Book Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., “The Dagger Affair”
Napoleon nodded. “That’s very good, Illya. You’ll win your stripes yet, at this rate. I’m proud of you.” Illya made a face at him, and the two of them settled down in the car to clean their guns.
Those are pretty much my favourite lines of this book. I burst out laughing when I first read them, partly because they’re so terrible, and partly because they’re so wonderful. The phallic symbolism is so blatant, yet at the same time oblique. How ironic is Napoleon’s dialogue? Exactly what “face” does Illya make…? The endless possibilities fill me with joy, even if I’m not quite sure the effect is intentional.
I’ve read several Muncle novels, and many of them are pretty forgettable, less because they’re hackneyed than because they lack the humour and salaciousness of the show. To put it simply, the bad Muncle novels are bad because they lack style. Conversely, the good novels are good because they embrace those things that make the show fun (or maddening, or ridiculous, or subversive). Courtesy of premier Muncle novel scribe David McDaniel, The Dagger Affair has plenty of cars, violence, gadgets, and at least one truly terrifying death trap/torture scene. In other words, it’s got lots of bodily peril and enough linguistic double entendres to emphasize the fact that within the context of 60s spy-fi, bodily peril is almost always a metaphor for the wanting, getting, and/or repression of sex—old fashioned and slightly deviant versions of the hetero kind plus healthy doses of object fetishism and a dash (sometimes a quite generous dash) of homoeroticism. The opening chapter of The Dagger Affair has Illya being attacked in his bed by “a great crested form with three huge eyes and insect-like antennae,” while for Napoleon, “temptation came up behind him, in the shape of a slender girl in a sleek silver Jag.” In this book, even simple stuff like meeting someone at the airport becomes suffused with sexual tension: “She said, ‘Welcome to San Fransisco, Mr. Solo,’ in such a way that Napoleon found himself wanting to go out and come in a few more times—and then stay for several months.”
For all the chauvinism on display in lines like that, The Dagger Affair, like The Man from Uncle in general, also creates a queer (or at least highly queer-able) space, inasmuch as Napoleon and Illya, like all spy-fi protagonists, operate in a realm outside normal human reality and social mores. While I can’t ignore, even for a moment, the obvious fact that female characters very rarely get to share in that privilege, the possibility is still there. The Dagger Affair has Napoleon doing plenty of leering, but the recipients of his gaze are less likely to be damsels in distress as fast, adventurous women willing to race him in Silver Jaguars (and in the process, “tempt him from behind”). Plus, at least one “normal” girl does discover a sense of empowerment (for lack of a better word) by lending Napoleon and Illya an important helping hand. The girl in question may not be a full-fledged agent, but at least she’s not defined by falling in love or sleeping with either of the big strong male leads. Which is really nothing to sneeze at; even now, action-adventure genres seem to have an inordinate amount of trouble envisioning female characters with narrative arcs that don’t revolve around love or sex.
The actual plot of The Dagger Affair is pretty standard (a mentally unhinged scientist has invented a device capable of destroying all life on earth!). But it’s spiced up with a good twist, as Napoleon and Illya are forced to team-up with their arch enemies at THRUSH. (It’s the Thrushies who devise the terrifying death trap I mentioned, which involves handcuffs and a long, hilly cable car track). For those interested in fleshing out Muncle’s fantasy world, the teamup with THRUSH also provides some interesting backstory. We learn, for instance, that THRUSH dates to the turn of the century, and that its initials stand for “The Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.” It’s details like this that really make me wish the show had done more to tease out the meaning and function of THRUSH. They’re usually presented as a kind of supervillain mafia, united for the sake of money and individual power. But giving them an ideology and a history has the potential to create a much more complex political allegory.
All in all, The Dagger Affair does what I feel like a good book-based-on-a-TV-show should do: it captures the original show’s spirit, while fleshing out its characters and its world. When it’s awful, it’s only as awful as its source material. Ultimately, it’s a lot like Napoleon and Illya: for all its flaws (I’m looking at you, glorified sexism and violence!), it’s also well-spoken and well-dressed, with just enough subversive charm to make you smile.
The Dagger Affair
by David McDaniel
Ace Books, 1965
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