|LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR
James Grady (www.jamesgrady.net)
No Exit Press (www.noexit.co.uk)
This month sees the release of the hotly anticipated sequel to Six Days of the Condor. It has taken forty years, but James Grady has finally revisited his most famous creation in Last Days of the Condor. To celebrate, No Exit Press are running a blog tour for the next two weeks, and I’m extremely happy to have been invited to take part.
The man once known as Condor is living and working once more in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Recently released from a secret CIA insane asylum, and checked on a regular basis by case officers, the man whose name was once Ronald Malcolm is attempting to adjust to the “normal” life of an American man in his sixties. When one of his case officers is crucified over his fireplace, and Condor is framed for the murder, he finds himself once again on the run, a fugitive from the law, and from the combined weight of the USA’s intelligence services. But this time he is not alone: Faye Dozier, the murdered man’s partner, believes in Condor’s innocence and embarks on a secret mission to bring him in alive so that he can once again clear his name.
It is over forty years – both in real time and in James Grady’s fictional Washington, D.C. – since we first met the man whose codename was Condor. Now in his sixties, Condor has a long and dark history of working for the CIA, a history that has been suppressed, in his own mind, to the point that he barely remembers those six days in the early seventies – or much else about his career for that matter – following a stint in a secret CIA insane asylum in Maine. It’s an interesting starting point – when we first meet Condor, we know more about him than he does himself, despite the forty year gap since we last met him. Through Faye, Grady provides us with brief glimpses at Condor’s more recent past, and we begin to slowly understand how he got from nerdy bookworm to one of the Agency’s most valuable and dangerous assets.
There are many parallels with Condor’s earlier outing, but Grady manages to avoid many of the clichés that might have turned Last Days of the Condor from straight sequel into a kind of Die Hard 2 (“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”) or Lethal Weapon (“I’m too old for this shit!”). This time around, Condor-Vin-Malcolm is much more experienced in tradecraft so his disappearance is much more a planned event than the blind luck that marked much of his first adventure. He also has a benefactor who is both inside and outside the organisations that are hunting him: Sami, a man who is in the city running a training exercise, has a past with both Condor and Faye, and plays a similar role to the unnamed old man from the first novel. There are ulterior motives at work here, and they are slowly revealed to the reader as the novel approaches its climax.
Last Days of the Condor also provides a stark contrast to its 1974 predecessor, and shows how much the world has changed in the interim. Condor’s modern-day flight is made much more difficult – and his hunters’ job conversely much easier – by the technology that we now take for granted: smartphones and GPS, ubiquitous security cameras and a much more real-time news cycle and everything that social media brings to the table. Condor may be on the run for a similar reason, but the experience – for both Condor himself, and for the reader – is vastly different from what we’ve seen before, and what we might have expected.
Grady’s Six Days of the Condor has an interesting history – Grady has been the subject of KGB investigation, and that organisation used his novel as the basis for at least some of their organisational structure. It is, in short, always going to be a tough act to follow, but Grady manages it with some style in this return visit to Condor. Once again, his focus is on the current state of the art, and the possibilities that stem from it. What if? is the question that drives his narrative, and the results show that he has lost none of the edge in the past forty years that made Six Days of the Condor one of the finest espionage novels ever written.
Grady’s writing style does take some getting used to, although it should appeal to fans of James Ellroy. Short, sharp sentence structure and rapid rotation around multiple viewpoints keep the reader on their toes, and keeps the tale interesting. It also gives Grady the chance to reveal some of the details of the missing forty years in Condor’s life while still keeping them suppressed in the central characters own memories. Once the reader gets the rhythm, though, it’s a novel that moves at a breakneck pace, always managing to remain one step ahead of even the most canny reader.
The obvious question is: do you need to read Six Days of the Condor first? The short answer is no: because Condor himself remembers little of what happened that first time around, there is no reason why the reader needs to have the back story, so Last Days works as a standalone novel. The longer answer is, as always, that it makes more sense to read the books in the correct order. Six Days of the Condor is the only book my local library refused to lend me at the tender age of fifteen: too much sexual content, they said. Maybe for the late 1980s, but it’s positively tame compared to much of what is published today. It has taken me twenty-five years to finally get around to reading it, and it is the classic that everyone claims. The back story does bring something else to the reading of Last Days, a book that is destined to become a classic in its own right, setting the adventures of Condor alongside those of George Smiley or James Bond as some of the best spy fiction you’re likely to read.
In short, Last Days of the Condor is everything that readers of Condor’s earlier adventure could have hoped for. Sharp, intelligent and surprisingly funny, it’s a book that builds tension from the first page, and keeps the reader glued to the page until the very last word. Sadly, given the super-spy’s age, it is likely to be Last Days for him; if so, it’s the best send-off any fictional character could have hoped for.