Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Johnny Goes South by Desmond Cory (1959)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number seven.)
We've looked at Ian Fleming's James Bond novels twice in our trip through the big box of paperbacks and we'll return to him periodically as the box contains Fleming's entire run. Bond casts a long shadow over any kind of espionage fiction, so long that it's easy to forget he wasn't the only spy at large in Cold War-era adventure novels. He wasn't even the first. Making his debut in the 1951 novel Secret Ministry (a.k.a. The Nazi Assassins), the unforgettably named Johnny Fedora predates Bond by a couple of years.
Fedora is the creation of British Marine commando-turned-academic Shaun Lloyd McCarthy, who wrote under the name Desmond Cory. Cory published over 40 novels over the course of a career that ran from the '50s to the '90s, spending his time between books earning degrees and teaching, first in Spain, then throughout the Middle East, then at the University Of Cardiff. Fedora was his second recurring hero after Lindy Gray, an Oxford-based amateur detective. A clever freelance assassin of humble origins with a propensity to outwit his more outwardly sophisticated opponents, Fedora eventually eclipsed his predecessor.
(Let me pause for a moment to give a shout-out to both the official Cory site and a paper by East Tennessee State's Marcia J. Songer, the only Cory scholar in existence, to the best of my knowledge. Thanks! Okay, moving on)
Johnny Goes South is the 10th Fedora novel, serving as the inevitable successor to Johnny Goes North, Johnny Goes East, and Johnny Goes West. It finds Fedora in South America, specifically Amburu, a mineral-rich nation formed by declaring its independence from Argentina. He's been called there at the behest of a businessman named Tocino, Amburu's leader-in-all-but-name. Needing to make a good impression on the global community, Tocino wants to assure that Amburu's first free elections go off without a hitch. That's where Fedora comes in. Though usually on the delivering end of a bullet, Fedora's job here is to assure that Tocino's top rival survives a probable assassination attempt.
If you believe there's no twist ahead in this story, you probably haven't read enough spy fiction. The same is true if the next detail surprises you: Tocino has a sexually voracious daughter whose body Cory describes in loving detail. The elements may seem familiar, but reading Cory after reading Fleming can be a bit confusing. Fedora shares some of Bond's familiar traits--from a humble origin to a tendency to use as few words as possible while others around him rattle on and on--and Cory uses some similar devices from the exotic locale on down. But while the packaging remains the same, the contents are strikingly different. A couple of weeks ago a commenter named "Bruce" warned me that "those Johnny Fedora books are AWFUL. They spin their wheels more the a car stuck in the snow." I actually quite enjoyed Johnny Goes South, but I can see Bruce's point. The action here falls well short of fast-paced, occasionally veering into when-are-we-going-to-get-to-the-fireworks territory.
In fact, I'm not sure Cory is concerned about pacing at all. After cleverly setting up the Amburu situation by way of competing journalist's accounts, Cory drops Fedora in the middle of it and then waits for him to crawl out of the tar pit. Much of the action revolves around Fedora slowly, methodically trying to get an opponent to crack under interrogation. It's significantly less exciting than, say, reading about the hero getting dragged behind a boat traveling toward a coral reef, but it's gripping in its own way.
Less gripping: the ultimate villain's long discourse on the nature of dictatorships. Johnny Goes South falls somewhere into the netherworld between Ian Fleming and Graham Greene (whose England Made Me Cory helped adapt into a film in 1973.) It's part adolescent wish-fulfillment, part political rumination. And while it's not entirely successful as either, it's easy to appreciate the effort involved in Cory's attempts to make a thriller with brains, even if it's only modestly brainy, and never quite as thrilling as this first-edition cover would suggest: Oh, and one final detail: Cory pointedly mentions that Fedora wears no hat. Next: The Food Of The Gods by H.G. Wells Then: The Mighty Swordsmen by various authors And then: Shotgun by Ed McBain. (Sorry no scan. I'm unexpectedly working remotely this week. I'll have a scan next week.)