Writing Commercial Spy Thrillers.
Trevanian a.k.a. Rod Whitaker
“Nicholai Hel is the world’s most wanted man. Born in Shanghai during the chaos of World War 2, he is the son of a White Russian mother and a mysterious German father and is the protégé of a Japanese Go master. Hel survived the destruction of Hiroshima to emerge as the world’s most artful lover and its most accomplished—and well-paid—assassin.”
That’s the blurb for “Shibumi.” And before your reach for the sick bag remember this was a trashy airport paperback that sold over two million copies, and Whitaker’s first novel published under the name of Trevanian “The Eiger Sanction” was an international best seller. Rod Whitager died in 2005 but recently a prequel to “Shibumi” called “Satori” was released by “Grand Central Publishing” by a thriller writer called Don Winslow.
Judy Quinn of Publisher's Weekly, in 1998 interviewed Rod Whitager, he explained how he fell into writing pulp spy fiction.
He got the idea of writing a spoof on the popular spy action genre; Ian Fleming was author de jour in the mid 1960’s and at the time “Doctor No” and “Goldfinger” were the only films of that genre that Whitaker had seen. He managed to read half an Ian Fleming novel before he lost interest in it, but he’d concluded by then that this genre was infinitely worthy of ridicule.
He sent his initial manuscript to a dozen publishers whose names he had got out of a manual for novice writers. He received no replies from about half these publishers, and rejections from the rest, except for two, one of which was Crown Publishers.
Whitaker was surprised that they seemed to view this work as a legitimate thriller, apparently they didn’t get that it was a farce, or given James Bond’s comic book appeal the publishers considered farce to be just a part of the recipe needed for a successful spy novel.
He realized that publishing this caprice under his real name; “Professor Rodney William Whitaker” might open him up to ridicule from educated people. So he came up with the pseudonym of “Trevanian” which is a pun on the old French word “Travail” suffering torment.
He also rewrote the entire novel to disguise even more the fact that it was a spoof, he took the opportunity to blend it with more wit and what he perceived to be politically and socially responsible messages.
The end result of this exercise was “The Eiger Sanction”, which was a formulaic action thriller and boys own adventure story combining elements of daring-do, realistic descriptive and scenes of mountain climbing. A sport that had long interested Whitaker; also he painted a contemptuous picture of intelligence agencies especially the CIA.
This book became an international bestseller, and to Whitaker’s surprise was only recognized as a spoof by Dutch and Norwegian critic’s. Almost everywhere else especially in America it was excepted as a straight thriller.
Some critics did feel that there was discordance between the standard of writing and the pulp genre, one reviewer described “The Eiger Sanction” as “a James Bond tale written for the highly literate.”
In a sense Whitaker had been trapped by the success of his own joke, with his publishers and fans clamoring for more of the same. He realized that Trevanian could within 400 to 600 pages of inanity earn him more money then a lifetime of working as a lowly academic.
Not satisfied just to churn out more of the same he tested the bounds of credulity with every successive Trevanian novel of which “Shibumi” was probably the high point.
Shibumi is so surreal you can’t really decide if it’s good or bad; its formulaic writing on an acid trip and some would ask if not familiar with its background if this thinly veiled masturbatory fantasy was in earnest.
Rod Whitaker’s method of writing was interesting, he would first think of the sort of story he wanted to write and then like a method actor, create the perfect writer for that story.
He did this initially with Trevanian and later with pen names such as Nicholas Seare, Beñat Le Cagot and Edoard Moran.
In Shibumi the writer’s racism and misogyny are bluntly shown, were these Whitaker’s actual views or Trevanian’s? Who can say, or was he just catering to the perceived prejudices of his target audience.
It might be arguable that given Whitaker wrote under a pseudonym and supposedly assumed an authors character that it would be a natural conduit for his own nastier opinions to have free rein.
But you have to ask why would a novel that abounds with hate and flippancy garner such a large audience? In that respect was it was an indictment against the middle class male population of the late 70s –early 80s. Or is the world just too politically correct now?
One can micro-analyze this writing to death trying to work out what the writer’s true motivations were, or seek to learn just why these novels are considered to be the most successful commercial novels ever written.
In “Shibumi” there are lines like “One does not achieve it, one …discovers it.” and “…one must pass through knowledge and arrive at simplicity.” Which can sound deep or pretentious depending on how you view such things.
The hero or rather anti hero practices a fighting art called "Naked/Kill" which uses household objects as deadly weapons, and much as made of the fact that it is completely impossible to defend yourself against him. So suspension of disbelief is not an important factor.
The hero of Shibumi is the ultimate assassin, but he cares nothing for such things, preferring instead to meditate on eastern philosophy in his enormous Basque castle and go spelunking (Caving) emerging only to collect new female acolytes for sex training (As you do!).
The term "Stage 4 Lovemaking ability" is used at one point. If you can believe that?
So what exactly is this formula for writing a successful spy novel? Some of the things I pulled out of my reading of Trevanian’s writing were:
Since the main characters are in a sense outside of any particular culture they have carte blanche to comment on anything, in Shibumi one of the main whipping boys is the on sterility of American values. Always an easy target because it plays to Americans natural sense of insecurity and the prejudices of almost every other nationality.
He can thoughtfully comment on the human condition and make offensive, snarky stereotypical observations of every cultural group you can think of under the facade of anti-materialism.
The main character has to have impressive knowledge and embarrassing egocentrism. He has to have a mentor and at most two or three sympathetic friends. Everyone one else in the story has to be either corrupt, stupid or both.
The plot frequently advances because of stupidity on the part of one or more characters. The characters or at least the protagonists can be two-dimensional so that the hero can without too much regret discard them at need.
The head of the intelligence organization that employs the services of the hero/anti hero, be it as an assassin or spy has to have some sort of deformity like being an albino or a midget. If not that then a mental aberration or a physical deformity that reflects the perversity of this characters mind.
The hero has to have a highbrow hobby, in the “The Eiger Sanction” Hemlock collected fine art and basically killed people to finance his obsession with it.
In Shibumi Hel plays the Japanese board game “Go.” It has a strategic element to it.
It’s also a vehicle by which highbrow elements of Zen and all that ninja Bruce Lee sort of crap that works well in place of empathy for a contract killer can be talked about.
The hero has to have an interesting physical hobby, in “The Eiger Sanction” Hemlock was a mountain climber and much of the story takes place whilst climbing a mountain.
In “Shibumi” Hel is a Spelunker, someone who explores caves, caving however is incidental to the plot in “Shibumi” but adds to the boys own adventure element of it.
Every woman is an easy lay for the hero; this is a straight lift from the James Bond methodology.
In the end the hero wins but he has to lose something in the process. The reader has to be left with the feeling that they’ve just had a glimpse into a sinister world that’s still out there functioning in the shadows and thankful that there are hero’s like Trevanian’s ones out there who are beyond the reach of these star chambers.
In conclusion Trevanian’s novels have sold well over a million copies each, but today outside of a cult following, his work today is less known than authors who have sold a fraction of that.
Even among avid “readers,” his most famous work “Shibumi” is not well known, the title of his first novel “The Eiger Sanction” might ring a bell but more so because of the 1975 film made from it staring Clint Eastwood.
Best-selling authors of commercial fiction quickly fade from memory to be replaced by the likes of Dan Brown and Richard Bach. But between 1972 and 1983 Trevanian was the undisputed market leader in this genre and yet today very few people remember him.
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