Six Days of the Condor by James Grady (Norton, 1974)
Six Days of the Condor is one of those books everyone can reference even if few have read it. Many people have seen the Robert Redford movie version with Faye Dunaway, which was called Three Days of the Condor due to budgetary restrictions on the movie. Both are excellent example of he kind of paranoia which gripped the mainstream media in the seventies right before and after the Watergate hearings. I once worked at a building which had a an office strangely similar to the one at the beginning of the book and movie. I would tell everyone if I ever saw some man in a black coat standing outside taking notes I was getting the hell out of there!
True story: I worked in a theater in Ohio where the manager called the film distributor when Condor came out and complained about all the publicity material featuring the star wearing glasses. Two days later he received a phone call: “Hello, this is Mr. Redford. I understand you have a problem with pictures of me wearing glasses?”
Malcolm is a researcher for a small Washington DC outfit called “The American Literary Historical Society”. It’s a boring job where he reads various journals and publications from all over the world. In fact the ALHS is a front for the Central Intelligence Agency. The boring little literary society is charged with reading journal and newspapers to find out if there are any secret messages being transmitted by enemy agents. For instance, the personal section in the classifieds might contain a coded message from one agent to another which seems to be a matrimonial proposal to ordinary people.
But one day Malcolm decides to go to lunch early and check out the hot secretary who keeps walking down the street at the same time. When Malcolm returns, everyone in his office is dead, murdered in a hit carried out by a man with a silenced machine gun. He grabs a pistol he knows one of dead office workers keeps in his desk and flees.
The first think Malcolm does it phone the emergency 24/7 line the CIA keeps open for it field agents. Using his code name “Condor”, he describes what has happened and what he found. The voice on the other end tells him to stay calm, the agency will take care of everything. Instantly the full weight of the CIA swings into action to find out who carried out this horrendous deed and why. A decision is made to bring Condor in and two agents are sent out to pick him up. But when Malcolm attempts to make contact with the agents, one tries to shoot him. He returns fire and wounds his assailant, but not before the shooter can kill the other agent to keep him from telling what he saw. Now Malcolm is on the run. He doesn’t know who to trust or why the office was targeted.
A comparison of the book to the movie is inevitable. You never get the impression Malcolm has Redford’s looks and much of the novel is told from the CIA command center. There is a wheel an old man who starts to figure out the agency has been infiltrated at the beginning and how Malcolm figures into the grand scheme. Its a meat-and-potatoes thriller, but I can see how it appealed to Hollywood with whole theme of “man on the run”. The movie handles the set pieces from the book with care and nothing important is scrapped. In essence, the book and the movie compliment each other.
The writing is crisp and to the point, which illustrates the writer’s background as a journalist:
“The American Literary Historical Society, with headquarters in Washington and a small receiving office in Seattle, is a section branch of one of the smaller departments in the CIA. Because of the inexact nature of the data the department deals with, it is only loosely allied to ID, and, indeed, to CIA as a whole. The department (officially designated as Department 17, CIAID) reports are not consistently incorporated in any one of the three major research report areas. Indeed, Dr. Lappe, the very serious, very nervous head of the Society (officially titled Section 9, Department 17, CIAID), slaves over weekly, monthly, and annual reports which may not even make the corresponding report of mother Department 17. In turn, Department 17 reports often will not impress major group coordinators on the division level and thus will fail to be incorporated into any of the ID reports. C’est la vie.”
The new edition of the book comes with an extensive introduction by the author in which he reveals the motive for the massacre was not the one in when he originally submitted the book. It was different in the movie too. It had to do with what the publishers and producers felt was topical. I find it pretty funny that the KGB saw the movie on its initial release and assumed the ALHS was real. So naturally, they had to have their own secret document research organization. Life imitates art or something like that.
My only real complaint about the book is that it violates Evil Overlord List #7:
“When I’ve captured my adversary and he says, “Look, before you kill me, will you at least tell me what this is all about?” I’ll say, “No.” and shoot him. No, on second thought I’ll shoot him then say ‘No’.”
Six Days of the Condor is an essential read for anyone who likes spy novels. There’s no “Bond” Swagger and it gets a little too predictable at times, but you can read it in few settings. The plot is easy enough to follow and keeps the reader engages at the same time. It’s also a great book to examine the transition of spy novels from the swinging sixties to the paranoid seventies.