Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Rot at the Heart of Camelot

David R. Stokes, Camelot's Cousin: an Espionage Thriller

Radio talker and amateur historian Templeton Davis becomes proud owner of an antique briefcase buried half a century ago on a Virginia farm. But when he opens it, he finds code books, a camera full of evidence, and a remarkable secret. Seems this briefcase was once owned by notorious traitor Kim Philby, and Temp Davis finds himself tracking the last missing member of the Cambridge Five.

David R. Stokes, a radio pundit and part-time historian himself, has a really strong idea for a novel here. His motivating incident plays well with his central protagonist, who perhaps resembles Stokes’ idealized self-concept, but is interesting and compelling nonetheless. But Stokes’ debut novel could really use a firm editorial hand, because his strong idea gets lost among strange flowing spandrels and clunky formatting.

If, like me, you slept through World History 101, the Cambridge Five were a ring of Soviet spies recruited in Britain before World War II. Sons of privilege, they had grown disillusioned with Western capitalism and saw the USSR as some utopian experiment. Philby was the most famous, because he was in line to lead MI-6, Britain’s intelligence service. Next most famous must be the Fifth Man, who remains unidentified to this day.

Stokes is only the latest in a string of novelists, historians, and dramatists to posit the Fifth Man’s identity. Like the other four, Stokes’ suspect was born to privilege, and invested decades into the process of accruing power and influence. Then he used that influence to steer important global affairs. And despite the title, Stokes does not suggest the Fifth Man was that popular talk radio punching bag, Jack Kennedy.

Unfortunately Stokes doesn’t come from a fiction background. His prior book, The Shooting Salvationist, was an excellent history of a major, but nearly forgotten, American crime. But historians, like Stokes, butter their bread by expounding details and contextualizing facts. Novelists make choices. What must I include, and what can I omit? What must I explain now, and what can I save for later? What is necessary, and what is subtext?

Stokes doesn’t make such choices. He includes long discursions on historical background, whether it actually advances the story or not. His character backgrounds, spelled out the first time he introduces a character, sometimes spill over several pages. One scene that stands out in my memory, unpacking the secrets of a 1938 Scottish holiday weekend, receives such lengthy background that Stokes needs two whole chapters of exposition to reach the action.

When I say “two whole chapters,” understand: these chapters are short. Scenes sprawl across pages and pages, but those scenes are subdivided, requiring three or four chapters to have a conversation. Assuming, of course, that the characters actually get around to to talking, because Stokes may hold them in limbo for chapters while he expounds historical details or espionage procedure.

Then, while we wait for the story to resume, Stokes’ typography distracts from his exposition. His writing suffers with quirky usage, like misplaced apostrophe’s, misplaced Capitalization, and italics that make no sense in context. Some of the typos suggest Stokes didn’t proofread his own work, or needs a copy checker. Others look like Unicode errors, like Stokes formatted his book in Microsoft Word and then e-mailed it to his publisher.

All this disappointing baggage distracts from Stokes’ story, which is quite good. Temp Davis’ careful unpacking of the Fifth Man lets him make connections with surviving members of the Cold War intelligence community, while lingering ghosts of Soviet paranoia start to intrude on Temp’s life. The conflict, when it pokes out through Stokes’ cloud of language, unfolds with remarkable urgency. I really wanted to like this story.

I just wish Stokes had employed an editor. A little Maxwell Perkins could have helped Stokes turn this raw material into a gripping, Ian Fleming-esque international thriller. I’ve seen writing like this before: Stokes has a strong idea, but he never had anyone acting as a surrogate audience to help clarify his ideas. He assumes that, because his writing makes sense to him, it will make sense to us, too.

Stokes’ story succeeds, where it does, from his unquestionable love for his subject. His background as a historian gives this novel a deep background and remarkable verisimilitude. I enjoy this book when Stokes doesn’t put himself between the story and me. But without needed outside viewpoints to make sure Stokes is communicating with his audience, his words form a barrier between us and his vision. The struggle never resolves itself.

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