The year is 1974. For a couple of years the nation’s three commercial television networks have been broadcasting reports and hearings on the Watergate burglary and its connections to the White House. Richard Nixon is scrambling as the intelligence network surrounding him is revealed to be a lawless mess, overthrowing governments here and supporting dictatorships there. A few brave agents are willing to expose the corruption and malfeasance, including the senior executive and mole whom Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would dub Deep Throat. It’s a paranoiac’s dream.
In 1974, 25-year-old James Grady graduated with a journalism degree. Throughout his college years he had worked as a staffer for Sen. Lee Metcalf, a conservationist from Montana. In Washington and Missoula alike, Grady had been glued to the Watergate hearings, fascinated by the thought that the nation’s intelligence agencies constituted a shadow government all their own. And what if there were to be shadow agencies within those agencies? What if, say, a renegade branch of the CIA were to forge a pathway from the Golden Triangle of Indochina to America, delivering heroin to consumers everywhere? Grady went home and wrote at night, concocting a tale that wound up in a New York publisher’s slush pile but was miraculously extracted and published late in that dark, confusing year of Nixon’s resignation.
“As you know,” one agent, a freelance hit man says to Ronald Malcolm toward the end of that novel, Six Days of the Condor, “such enterprises are immensely profitable. A group of us, most of whom you have met, decided that the opportunity for individual economic advancement was not to be overlooked.” Shadows within shadows, and Malcolm’s shadowy little corner has paid the price, slaughtered after discovering the secret. The sole survivor, Malcolm protests that his job is to read and read, mostly novels, looking for secret messages planted by spooks. He may be a bookworm, but he also knows his way around an arsenal of weaponry, can bug a phone and pick a lock, and isn’t so bad in matters fleshly, which lent Condor some steamy potboiler moments that didn’t hurt it at all at the cash register.
It’s a period piece now, not simply for its Southeast Asian backdrop and phone books, but also for notions that hold up badly, such as the thought that a kidnapped woman might kind of like the captivity and throw herself at her captor. (“Her tongue pushed through his lips, searching. She was tremendously excited.”) The writing is clunky, the dialogue stilted.
But, as the modern barbarism has it, the book was un-put-down-able. It attracted director Sidney Pollack, who had made the great film Jeremiah Johnson a couple of years before and brought its star, Robert Redford, onto the scene. Pollack hired scriptwriters who turned Grady’s novel into a work of art, changing many of its premises and making it a monument to the paranoia of the Nixon era. Three Days of the Condor, its time frame cut in half to speed the action, is a little dated itself but well worth seeing, a pleasure for fans of a taut, literate thriller of humble origins.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.