normally apolitical and focused entirely on the all-American business of taking down big scores. In the spy-crazy 1960s it seemed that every thief and thug was getting a piece of the geopolitical action. Third, Parker seems strangely charitable and caring at times compared to his brutal sociopathic persona earlier in the series. Apparently his long-term relationship with Claire is softening him and making him a bit less Terminator-like than before.

There were some interesting moments in this story for students of shadow operations. The planning of the heist, the social engineering used to case the building, and the tools and tactics employed were reminiscent of the antics of real-world master jewel thief William Mason that I discussed in this review. This is the most ninja-like op in the series so far: the use of deception to gain entry to a stronghold, crossing from rooftop to rooftop, roping down an elevator shaft, using gas bombs to incapacitate guards, dressing all in black, surprise attacks, are all classic ninja tactics, handled with Westlake’s trademark realism.

The short novel moves quickly to a climax as the theft gets very bloody, bodies pile up, and Parker makes his re-appearance just in time. Hoskins is still a joker, the colonialists still hold the trump card Claire, and Parker has to bluff and go all-in to win with the hand he’s dealt. While risking his neck to save a woman wasn’t the old Parker’s style, this slightly kinder, gentler Parker does just that to try to save Claire from the clutches of the enemy.

This was definitely a lesser entry in the series, but still entertaining and worth the few hours spent reading it if you like heist novels and appreciate quality writing. Westlake is the genre’s master and Parker its greatest character, so even a sub-par installment is a cut above most other novels of its kind.

Get a copy of The Black Ice Score here.

The Violent Enemy

The Violent Enemy

Whenever I’m in the mood for a quick, entertaining men’s adventure story involving shadow warfare, my go-to author is Jack Higgins; he never disappoints. The Violent Enemy, published in 1966 (originally titled A Candle for the Dead), is no exception. Featuring two of my favorite plot elements–a prison break and a heist–and a backstory about the Irish Republican Army, the novel sounded right up my alley.

Protagonist Sean Rogan is similar to several other Higgins protagonists (most notably Liam Devlin of The Eagle Has Landed): an ultra-tough, dangerous Irish shadow warrior who led special operations in World War II and the guerrilla war against British rule in Ireland. He has spent twelve of the last twenty years in prison, and is now doing hard labor in a maximum security prison in England.

Rogan is denied early release as the novel begins, which sets up a plot element that Higgins used in several other early novels (Hell is Too Crowded, Dark Side of the Street, Hell is Always Today): a prison break. During his latest stay, escape artist Rogan has figured out a complicated route of the prison that involves cutting through wire cages, climbing up beams, crawling through ventilation ducts and roping down walls. But the real challenge is figuring out how to get through the desolate moors that surround the prison and find a safe haven, a clean identity and transportation away from the scene. When all of that is offered by a former top IRA man on the outside, who apparently wants Rogan out real bad but doesn’t say why, Rogan can’t refuse.

Rogan executes the jailbreak and soon finds himself back with his old IRA boss, named O’More, who has a job that calls for Rogan’s special talents. O’More wants Rogan to rob an armored car as it is delivering a large sum of cash to a train at a stop in a small village. He has assembled a crew which, as per usual in a Higgins novel, includes some rather nasty and treacherous characters and an attractive young woman who quickly becomes Rogan’s romantic interest. This leads to personal dramas and betrayals that threaten to derail the plot, but Rogan is a true alpha warrior and he asserts his authority on the unruly gang.

As Rogan and his crew are planning and executing the heist, a parallel police investigation is going on, led by a Scotland Yard detective who Rogan rescued from the Germans back in ’43. The detective doesn’t consider Rogan a real criminal, but a political prisoner, and since the troubles that landed Rogan in prison are no longer hot, let’s just say that he’s not a very motivated pursuer. The story moves quickly to a satisfying climax in the usual Higgins style, with the heisters on the run from the coppers, double-crossers on the run from both, and one or two twists along the way.

This was a fast-paced, entertaining read, with no wasted verbiage, simple but compelling characters and action that never goes over the top — all very typical of Higgins’s early work. This is basically a prison break, heist and getaway novel, much like the novel Breakout that I reviewed here. I was a little disappointed by the lack of IRA-style shadow warfare, but overall I have no complaints.

Get a copy of The Violent Enemy here.

Wilderness

Wilderness

After reading many novels about professional assassins targeting civilians, it was fun to read a thriller where the tables are turned: amateurs target a professional killer for death. That’s the plot of Wilderness, published in 1979 by mystery writer Robert B. Parker (creator of the Spenser: For Hire series).

The book hooks the reader from the first page, as protagonist Aaron Newman witnesses an execution-style murder of a woman while out jogging on the railroad tracks. He notifies the police, and learns to his horror that the killer is a well-known gangster and murderous psychopath named Adolph Karl. Karl soon lets Newman know in the strongest possible terms that he shouldn’t testify about the murder, by having his thugs tie up his wife, sexually abuse her and threaten further retaliation. Newman decides that rather than cowering in fear or allowing a killer to walk free, his only honorable option is to go on the offensive and kill Karl himself. He recruits his neighbor, a big, tough Korean War vet named Chris, and they start stalking Karl and his gang.

It was funny reading how these amateurs plan and execute their hit. Some of Newman’s tactics were ridiculous, like posing as a deaf beggar and walking right into Karl’s office to reconnoiter his defenses. Since Karl had immediately fingered Newman as the rat despite the police report being confidential, why would Newman not assume that Karl knew what he looked like? Also, targeting his entire gang seems a little ambitious for amateurs; wouldn’t they at least consider going into a witness protection program?

This is really a story about the relationship between the emotionally needy Newman and his rather cold and domineering wife, and how Newman feels the need to prove his manhood by standing up to Karl. I didn’t like either character that much, but Parker paints a believable picture of their personal drama and dysfunction. The only likeable characters were a sexually charged hitman and wife sent to take out Newman; they would have been right at home in a Quentin Tarantino film.

The novel really gets exciting about halfway through, when Newman, his wife and Chris decide to hunt down Karl and his gang while they’re on a hunting trip to a lake in the Maine wilderness. It becomes a tense tale of wilderness survival, manhunting and sudden death that was gripping all the way to the end.

Overall, I enjoyed Wilderness; it was a fast-moving, fairly believable tale of how ordinary people might become ruthless killers if put in a horrific enough situation. And that’s why I enjoy shadow-fiction so much: because it lets us imagine how we might be if we ever fully embraced our shadow selves.

Get a copy of Wilderness here.

The Murder Business

The Murder Business

The Murder Business by Peter C. Herring is an obscure thriller from 1976 with a premise so intriguing that I decided to track down a copy and read it. It’s basically a what-if  story: what if James Bond, due to psycho-sexual pathology and a tough childhood, turned to the “dark side” and become an assassin working for a SPECTRE-like cabal headquartered in the USA instead of Her Majesty’s Secret Service?

The dark side Bond in question is a handsome, dark-haired professional killer named Michael, who, like Bond, lives in a London flat, jets around the world on dangerous missions for a powerful cabal, is a smooth, stone-cold operative with a way with killing men and loving ladies alike. The cabal in question here is not MI6, but The Board–a circle of ten very powerful men who are said to secretly run the USA, and by extension, the world. The Board was apparently responsible for the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, as the latter were threatening to expose and reign in their shadowy power. The Board has toned down their assassinations in the 1970s, but are still targeting politicians who threaten them with exposure–often dispatching their best operative, Michael, to do the wetwork.

The novel begins with Michael doing what he does best: sneaking up on a troublesome VIP and efficiently executing him with his trusty knife. Then we get to go inside the Board’s meetings as they plot more killings to ensure their continued world domination, followed by Michael doing another job–this one rather kinky, as it involves sex, killing and Michael’s rather orgasmic reaction to both. We also get to meet Jenny, Michael’s beautiful girlfriend who is the first person in the world that the stone-cold killing machine has ever had feelings for.

The story takes a sudden turn when the Board discovers a plot to destroy them by a rival organization seeking to unseat them as the world’s top Illuminati. Michael, with Jenny in tow, takes a vacation to the south of France to get away from the heat but soon finds himself hunted by unknown assassins. Who is trying to kill him and why? What should Michael do about Jenny, now that she knows he is involved in the murder business? The tale gets darker and more violent as more assassins show up, people are killed in gruesome ways, the Board is hit hard and the stress of it all causes a mental breakdown of not only Jenny but the normally Terminator-like Michael.

Despite the promising set-up, I’m afraid Peter Herring is no Ian Fleming. The writing is often clumsy and over-written; there’s a lot of irrelevant detail about what Michael ate, the color of the sky, etc., the characters are rather cliched, and the story lacks the flair that made Fleming’s Bond a worldwide phenomenon. This reads like a men’s adventure novel that is trying to be more literary than it needs to be, or than the author is capable of. Which is too bad, because Michael had the potential to be for the spy genre somewhat like what Parker was for the crime genre: a psychopathic protagonist who shows us what life can be like on the dark side, if you throw off the yoke of governments, laws and morals and become a freelance Shadow operative dedicated purely to the ruthless execution of your craft. But to achieve that status, Herring would have had to be a better writer; he simply doesn’t bring the writing chops or technical details that Donald Westlake did to the Parker series. Nevertheless, if you are intrigued by the premise and fascinated by dark side spy, crime and assassin fiction (what I call “shadow-fiction“), you may find The Murder Business worth your time.

River of Darkness

River of Darkness

James Grady stormed onto the spy fiction scene in 1974 with his debut novel Six Days of the Condor (basis for the classic film Three Days of the Condor), a novel I greatly enjoyed for its paranoid take on America’s shadow government, its memorable characters Ronald Malcolm and the French assassin Joubert, and its brilliant concept of “Section 9, Department 17” which I have written about previously here.

Grady wrote a sequel to Six Days of the Condor called Shadow of the Condor the following year, which I read years ago and found rather forgettable. I recently decided to give Grady another try with his much meatier offering from 1992 called River of Darkness (aka The Nature of the Game). This is Grady’s attempt to write a sweeping, epic novel about American shadow wars from the 1960s to the 1980s, as told through the experiences of ex-Green Beret and CIA operative Jud Stuart.

The narrative switches frequently between Stuart’s current travails as a Jason Bournesque agent who has become expendable and is on the run, to the efforts of an honorable ex-marine tasked by shadowy D.C. players with tracking Stuart down and taking him out, to flashbacks to Stuart’s earlier adventures as a shadow operative. The first flashback is especially intense, as Jud is air-dropped behind enemy lines in 1960s Laos and has to survive a close encounter with Pathet Lao guerrillas. By the early 1970s Stuart is working for a shadowy outfit run by rogue American generals, taking part in everything from the Pinochet coup to spying on the Nixon White House, raiding Russians in Afghanistan, drug-running and assassinating VIPs. But Stuart eventually becomes a liability who knows far too much, so he becomes a hunted man as the novel opens.

The flashbacks to Jud’s covert operations were the novel’s highlights for me, both for the riveting action sequences and the authentic, historically relevant nature of the ops. This is where Grady, a former investigative journalist, shines: he gives the reader a sense of what really goes on behind the headlines, in the deep shadows where America’s secret wars are won and lost.

Unfortunately, there is a lot more going on in this novel than just Jud’s black ops, such as banal romances, family dramas, dull D.C. intrigues and fairly generic characters. It feels like Grady was trying to emulate best-selling spy novelists of the time like Ludlum, Clancy and Van Lustbader, who favored sprawling, complex, bloated epics over the leaner, more focused thrillers of yesteryear (like Six Days of the Condor). While I’ve enjoyed more than a few fat thrillers over the years, I thought this one had a little too much going on, and too many characters and machinations that just weren’t very interesting.

All in all, I’d say River of Darkness is about half a riveting novel with authentic detail and gripping action, and about half a rather plodding and padded effort to make the novel more epic and Ludlumesque. It’s still a cut above run of the mill and comic book spy thrillers, and worth reading if you’re interested in a realistic fictional take on some of the dark goings-on in the Vietnam to Iran-Contra era in the name of American freedom and security.

Get a copy of River of Darkness here.

Department 17 – Shadow-Fiction Research

Department 17 – Shadow-Fiction Research

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:


Title: Hijack
Author: Lionel White
Publication Year: 1969
Category: fiction
Genres: crime, noir
Op Types: heist, skyjacking
Plot Elements: femme fatale, Vietnam vets, alcohol
Locales: USA/Nevada
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.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/04/15/hijack/


Title: The Betrayers
Author: Donald Hamilton
Publication Year: 1966
Category: fiction
Genres: espionage, noir
Op Types: assassination, counter-espionage, terrorism
Plot Elements: femme fatale, sailing
Governments: USA, Russia, China
Locales: USA/Hawaii
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.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/03/26/the-betrayers/


Title: Breakout
Author: Donald Westlake
Writing As: Richard Stark
Publication Year: 2002
Category: fiction
Genres: crime
Op Types: prison break, heist, fugitive
Locales: USA/Midwest
Series: Parker
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.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/03/26/the-betrayers/


Title: Splinter Cell
Author: Raymond Benson
Writing As: David Michaels
Publication Year: 2003
Category: fiction
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.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/03/28/splinter-cell/


Title: The Hong Kong Massacre
Author: Joseph Rosenberger
Publication Year: 1988
Category: fiction
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.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/03/25/welcome-to-the-shadow-war/


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.

 

Breakout

Breakout

Breakout is the 21st book of the “Parker” series, by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). If you’ve never read any Parker novels, I recommend that you start with the first one, The Hunter, and proceed from there. Few books capture the intensity and drama of criminal shadow ops as realistically as these. Parker is a professional thief, but he’s no non-violent cat burglar, stealthily infiltrating buildings, cracking safes and getting away cleanly with the loot. He threatens, pistol-whips, beats, binds, gags, and occasionally kills to complete his missions, but always with an almost robotic level of efficiency and cool.

Parker novels are what you might call “criminal procedurals”—they give detailed, realistic accounts of the planning and execution of Parker’s heists and associated criminal activity. We learn about the minutia of getaway routes, entrances and exits, guards, escape vehicles, etc. Parker prefers low-tech, direct means to assault his targets, never relying on gadgetry when good old guns, threats and surprise are so much more reliable. But as in real life, nothing ever goes according to plan; much of the fun of these stories is finding out how Parker improvises when an op goes badly wrong or someone crosses him.

Breakout offers a new twist on the Parker formula: this time he has to break out of a facility instead of in—the facility in question being a prison, where he finds himself for the first time since the series began. Parker, being a guy who doesn’t take well to involuntary confinement, and being linked to the murder of a prison guard decades ago, immediately starts angling to escape. Recruiting two other inmates and with help from outside, he makes a harrowing but highly believable escape. And that’s just part one of this tale. The crew, now free and short of cash, decides to take on a heist that one of them had previously scoped out: breaking into a former armory loaded with jewelry that is as impregnable as the prison they just got out of. The ensuing break-in is as gripping as the break-out; author Stark describes both in such photographic detail that you could swear he has done them himself! There are further escapes, evasions, murders, police procedural work, hostage-taking, and a climactic manhunt for Parker the fugitive. The ending is particularly well done.

After reading five early Parker novels from the 1960s, it’s a bit jarring to read about him operating in a 21st century world of cell phones, internet and security cameras. But as always, Parker adapts to his circumstances and relies on the tried-and-true methods of his trade, so it doesn’t really affect the narrative. Forty years after the first novel, Westlake is still the master of hard-boiled crime fiction, and Parker is still the master of hard-boiled crime. “Breakout” is a top-notch addition to the best crime series ever written. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Breakout here.