‘The 9th Directive’

The 9th DirectiveThe 9th Directive by Adam Hall

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Have you ever noticed that most of the famous, fictional spies are terrible at their job?

Not all parts of it, of course. There is something to be said, I suppose, for a man who can get into all kinds of trouble and still keep his wits about him (i.e. shoot a gun while skiing, bring a disabled airplane under control, etc.). But there’s the rub, isn’t it? The getting into all kinds of trouble. It seems to me that the effective spy, the reliable spy, the spy who does his job properly is the one who never, for instance, finds himself strapped to a table with a laser pointed at his jubblies. (Speaking of James Bond, I cannot believe he wasn’t fired after the debacle at the end of “Skyfall.”)

“The 9th Directive,” which is recommended to fans of the pulp/spy genre, by Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall) is a classic case. The protagonist, who goes by Quiller, perhaps a pseudonym, as well, is characterized — the most I could find online about him was on Wikipedia — as a “solitary, highly capable operative,” and “a highly skilled driver, pilot, diver, linguist and martial artist.”

To this list, after having read “Directive,” I would add arrogant, clumsy, reckless, shortsighted and pain in the ass. The plot unwinds in steamy Bangkok, propelled primarily by a series of mistakes made by the supposedly proficient protagonist. (Is it possible to spoil a novel written in 1966?) I won’t belabor the point. But suffice it to say, at no point does Mr. Quiller guess that his adversary, a martial-arts-obsessed marksman/assassin named Kuo, may have anticipated his actions. Never mind that Mr. Kuo repeatedly does.

Tellingly, most Internet descriptions of Mr. Quiller mention that he prefers to work alone. This is probably for dramatic effect, but his handlers never seem to recognize this as the red flag that it is. The fact is, all grownups, in addition to shining their shoes and tipping their waitresses, tolerate supervision with grace.

I suppose it is hard cheese to point out as much. The novel about the superefficient secret agent would probably run 12 dry pages.

Certainly, none of this takes away from a rollicking good book. Mr. Trevor effortlessly creates cinematic scenes, including a blindingly gilded stupa and warehouse rafters lined with colorful fighting kites. The action compels page-turning. The ending nicely balances the cynical and the plausible.

Recommended, if you can find a copy.

‘Hello? Watana Siam? Yes, I’d Like to Order the Chicken Panang’

He argued that “modest encroachments on privacy” — including keeping records of phone numbers called and the length of calls that can be used to track terrorists, though not listening in to calls — were “worth us doing” to protect the country.

via Administration Says Mining of Data Is Crucial to Fight Terror – NYTimes.com.

As Barack Obama’s presidency lurched farther down the track of “I Never Thought I’d Be Doing [expletive deleted] Like This,” on Friday he in all seriousness tried to justify what even jaded wire service reporters were calling “sweeping” surveillance of Americans’ private lives.

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Mr. Obama said.

Well, probably nobody. And, if they are, it’s under an entirely different part of the program.

via Intelligence for Dummies – NYTimes.com.

For my part, I say, Fine. Have at my phone records. I make so few phone calls that all I would be giving away are the numbers of a few good Thai places near my house and a car service that stubbornly refuses to make reservations more than 15 minutes ahead of time.

The problem here is one of the governing’s oldest: The cat, if it wasn’t already out of the bag, sure as [expletive deleted] is now.

You should not think that recent events will simply cement a previous status quo in place, rather it moves us down a very particular path and probably makes the entire problem worse.

via The loss of privacy and the collapse of creative ambiguity.

Mr. Obama, again in all seriousness, told reporters that spying on ordinary Americans is “not what this program is about.”

There he is wrong.

The worrisome thing isn’t that the government has gobbled up all those phone records, and whatever else. The worrisome thing is that it did it and no one even burped — not until now, anyway. Seemingly reasonable lawmakers and cabinet chiefs have tried to reassure Americans that, in all this snooping business, the government scrupulously followed the rules. Never mind that these are rules the government made up for itself.

Is it fear-mongering to ask where it will end? Maybe it is, but even the government’s shills, including one writing in The New York Times, couldn’t avoid pointing out the obvious.

On the surface, our system of checks and balances seems to be working. We cannot rule out the possibility that the voluminous records obtained by the government might, some day, be illegally misused. But there is no evidence so far that that has occurred.

via Making a Mountain Out of a Digital Molehill – NYTimes.com.

In the end, who cares about phone records? As we all know from the First Law of Movie Technology, “Enemy of the State” Clause, any freaky spying technique you can properly portray in a film is probably a generation behind existing technology, anyway. And, I’m asking here, are there any serious criminals hatching schemes over a 4G network?

In his infuriating remarks on Friday, Mr. Obama briefly showed his human side when he, probably reading from a script, told reporters that he had had “a healthy skepticism” about the spying when he first learned of it. But it apparently didn’t last long.

“You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Mr. Obama chirped.

And so here we are, snug up next to 100 percent security.

How does it feel? And, more to the point, was I right to order the chicken panang?