I’ll hold my hand up here and admit that I didn’t enjoy Like Slipping Undercover: Erotic Spy Fiction. This isn’t to say it’s a bad book. Maybe I’m going through the male menopause or just behaving like the Easter version of the Grinch. Whatever the reason, it didn’t work for me.
The stories are adequately executed. If I’d been editor on any of these shorts they would have been different. But I’m not the editor. Does this sound like I’m trying to make an obscure point? I hope not. I’m trying to be constructive here and I’m making this observation because, oftentimes, I’ll read through a story, encounter a jumbled clause or a piece of awkward dialogue, and I’ll be wrenched from the story I’m reading.
Keep in mind that it’s the short story‘s job to create and maintain a sufficiently robust storyworld. I say it’s the short story’s job because the division of labour in a published work falls between the writer and the editor. The storyworld those two have constructed needs to be so sufficiently robust that a reader can experience the physicality of the fiction and get to the end of the narrative without remembering that they’ve been experiencing an unreality.
I struggled to achieve the physicality of the fiction with most of these works.
This first example I’ve got here comes from ‘The Masterless Man’ by T C Mill.
Allen Keir knew how very rare he was: an artist whose lifestyle was more interesting than his work.
Not that traffic photography wasn’t a groundbreaking study; a strange and sometimes charming way of looking at something as invisible as the country thoroughfare. Allen wouldn’t have created these sorts of pictures if he didn’t believe in their value to his clients. That was because he couldn’t afford to offer anything but the best, having only clients and not a patron. Allen Keir was a Masterless man.
He lived from show to show, and for the past seven years it had kept him from needing Charity. Not as if many of the Charities would be willing to take him in anyway. Where Masters looked for talent and obedience, Charities would only support those who kept to certain codes of conduct, and there, too, Allen’s lifestyle was rather atypical.
I’m not going to criticise this passage for the unexpected capitalisation in the second and third paragraphs (Masters/Masterless, Charity/Charities). I’m not going to harp on about the intrusiveness of colons and semicolons in genre-fiction. I’m not even going to point out that an expository opening that includes references to traffic photography does not strike me as the most compelling hook I’ve ever encountered in fiction.
I’m just going to say that this didn’t float my boat.
Like Slipping Undercover is juggling two separate genres. In the first instance it’s trying to do something erotic with each story. This is to be expected in erotic fiction. In the second, it’s trying to combine the erotic element with spy fiction – a genre that’s nefariously been associated with jingoism and that sense of ‘otherness’ that is invariably discussed by those dealing with post-colonial literature studies.
In spy fiction the reader can often associate with the main character because that character is confronted by the frightening aspects of a foreign culture. This is a sex scene from ‘Not Exactly Dead’ by Chris Amies.
They kissed again, a collision of mouths, tongues flickering over one another’s. He tried to move away from her mouth and kiss her face, but she brought him back to centre. Then she disengaged from him, took her T-shirt hem in her hands and pulled the shirt off over her head. Her pale-skinned body, firm high breasts bare, came so well to his arms.
“Let’s have sex,” she said.
“Now,” Will said, “you put it like that...”
Emma Kessler laughed and tugged at Will’s shirt. He got the clue and took it off. Standing up, Emma removed the leggings and her lacy, peach-coloured knickers, placing them on a side-table. Her pale body seemed too fragile for this place with its musty curtains and peeling walls. She led him by the hand, a naked nymph at her play, to her bedroom. White curtains at the windows, a low double bed.
She stopped, turned to him. He undid his belt, took off his jeans, eased his underpants over his proud erection. Then he went to his knees on the thin blue carpet. She stepped forward.
“You’ve done this before,” she said in a while, her hands caressing his head, fingers in his hair.
Again, I’m not going to criticise. There’s a dangling modifier in the opening sentence of this passage. There’s such a pervading sense of the mechanical in the descriptions of character movement and interaction that you’d be forgiven for thinking this is robot sex. But the story didn’t excite me.
I’ll say here that this story is one of my favourites in the collection. I thought the overt Britishness was endearing in its reliance on stereotypes. In this scene we have knickers, pale skin and characters called Will and Emma. It’s hard to get more British without having poor orthodontics and a cup of tea. Also, by this point in the story we’ve had references to BRIT awards and later on we get mention of the queen and the rest of the royal family, as well as those quaint folk who make up the British government. It really is rather a spiffing reminder of how those quaint souls in Great England go about their rumpy-pumpy.
However, I digress. There might be something in this collection to titillate the desires of the most ardent reader. This is from ‘Knife, Gun, High Explosive’ by Reina Delacroix. Just read the passage. Don’t bother dwelling on the dialogue.
She ran her hand over his stomach in the same way she had his chest, as if preparing him for something.
And then she leaned farther over and ran her tongue down the front of his half-hard cock to the base, with the same slow pace as she had used the knife earlier to cut cloth. He twitched his hips in reaction, unable to see what she was doing but feeling hotter and harder every second as he stiffened erect.
She stopped and leaned upwards, and he felt her draw the cold back edge of the weapon across his stomach, then hold it flat with a light pressure against his belly.
“Don’t move,” she added.
He froze, desire and fear battling in his head.
“If I wanted you active, I would have left you free to act. Just as if I wanted you to talk, I would have left you free to speak.” Her voice wasn’t harsh or angry, more the long-suffering patient firmness of someone who is, finally, fed up.
“There is one thing you do have to do, though,” she added more softly but no less firmly, and he felt her left hand cupping his balls in a weighing, assessing manner. He strained not to react too strongly in either need or fear, and the strain came out instead in a soft groan that was half-strangled by the gag.
Long story short. I didn’t care for this collection. I thought the editor had done the writers a disservice by not being more scrupulous in the selection and presentation of the stories. However, it could just be that I was in a prickly mood when I read this collection. Other readers, particularly those who savour the tropes of spy fiction, might get more satisfaction.