|Vintage Pulp||Jan 15 2020|
Nations to betray, people to murder. *yawn* Let me nap for about twelve hours before I spring into action.
We move from yesterday's canines to today's felines. Pure pinup style art by Willard Downes adorns this Gold Medal paperback of John Flagg's, aka John Gearon's, novel The Persian Cat. Looking at this, we were pretty sure Downes painted it long before Gold Medal came knocking at his studio door, simply because this piece, while wonderful, is also generic enough to front probably a quarter of mid-century thrillers. A read through the tale seems to confirm our suspicion. The main character is ex-OSS agent Gil Denby, who money lures back into the spy game for a high stakes mission in Teheran, where he's supposed to bring to justice a femme fatale who was a Vichy traitor during World War II. The femme does plenty, but she never quite gets around to lounging abed in her undies.
This was published in 1950, a crucial period in Iranian history. Though the narrative doesn't reveal an exact time frame, it's a given that the tale and publication date are closely aligned. That means the story takes place when Iran was ruled by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, aka the Shah, with some power also apportioned to a series of prime ministers. In fact, there were seventeen prime ministers from 1940 to 1950, which hints at the political volatility of the country. Iranians would eventually elect the reformist Mohammed Mossadegh as PM in 1951, and the U.S. and Britain would promptly overthrow him in 1953, leading to the Shah gaining unchallenged power.
You will learn none of this reading The Persian Cat. It isn't even there as deep background. Also missing is any affinity for language, culture, geography, architecture, or life in the streets. Nor does Flagg mention that the predominant language in Iran is Farsi, not Arabic, and he only hints that the predominant ethnic group is Persian, not Arab. In short, the book lacks a sense of place. When reading about the exotic and distant city of Teheran, this is a letdown. Flagg traveled the Middle East but could have written this novel without ever leaving the U.S. We can't say why the Iranian flavor is so weak, but lack of interest and/or lack of willingness to have learned usable details of the country are leading possibilities. See: David Dodge for how to write exotic locales successfully.
That said, The Persian Cat is a reasonably fun, well-written adventure. Yes, we know that assessment seems contradictory. We'd have liked a more atmospheric and informative tale, but Flagg has talent. His hero Denby deals with betrayal, murder, hairsbreadth escapes, and serious doubts about whether he wants to send that languorously stretching femme fatale to her death. The book's biggest flaw—besides the usual behavior toward women that might easily earn Denby a restraining order or prison time today—is a climax built on revelatory dialogue, pages of it, that will leave you screaming in your head, “Enough talk! Just shoot the fucker!” Still, Flagg overcomes these issues to craft nine tenths of a good book. We'll probably try him again down the line.
IranTeheranWorld War IIGold Medal BooksJohn FlaggJohn GearonMohammed Reza PahlaviThe Shah of IranWillard Downescover artliterature