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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Review: Lowry & Korman's "Banquo's Ghosts"

Banquo's GhostsI adore a good spy novel. When I was in grade school, my mother (of all people) turned me on to Ian Fleming's James Bond books. (She had to telephone the local librarian to confirm that it was okay for me to check books out of the "adult" section.) And I've liked, and read, the genre ever since.

But I've grown sick to death of tendentious and preachy books like those John Le Carre has been turning out lately. I won't ever buy another of his books, and I frankly wouldn't bother to cross the street to spit down his neck if some jihadist had cut off his head and set his corpse on fire. I'm just out of patience with the moral relativism crowd; there is good and there is evil in the world, and while I don't pretend that everything American is or has always been unmitigatedly good, I have no patience left for the fools who insist that everything American is and has always been evil, or mostly evil, or more evil than good.

That combination ought to put me squarely in the target audience for Banquo's Ghosts by Rich Lowry and Keith Korman. Mr. Lowry is, of course, the successor as editor in chief at National Review to the late and truly great William F. Buckley, who was also a spy novelist of some renown with his Blackford Oakes series. In this fictional endeavor, as in his punditry, Mr. Lowry has large shoes to fill. I hope he keeps trying, and he's done a good job with this effort, but I'm confident that he can do better.

I'm sad to say that this novel badly needed a better editor. Although I was previously unfamiliar with Mr. Korman's work, I've found Mr. Lowry's nonfiction prose to be consistently quite good. Most of this prose is entirely competent, and there are lyrical, even brilliant bon mots and allusions scattered throughout this book that I'd guess are products of his creativity. But this edition is also filled with non-dialog sentence fragments and inconsistent punctuation. That's a practice which, especially in spy or detective fiction, is not an unforgivable sin by itself; but it becomes unforgivable when, as here, it's both carried to excess and the fragments sometimes leave genuine doubt about their antecedents (and therefore their meaning). And when I pay for a hardbound book written by two American authors and published by an American label, I don't expect to see "mold" spelled "mould." Bad editing causes me to subtract one star.

But this book did not disappoint when it comes to moral clarity. Its twin targets — Iran and the American Hard Left media/intelligentsia/glitterazzi — are well and truly skewered. Messrs. Lowry & Korman could certainly succeed if they were assigned to "deep cover" as writers for The Nation or the HuffPo or the WaPo or even dKos. The plot line is creative and fast-moving, if somewhat shaky and disjointed at times. Without going too deeply into spoiler territory, however, I suspect most readers would agree with me that the ending is ultimately the least credible portion of the entire novel. I think Lowry and Korman pulled their punches — and for that, I must subtract another star.

The book clearly was written with the anticipation of one or more sequels, however, and there are indeed several characters who I'd enjoy reading more about. This is a commendable first effort, which I award three stars out of a possible five. And yes, when the sequel comes out, I'll buy it too.


UPDATE (Sun May 10 @ 6:05pm): On reflection, I regret making the snarky remark about my extreme lack of regard for John le Carre because of his recent books. I aspire to a higher tone on this blog, and I think I generally have maintained that since 2003. That most on the Left consistently permit themselves to fall into such a corrosive hatefulness is no excuse for my doing so. Ironically, I credit so-called comedienne Wanda Sykes' hateful remarks about Rush Limbaugh at last night's White House Correspondents' Dinner for reminding me of this.

Posted by Beldar at 12:47 AM in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink


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(1) Legal Aid made the following comment | May 6, 2009 1:38:09 AM | Permalink

I have always been fascinated with spy novels. I know it is worth buying because you told so.

(2) Mark L made the following comment | May 6, 2009 6:28:24 AM | Permalink


It's a first novel. Those are notoriously weaker than the follow-ons, especially in mystery and thriller category. (Go read "A Morbid Taste for Bones," "Whose Body" "Fer de Lance" or even "Saving the Queen" -- and compare those books to later books in those series, and you will see what I mean.) A first novel is a shakedown cruise.

The pair show promise, and both are past the second-book curse. So the follow-on books should should approach five stars. Four minimum.

(3) nk made the following comment | May 6, 2009 7:02:52 AM | Permalink

My favorite was Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm. I still have the very first one I bought at age twelve. Len Deighton's nameless spy (called "Harry Palmer" in the movies) was just as good. (And Len Deighton seldom disappoints in any book.) Unlike Ian Fleming, Hamilton and Deighton did not insult their readers' intelligence with made-up facts to advance a plot line, and I thought their amoral cynicism refreshing. I agree with Beldar about John LeCarre.

(4) Mike Myers made the following comment | May 6, 2009 8:54:45 AM | Permalink

Gee Beldar, you pulled your punch and didn't say what you really think about John LeCarre and his later literary efforts!

LeCarre and his confreres (John Forsyth and The Odessa File, the Smiley series etc.) ran out of villains in the late 80's. I mean any surviving Nazis are now geriatric cases stumbling down nursing home hallways, and the KGB boys and Stasi police in East Berlin are also getting a bit long in the tooth. So what's a writer to do? Well LeCarre decided to take on the evil monster "Big Pharma" in a ludicrous book "The Constant Gardener".

The obvious "bad guys" for popular spy fiction these days are Iran, the Jihadist Muslims etc. I'll take a look at Banquo's Ghosts.

(5) Marianne Matthews made the following comment | May 6, 2009 5:55:25 PM | Permalink

As a retired editor and writer, I agree with you, Mr. Beldar, that the editing of most of the newer thrillers, mysteries and other genre books has deteriorated a lot since the last century. I also find that books by British and Canadian authors seem better edited than those produced by our American publishing houses, probably because Britain and Canada still teach their students grammar and sentence structure, unlike the U.S. schools, which are evidently not aware that the best age for young people to learn languages is below the age of 12. I have read quite a few newer books lately which have been sloppily edited, even though every June a new batch of bright-eyed young people emerge, with their English degrees clutched tight in their eager hands, to apply for jobs in the world of publishing. And the publishing world is the poorer for it, since evidently these youngsters have never learned to diagram a sentence, much less the wisdom of keeping a dictionary on their desks, ready to be consulted when a word or a definition escapes them. One editorial I read today on the 'Net stated that a person had researched a subject "exhaustedly." Makes one tired just to think about it.

At any rate, it is the responsibility of the editor to correct the momentary slips of the author. That's what he/she is hired to do. And how can an editor do that if he/she doesn't have a clear understanding of the English language and idiom, as well as a background in the classics, so linguistic howlers like the one above don't slip through.

By the way, I also like Donald Hamilton and Len Deighton, and Eric Ambler and Lee Child as well. All are Brits, by the way.

Marianne Matthews

(6) Paul_In_Houston made the following comment | May 7, 2009 4:00:21 PM | Permalink

By the way, I also like Donald Hamilton and Len Deighton, and Eric Ambler and Lee Child as well. All are Brits, by the way.

Not quite. Donald Hamilton was an American, born in Sweden.

He DID have a great respect for the English language however, to the point of even making proper usage a plot element in a couple of his novels.


(7) nk made the following comment | May 9, 2009 10:53:39 AM | Permalink

What I liked about Matt Helm is that he did not moralize or justify. He just did his job. But he did it selflessly. For example, in one book, he was on a boat with a time bomb. He could have tortured a woman to tell him where it was so he could disable it. He refused to. He said, "I would if it were vital to my country or many other innocents but, no, not just to save my life and yours only".

(8) Gregory Koster made the following comment | May 12, 2009 1:22:45 AM | Permalink

Dear Ms. Matthews: Nope, don't buy your explanation as this is Korman's fifth and Lowry's second full length book, not to mention sizable amounts of journalism from Lowry. I'd be astonished if they couldn't handle style mechanics (as opposed to construction) by now. So where did all the blunders come from? My bet is the compositors who converted manuscript to proofs. That no one, including the authors, caught the blunders is a bad sign, for all parties.

Mr. Dyer: If you feel like it, at what point did Le Carre start declining in your estimation? I've not read any of his novels and would be interested to know what you think.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

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