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A Thriller Writer’s Thriller

Stephen Hunter is the bestselling author of The Third Bullet, Dead Zero, Point of Impact and many other novels. The retired chief film critic for The Washington Post, where he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, he has also published two collections of film criticism and a nonfiction work, American Gunfight. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

The memory factor for thriller writers is so brutally short that it’s hard to remember who was published last week, much less last year. I don’t even remember some of my own books! Stephen who?

But the thriller that made me want to write thrillers, the one that obsessed me from my first reading and has always lingered, floating just offshore on the vapors of memory, is Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. I read it in a single sitting, on New Year’s Eve in 1962. Fifty-five years later, it’s probably the only memorable New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had.

It was my freshman or sophomore year of high school, that extraordinary period when the young brain has just been ripped open by contact with real grown-up thinking and writing for the first time, and the information just pours in, uncontaminated by thought or judgment, and goes straight into the reptile part of your brain, never ever to depart. It’s even possible that I read it after I’d seen the fine movie John Frankenheimer had made of it—and so knew all the surprises lurking in its arroyos and jungle trails and dry gulch enfilades. Its genius transcended its plot.

The Manchurian Candidate works on so many different levels. I love Condon’s style, which is the King’s English deployed with utter directness and grace, yet at the same time tickled with ironic asides of a vivid allusive nature. I can remember Condon describing the efficacy of a certain initiative by pointing out that it had the same result as rubbing a fifty-nine-cent bottle of dime-store vanishing cream into the deck of the 45,000 ton USS Forrestal with the goal of making that great ship disappear.

Condon is a great one for riffs. He goes off on unexpected tangents full of charming information—on, say, mozzarella cheese, or the face of a woman on a coin minted in 1482—that are charming and persuasive. I might very well have made this a trick or an indulgence of my own, many years later.

Then there is the milieu he constructed and the rules that governed it. It was a kind of heightened reality, the exaggerations brilliantly calculated to be just big enough to entertain but just small enough to provoke. Condon essentially invented the Deep Conspiracy, so much so that the very term “Manchurian candidate” (an actor who has been programmed by sinister forces yet acts to an idealistic public agenda) has entered the lexicon. He created a reality manipulated by powerful interests as deployed by supercapable agents, all toward nondemocratic ends. This was common in the many books he wrote, but it reached its pinnacle here, where he struck a balance between McCarthyite ambition and Soviet espionage. These two specters that haunted the 1950s’ imagination move in syncopation with each other, to everyone’s disadvantage and ultimate tragedy.

The hero of The Manchurian Candidate is an army intelligence officer named Ben Marco (played in the film adaptation by Frank Sinatra), a man of wit and intelligence whose great love is reading. But the real centerpiece is Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey in the movie), Medal of Honor recipient, political columnist, stepson of the Joe McCarthy avatar Johnny Iselin. He’s as interesting as John le Carré’s ubiquitous spy, George Smiley. The villain was a first: Raymond’s mother, political dynamo, and red agent extraordinaire.

I also had one of the rare actual “perfect endings” to my Condon obsession. No writer could conjure this. I was sitting in an East Side restaurant with my editor one day, and I looked up and sitting at another table was Condon himself. I approached, introduced myself and told him how much I loved his work. To bring it to a perfect ending, he was charming, modest, grateful, and warm. What better service could you get from an author?


Stephen Hunter’s most recent novel is I, Ripper.

Manchurian Candidate
Richard Condon

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