Those of us “of a certain” age may well remember the British thrillers of the 1950s and ’60s, with their suggestive cover art (mild by current standards) promising suspense, action and a touch of sex. It was the heyday of this particular slice of postwar popular culture, dominated most famously by James Bond, of course, but calling on the talents of a slew of writers. Mike Ripley’s entertaining and enlightening new book, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, offers a thorough history of a golden age of British spy and adventure fiction that flourished between 1953 and 1975.
Ripley, a thriller writer himself, explores two subgenres: adventure thrillers, of the type Alastair MacLean and Hammond Innes wrote, and spy thrillers from the likes of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, John le Carré and scores of others. And he achieves a number of goals in this breezy yet exhaustively researched study. Foremost, he considers the root cause of this pop literary boom, zeroing in on the British populace’s desperate need for a bit of excitement in what he calls the “grey and austere” 1950s in “a supposedly victorious wartime nation whose empire was starting to crumble.” The British needed diversion, but also (perhaps foolishly optimistic) reassurance that they still “ruled the waves” in some capacity. Fictional adventures set during the recent war and during the unfolding Cold War allowed the Brits to lay claim to relevance. The glamorous, globe-trotting exploits of Bond and his imitators also gave people an escape from their drab lives and let them live vicariously. The 1960s would bring even more exotic and complex thrillers as the real-world ideological war between East and West.
Ripley also offers some fascinating glimpses into the publishing business, and the egos and aspirations of writers who vied for the top spots on bestseller lists around the world. Adding to the fun, the book is illustrated with dozens of vintage books covers that will strike a nostalgic chord for those who remember reading—or perhaps their parents reading—the originals. Two substantial appendices offer fairly comprehensive portraits of 16 major players—including Frederick Forsythe, le Carré and Deighton—and a survey of many minor voices as well. Sadly, Ridley himself acknowledges the dearth of women in a genre that was then quite squarely a man’s world, although he (too briefly) touches on at least two distaff glass ceiling-breakers: Helen MacInnes and Palma Harcourt.
Ridley posits an interesting question when he asks, “Was it a Golden Age or an explosion of ‘kiss-kiss, bang-bang’ pulp fiction which reflected the social revolution—and some would say declining morals—of the period?” He lets the reader decide, although this enthusiastic celebration of these writers and their books, many if not most of which are long out of print, suggests Ridley resides in the former camp. And why not? Escapism can be a form of art, and the desire for a bit of diversion in dreary or challenging times seems like a worthy pastime to which we can all relate.