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The Evolution of Desmond Cory

Johnny Fedora Novels
February 6, 2017
Prof with a Thrilling Imagination
February 8, 2017

A Whitepaper covering the novels of Desmond Cory - by Prof. M. Songer

D ESMOND CORY is a British writer born in Sussex in 1928. After serving as a commando in the Royal Marines immediately after World War II, he began an education that was to extend over many years. In 1951 he earned a B. A. degree from St. Peter’s College, Oxford, and returned to get an M. A. in 1960. Then in 1976, 25 years after his first graduation, he was awarded a Ph. D. from the University of Wales.

Immediately after completing his baccalaureate, he began working in Europe as a freelance writer. By 1953 he was living in Cordoba, Spain, where he served as a technical translator and began teaching for the Academia Britanica. Cory taught throughout most of his life, even as he returned to school for advanced degrees. From Cordoba, he moved to the University of Wales at Cardiff. Then began a series of associate professorships of English in Arabic-speaking countries: at the Universities of Qatar, of Sanaa, of Bahrain. He held a three-year position as an advisor to the Ministry of Education in the Sultanate of Oman before leaving the Arabian Gulf in 1990 to take a university position in Famagusta, Cyprus. Despite his very busy professional life, Cory is a prolific writer whose work evolved according to his life experiences.

The publication of his first two novels coincided with his 1951 graduation from Oxford. Those novels introduced two very different series characters. Lindsay Gray of Begin, Murderer! is an urbane man-about-town who solves murders that baffle the Oxford police. Self-described as “a one-time private detective of one-time private means” ( ), Lindy is not ashamed of living a dissolute life. In The Shaken Leaf he realizes that he smells “like the Mortlake brewery” and marvels that his “spirit-soaked breath” does not incommode the young woman sitting opposite him on a train (22). Lady Lost, the third Gray novel, opens with Lindy groping for something to help a hangover while from his bed grouses Richarda Baddeley. Of her he says, “Her virtue as a fiancée is that she hasn’t got any” ( ). The chapter headings in Lady Lost are the titles of jazz songs: “Lady, Be Good,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Mood Indigo.” The Lindy Gray books reveal a young man’s perception of sophistication while they exhibit Cory’s talent for wry humor and clever style.

By contrast, Secret Ministry, the other 1951 novel, introduced Johnny Fedora. Johnny is a secret agent whose forte is the ability to outshoot, outwit, and outmaneuver his Cold War opponents. Although he is often teamed with Sebastian Trout, who is attached to the Foreign Office, Johnny’s connection with British intelligence is unofficial; he is hired for specific assignments. Unlike Trout, Johnny lacks a solid education. In Intrigue, written in 1954, he does not recognize lines from Alice in Wonderland or Julius Caesar, and when Trout mentions that someone is descended from the Medici, Johnny asks what a Medici is. He relies on native cunning rather than acquired knowledge to outsmart his opponents. His one cultural asset is his love of music. Thanks to a benefactor, Johnny did get piano lessons, and he developed into a pianist who is equally proficient playing classical music, jazz, or boogie woogie. He is very protective of his hands; a delicate touch is needed on the ivories as well as on the trigger.

During the early fifties, the Cory protagonists seemed to vie with each other. Cory produced both a Lindy Gray book and a Johnny Fedora book every year from 1951 through 1954. Then the appeal of writing spy thrillers seemed to win out over that of writing detective puzzlers, and Cory dropped Lindy Gray to concentrate on Fedora and stand-alone novels.

The Fedora series consists of sixteen novels written over a period of twenty years, all taking place in exotic locales. After the first few novels, Trout and a colleague, Jimmie Emerald, leave government service and join Johnny in forming Emerald Investigation and Exploration Co. Ltd., a company offering to “do practically anything, from inaugurating a rebellion in Mexico City to babysitting for a millionaire’s infant” (Johnny Goes West 12). Because knowledgeable employers recognize the names of the directors as “the three outstanding wartime operatives of Western Europe” (Johnny Goes West 12), no one asks them to do any baby sitting. Emerald runs the company while Trout and Fedora work in the field, which may be as far away as the jungles of Venezuela or the mountains of Chile.

The last five Fedora books are sometimes called the Feramontov Quintet. They share a common antagonist in Feramontov, a Soviet secret operative, and were written over a span of nine years from 1962 to 1971. The quintet begins with Undertow and includes Hammerhead, Feramontov, Timelock, and Sunburst. Like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarity, Fedora and Feramontov see each other as arch enemies, but unlike their predecessors, they meet in increasingly unreal situations. The setting for all the novels is Spain, an unlikely location for Cold War confrontations. Nevertheless, in Hammerhead the plot Fedora must foil is a plan to drop an atomic bomb on Madrid. Originally Johnny has no idea that Feramontov is involved. As a favor to a friend, Johnny agrees to investigate a sudden death even though he does not much care for murder investigations. They lack “the familiar tingle of expectancy, the illogical but unmistakable promise of violent action, of danger, of the risk of death” (38). Of course, the investigation quickly escalates into the kind of adventure that provides these and more.

In many ways Johnny has characteristics of a hard-boiled hero: he refers to a former Trout girlfriend as “that little blonde piece” (Johnny Goes West 55); he indulges in alcohol, cigarettes, and women with no physical or emotional aftereffects; and despite beatings, he wins at cards and gunplay.

Even though Johnny predates James Bond, comparisons with Ian Fleming’s better known hero are inevitable. Agent 007's popularity is often attributed to the admission by President John F. Kennedy that From Russia With Love was one of his favorite novels. After that revelation in 1957, sales of the Fleming spy novels soared. Seven years later when Hammerhead was republished in the United States as Shockwave, the book jacket carried a quote from Anthony Boucher of the New York Times saying that Johnny Fedora “more than deserves to take over James Bond’s avid audience”. Reviews of Feramontov and Ian Fleming’s Octopussy appeared side by side in the New York Times Book Review in 1966. Of Feramontov a reviewer said, “As one has come to expect from Cory, colorful action, copious carnage, elaborate intrigue, frequent surprises.” Octopussy, however, was dismissed as “a thin and even emaciated volume.” In reviewing Timelock Boucher commented, “I must say once more that I find Cory’s Johnny Fedora a much more persuasive violent, sexy and lucky agent than James Bond” (32). Boucher also considered Johnny’s love interest “a more provocative girl than Bond ever met” (32).

Readers did not seem to agree, however, and neither did all the critics. Sunburst, the last novel in the Feramontov Quintet, elicited this comment from Newgate Callendar, also writing for the New York Times Book Review: “If Cory can rid himself of his Ian Fleming syndrome, he can develop into quite a good writer” (40). Cory may or may not have taken that advice to heart, but Sunburst is the last Fedora novel.

Johnny Fedora is a young man’s hero. The desire for action, the enjoyment of danger, and the appreciation of uncomplicated sex are all well understood by the young. However, the Fedora novels also contain indications of suppressed talents not necessarily typical of spy novels or appreciated by the thrill seeker. Cory’s facility with language is apparent, not only in the idiomatic use of Spanish but also in the apt inclusion of French, German, and Latin. In addition, there is unexpected humor in both action and description. In Johnny Goes West a mining engineer hired by E. I. E. wears a black suit to impress the locals. He succeeds in impressing them: everyone thinks he is a hit man. He belatedly discovers he is in a part of the country where only professional killers wear black. Later Cory refers to him as “Hendricks, the ex-professional gunman” (45). In another instance, Trout, remembering his exclusive public school education, realizes that lately he has “found himself mixing more and more frequently with companions whom he would have been decidedly reluctant to present on a formal occasion to the Reverend the Provost” (105). In Johnny Goes South a foreign correspondent named Sidney Charity is prone to sending home news dispatches based more on conjecture than on fact. When his guesses turn out to be glaring untruths, an experienced colleague makes “ingenious little cracks about people who should not only have begun at home but stayed there” (9).

During the years when Cory was writing about Johnny Fedora, he was also experimenting with novels of a different kind. In 1957 he tried a new approach to Cold War high jinks. In Pilgrim at the Gate a West Berlin travel agency called Pilgrim Tours arranges trips for a special clientele. Hoffmann, a former Nazi who has changed his name to Pilgrim, transports others like himself to South America, where the climate is better for their health than is postwar Germany. The business thrives, even successfully providing “tours” for those from East Germany and Poland. All goes well until the real Mr. Pilgrim enters the office. The two men have met before when Hoffmann was in charge of discipline over those subjected to Nazi experiments and Pilgrim was one of the subjects. The real Pilgrim eliminates the imposter and takes over the business, sending one-time Nazis clients where their former activities will be appropriately “rewarded” and concentrating instead on providing egress from behind the Iron Curtain. As delightful as the book is in both plot and style, it was followed by only one more Pilgrim book, Pilgrim on the Island, in 1959.

Cory seemed to be continually searching for a formula that would satisfy his creative needs and entertain readers as well. He next tried his hand at writing psychological novels. The first of these, Deadfall, examines the life of a solitary jewel thief, his vulnerability, his sensitivity. Like the Feramontov Quintet, the novel is set in Spain with some forays into North Africa. It was followed by two other psychological novels with Spanish setting. The Night Hawk concentrates on family relationships while Take My Drum to England concerns Henry, a disaffected young Englishman with a genius for explosives. Cory convincingly examines the causes of Henry’s impotence and his lack of sociability, but he is less convincing in elaborating the causes of Henry’s political allegiance. While terrorist companions maintain Communist leanings as their part in the fight against Spanish Fascism, Henry seems to participate as an attempt to do something well, to erase the anonymity of his life.

The last psychological novel is also the last book to take advantage of Cory’s familiarity with Spain. Bennett, written in 1977, has an unusual twist. A British detective aptly named Hunter is sent to Spain to find Bennett, a murder suspect. What he finds is a journal indicating that there are two people with that name, one of whom seems to be taking over the identity of the other. According to the journal, to try to find the imposter, Bennett starts carrying a book he has written entitled Bennett. Because the reader is reading this in Bennett, the plot takes on the characteristics of old advertisements in which someone is looking at a picture of someone looking at a picture of someone looking at a picture. Hunter recognizes this as he reads the journal, thinking it “full of endless figures, circling round, circling . . .” (53). The plot becomes so convoluted that in his review Callender thought it “very much a bore.” He noted that after “a lot of fancy prose and psychological unraveling . . . there is a curious ending. Nothing helps” (“Everything”).

While writing the psychological novels, Cory was living in Penarth, Glamorgan, Wales as well as in Torreblanca, Spain, but he did not use Wales as a setting until 1975. Then he turned out two novels, A Bit of a Shunt up the River and The Circe Complex, both of which have psychological overtones. A Bit of a Shunt is a thriller with a very suspenseful car chase, but it also investigates the relationship that develops between the pursuer and the pursued. The Circe Complex, as its name implies, centers on the effect a woman has on several men who are hunting stolen jewels. In addition, it scrutinizes concepts of honesty since three of the men are “honest” while one is an ex-convict.

During his psychological era, Cory paid little attention to style or humor. The Lindsay Gray books are filled with witty sentences and clever allusions, and even the spy novels have stylistic plums. By limiting Johnny’s education, Cory limited himself in writing about him, but he was able to use Trout and other characters. Once he quit writing about Fedora, those strictures were lifted, and the mature Cory should have been confined only by the sophistication of the new characters he created. In addition, humor, a trait that seemed to appear unbidden in the early novels, could have been given free rein in late ones. Unfortunately, this was not the case until Cory once again shifted focus and wrote Lucky Ham in 1977. Set in fictional Mauxldever College, the novel is a satirical look at Oxford that includes aspects of Hamlet–the characters Hamilton and Ophelia, a scene with a gravedigger, and parodies of Hamlet’s soliloquy and other well-known lines, as well as sophisticated word play.

Lucky Ham realized the promise of the early novels by providing intelligent humor and clever lines, but immediately after writing it Cory moved to Qatar. He wrote no fiction during the thirteen years he lived near the Arabian Gulf. Then in 1990 he moved to Cyprus and within the next few years published three mysteries with a new protagonist, a Welsh math professor named John Dobie. The first Dobie novel, The Catalyst, is set in Wales. Although in The Mask of Zeus Dobie leaves Wales for a visiting professorship in Cyprus, he returns in The Dobie Paradox. The Catalyst was enthusiastically received. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “near perfect puzzler, written with intelligence and laced with wit.”

Appearing forty years after Johnny Fedora, John Dobie is the product of a wiser, more experienced writer who prized reflection and wisdom above speed and brawn. For instance, when Dobie suspects that his young wife is deceiving him, rather than reacting jealously he remembers that he once had a liaison with a married woman. It was back in the “swinging Seventies,” and she had taken up adultery in the way she might have taken up yoga or basket-weaving or flower-arranging; obediently in accordance with l’esprit du temps and the recommendations of the Sunday supplements they had tied themselves into strenuous and complicated knots in the backs of motor-cars, in the unfrequented parts of golf courses and so forth, while also feeling themselves free–not to say obscurely compelled–in the privacy of Dobie’s own small flat to do it not only on the bed, in the old-fashioned way, but also on the sofa, on the sitting-room carpet . . . and even, on one memorable occasion, on top of the kitchen table . . . . They had . . . together perused a somewhat esoteric book which told you things to do with electric light bulbs, only you couldn’t because you needed the electric light bulb to read the book by. (The Catalyst 12-13)

Such musings come to a halt when his wife is killed and Dobie becomes a suspect. Then it is time to apply his mathematical skills. He tells himself, “Mathematics is basically a frame of mind. A habit of economy of thought” (83). He realizes what he must now cultivate is “economy of emotion” (83). When he manages to do that, he is able to solve the murder by applying laws of probability. He explains, “[T]he sequence is perfectly syllogistic, once you follow the pattern. It could hardly have happened any other way” (135).

There are many ways in which John Dobie is the antithesis of Johnny Fedora. Johnny is never fazed by drink; John does not hold his liquor well. Johnny is pleased to discover that he can still perform after a traumatic experience; John discovers that he is impotent. Johnny’s nerves are always steady; John’s are so frayed after his wife’s death that his chair encourages him to take a leave of absence. Consequently, it is surprising when in The Mask of Zeus John Dobie assumes aspects of Johnny Fedora. When he is shown Othello’s Tower, a Cyprus landmark, Dobie is unclear about the story of Othello and claims that he gets him mixed up with MacDougal, “[t]he one who is married to Lady Macdougal” (103). While such ignorance is forgivable in the deprived Fedora, it is less so in a scholar who has been a visiting professor at such a prestigious university as MIT. His excuse that he is a “man of limited interests” (113) seems unacceptable. Nevertheless, when the solution to a murder lies in correctly interpreting literary allusions and historical events, Dobie studies D. H. Lawrence and John Dryden and delves into Cyprus’s turbulent past. He admits he may be no “man of letters” (180), but he is not “an idiot, either” (182).

Desmond Cory wrote fiction from 1951 to 1994. As his life changed, so did his fiction. Instead of impossible heroics by macho protagonists, he ended with thoughtful plots and an imperfect sleuth. The movement from the spy thriller to the detective novel, from youthful fancy to mature acceptance of reality, shows a change from the physical to the mental and demonstrates the evolution of Desmond Cory.

Works Cited

Boucher, Anthony. “Criminals at Large.” Rev. of Timelock, by Desmond Cory. New York Times Book Review 6 Aug. 1967: 32-33.

Callendar, Newgate. “Criminals at Large.” Rev. of Sunburst, by Desmond Cory. New York Times Book Review 16 May 1971: 40.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know.” Rev. of Bennett, by Desmond Cory. New York Times Book Review 1 Jan. 1978: 14.

Rev. of The Catalyst. Publishers Weekly 17 May 1991: 56.

Cory, Desmond. Bennett. Garden City: Doubleday, 1975.

—. Hammerhead. 1963. Rpt. as Shockwave. New York: Walker, 1964.

—. Johnny Goes South. 1959. New York: Walker, 1964.

— . Johnny Goes West. 1958. New York: Walker, 1967.

—. Lady Lost. London: Muller, 1953.

—. The Mask of Zeus. 1992. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.

—. The Shaken Leaf. London: Muller, 1954.

—. Strange Attractor. 1991. Rpt. as The Catalyst. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991.

Rev. of Feramontov, by Desmond Cory. New York Times Book Review 10 July 1966: 43.

Rev. of Octopussy, by Ian Fleming. New York Times Book Review 10 July 1966: 43.