Thursday 19 January 2012

Undertow (Feramontov Quintet #1) by Desmond Cory (Muller, 1962 / Walker, 1963 / Top Notch Thrillers, 2011): Book Review

In this latest run of an ongoing series of posts on various spy fiction series, I'm blogging about British author Desmond Cory's series of novels starring secret agent Johnny Fedora – specifically the five novels, commonly known as the Feramontov Quintet, which close out the Fedora adventures: Undertow (Frederick Muller, 1962), Hammerhead (Muller, 1963, alias Shockwave), Feramontov (Muller, 1966), Timelock (Muller, 1967) and Sunburst (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971). Each of those stories sees Fedora facing off against Soviet spymaster Feramontov, who makes his debut here:

That there is the 1963 US Walker hardback first edition of the twelfth Johnny Fedora novel, Undertow – jacket design by Frederick Marvin – which was as close as I could get to a 1962 British first edition. I have seen one copy of the UK Frederick Muller first for sale online, but it was sans dustjacket, which is no use to anyone – although of course if you couldn't care less about book collecting, the novel is readily available courtesy of Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint. And I really would recommend getting yourself a copy, because it is, quite simply, brilliant – so good, in fact, that it more-than-comfortably made it into my 2011 Best Books I Read This Year chart. (And let's face it: praise doesn't come much higher than that.)

The reasons for that are many, but chief among them is that Undertow is so beautifully written. Right from the off Desmond Cory's quiet facility with the written word is self-evident, as he describes the dead body of an escaped prisoner, Juan Guerrero, lying face down beside a Spanish road, a "black halo" of blood staining the ground around his head. Guerrero has been murdered by a fellow escapee from one of Franco's jails, Moreno, whose extraction has been effected by Feramontov, orchestrating events from a yacht off the coast. Feramontov and his associates Meuvret and Elsa need Moreno to secure certain logbooks, which are hidden in or near a house overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar... a house owned by an Argentinian heiress and currently occupied by two idle Englishmen...

The Englishmen are, of course, Johnny Fedora and his pal Sebastian Trout. By this point in the series Fedora is practically retired, loafing around his girlfriend's house in Spain (a country Cory knew well; he lived there for a time and eventually retired to the area around Malaga where Undertow is set), lounging by the swimming pool, drinking too much and playing the piano. It's sheer bad luck on Feramontov's part that Fedora happens to be in residence at Moreno's target, but when the housemaid winds up dead in the pool, Fedora makes it his business to find out who killed her, in the process getting sucked into Feramontov's scheme.

Cory has been criticized in some quarters for his unhurried pacing and apparent lack of interest in plotting (the words "boring", "lame", "nothing" and "happens" have been trotted out in response to his work), but that's to overlook his books' very particular qualities as idiosyncratic thrillers. For sure, Undertow is characterized by long, languorous passages where seemingly little of note occurs, and yet those sequences are wonderfully vivid and descriptive, subtly delving into the psychology of the protagonists. Take the scene where Fedora, Trout and Elsa are diving in the harbour. Fedora finds himself, unusually, utterly at peace with the world, subsumed into the aquatic environs, "a pair of eyes and a brain behind a vaseline-smeared plastic panel... no longer human... a disembodied spirit".

Cory continues: 

Looking up, he could see the sunlight broken by the wavelets on the surface into shuddering, boiling bands and flecks, into streamers of bright gold and orange that became suddenly alive with all the colours of the prism; and he could see the bubbles of his own breath rising swiftly, colourless like pearls, then glinting as though with flame as they reached that surface froth, mingled with it and disappeared...

Offsetting these calm interludes are moments of extreme violence and gripping bursts of action, which punctuate the prose at intervals. One of the most memorable of these is an assault by Feramontov-hired thugs on a police station where Fedora is being held. From start to finish this episode is just two two-page chapters long (the numberless chapters in Undertow are typically very short), but Cory packs a hell of a lot into that scant space, his economy with words lending the scene a shocking intensity.

Equally shocking are some of the things Cory's cast do to one another. Elsa goads the dangerous, unhinged Moreno into attacking her (and then nearly kills him), while the antagonistic relationship between her and Feramontov explodes into sexualised violence twice in quick succession. That Feramontov is left gasping for breath after the first encounter and sporting a bloodied lip after the second speaks to Elsa's strength as a character, but she's as damaged as the rest of them, although nowhere near as twisted and sadistic as Feramontov himself.

Mind you, Johnny's no saint either. His reasons for becoming involved in the affair amount at first to little more than boredom and a professional interest in a fellow killer (Moreno), although the death of his maid does give him an added impetus to dig deeper. But as we'll see in the next Fedora book I'll be reviewing – the second Feramontov Quintet novel, Hammerhead – Johnny isn't above resorting to questionable methods himself in order to get what he wants, even if that entails torture...

NB: A version of this review also appears on the Shots website.


  1. Your review has spurred me on to dip into the world of Johnny Fedora. I had already marked UNDERTOW as one of the Top Notch Thrillers to read this year. I really enjoy reading reviews that dispel the "boring" label slapped on genre writers by the critics who are supposedly experts. Curt Evans got me to read two of the "boring" detective novel writers of the 1930s and in doing so I discovered that most of those books were very well done and far from boring. Some of them even displayed a sense of humor.

    Related aside: I found some Duncan Kyle books (the UK 1st editions no less) in a local used book shop here in Chicago. One of them --BLACK CAMELOT -- was reprinted by Top Notch Thrillers (I'm going to get to those later as well. I'm trying my best to be the US spokesman for Top Notch Thrillers. Mike Ripley has made some excellent choices of "forgotten books" and overlooked writers for that reprint line.

  2. He has indeed, John. Mike knows his onions when it comes to thrillers; it's hard to fault the Top Notch Thrillers list. I STILL haven't read any Duncan Kyle though, despite having a couple of his books sitting on my shelves. Must rectify that soon.

  3. Based on your review I looked for a Johnny Fedora novel on the internet. I have Kindle and I saw his Dead Man Falling currently offered for free. Read it all in one sitting while on a train. Thanks for the recommendation, it really was a a good read and I understand your comments about his writing style.
    I guess I'll have to get Undertow next.

  4. Y'know, I do wonder sometimes whether the reviews I post on Existential Ennui are, at root, unintelligible rubbish; of no use to anyone; a waste of everyone's time and effort, not least of all mine. So thank you, Jan (and John), for going some way towards setting my mind at rest. Nice to know I'm not writing complete bollocks. (Well, not all the time, anyway.)