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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed by Mike Ripley

January 12, 2018

Do you remember whiling away a train journey or a long winter evening with a paperback World War II yarn by Alistair Maclean? Or a well-paced thriller by Desmond Bagley? Or an expertly detailed sea adventure by Hammond Innes? If so, have you ever wondered why you don’t see novels like this anymore? Then Mike Ripley’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed is the book for you. Although genres such as crime fiction and sci-fi have remained immensely popular and garnered increasing critical acclaim, the old fashioned thriller, as pioneered by the aforementioned writers as well as by luminaries such as Wilbur Smith, and in the US Robert Ludlum, have slowly started disappearing from our shelves.

Ripley charts the phenomenal success of adventure thrillers in post-war Britain. Rather like crime or detective fiction, the thriller genre is quite broad and includes some overlap with other types of narrative, especially when you take into consideration sub-genre. For instance, Ripley includes Ian Fleming’s Bond novels as Spy Fantasies which fall under this thriller or adventure label. Fleming deserves great credit in expanding the popularity of thriller narratives. In one of the most absorbing chapters of this study, ‘Class of 62’, Ripley examines how 1962 was a relatively disappointing year for Fleming in literary terms with the publication of his experimental, off-beat novel The Spy Who Loved Me, which lead to poor reviews (and even Fleming himself grew to hate it). However, in the same year the spectacular launch of the James Bond film series with Dr No lead to breakout publications for a host of adventure thriller writers such as Francis Clifford and James Aldridge who were either inspired by Fleming or motivated by momentum for thrillers the Bond author created. Ripley also takes a close look at novelists Len Deighton and John le Carre who created a more realistic portrayal of espionage and viewed themselves as the antithesis of Fleming. Deighton and le Carre, like some modern critics, found Fleming’s right-wing politics to be problematic and the theme of this study is that while Britain lost an Empire, her thriller writers saved the world. The Suez Crisis, decolonisation, devaluation, and joining the EEC (at least temporarily), may have suggested Britain was a nation in terminal decline, but writers such as James Leasor and John Gardner cheerfully ignored these facts in splendid tales of derring-do.
This book brought back a flood of memories for me. At one point, Ripley is describing the plot of Desmond Bagley’s High Citadel and huge sections of the book started coming back to me, even though I had not read or thought about the novel in over twenty years. I turned the page and found Ripley had included an illustration of the front cover of Bagley’s novel. I remembered that vividly too, as I must have cadged a copy from my father’s bookshelves. Happy days!
Inevitably, a decline in the popularity of thrillers would come, and Ripley traces this to emerging voices in the hardboiled neo-noir genre, including James Ellroy, among others who came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, as well as the new popularity for forensic and legal thrillers. He quotes Tim Heald requiem for the thriller in Hatchards Crime Companion:
In the end I couldn’t bear another airport lounge or AK-47 and I gave up. It was, it seemed to me, a sub-genre that had had its day. The thriller wasn’t thrilling any more
I recognise the trend. After reading and enjoying about half-a-dozen of Jack Higgins‘ Sean Dillon thrillers, I knew I just couldn’t read another one as they were getting very repetitive and, crikey, has he continued to churn them out. But to be fair, there have been plenty of series of private detective and police procedural novels that have dragged on for far too long. History has judged the thriller novel too harshly. It had the same flaws as other genres, but it gave just as much entertainment. There might be a gap in the market, I would suggest, for a revival of the adventure thriller. As for scholarly interest, I know these novels would be devoured by undergraduates and postgrads if they were put on reading lists, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang will stand as the seminal study of the genre. Ripley himself has managed to get many of the less remembered thrillers back into print with Ostara Publishing.
The book ends with an informative two-part appendices which gives short, insightful biographies of the leading thriller writers followed by a few less well-known names. I didn’t know, for instance, about thriller writer Nichol Fleming, nephew of Ian, or about another scribe Antony Melville-Ross, a descendant of Herman Melville.
Highly Recommended.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2018 1:08 pm

    Great review here. A local bookstore got an advance copy of this and set it aside for me, thinking I might appreciate. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but did appreciate their thoughtfulness—and your own thoughtful review here too!

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