MIKE RIPLEY – Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed. HarperCollins, UK, hardcover, May 2017. US edition: September 2017. Foreword by Lee Child.

   Just as there are novels that appear that seemingly had to be written, and characters whose time has come to emerge, there are books about books, even in the genres, that appear and the proper reaction to them is why wasn’t this book always here?

   We can all name texts in the broad genre covered on this blog that were like that going back to ur-texts like Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure and Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Ellery Queen’s Queen’s Quorum; Richard Usborne’s The Clubland Heroes, about the between the war works of Buchan, Yates, Sapper McNeile; Julian Symons’ first critical study of the genre; Ron Goulart’s essays in the anthology The Hard-Boiled Dicks; Kingsley Amis’s A James Bond Dossier; Barzun and Taylor’s A Catalog of Crime; the oft quoted, in these pages, 1001 Midnights by Pronzini and Mueller et al — these are just a few examples.

   Now added to that list is Mike Ripley’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (the title taken from a dismissive remark by Ian Fleming about his own work) a work which wisely narrows its focus to the Golden Age of the modern British Men’s thriller, roughly 1950 to 1980.

   Though Ripley wisely chooses to mark his territory with two hallmarks of that era, 1953’s publication of Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, and the 1970’s publication of prolific Jack Higgins first mega-hit The Eagle Has Landed, the book begins before Fleming and ends with the rise of the American spy novelists such as Robert Ludlum and Charles McCarry.

   Mike Ripley, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the leading historian of the British thriller — I wouldn’t limit him like that, but since that is the subject of this work I will– an astute critic who not only writes about the genre, but who went to the trouble in the recent past of hunting down many of these writers, often thought dead, and bringing some of their work back in print.

   Here he concentrates on writers who came of age as thriller writers in the era covered, so Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Dennis Wheatley, and Peter Cheyney though active in the period, are assigned to an earlier pre-war era, but writers like Hammond Innes and Victor Canning who began writing, but reached their first great success in the 1950’s, are well within the self-imposed limits.

   Along the way Ripley regales the reader with personal anecdotes on writers as diverse as Fleming, Innes, Household, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Gavin Lyall, John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Dick Francis, and many lesser known figures.

   He also manages to discuss their important works, the traditions they arise from, and in some cases created or recreated, as did Fleming, Deighton, Le Carré, Wilbur Smith, and Dick Francis. He is frank in his assessment of their successes and their creative downturns, and the societal and political trends and events surrounding them.

   He is particularly good on writers like MacLean, who while a major figure had always remained a bit of a cypher to me as a person. He also briefly discusses the impact of film on the success of some writers for good and ill.

   At close to 500 pages there is still much that there simply isn’t time to discuss. There is nothing greatly original about the revelation that these writers represent a reaction against, and in some cases a celebration of, the fall of Imperial England and the post war mental rebellion by the British male against post war hardship and Little England mindset.

   What is original and invaluable here is Ripley’s encyclopedic knowledge of and critical evaluation of these writers and works, his style which is at once scholarly and colloquial, and a fine appendix that covers brief biographical and bibliographical material about most of the best-known names to come out of England’s thriller writing stables in that period.

   He even includes multiple covers of books and where needed discusses the importance they played in the books success. It is telling that both Ian Fleming and Len Deighton paid out of their own pocket to assure they got the covers they wanted for hardcover editions of their work.

   Aside from how well it is written and how accessible it is, there are a handful of ways to properly judge books such as this, A: Does the work in question give the informed reader information he did not previously know? B: Does the work lead the reader to discover new writers or old he has missed or rediscover older writers he has forgotten or neglected? C: Is the volume likely to become dogeared and worn from frequent reading and reference?

   Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang does all those things. It is the perfect gift for anyone interested in the too often underappreciated Thriller genre, it offers simple and easily definable definitions for the types of thrillers it discusses, and while there are one or two minor caveats on my part, personal hobby horses unridden, it is for the most part the book I always hoped would be written on the genre, by that rarity, a man who is fully qualified to write it both in terms of knowledge and literary gifts.