Called "Allah's Arrow," Hamir, the ruler of a small sheikhdom on the Red Sea, was educated at Caltech, where he was a brilliant student, but as a foreigner on campus, he felt slighted by the Americans he met. After completing his studies in the United States, he returned to Arabia, and with his self-esteem revitalized, Hamir was determined to avenge the perceived insults to his person, his faith, and his culture by nuking Washington—so that by the end of Ramadan, with vengeance assured and his honor restored, the Arab would vanquish the infidel West. Lacking an efficient delivery system that would allow him to drop bombs directly on Washington, the villain concocted an unusually deadly scheme. Posing as a German photographer—Hamir was a master at disguise and linguistic acuity—he received official permission to photograph the Capitol. Armed with a camera and tripod, the Arab slowly and methodically made his way to the halls of Congress and, reaching the Senate chamber, prepared his assault. Suddenly, with determination and élan, Hamir fired a fusillade of radioactive paperclips aimed at the Senators' desks. Fortunately, the lawmakers had not yet entered the chamber and the hero, an FBI agent, was able to stop the sheikh, deflect some of the paperclips before they had a chance to irradiate the lawmakers, and save the government of the United States and Western civilization.
Published almost thirty years before 9/11 and at a time when direct attacks on the United States were still a part of futuristic fantasy, this novel—Cobalt 60 by Richard Graves—is a typical, if somewhat more imaginative example of the many crime fiction novels that appeared during the twentieth century that incorporated the basic components of the crime fiction genre: identifiable heroes and villains and a plot or conspiracy that either disrupts the social order at home or threatens it from abroad. At the same time, it differs from much of the crime fiction produced in the United States and Britain because it does not draw upon the Cold War for material. Instead, Graves turned to the Middle East for inspiration. Writing during a decade when the Middle East was in the news because of war, and real terrorist attacks and oil boycotts were clearly perceived as existential threats against the West, Graves integrated these events in his novel to present a vicarious apocalyptic plot by Muslims against the United States and Western civilization. The hero is decidedly Western, but here, rather than Communists or Nazis, the villain is Arab and Muslim and the plot is Islamic fanaticism expressed as jihad or holy war against the West.
Cobalt 60 is also a good illustration of what this book is about: namely, the way politics and popular culture interconnect—in this case through spy novels and thrillers published during the twentieth century that use the Middle East for plot, setting, or character. The theme—jihad, or a holy war or crusade against the West, whether by outright Islamic conquest, terrorist attack or economic takeover—is a plot device that has been consistently interwoven in the novels. As such, it provides a convenient matrix for illustrating the interconnection between popular culture and politics and is the thread we will follow from World War I at the beginning of the twentieth century to the Iraq War in the twenty-first.
Cobalt 60 is only one of more than eight hundred British and American crime fiction novels published during the twentieth century that concern the Middle East. These novels, either through plot or characters, illustrate the relationship between popular culture and British and American policy in the region. The Anglo-American connection is significant, not only because of British-American political consonance in the Middle East during the twentieth century, but also because British and American authors were writing for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. As publishing firms continue to be bought up by conglomerates, British fiction "stars" publish in the United States and American authors sell in the United Kingdom. Publishing trends are important because of the impact that the market has had on the production of crime fiction novels.
Although crime fiction is commercially produced for a mass audience, its popularity is difficult to quantify. Fiction book sales are not broken down into specific categories except for romance novels, most of whose publishers specialize in producing them. Publishers generally do not divulge sales figures, and best seller status—the popularity barometer—did not take into account crime fiction for most of the period under consideration because mysteries were not included on best seller lists until the 1960s.
Nevertheless, as early as the turn of the twentieth century, publishers understood that readers wanted to read detective stories and spy novels. In Britain, where popular fiction became more accessible with the shift from the publication of multi-volume novels to single volume books, book clubs specializing in mysteries and spy novels appeared. In the United States, detective novels and thrillers were serialized in magazines and later appeared in book form. With the emergence of private lending libraries in Britain and the United States, it soon became apparent that many patrons wanted to read classic mysteries and tales of espionage. This demand provided publishers with assured sales, and libraries became an important market for hardcover fiction sales. In the United States today, public libraries are the largest mass purchasers of fiction and in 2005 accounted for a nationwide circulation of some 2.1 billion materials. The more than ten thousand libraries with their numerous branches and bookmobiles base their book purchases on reviews and public demand. In one suburban public library, for example, seven patron requests generate the purchase of one new copy of a book, and depending upon wear and tear, the book could have an average of ten to twelve readers before being discarded.
Paperback books generated even more sales. Independently marketed, paperbacks had been around since World War II, when they became important vehicles for popular fiction in the United States. American Pocket Books began publishing and the Council on Books in Wartime released more than forty books a month in paperback through the Armed Services Editions that also reached a British audience. Many of these were detective novels. At first, American publishers saw the market for paperback originals as predominantly males, who were more inclined to read action stories than intellectual puzzles of detection. Publishers such as Fawcett, Lion, Popular Library, Berkley, Bantam, and Pocketbooks soon took over this market niche, featuring varieties of hard-boiled detective fiction with sensational art covers to distinguish them from the more staid hardbacks that dominated library sales. These books were independently marketed and did not rely on publisher-owned book clubs or lending libraries for sales. By 1965 the British paperback imprint Pan Books had sales of 21 million copies that included some six million Ian Fleming James Bond novels. As paperback originals and reprints of popular fiction reached multimillion copy sales, crime fiction, even though sales of its more expensive hardcover copies were lower, made up the largest group of paperback best sellers.
With the adoption of such mass-marketing techniques as multimedia advertising and book promotions, British and American publishers reached people who did not necessarily frequent the neighborhood bookstore. Circumventing the traditional bookseller, publishers racked up sales of millions of paperback books by placing them on shelves in supermarkets, drug stores, newsstands, bus stations, and airports. As a result, many books, like Mario Puzo's The Godfather and Frederick Forsyth's Gulf War thriller The Fist of God, which had not been best sellers in hardcover, became paperback best sellers. Often, potential commercial success was calculated even before books were written. Publishers commissioned writers to produce formulaic novels or created multi-authored series that were then marketed aggressively.
It is generally estimated that crime fiction accounts for one quarter of popular fiction sales whose readers, an editor commented, were "voracious and always looking for fresh meat." Add used books to sales of new books, as well as multiple readers of books lent to friends and library circulation figures, and we can begin to get a picture of their popularity.
Crime fiction, then, is a commercially produced commodity. The mysteries, spy novels, and thrillers that are included in this category of popular fiction are not part of the canon of high culture imposed from above. In academic terms, they are included in the discipline of popular culture. The novels are reader generated: readers choose what they want to read as opposed to what they are told they ought to read. Indeed, despite their own political predilections, publishers are often ready to produce what is reflective of public opinion or what they determine the public will buy. As the book industry grows, these stories and public perceptions of reality connect, because books are most marketable when authors and their publishers play on the conspiracies that society fears. As society’s fears change, the industry feeds on it.
That is because the plot or conspiracy is the key component of all crime fiction novels, whether they are mysteries, spy novels, or thrillers. The plot concerns a crime or a disruption of the social order. The characters are a hero and a villain. The villain, the social miscreant, threatens the hero and his society. The reader, vicariously by reading the book, restores domestic stability or international order as the hero solves the mystery or thwarts the villain's conspiracy or attack.
In the classic detective novel, a crime is committed and the perpetrator must be identified. Popularized by the British and reaching its "Golden Age" during the 1930s and 1940s with the work of Agatha Christie among others, the classic detective novel has an august and classic provenance descending from Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The key character is the detective who, whether a professional or an amateur, male or female, is the conveyer of society's moral norms and must put the situation right or restore domestic stability. The reader works with the detective toward the solution of the crime so that reading these novels is an involved and active pursuit along with the detective in solving the puzzle or mystery. To ensure the correct process and inevitable outcome, authors must follow certain rules of presentation so that the reader will be able to analyze the situation logically from the clues provided and solve the mystery with the knowledge that there will be no unexplained suspects or bizarre last-minute actors who have not been previously introduced into the plot who suddenly appear at the denouement. Often, plots are set in "closed" rooms to ensure that the suspects and clues can be easily accounted for and the focus can be on the puzzle which will be neatly solved at the end of the book.
Because of the stylized nature of the traditional detective novel, changes in location, setting, method of the murder, and ethnicity of the detective and the criminal are used to add spice to the script, so that the author can increase his output using the same formula without boring his audience. Tiring of English country gardens and dining rooms, authors may turn to settings that are located almost anywhere on the globe. The "exotic East" is clearly one of them.
Authors have set their murders in most Middle Eastern countries, often using archaeological digs as the locale because of the confined nature of the sites. Egypt, Israel, Iraq, and Turkey—and cruise ships on the Nile, for that matter—have offered convenient backdrops for crime. As a rule in these predominantly British and American novels, detectives and criminals have almost always been Westerners. Peoples of the region, much like the setting, are incidental props or part of the exotic scenery. Bellboys at Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo, workers on an archaeological dig in Mesopotamia, or the ubiquitous fellah with donkey stationed along the riverbank are often used to provide an exotic backdrop. In Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, which takes place on a cruise to Luxor, the internationally renowned detective Hercule Poirot and his friend sip lemonade on the terrace of the hotel and, gazing at the rocks of the Nile, note how they resemble the "vast prehistoric monsters lying half out of the water" and the "pays sauvage" that was Egypt. A frantic final chase through scenic Cairo provides exotic relief from a murder on a Mediterranean cruise ship in Manning O'Brine's Corpse to Cairo.
Explicit sex and overt violence are replaced by Orientalist exoticism or sensuality. For books set in the Middle East, the Casbah of Morocco automatically elicits a sense of intrigue: Anonymous, red-roofed, walled houses in the narrow alleys of Tangier, Casablanca, or Fez evoke both the mysterious and the fascinating: "The pink-brown city walls stretched as far as I could see to the right and to the left. Beyond them and the palms that topped them, a crowded mass of white, narrow, irregular, flat-topped buildings spread down the hillside and across a slanting valley and rose again. The minarets were like square candles, their tiles glinting in the sun. That was Old Fes."
Even more so, North Africa brings to mind foreign agents and exudes the sensuous heat, beaches, cloudless blue skies, and danger: "There was a mystery in the gaping blackness behind the iron-grilled windows of the houses. I had the feeling that we—white-skinned and briefly dressed—were watched secretly and with curiosity as we walked in a town which had not yet been opened to tourists."
It is also the place where Levantine millionaires and European expatriates spend their Swiss-banked illegal currency, living in luxury behind their bougainvillea-bedecked white stucco walls. In contrast to European cities, the Casbah is at once a magical land where one can escape from "Occidental vulgarity." At the same time it is the heart of the mysterious other, much like Istanbul's Seraglio when the city was under Ottoman rule: "It was just off that point that ladies of the harem who happened to be in disfavor were put into sacks and dropped into the Bosporus . . . . 'At least it's a custom you've discontinued,' Tracy said dryly. The Turkish girl shrugged. 'The Bosporus has always invited tragedy.'" This kind of descriptive Orientalism is common in the detective novels that make up approximately ten percent of the total crime fiction output related to the Middle East.
Most of the crime fiction books set in the Middle East, however, are spy novels and thrillers, novels that have an emotional rather than an intellectual appeal. These novels are the focus of this book.
Spy novels and thrillers draw on the exotic, but unlike detective stories, they are not cerebral chess games that presume the rational use of intellect to solve a well-defined problem. They do not describe the solution of a simple crime that occurs within a small physical space allowing the reader to participate cerebrally in the solution process while rarely experiencing any apprehension or dread. To the contrary, spy novels and thrillers draw on the emotions. More often than not, the plots of these novels rely on brute force by an odious villain or an apocalyptic, irrational conspiracy that draws on the primordial fear of an assault on the national psyche and threatens the survival of the nation or even the very existence of the Earth itself.
While reading them, readers are under constant, steady tension and may even feel terror related to the graphic depiction of brutality, murder, or unspeakable torture that is an integral component of many of these formulaic novels of international conspiracy. They are propelled through the story by means of a series of tense episodes or by the constant threat of cataclysmic disaster. The objective of the novel is for the hero to thwart the evil designs of a criminal, rather than to unmask his identity. Often, the criminal and his evil intentions are identified even before the hero is introduced.
Readers are drawn to the books by sensational book jacket illustrations: a foreign-looking man with a knife holding a woman at bay or a mushroom cloud over Washington, D.C.; a note on the cover that describes the gruesome horrors to come. Using the news as fiction fodder, writers have for more than a century baldly enticed readers to purchase thrillers that promise "the real inside story behind this morning's newspaper headlines" with tales "more astounding than fiction." The books are packaged with lurid covers and promises of exposés of sensational hijackings, terrorism, assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings. Political events have provided instant scenarios for thriller writers who are able to transform stories widely circulated by the media into easily marketable fiction.
Readers begin the novel, become engaged, and are tied to the story through such literary techniques as an outrageous plot, suspense, a simplistic hero-villain confrontation, and a satisfying ending that ties all of the pieces together. The solution to the puzzle is either incidental or of no account because the reader knows that the hero with whom he identifies somehow or other will save the day. No gimmick is too outlandish, no setting too foreign for the story's twists and turns. Authors frequently introduce unexplained poisons, weapons, and characters who appear at the last minute. In the classic spy novel, for example, the double agent, unmasked at the end like the criminal in the detective novel, is usually someone whose thoughts the reader is allowed to follow, but the spy frequently uses unaccountable intuition. The reader understands that villainy is not based on reason, but rather on the stereotypical caricatures authors employ as signifiers of evil. The villain is usually physically repulsive, a homosexual, or pathologically mean. There are no series of intelligible clues and the hero frequently uses his "gut feelings."
As such, the books are much like other forms of escapist entertainment—movies, epic tales of heroes, fairy tales, superhero comic books, science fiction, television, or video games. They have emotional appeal and fill the need for vicarious experience and the desire to escape from reality into a more exciting life: sexual fantasy and sudden wealth, interaction with other cultures, victory over great and unconquerable odds, or even vengeance against a perceived enemy. People can fly—first class, of course—to chic cafés in evocative Beirut and Pahlavi Tehran, in order to undergo, perhaps, the hardships of jeep and camel travel to the bleak Arabian Empty Quarter. Readers become a part of the jet-set life in Swiss ski resorts and partake of the opulent life of a lush Riviera estate overlooking the Mediterranean, where they might be entertained at an elegantly catered party for the American secretary of state and the king of Jordan.
For many, the appeal of the modern spy novel and the thriller that developed soon after is not only their disregard for all of the official rules to provide surprise and thrill with every turn of the page, but also their educational nature. There are long, detailed explanations of technology, planning, and execution of a "crime" or conspiracy that provide tutorials on esoteric subjects. Before the Internet and cable television, one could read Paul Erdman as a primer on international finance in The Crash of '79 or Stuart Jackman for a course on desert warfare. Other writers provide instruction on how to create a false identity, construct aircraft, missiles, and atomic bombs; use explosives and ordnance; and arm and disarm nuclear devices. "Today's spy stories undoubtedly require a high degree of precision," author Paul Henissart tells aspiring writers. "Because the readers are better informed, they have traveled, and they like to read about places they have visited."
Because of high reader expectations for the inclusion of specialized knowledge and accurate description, most novelists research their books thoroughly and since the 1970s, experts from many fields have joined professional writers to author spy novels and thrillers. Because of their "inside" knowledge, their expertise is valuable and taken seriously. Journalists Marvin Kalb, Eric Pace, and David Ignatius put their coverage of the Arab-Israel Conflict, Ba'thist Baghdad, and the civil war in Lebanon to use in their novels. Academics, ex-CIA agents, Peace Corps volunteers, and military professionals have also written spy novels and thrillers. Trusting that the books ring true overall—after all, planes were hijacked, hostages were taken, and sightings of weapons of mass destruction were reported—readers are drawn in by familiar news events and follow authors' musings about what might have happened as they unravel the plots in their thrillers to explain the mysterious. Today, talking heads on news programs provide instant news commentary; in the past, authors such as Nelson DeMille or Daniel Silva have used the genre to propose such scenarios as the reasons for the mysterious 1996 crash of Flight 800 over the Atlantic near New York's JFK Airport.
At the end of the novel, all of the major characters' personal problems developed in the narrative and the political intrigues generated by the plot must be resolved so that when the reader finishes the book, he feels satisfied and safe. At the same time, writes author Ken Follett, "he must feel as if he just got off a roller coaster. It was fun, it was scary, he's relieved it ended okay, and one day soon he's going to take another ride."
The books under examination here are part of a genre of formulaic, escapist literature with wide appeal that, by definition, requires heroes readers identify with, villains they despise, and frightening apocalyptic plots that draw on atavistic paranoia. Readers are attracted to the novels by a modicum of reality, become hooked on the conspiracy, and willingly follow the author even as he forces them to suspend reality and move into the fantastic, resolving the seemingly unsolvable dilemmas by the end of the book. Presenting a parallel political universe where conspiracy against the hero and his world is pervasive and limited only by the author's creativity, the genre provides an emotional outlet where conflicts between good and evil can be acted out vicariously. Plots are apocalyptic conspiracies designed to generate terror and require a hero who will thwart them by defeating, smiting, or obliterating the enemy: the "other," whose nefarious schemes threaten the very existence of the hero, his culture, and his civilization. Readers identify with the hero because he embodies the national ethos or mirrors the nation's image of itself through a binary relationship with the villainous "other," and reflects nationalist perceptions of peoples and events through the lens of popular cultural myths. As a result, these novels are a natural vehicle for the presentation of a simplistic, dualistic view of the universe where, in the Anglo-American novels under scrutiny here, only the hero remains constant. The villains change, and with them, a reflection of the public's shifting perceptions of political reality. Appearing most often on best seller lists during domestic or foreign crises, spy novels and thrillers can lend themselves to political advocacy or merely reflect political perspectives that publishers believe echo views of the marketplace. For these reasons, plots and characterization have shifted as British and American views about the Middle East and policy interests have changed over the years.
Publishers understand the connection as do politicians: Winston Churchill lauded the heroic ethos of the British spy during World War I, and J. Edgar Hoover used popular culture to enhance the image of the FBI.29 In the 1950s and 1960s, CIA operatives were encouraged to write spy novels, and the fiction had a large following that included U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Government agencies, professional writers and ex-intelligence officers, politicians, military, financial, and academic experts alike have all exploited this genre of popular fiction as a vehicle not only to advance political and religious ideologies, but to warn of the danger of imminent invasion or global financial crisis; to vilify the non-Western Other; to romanticize the Middle East; to criticize American foreign policy; or to perpetuate the fear of an apocalyptic Islamic jihad against the West.
With the onset of the millennium, during the 1990s, even evangelical Christians used the thriller format, but in their case, to meet a religious agenda, to warn of the impending Armageddon. Volumes in the Left Behind series written by Rev. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins appeared in first place on the New York Times Best Seller list. With an initial print run of 2.75 million books, the series already has sales of more than 50 million copies and counting. The books have generated comics, children's books, movies, audio tapes, radio drama, books clubs, and internet chat rooms. When the books first appeared in 1995, there was little notice. After all, the series was published by Tyndale House, whose readership is predominantly evangelical Christians, and books produced for that market are generally not listed on the mainstream best seller lists. Academics were for the most part unaware of the novels and their success, despite the intense interest generated about the ideological perspectives of the Religious Right and how they are being manifested in US foreign policy today. Publishers, however, took the sales figures of the series seriously, and LaHaye's subsequent contract with Bantam Dell in 2002 did make The New York Times. His $45 million dollar advance from the publishing division of the giant Bertelsmann publishing empire for worldwide rights to four planned novels was among the highest paid to a novelist and was a clear signal that the international publishing conglomerate believed that the religious readership already hooked on the novels would not only continue to buy them, but that the series would also attract more mainstream readers. Marketing has been reminiscent of the publishing phenomenon that occurred in the mid-1960s when Ian Fleming's James Bond novels hit the bookstores. Now, as then, thrillers that tell of an apocalyptic conspiracy featuring heroes firmly anchored in Anglo-American culture thwarting the evil designs of demonic villains fit neatly into the thriller category.
At the time that they are written and because of the nature of the genre, spy novels and thrillers are expressions of popular political belief and are in a sense translations of a political reality that is believed to be acceptable to the general reading public. As such, they can be used as a source for insight into current perceptions of events.
As crime fiction literature developed over the course of the twentieth century, spy novels and thrillers increasingly reflected the "reciprocal" relationship between culture and foreign policy. Just as "Film and events 'speak' to each other," events lend political resonance to fiction, and fiction provides the "mythological justification for the particular scenarios of real-world action." Spy novels and thrillers, in particular, not only project the public myth and mirror the nation's view of itself, but also reflect the assumptions of the culture of which they are a part. The genre "help[s] to shape the public sense of what is appropriate in confronting the crises of national and international life."
Given the nature of crime fiction—spy novels and thrillers in particular—whose essential ingredients are hero, villain, and plot, it is surprising that, unlike literature or film, both of which have been analyzed thoroughly by scholars focusing on the Euro-centric bias in Western culture, these books about the Middle East have remained below the radar of academic scrutiny. Edward Said, concerned more with the impact of high culture and the influence of academia on European and American foreign policy, does not examine popular culture in his works on Orientalism. His analyses and Norman Daniel's expositions of how the portrayal of the East in literature and academic discourse have impressed the perspective of Western superiority and perpetuated the stereotypical view of the sensual, irrational, inferior, and immutable East, or in the words of Rudyard Kipling—"East is East and West is West"—have become the starting point for studies of imperialism. Cultural theorists and historians look at the methods used to impose this imperialist domination through the production and control of knowledge by Orientalists, anthropologists, and historians, who, they maintain, were complicit in the creation of an imperial tradition that was inculcated through an educational and cultural apparatus of novels, museums, international fairs, and expositions, stories for boys, toys and youth movements. Despite hints of both throughout this book, whether all popular culture has been part and parcel of imperial design or a convergence of political and commercial interests I leave for readers to decide.
Where crime fiction related to the Middle East is just beginning to receive its due, however, is in studies that, by and large, have stated the obvious: namely, that the plots are conspiratorial, the characters are stereotypical, and the onus for evil is on Arabs and Muslims. As this study will illustrate, how spy novels and thrillers about the Middle East connect with Western politics is more complicated, because not only did the nature of the imperial game change, but the relationship between East and West evolved over time. At the beginning of the twentieth century, authors described a supine, malleable Middle East controlled by the imperial West. By the 1970s, worldwide technological advances in the military, computers, and economic markets forced authors to depict Middle Eastern conspirators as intelligent as their Western antagonists. If their plots were to be believable, heroes and villains had to operate on a level playing field. At that point, in the throes of decolonization and Islamism, Arabs and Muslims became threats to the West on their own and did not require Western assistance.
As we look at British and American novels under study here, it soon becomes apparent that the Western heroic national ethos expressed in spy novels and thrillers initially connoted British imperialism and American mission. The work of God's chosen peoples against the infidel is reflected in British and American policy in the region, whether it be fostering British imperial interests in the Middle East and preventing the collapse of the British Empire or, in the wake of decolonization, supporting the American imposition of Western values on what has been seen as an increasingly recalcitrant Middle East. Opposition to Western hegemony in the region was translated in crime fiction as conspiracy. By the last third of the twentieth century, as the peril drew closer to home, the threat became existential.
While over the years, these plots against the West have appeared in many guises, one of the most consistent conspiratorial threads to permeate spy novels and thrillers about the Middle East throughout the twentieth century has been jihad expressed in terms of a religious takeover of the West or the destruction of Europe or America by political or economic terrorism. In this context, fictional plots and their perpetrators are portrayed and interpreted through the lens of British and American policy. A good example of this is Richard Graves's Cobalt 60. The hero is American, the villain is an Arab Muslim, and the plot concerns jihad against the West.
That Arabs and Muslims have merited a place among the galaxy of world conspirators should come as no surprise given historical circumstance. This is because today, after a three-hundred-year hiatus, Muslims from the Middle East once again menace Westerners, either as international terrorists or as religious fanatics. A look at how the theme of jihad in crime fiction has consistently connected with the developments in the crime fiction genre and marketing, politics, and Anglo-American policy in the Middle East over the course of the twentieth century from the Great War to the millennium is the subject of the following pages.
We begin with World War I.