Adventure fiction is vigorously alive. Although virtually ignored by critics outside specialist newsletters, the genre has long been a dominant force both in bookstores and in Hollywood. Such adventure films as Die Hard, Jaws, and the Indiana Jones epics draw millions of viewers. Tom Clancy’s technological thrillers and Robert Ludlum’s volumes of struggle and terror reach best-seller lists with predictable regularity. And in bookstores of any size, lines of paperback adventure novels, glowing with ferocity, pack the shelves.

Whether movie or novel, each adventure story contrives, in its own way, to reflect the anxieties of our times and the preoccupations of our culture. On page and screen certain subjects are mercilessly reiterated: the dangerous cities. Cold War teeterings at the brink of thermonuclear war, ethnic violence, drug violence, gun violence, the terrorist assault, and theft of the singular technological secret that will expose the nation to humiliating defeat. Central to the fiction are problems of evil, ethical conduct, and moral obligation. Coupled with these is an obsessive interest in high technology and weapons, spilling difficult acronyms across the page. And there is, as well, a decided emphasis on characters accomplished in violence, who deal directly and savagely with contemporary problems.

The narrative action may be driven by the poisoned subtleties of the Cold War or by criminal conspiracies nested at the heart of society. Or, perhaps, the evil is a devastating natural force compounded by human greed and shortsightedness. Whatever the darkness at the core, the adventure novel presses grimly toward its direct confrontation. Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws is a prime case in point. As in other adventure stories by Benchley, the subject is the intrusion of evil into paradise and the consequences of denying the presence of that evil. In Jaws, that evil is as concentrated as a boil. But commercial interests deny the need for action, and delay permits the evil to ravage unchecked. A similar situation develops in Benchley’s The Deep (1976). Honeymooners skin-diving in Bermuda discover sunken gold, and when they secretly attempt to secure the treasure they are set upon by hijackers. Secrecy compounds their problems, and only after much anguish do they earn a bitter victory. Similarly, in The Island (1979) there lurks a secret colony of pirates who have ravaged the Bahamas for generations. Scores of ships have simply vanished. As in Jaws, no one will acknowledge the obvious, and once again delay intensifies the problem. When eventually the pirates are rooted out, the personal cost is agonizing.

The novels of Robert Ludlum also address the excision of evil, although it is evil less apparent than in Benchley’s work. The Ludlum novels turn on the painful, slow exposure of concealed conspiracy. This is a world of contemporary problems and the terrible silent running of the machinery of the dark: the coordination of drug routes, the channeling of arms to terrorists, the struggles for power within the intelligence community, the corrosion of racial prejudice in high government circles, the evasion of accountability. Ludlum’s characters bring to these matters intelligence and the habit of abstract thought. When they experience violence, they are astonished and shockingly vulnerable. And violence comes often, the more horrifying because of Ludlum’s exact observation of its physical consequences. Unlike the facile gunmen of motion picture and paperback, who kill and are not changed, Ludlum’s people are permanently marred by their confrontation with evil, whether it appears as direct violence or the equally dark faces of corruption and intellectual arrogance. Ludlum has remarked that “you write from a point of view of something that disturbs or outrages you. And that’s what I do. I admit to being outraged—mostly by the abuse of power by fanatics. The extremes bother me, right or left. . . . I disapprove of violence, that’s why I show pain for what it is. When my characters get hit, they hurt.”

His 1973 novel The Matlock Paper involves a university professor in the gradual exposure of a secret organization that has turned to crime for extraordinary reasons. The action of The Chancellor Manuscript (1977) twists among national intelligence agencies during a search for J. Edgar Hoover’s missing personal files, and, in doing so, exposes the frightful corruption created by the abuse of power. Corruption as a consequence of power also drives The Icarus Agenda (1988), an examination of illicit armament sales and Mideastern terrorism. From deep concealment, a small group toys with the destiny of bitter Arab states. The situation is handled by Ludlum with customary intelligence. At the novel’s close, the blunt-spoken President of the United States remarks:

I don’t give a damn how pristine [the prime conspirator’s] motives were; he forgot a lesson of history that he above all men should have remembered. Whenever a select group of benevolent elitists consider themselves above the will of the people and proceed to manipulate that will in the dark, without accountability, they’ve set in motion a hell of a dangerous machine. Because all it takes is one or two of these superior beings with very different, unpristine ideas to convince the others or replace the others, and a republic is down the drain.

Preservation of the Republic is a central concern of nearly all recent adventure fiction. Accepting the postulate that the country is continuously under attack within and without, this genre has reflected nearly every major subject of national concern and national debate. Each Cold War crisis, each technological advance or threat, from hostage taking to the Star Wars initiative, has triggered a fresh burst of novels.

Most of these novels are less rigorously realistic than Ludlum’s work. Most routinely deal in extreme positions. They derive considerable emotional effect from the suspicions and unrelieved fears of the Cold War years. National security, they warn, is continually at risk. These fears achieve unsettling reality in stories that describe how the Russians hurry to prepare a nuclear strike when, for various glibly explained reasons, the United States is vulnerable. Or how the United States and Russia plunge toward a confrontation that will inevitably escalate to thermonuclear exchange.

Common to this novel form is the assumption that the United States and Russia are so evenly matched technologically that a single new development will thrust one side or the other to an inferior military posture, as in Craig Thomas’s Foxfire (1977). The novel describes how the United States steals a Russian high-tech fighter so advanced that it is equipped with thought-controlled armament. In the sequel, Foxfire Down (1983), the crippled fighter, grounded in neutral territory, must be salvaged before the Soviets arrive. Both novels are dense with details of mission planning, aerial combat, and the performance of aircraft and weapons, either extrapolated or imagined. A reversal of the idea appears in Dale Brown’s Day of the Cheeta (1989), when Russia steals a high-tech fighter from the United States. A similar situation occurs in his Flight of the Old Dog (1987), when Russia steals Star Wars technology and prepares to test it at a remote site. Since preservation of that technology is absolutely vital to national security, the United States must mount a suicide mission to destroy the site. The immediacy of the action, the continuous flow of apparent insider information, glosses over the unreal premise and the improbable decisions initiating the action.

Two later versions of Cold War fiction have appeared in the specialized world of original paperback series novels. The first variation features small combat squads fighting subversion in contemporary settings; the second revives the 1950’s science fiction nightmare of nuclear doom, placing the story amid America’s ruins in a post-atomic war world.

Jerry Ahern’s The Survivalist series (which began in 1981 and continues to the present) evokes a glum picture of violence, heroism, social and political fragmentation, and desperate efforts to hold together the final few frail threads of civilization. The Guardians, a series by Richard Austin, also begins with America wrecked. Through the rubble a hardboiled four-man survival team searches for “The Blueprint for Renewal,” a secret plan for reviving the country. The current Domestic Warrior series by Ryder Stacy is set one hundred years in the future with the United States having been occupied by the Red Army and the KGB, while a tiny resistance movement fights underground.

Less given to pessimistic futures, and mildly more credible, are recent novels of small-squad military action. These are also unremittingly, brutally violent. The combat is covert, the time the present, the scene most often the Third World. Members of these fighting teams, Able Squad and The Hard Corps, among others, appear mildly invulnerable. Their opponents are not, and die graphically and in huge numbers. Communist fanatics and terrorists to a man. The salient operating characteristics of each weapon used is lovingly cited. The prose tone is harsh, contemptuous, and well informed of death in its more disagreeable forms.

Contemporary adventure fiction has fervently embraced the practice of alternating bursts of action with bursts of technical and insider information. This emphasis on detail, particularly technical detail, is not merely to enhance the reality of the narrative, for the seeming precision of this information and its aura of exact knowledge is meant to impose a measure of order upon the irrationalities and confusions of the reader’s present. Indeed, contemporary adventure fiction employs technical description as an incantation against the instabilities of our current culture.

The ultimate refinement of this method is found not in the paperback adventure fiction but in the novels of Tom Clancy. Characteristically, his work depicts the complex reality of the technical system and its impact on the human world. That world is, itself, subject to social, psychological, and emotional protocols (including those laws by which human activity is organized and directed). The world of technical systems is equally subject to rigorous laws, and functions in parallel with the human world; but the reality of the physical conditions within an operating system—the pulses and transients and deep harmonies of the coupled systems—remains nearly always unseen. By demonstrating that invisible interaction, Clancy discloses an additional level of reality, deepening and enriching the novel’s effect.

Each of his novels gives an insider’s view of contemporary problems and the social mechanisms designed to deal with them. Each establishes a central situation to be solved by planning and use of specific technology within realistic constraints of time, funding, and human ability. His pages brim with devices of advanced technology, described in the linguistic shorthand of the insider. His Patriot Games (1987) is a prime example:

On opening the clipboard he revealed a typewriter-style keyboard and a yellow Liquid Crystal Diode display. Outwardly it looked like an expensive clipboard, about an inch thick and bound in leather. “It’s a Cambridge Datamaster Model-C Field Computer. A friend of mine makes them. It has an MC-68000 microprocessor and two megabytes of bubble memory . . . [meaning] that the memory stores up to two million characters—enough for a whole book—and since it uses bubble memory, you don’t lose the information when you switch it off.”

In Patriot Games a radical IRA splinter group targets a CIA analyst for assassination. The planning, logistical movement, technical equipment, and emotional stress of both sides climax in a fury of realistic suspense. The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) involves a top American spy in the Kremlin who has secured information on Russian defenses against Star Wars technology. As the KGB closes in on the cardinal, a rescue effort is mounted, again described with rich precision of detail. In the 1989 novel Clear and Present Danger, Colombian drug lords have murdered three U.S. officials and a covert team of two hundred men is organized to plunge into the jungles and perform an interdicting strike.

The genre’s emphasis on detail, however, is not limited to the technological world. At times the subject is the intricate inner workings of powerful organizations, clandestine or otherwise, such as the Mafia. Recognition of the Mafia as an internal Empire of Evil began with The Godfather, Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel of social and moral corruption. That same year saw publication of War Against the Mafia, the first volume of The Executioner series by Don Pendleton. Here Vietnam veteran Mack Bolan returns from war to find that the Mafia has destroyed his family. Bolan begins a one-man battle of vengeance. For 12 years and nearly forty paperback books, he has used military hardware and military tactics against the Mafia leaders and gunmen, its hidden fortresses and pleasure palaces. One of the most violent and successful of adventure paperback series, it continues today. Variations followed as variations will in the series book trade. Not long after the first Bolan adventure came Stuart Jason’s series, The Butcher. The hero, a Mafia hit man, quits the organization (which promptly offers a huge reward for his death) and becomes a special undercover agent for the FBI. Thereafter he battles not only the Mafia but terrorists and others who would subjugate the world, a crescendo of menaces narrated in plain brown prose.

Although Mafia and Cold War themes continue to fill series books, repetition has slowly dulled their edge. Around 1980 a new enemy, terrorism, flashed to prominence. Even The Executioner, after nearly forty novels and a dozen years, turned from slaughtering the Mafia to leading a covert national security force. As in volume 39, The New War, his mission is to attack terrorism wherever it appears:

The crazed animals called terrorists would like us to believe they are motivated by a higher purpose—religious fervor, patriotism, concern for the oppressed, the redressing of old wrongs done to colonial peoples. But in fact they are no more than common criminals, motivated by a madness for power, for self-aggrandizement. They’re ruthless. And dangerous . . . like mad dogs they must be eliminated to protect the rest of the world.

While the subject matter of a Tom Clancy novel is much the same as that of the action adventure series, significant differences exist in levels of detail and development of situation and character. In part those differences result from the concentration that is required in paperback adventure fiction, which is shorter, offers a simplified reality, and pares away nearly all else but the action line. As a result, the principal characters of a paperback series tend to be sketched in powerfully simple lines. If not psychologically complex, they are sympathetic and often admirable. Through the shadow world of clandestine operations, they move confidently—Vietnam veterans, assassins, combat professionals. Above all, they are patriots, although they do not often speak of that. They are moral figures in an immoral world whose solid sense of obligation to their country sustains them as they struggle to uphold standards of decency and honor. Their fervor is disturbed by no concern that the means, often bloody and illegal, may contaminate their desired ends.

These characters practice violence because direct action seems the only solution for present ills. As the novels earnestly reiterate, contemporary society is unstable and corrupt. Freedom and democratic processes have been compromised away by lawyers, politicians, inept national leaders, and special-interest groups. The organizations set up to administer justice and protect the citizen no longer function. National collapse can be staved off only by dedicated men willing to fight for their beliefs, no matter what the personal cost.

For these reasons, principal characters of this genre tend to address similar problems in a similar way. They strike directly at a situation, whether crime in the street or corruption in high office. They bring blood justice for the public good. Their victims are unlamented. Mark Hardin, The Penetrator (fifty books by Lionel Derrick), is part Cheyenne and a Vietnam veteran who has made it his mission to eradicate evil. Lone Wolf, Jack Sullivan, The Specialist (ten or more novels by John Cutter), uses his finely honed combat skills to fight terrorists, criminal masterminds, and the Mafia. The Death Merchant, by Joseph Rosenberger, features Richard Camillion, a murderer for hire. Between murders, he immerses himself in classical music and difficult books, one of the few series characters to react to anything more cultural than ballistics tables.

In part, these deadly heroes sprang from the staggering success during the early 1960’s of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. These sparked a fad for suave secret agents, who enjoyed ostentatious living, lovely ladies, and extraordinary adventures. The action was seasoned by gadgets and bizarre opponents, that now familiar mixture. Of all Bond’s rivals, the most successful has been Nick Carter of The Killmaster series. Numbering nearly two hundred and fifty volumes, these describe the violent adventures of N3, an American espionage agent who chops down fanatics with facile zeal in the interests of world peace. A far colder world is presented in Donald Hamilton’s series about secret agent Matt Helm. Like Bond, Helm is employed by a clandestine government organization created to handle severe threats to national security. Helm is empowered to assassinate when necessary. He does so frequently, with dour professionalism. The novels, spare and hardboiled, are touched by a kind of resigned disillusionment.

The device of a secret agency protecting America’s security through judicious assassination swiftly embedded itself as a fictional convention. Of the many novels built around the secret agency and its lethal personnel, The Destroyer series has been one of the most successful. Certainly it is one of the oddest. Begun in 1963 (but remaining unpublished until 1971), the series was the creation of Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. Quirky, opinionated, an astonishing mixture of comedy, social satire, fantasy, and explicit violence, the series is blithely disrespectful of authority in all forms and causes of all types. The series’ lead characters, Remo Williams and Chiun, master of the art of sinanju, are professional assassins. With sleek efficiency, they put to death astonishing numbers of simplistic figures who personify contemporary problems, again illustrating the lure of the direct solution.

If these contemporary adventure stories reflect anything, they reflect the society in which they were created and in which they are consumed. Perhaps they simplify and distort or overdramatize, but invariably the fiction conveys a message from the deep. It speaks of anger and dismay, impatience at the confusion of things, and the desire for immediate solutions to the problems of the turbulent present. It speaks of success and bravery, hails the wonders of technology, and honors skill and intelligence and men who live for principle. For all its easy violence, adventure fiction honors life.