If he is to be judged just by the number of books that reached publication, Desmond Cory is arguably one of Britain’s most prolific thriller writers. His writing spans over 40 years, during which time he used up to three different pen names, such was the demand for his work. Academics cover his works in such books as British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940 , and Detecting Men: A Reader's Guide and Checklist for Mystery Series Written By Men , yet despite all of this he remains largely an unknown to the general public.
Which is all the more surprising when you find out more about this enigmatic author. According to his first publisher, Cory wrote his first novels on board a troopship in the Far East “in a vain attempt to gain immortality before death”, referring in this case to the Second World War. Serving three years with the British Commandos, he was called to Burma, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malta and Gibraltar, before returning to England for demobilization. Accepted into Oxford, Cory found time not only for his academic studies, but also wrote two further novels, poetry for a BBC broadcast, and established the university literary review, Viewpoint.
His first novel, Secret Ministry, was published in 1951, with his publisher, Frederick Muller Ltd., publishing his second within months, and quoting two others awaiting publication. From early on, Cory proved to be not only a prolific writer, but a talented one too. The Illustrated London Post called him a “rising hope”, while the Birmingham Post stated “Mr. Cory may well turn out to be a British Raymond Chandler”.
The serial characters he created at the time best define Cory’s work during the 1950s. Johnny Fedora novels were spy thrillers and featured the world of the secret agent, while Lindsay Grey novels were detective puzzlers featuring a protagonist who can “bang about with the best but who can quote poetry in his most reflective moods”. Mr. Pilgrim, appearing at the end of the 1950’s, was different altogether, and introduced Cory’s readers to life behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. By the end of this decade, Cory had already 15 novels published, and won over many literary critics. Punch magazine described his novels as “slick and ingenious whodunits”, the Manchester Evening News applauding them as “gloriously entertaining and gripping”, and the Sheffield Telegraph wrote, “Desmond Cory is a writer of thrillers who really can write. He combines verve and intelligence with genuine skill in the use of words”. One of his most glowing appraisals appeared in the Bristol Evening Post of 1960, which printed:
“there is these days a comparatively slender band of first-class writers who are producing thrillers worthy of serious attention – among them authors like Margaret Allingham, John Creasy, Carter Dickenson, David Dodge, Ellery Queen, Simenon, and, of course Agatha Christie. Among them, too, is Desmond Cory, a man whose ingenuity, imagination, and good humour pervade his works with an agreeable excitement and readability".
In the 1960’s, Cory continued only with Johnny Fedora, and from 1962 to 1971 produced what was called the Fedora Quintet. In the 1960’s the genre of the secret agent reached arguably its peak, with other well-known authors such as Ian Fleming entering the fray. In her scholarly paper (The evolution of Desmond Cory) presented at a recent Conference in Toronto, Prof. Marcia Songer of the East Tennessee State University writes of this period:
“Even though Johnny Fedora 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 favourite novels. After that revelation in 1957, sales of the Fleming spy novel soured. Seven years later when [Cory’s] 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 of 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”.
To many, Johnny Fedora was “the thinking man’s James Bond ”, and while there was enough of the buying public for both Fedora and Bond, Cory finished his last novel with Fedora in 1971. The reasons for this are not clear but as Prof Songer writes, “Cory seemed to be continually searching for a formula that would satisfy his creative needs” and probably simply decided to move on.
Dispensing with the wit and style that won him his former acclaim, Cory took on the new challenge of authoring psychological thrillers. During this period, Cory penned critically acclaimed novels such as Deadfall, The Night Hawk, The Circe Complex, and Bennett. Deadfall featured the solitary life of a jewel-thief embroiled in a complex personal relationship, and was made into a high profile movie by 20th Century Fox with Shirley Bassie singing the movie theme music, and starring Michael Caine, Eric Portman, and Nanette Newman. The critics proved divided in their reviews, some describing it as “a remarkably literate suspense story.. certainly Cory’s name will be one to reckon with after this ”, others as “a serious psychological study of crime ”, while others clearly viewed it as “unconvincing” and “pseudo-psychology”
Whatever the verdict, Cory’s novels continued to be generally praised by the reviewers of the time. His next novel (The Night Hawk) was selected as the Crime Critics Choice of the Year (1970) by the Times Literary Supplement, and Edmund Crispin of the Sunday Times wrote, “readers who like their thrillers to complement their intelligence must on no account miss Mr. Cory”. The Circe Complex received similar accolades, ranging from “a really outstanding novel, remarkable not only for its ingenuity but also for the high intelligence and literary skill ”, to “stunningly unusual and entertaining ”. It then won the Sunday Times “Crime Novel of the Year (1975)” award, and was subsequently adopted into a six-part TV series by Thames Television.
Rather than take the easier option of writing more novels of same genre, Cory then turned his back on psychological thrillers to take on yet again new challenges. For two years he worked on a historical novel set in the period of Mussolini, the Italian dictator. Despite Cory’s track record of being able to take on new genres, his publisher decided not to publish it. Perhaps as a result of this, Cory turned his attention instead to the academic world. Awarded a Ph.D in English Literature, he then moved to the Middle East, taking up a number of academic posts in Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen and Cyprus. During this time in the 80’s he published some academic books , and a few short stories each with Arabic connotations, such as The Song of Fariq .
Then, forty years after he created Johnny Fedora, Cory wrote a number of new novels featuring a new series character, John Dobie. The first was published in 1991 under the title The Strange Attractor. Perhaps remembering Cory’s contribution to British thriller writing dating back to 1951, critics comments on this book included:
“You hear that there was a Goldern Age of thrillers in Britain between the wars. When you read Cory you realize that it hasn’t ended”.The same year, the novel was re-published in the United States as Catalyst and was enthusiastically received, Publisher’s Weekly calling it a “near perfect puzzler, written with intelligence and laced with wit”. Back in Britain, the reviews were of a similar note, The Tablet commenting that “the joy of the book lies in the wit of its writing”.
In the novels that followed, John Dobie proved to be a character far removed from the Johnny Fedora of the 50’s and 60’s. Instead of a confident, sex-driven macho secret agent, Cory introduced us to an absent minded Maths professor who is impotent, averse to taking large amounts of alcohol, and quite unnerved by any excitement. Rather than speed and brawn, Dobie resolves a murder mystery in The Mask of Zeus by correctly interpreting literary allusions and historical events, and all with the wit and humour of Cory’s earlier novels.
In looking back at Desmond Cory’s works that span over forty years as a British thriller writer, his range of writing, and the varied number of series characters he introduced, is truly remarkable. From the secret agent serving in the Cold War, and the thinking man’s James Bond of the 60’s, right down to his psychological thrillers of the 70’s, and his Dobie novels of the 1990’s, Cory has shown a diversity of writing talent that has impressed the literary establishment, and entertained many thousands of readers. Yet Cory remains largely an unknown name to the general public. At times when his writing skills were in demand, he preferred to follow his own creative path. Sometimes this paid off for him, other times it did not. Whatever, there is little doubt that given the scope and breadth of his literary works, he deserves to be recognised as “the talented Mr. Cory”. Whether he will be later recognised as one of Britain’s greatest thriller writers of the 20th century, only time will tell.
British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940, 2nd Series - Gina MacDonald
Detecting Men: A Reader's Guide and Checklist for Mystery Series Written By Men - Wiletta Heising (Dec 1998)
The Book Buyer’s Guide
The Library Journal
The Sunday Times
The Sunday Telegraph
“The Modes of Comedy”, Volturna Press.
The Mystery Guild Anthology - edited: John Waite (1980)
The Mask of Zeus (1992) and the Dobie Paradox (1993)
“Crime Fiction II: A Comprehensive Bibliography”, 1749-1990 by Allen J. Hubin
Whodunnit? A Guide To Crime, Suspense & Spy Fiction (1982) - H.R.F. Keating (Editor)
“Graham Greene: A Literary Life” by Neil Sinyard