Mark Terry

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Reality is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there

April 22, 2008
I was reading an article on the Maxim website (yes, usually I just go for the girls, but sometimes I actually read the articles) asking a former CIA agent turned film advisor which movies about the CIA were most accurate. James Bond? Bourne? The Good Shepherd? (I confess, The Good Shepherd, although I recognized it as being well-done and well-acted, bored me. And it came out around the same time The Good German came out, so I keep calling it The Good German Shepherd.)

His answer?

"Meet The Parents."

I suspect the movie "Breach" was probably pretty good, too, in that it was based on true events and Chris Cooper's character was so complicated and weird he made almost no sense at all; the guy was a total mix of contrasts, but creepy as all get out.

I've noted that when it comes to novels and movies about crime and espionage, we want superheroes, not real life. Although I love the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker, in real-life he'd have his license pulled and after shooting one or two people, he'd be locked up. (I say that with some reluctance, however; there was a relatively recent case in Detroit where somebody finally bothered to investigate a cop who'd been involved in about 14 deadly shootings and decided he probably didn't belong on the force. It took them years to decide this, which brings up many, many questions about the DPD, very few of them good).

I like Barry Eisler's John Rain novels and certainly he brings a lot of "tradecraft" and research to the forefront (as well as more than a little moral ambiguity). Still, it pretty much feels like entertainment to me.

Certainly LeCarre's Smiley was probably more realistic--a boring, overweight clerk-like character.

Whenever I see a news report about some spy or higher-up in intelligence circles, I take a close look, because how often do these ex-spies resemble some middle-aged accountant with thinning hair, thick eye glasses and a paunch. (Valerie Plame strikes me as being an exception--she's pretty hot). It's hard to imagine these guys (or ladies) dangling from helicopters.

Of course, most of what CIA agents do is get people to steal things for them. Early on in Tom Clancy's career, Jack Ryan was more believable--a PhD in Russian military history, a former marine with a bad back and a fear of flying, a family man. As Clancy's Walter Mitty fantasies spun out of control, so did Jack's career (eventually ending up as President of the United States, a career move I thought was bad for both Clancy and Jack Ryan).

I'm inclined to say, "So what?" I very often read not only for entertainment, but escapism. If I wanted to really know what goes on with cops or the CIA, I'd read a nonfiction book or watch a documentary. I want drama. I want heroics. If I want real life, I'll go have one (not bad advice, actually).

I'm a writer, for God sakes. There are people who think I lead an exciting, glamorous life. They don't realize I got up early to take my son to school because my wife had to go in to work early, I've walked the dog, and I've got an early-season mosquito bite on the top of my right foot, so I'm sitting at my computer in my basement office (where it's sort of cold) with one shoe on and one shoe off because of that itch, and there's piles of unread newsletters on my desk, over a 1000 pages of printouts for a report I'm trying to wrap up, and in the middle of my office is a pile of books I'm organizing to donate to charity, as well as a quilt, a picnic basket and a big box of the kids' K'Nex that we're waiting to get rid of (I'm not sure how these ended up in my office; when I asked Leanne, she said it was just temporary. Apparently my office is an occasional purgatory for refuse that hasn't quite found a home yet).

So, real life.

Spies tend to be bureaucrats. Cops are tired, overworked and underpaid, and the majority of murders are solved through confessions or snitches, not extensive forensic investigation. Jungle adventurers tend to be underpaid college professors fascinated by some bug in the canopy who's afraid of heights and pissed off because the nearest Starbucks is 8000 miles away. In real-life romance, the hot bad-boy is a total jerk...

So I guess the question is, how much reality is enough?

Mark Terry 


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Blogger spyscribbler said...

Norman Mailer said he asked a friend why she had joined the CIA. She confessed she had been inspired by espionage novels, but the reality was more like living Chapter 5 and 6 only.

I decided to write entertainment, for sure.

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OpenID eric-mayer said...

I enjoy reading about Mike Hammer battering his way through his cases even though, in the real world, I decry the simplistic, disastrous idea (lie) that violence solves things. Go figure.

My favorite characters are probably Travis McGee, Elric and Conan. I guess Travis is slighter more realistic than the other two. I suppose some guys do live on a houseboat and are utterly competent at everything work when they want, bringing justice to the world, and bed all the women they encounter, all of whom become great friends afterwards without wanting to get their hooks into them. Yeah right.

Then again my other favorite is Maigret whose life is practically as uneventful as mine...well, if you take away all the murder investigations.

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Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yes, I sort of aspire to be Travis McGee, although my wife won't let me. :)

Periodically I read an espionage novel written by a long-time CIA employee and you can just tell sometimes when they're close to reality, because they're kind of dull. A lot of chalk marks and dead drops and trying to convince some mid-level government official to steal computer files for you.

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