Back in the Watergate Era, a novel came out that was snapped up by Hollywood even before it became a bestseller.
This was James Grady’s SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Starring Robert Redford, the movie’s title was condensed to THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, since the screenplay gave it a different time span, presumably for artistic purposes. Today, in the era of 24 and that TV thriller’s vital ingredient, cell-phones, no doubt it would be called simply DAY OF THE CONDOR.
Anyway, SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR is a great thriller. It’s no wonder Hollywood pounced on it. The concept is so high, it makes the reader dizzy.
Suppose there’s this branch of the CIA in a non-descript building near Capital Hill. An innocuous office, it does what most of the CIA does -- collect routine information. But also suppose that an office worker there gets a little nosy about some strange shipments from the Far East and makes a report that may blow the cover of a rotten section of the CIA. What should the bad guys do to get rid of the office worker without calling attention to what he might have discovered? Why, slaughter the entire staff of the office building and make it look like some kind of outside enemy action, that’s what. However, a mistake is made.
A CIA operative named Ronald Malcolm, whose specialty is analysis of methodologies of murder mysteries (he’s been working on Agatha Christie and locked-room moysteries lately), happens to have left for an early lunch and the killers forget to count who they’ve killed and leave before he returns.
When Malcolm returns to this scene of carnage, he immediately knows he must be a target. He goes into hiding. But when he calls in to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, who answers but one of the bad CIA agents. “Meet us at the Circle Theaters in Georgetown,” say the bad agent. “And we’ll bring you in safely.” Safely dead, of course. The rest of the book, naturally, is a grand cat and mouse chase as Malcolm seeks the answer to this mystery. Who are the bad CIA guys? Why did they kill his co-workers and friends? He meets a girl who helps him, he runs around a lot, there’s plenty of twists and turns and surprises. And a very nasty but satisfying end. And wait -- this is the best part. All of this happens in less than 200 pages!
This book harkens back to the day of shorter thrillers and it achieves its compression through technique and style and a remarkable omniscient narrative that has just enough background information on CIA operations and Washington DC to make it vivid and believable. Still, this tight thriller is mostly action, bloody fun and the sense of growing evil inside a soulless bureaucracy of amoral killers masquerading as patriots.
How does it do this so well? The ink well that James Grady dipped his quill into was different than our modern collective pool. His ink is soaked with character sketches, a way with words -- and above all a rich sense of irony that suspense short stories could contain in the mid 20th Century; irony in the tradition of Guy de Maupassant, Saki, and Somerset Maugham. But, and above all, Grady was obviously aware of the classic thriller writer of that day, Graham Greene. Mind you, James Grady is no Graham Greene. This novel tilts more into perverse MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E territory than OUR MAN IN HAVANA land. But with the right sense of history and an appreciation for quick efficient reads, this is really a good book and should be reprinted.
Perhaps with a forward by President George Non-W Bush, a CIA honcho himself back in the 70’s.