The Edgar Awards Revisited: Hopscotch by Brian Garfield (Best Novel; 1976)

Join Scott Adlerberg as he revisits Hopscotch, 1976's Best Novel.

Brian Garfield had written over 50 books by the time Hopscotch, the 1976 Edgar winner for Best Novel, was published. Born in New York City in 1939, Garfield started writing young, and his first book came out when he was eighteen. Throughout the 1960s, he wrote mainly westerns, churning out three or four novels per year under different pseudonyms. In 1972, he wrote the crime novel Death Wish, featuring the vigilante character Paul Benjamin, and in 1974, when Michael Winner adapted the book into a controversial movie starring Charles Bronson, Garfield became known to people, readers, and filmgoers alike, outside genre circles. Never mind that the movie, which embraces vigilantism, has a tone quite different than Garfield’s novel.

Death Wish Book Versus Movie
Read More: Death Wish—Book versus Film

Death Wish takes place in a crime-ridden New York City, and Garfield’s 1975 sequel, Death Sentence in a similarly violent Chicago. But as Garfield had shown when he switched from western stories to contemporary urban dramas, he was nothing if not protean. With Hopscotch, also from 1975, he switched gears again, turning to an espionage thriller.  The novel covers a lot of territory, moving from France to the United States and then back through several European cities, but it runs a mere two-hundred-plus pagesits economy and unrelenting speed a credit to the years Garfield had spent producing all that fiction, sharpening his narrative skills.

Hopscotch tells the story of Miles Kendig, once a top tier CIA field agent. When introduced, he’s playing poker in a secret gambling den in France, and though he wins a lot of money, he experiences neither excitement nor joy. No longer with the CIA, he’s a man bored with life, looking for something that can engage him. The activities he has tried—motor racing, skiing, flying—have done nothing for him, and neither have sports, where the way to improve at a particular activity is to do the same thing every time. Still, for all his unhappiness, Kendig knows himself; he understands where his disenchantment comes from.

He thought part of it was the fact that there was no human antagonist. There was no “other side” with which to compete. He had a quarter century of playing the running-dog game and it had educated his palate to its own flavor; his appetite had been trained to crave human conflict: the chess game of reality with stakes that weren’t tokens, rules that weren’t artificial.

In his current state, Kendig resents the CIA. Badly wounded on his last field mission, his cover blown, he loathed the desk job they gave him after he convalesced. He asked for reinstatement in the field, but the Agency called him “too old and too hot.” With no place for him, Langley offered him a desk at the NSA, but he rejected that outright, considering it a “sop,” nothing more than a file clerk’s position. The end result: the Agency gives Kendig early retirement, but not before he uses his insider access to destroy his company file. No photographs of him exist, and few people in the Agency even know what he looks like anymore. Kendig disappears into the wind, and when he resurfaces sometime later, it is to torment the Agency that discarded him.

Kendig begins to write a memoir that will reveal the deepest, darkest secrets he has learned about the CIA during his career. The secrets include stuff he knows about nasty things done around the world by the Soviet spy agency, the KGB.  Neither the CIA nor the KGB can tolerate letting this book get published, so Kendig lays down a challenge to both agencies.  He will send one chapter to different publishers around the world until either spy agency catches him or the entire book is mailed out.

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On a phone call with a former CIA colleague, Kendig says that his motivation is revenge, a desire to get even with the people who threw him out. But Cutter, the ex-colleague, does not believe it.  He knows Kendig, and he comprehends that what Kendig wants most of all is to play a game, create a hunt. Back in action, with the stakes life and death, Kendig will love the international cat and mouse. He will revive himself from the zombiehood in which he’s been living since his forced retirement. Without announcing itself as such, Hopscotch becomes a spy novel about one man’s personal reinvigoration.

Just as he had tapped into the Seventies-era zeitgeist concerning urban crime and the fear it was provoking among city dwellers, so did Brian Garfield connect to the mood of the time regarding the CIA. This was the decade that saw the creation of the Church Committee, a Senate body put together to investigate, as the committee’s full title stated, “Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.” The committee formed in 1975, but by the early Seventies, in the U.S. press, revelations had come out about the dirty work the CIA had conducted, both abroad and at home, for years. Coups against foreign governments, assassinations of foreign leaders, spying on U.S. civilians, the opening and reading of U.S. Postal Service mail—these are among the activities that both the press and the Church Committee revealed. The CIA’s image as a dark organization, with unlimited reach and no checks on its power, reached an apex during this time.  Under the Cold War mentality, the KGB had been seen as the evil intelligence force in the world, but now it became clear, in terms of sheer morality, that not much separated the KGB from the CIA. Garfield plays with this idea fully, giving us snippets of the secrets Kendig is supposed to possess:

Ross slapped the typed pages on his lap. “But this stuff—it’s so wild. Who’d believe it?” He turned a page and read aloud, a sarcastic tone: “What was Richard Nixon doing in Dallas on the day John Kennedy was assassinated there?…. How many tons of counterfeit North Vietnamese currency has Air America dropped on North Vietnam since the truce was signed… And the bit—I can’t find it now—the bit about the assassination of Duvalier.”   “Page eight,” Cutter murmured.   It flustered Ross but he went on indignantly: “Or this thing about the Soviets assassinating Nasser with a spray of prussic acid.  I mean how wild can you get?”

How wild indeed? It seems made up to the young CIA man, Ross. But then his superior sets him straight:

“That’s the thing. It’s all true, you know. And Kendig will cite chapter and verse.”

The game Kendig puts in gear proceeds in sections that alternate focus: one chapter follows Kendig, one his pursuers. For Kendig, of course, the key during the hunt is to stay one step ahead all the time, and Garfield writes these parts with an emphasis on process. He’ll describe the actions Kendig is taking to plan an escape from what he expects will be a tight spot, and the reader doesn’t know what exactly each of his preparations is for until that flight occurs. Through the action itself, we see why Kendig took the specific steps he did, and we appreciate his ingenuity while in the midst of the scene’s suspense. It’s a method Garfield excels at; he never stops the narrative’s forward momentum to drop information on the reader or to explain why a character is doing something. With utter clarity, he gets all his necessary details in on the fly.

He is also slyly amusing about writing itself. Adroit in spycraft, possessed of remarkable talents in his chosen field, Kendig is just another amateur when it comes to writing. Even having a great story to tell is no guarantee you have the discipline and skill to tell that story well.

Writing the book was harder than he had dreamed it could be… After the first two days’ typing—sixteen pages rough—most of the fun drained out of it and it became sheer drudgery and he found any excuse to avoid the typewriter for five minutes or two hours.

Any writer can relate to what Kendig is going through. But over time, the experience of writing changes for Kendig.  While the game itself, what happens during the course of the game, helps transform him as a person, writing has its impact on him, too, and Garfield is superb at explaining how a work can take its creator over:

The book was a brusque account of facts assembled in chains. It struck him now for the first time that what he was writing was essentially a moral outcry and that impressed him as a curious thing because he hadn’t had that in mind. Yet it was unquestionably an outraged narrative despite its matter of fact tone. When he made this discovery it caused him to realize that he must add something to the book that he had not intended including: there had to be a memoir, a self-history (however brief) to establish his bona-fides—not his credentials or sources but his motives.   The book had become more than a gambit; it had been born of him and now claimed its own existence. In no way did that negate the game itself; but he saw that in order to maintain the illusion of freedom he had to complete the book not as a means but as an end. Otherwise it was only a sham—toy money, counters on a game board. It had earned for itself the right to be much more than that; and if he failed in this new responsibility it made the game meaningless.

Indicative of the times, Hopscotch was not the only espionage thriller nominated for the Best Novel Edgar in 1976. So were Gerald Seymour’s Belfast-set Harry’s Game and Marvin Albert’s The Gargoyle Conspiracy, about a Libyan sponsored terrorist intent on killing the American Secretary of State. Ross Thomas had a political thriller nominated, The Money Harvest, and the other book nominated was a traditional mystery that takes place in small-town Massachusetts, Operation Alcestis, by Maggie Rennert. While Albert and Rennert are little known today, not so for crime and spy fiction readers with the prolific Seymour and Thomas, whose books are still easy to find.

Hopscotch was Brian Garfield’s first Edgar nomination but not his last. In 1980, British director Ronald Neame made a film adaptation of the book, and Garfield co-wrote the script with Bryan Forbes. Walter Matthau stars as Kendig, and while the movie retains the book’s basic plot, it has a much more comedic tone than the novel. It adds a love interest for Kendig, played by Glenda Jackson, and Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, and Herbert Lom—as the KGB agent, Yaskov—round out an entertaining cast. Garfield was an Edgar finalist in the Best Screenplay Category, and he has expressed satisfaction with the film, saying that everyone was on their game when making it. Having seen it myself, I agree. Hopscotch is a rare example of a good book that the author had a substantial hand in turning into a good movie.

Notes from the 1976 Edgar Awards:

  • Screenwriters David Rayfiel and Lorenzo Semple Jr. won Best Motion Picture for their classic film Three Days of the Condor.
  • A Time to Die by Tom Wicker beat out Gene Miller’s Invitation to a Lynching and Isser Harel’s The House on Garibaldi Street to take home the award for Best Fact Crime.
  • Rex Burns won Best First Novel for The Alvarez Journal. Other nominees included Harmattan by Thomas Klop, Paperback Thriller by Lynn Meyer, The Devalino Caper A.J. Russell, and Waltz Across Texas by Max Crawford.
  • “No Immunity for Murder,” an episode from CBS’s Kojak won Best Episode in a TV Series.
  • “The Jail” by Jesse Hill Ford won Best Short Story, originally appearing in Playboy in March 1995. The other nominees were Joyce Harrington for “Night Crawlers,” Dorothy Salisbury Davis for “Old Friends,” Ruth Rendell for “The Fall of the Coin,” and Jack Ritchie for “The Many-Flavored Crime.”
  • Two Special Edgars were given out. First, Jorge Luis Borges received one for his distinguished contribution to the mystery genre. Donald J. Sobol was the second recipient, and he was recognized for his Encyclopedia Brown books. 
  • Graham Greene served as the Grand Master.
  • There were two recipients of the Raven Award. First, Eddie Lawrence won for Reader of the Year. Leo Margolies, the editor of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, won the second.

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Join us again next Friday when New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan stops by to review Robert B. Parker’s Promised Land, the 1977 Best Novel winner. See you then!


A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.

Comments

  1. Matt Paust

    I got on a Garfield kick back in the late ’70s-early ’80s. Don’t recall which books I read, but I remember an excellent western among them. Not sure if I read Hopscotch, but I enjoyed the movie, especially Mathau. Maybe Death Wish, altho the movie sticks in my memory more prominently (how could it not?). Your review has me thinking it’s time to revisit Mr. Garfield.

  2. Glen Davis

    It’s a shame that Albert isn’t better known. He wrote a lot of good stuff.

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