We've had Westlake Week; we've had, er, Westlake Week Mark II; and now, thrillingly, we have another week of themed posts here on Existential Ennui – and this time they'll be nothing whatsoever to do with Donald Westlake. Exit stage left entire Westlake-obsessed blog readership...
But wait! Stop right there, you little scamps. Because this week's posts may still be of interest to at least some of you, as they'll all be on an espionage tip. Yes, it's Espionage Week here at Existential Ennui, which will consist of a series of posts on espionage-themed books. I should point out there's no great plan at work here (which won't come as much of a surprise to regular readers, I'm sure): serendipitously I just happened to end up with or read a bunch of books that fall into the spy fiction category, so Espionage Week it is – or Spy Week, or Spooks Week, or Secret Service Week, or whatever you wanna call it. Hopefully, barring disaster or a sudden systemic failure of enthusiasm, there'll be posts on John le Carre, Ian Fleming, and one other author who shall remain nameless for the moment, but who'll be of particular interest to Book Glutton.
We begin, however, with these:
A Gentleman's Game and Private Wars by Greg Rucka (dustjacket photography/art on both by Tom Hallman). I've owned the Bantam hardcover first edition of A Gentleman's Game since it was published in 2004 (bought in Forbidden Planet in London in those dark days before I discovered Amazon), and I picked up a cheap first edition of its 2005 sequel, Private Wars, the other week, ahead of the publication of the third novel in the series, The Last Run, later this month:
And if I want to get hold of that one too, I'll have to order it online, because like its two predecessors I don't think it's going to be published in the UK, in either hardback or paperback. Which is odd, when you consider that all three books are set in Rucka's Queen & Country universe, and are therefore about the British Secret Intelligence Service. I think there might be a particular reason for their absence from British bookshops, which I'll come back to, but before that, it's probably worth explaining exactly what Queen & Country is.
Queen & Country began life as a comic book series published by Oni Press in 2001. Greg Rucka had written a miniseries called Whiteout for Oni a couple of years before (since turned into a movie), but primarily he was known as a novelist, having created the Atticus Kodiak series of books. I blogged about Rucka recently; he went on to write some really good comics for DC and recently launched a new series for Oni, Stumptown, but back in 2001, when he was part of a new wave of writers – see also Ed Brubaker and Brian Michael Bendis – breaking into the so-called comics 'mainstream', he wasn't terribly well known in comics circles. Which was why Queen & Country was so unusual: an ongoing, black and white indie series about a British, female intelligence officer, set in the UK, inspired by an obscure late-'70s British TV show called The Sandbaggers, and written by an American.
It stood out, but of course in the swamping morass of superhero comics that passes for a functioning American comic book market, that simply equated to 'critically acclaimed but selling bugger-all'. In a just world it should have sold in greater numbers than anything Superman- or Batman-related Rucka put his name to: the lead character, Tara Chace, a 'Minder' (i.e. a Special Operations Officer) for Britain's SIS (a.k.a. MI6) was a compelling fuck-up with a taste for booze, danger and sex – and often a combination of all three – while the scenarios were believably downbeat, morally dubious and messy. It was really very good.
(An aside: it is, I think, no accident that Greg Rucka's – and for that matter Ed Brubaker's and Brian Michael Bendis' – best comics work is also that work which is owned by him/them, i.e. work not done on corporately owned characters like Batman or Superman. One can't in all good conscience criticize these writers too much for working on superhero comics; it's pretty much the only way to make any money in American comics these days, and I'm sure they write the best superhero comics they're capable of. And in a sense, I'm happy to buy superhero comics written by the likes of Rucka and Brubaker if it helps fund the creation of lower-selling work like Queen & Country or Criminal. But I'm in no doubt that even their very best superhero work still isn't a patch on their creator-owned work, and I'd further hazard these writers put a lot more effort into their creator-owned work and probably find it more satisfying too.)
In 2004, with the Queen & Country comic book still in progress (it eventually wound up in 2007), Rucka moved the series into novels with A Gentleman's Game. The novels have proved to be at least as good as the comics (the occasional awkward idiom aside), but it's an element of the plot of A Gentleman's Game that might be the reason it and its sequel(s) have never been published in the UK. The book begins with a terrorist attack on London's Underground train network, as three Islamists wearing backpacks set fire to trains near Marble Arch, Piccadilly Circus and King's Cross stations, causing nearly 400 deaths. It proved eerily prescient: just eight months after the US publication of the novel, the Tube was attacked for real, as four Islamists set off bombs near a number of stations, including King's Cross. Fifty-two people were killed.
I don't know if that was the reason A Gentleman's Game was never picked up for the UK, but I can see how any British publishers considering it might have consequently balked. For me, as a Brit, even today it's impossible to read that opening sequence without being reminded of that awful day in July 2005. That said, I can still thoroughly recommend the book, and indeed anything else Queen & Country related. It's a shame the novels have never been published over here, but I'll definitely be picking up The Last Run via Amazon.