Masterstroke by John Tiger (Popular Library, 1966)
Masterstroke is the second I Spy novel written by Walter Wager under the pseudonym “John Tiger”. Wagner had a rich career writing mystery and action novels until his death in 2004. One of his books, 58 Minutes, was the basis for the Bruce Willis movie Die Hard 2. There would be a total of 8 I Spy novels from the popular TV series which aired on NBC from 1965 to 1968. Walter Wagner was a skilled novelist who knew how to crank out action. I’ve read and seen countless adaptations of his books. Not a single one was dull.
“Wager was best known as an author of crime and espionage thrillers. His novel Viper Three (Macmillan, 1971) was released as Twilight’s Last Gleaming, with Burt Lancaster and Richard Widmark, in 1977. That same year, his spy novelo Telefon (Macmillan, 1975) was adapted as the same-name movie starring Charles Bronson and Lee Remick. Wager’s airport-based thriller 58 Minutes (1987) became the basis for the 1990 action film Die Hard 2, starring Bruce Willis. Additionally, Wager wrote a number of original novels in the 1960s under the pseudonym “John Tiger” that were based on the TV series I Spy and Mission: Impossible. He also wrote the farce My Side, by King Kong as Told to Walter Wager, published by Macmillan in 1976.”
The premise of I Spy was that Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) were two spies working for the CIA under the guise of tennis bums. Robinson had been a professional tennis player and Scott his trainer. They would travel the world playing the occasional match and training the bored rich while secretly investigating enemy agents. The idea of the show allowed the protagonists the opportunity to venture to a new exotic location every week. It also had a very neat opening score and title card. I can remember watching it for the first time with my parents in the summer, not sure what kind of TV it was until the outline of a tennis player turned into a man holding a gun. It wasn’t a show I would watch every week, but if nothing else interesting was on, I Spy could relive the week’s boredom.
The chemistry between Bill Cosby and Robert Culp built the series. In 1969, Bill Cosby, interviewed about his work on the series, said:”We agreed to make the relationship between the white character, Kelly Robinson, and the black man, Alexander Scott, a beautiful relationship, so that people could see what it would be like if two cats like that could get along.”
Also from Wikipedia:
“Another way in which I Spy was a trailblazer was in its use of exotic international locations in an attempt to emulate the James Bond film series. This was unique for a television show, especially since the series actually filmed its lead actors at locations ranging from Spain to Japan, rather than relying on photography and stock footage. (Compare with the recent series, Alias, which also utilized worldwide settings but rarely filmed outside the Los Angeles region.) Each season the producers would select four or five scenic locations around the world and create stories that took advantage of the local attractions. Episodes were filmed in Athens, Rome, Florence, Madrid, Venice,Tokyo, Hong Kong, Acapulco, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Morocco.”
The series was the basis for the 2002 Eddie Murphy/ Owen Wilson film. Haven’t seen it, but just about everyone tells me it’s not that good of an adaptation. Cosby and Culp were re-united in the 1972 film Hickey And Boggs, which I have viewed (thank to the Internet fairy). The later film is funny, but has a dark side to it. In the Hickey and Boggs, the two play private investigators who are searching for a missing girl. It’s a depressing movie.
It’s obvious the author was having fun writing this novelization from the introduction:
“Everything and everybody in this book is pure fiction. There is no such place as Red China, no such thing as a hydrogen bomb and no U.S. government branch called the Central Intelligence Agency. Every word, character and event herein is pure fantasy-except for those a trifle impure, for which the author apologizes.”
The title refers to the “Masterstroke” the dastardly Red Chinese are planning to pull. China has the H-bomb and is going to use it. It’s up to the swinging duo to stop them before the end of civilization. Of course, this mission is just another one for the guys, who are code-named “Domino” by the CIA. I give the author credit for writing some very good villains in this book: ones who don’t see themselves as the bad guys.
What makes this book different from the TV series is the portrayal of the bad guys. The author has multiple scenes where involving a Red Chinese general fuming over the screw-ups underlings have created all over the planet. The book mentions the massacre in Indonesia which occurred in the early 60’s. One of the largest communist party organizations in the world was decimated when the locals went on a rampage taking out the local communist activists. The general’s rage is understandable when you consider the target of the Indonesian wrath tended to be ethnic Chinese.
There are a number of amusing scenes in the book. One involves Robinson and Scott being picked up in a nuclear submarine.
The best I Spy tribute website is the Complete Illustrated Guide to TV’s I Spy with Robert Culp & Bill Cosby. The amount of care and detail put into this site is astounding. We’re talking some serious fans who have included story boards and scripts.
The only problem is the dialogue. Cosby and Culp improvised a lot of what they said on the TV show, it’s hard to reproduce it in a novelization. Most of the flow just doesn’t carry. Not to mention the dated slang and metaphors. I’m sure Wagner did the best he could. It’s fun read for fans of the series, a trip down memory lane for the rest of us.