Six Days of the Condor – Book Review
Six Days of the Condor, written by James Grady and published in 1974, is a classic spy conspiracy thriller. It is probably best known nowadays from the movie adaptation starring Robert Redford, Three Days of the Condor.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
Six Days of the Condor: Title
The title uses two classic title archetypes, the Protagonist, who’s codename is ‘Condor’ and the Defining Moment: the six days that he’s on the run.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
Six Days of the Condor: Logline
In 1970s Washington DC, a CIA analyst comes back from lunch to discover mystery assailants have murdered everyone in his office. Unable to trust anyone within the CIA, he goes on the run and must try to avoid being eliminated before he can unravel the conspiracy behind the attack.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
Six Days of the Condor: Plot Summary
Note: Despite being called six days of the Condor, there are actually eight days mentioned in the narrative: Wednesday to Wednesday. I guess we could regard the first Wednesday as before the Condor ‘takes off’, and the seventh day as a continuation of the sixth, as the hero is up all night.
Ronald Malcolm is a CIA analyst, codenamed Condor, in a low priority backwater of the CIA. His group, ‘Department Seventeen of the CIA’s Information Division’, reads spy novels, looking for innovative ideas, and also for any leaks of information that may compromise current missions.
The work bores Malcolm, as do his colleagues, one of whom has noticed anomalies in the deliveries of novels to the department. Malcolm thinks the discrepancies are just clerical errors.
The next day, Malcolm fetches lunch for the entire group, as it’s raining. While he’s out, a group of men enters the office and kills everyone in it. Malcolm returns to discover the bodies, realises the killers will probably come for him too, grabs a gun and flees. He calls the CIA’s emergency ‘panic line’ and asks what to do. They tell him to hide for a couple of hours and then meet up with a CIA instructor, who he will recognise, who will take him to headquarters for his own protection.
When Malcolm arrives at the rendezvous, there’s another man, Wetherby, with his contact. Malcolm is suspicious, and rightly so—Wetherby is part of the conspiracy. He draws his gun to shoot Malcolm, but misjudges the shot and misses. Malcolm shoots Wetherby in the leg, and then runs. Wetherby kills the witness before passing out from blood loss.
Realising he can’t trust anyone in the CIA, and needing a bolt hole, Malcolm tricks and then threatens a young woman, Wendy Ross, into helping him. Although she doesn’t believe his story to start with, she becomes persuaded and agrees to help him. Later, they become lovers.
The CIA and the conspirators search for Malcolm. The conspirators kill Wetherby to make sure he doesn’t talk. Discovering that Malcolm had been seen with Wendy and determining her address, they send a hit man to eliminate them.
The hitman is about to kill Malcolm when Wendy distracts him long enough for Malcolm to shoot him. Malcolm and Wendy flee Washington DC.
When the CIA finds the dead man in Wendy’s apartment and they identify him, it gives them a break. The man was an associate of Wetherby and a third man, Maronick. They look for Maronick, assuming the three were working together for an unidentified double agent within the CIA. A counter-espionage group in the CIA decides to use Malcolm as an agent provocateur to flush out the conspirators.
Malcolm and Wendy return to Washington to call the panic line again. The CIA reroutes the call to the counter espionage group, who convince Malcolm to call the main CIA line and mention Maronick’s name. They hope that his call will panic the conspirators into a mistake.
Maronick and the head of the conspiracy, Atwood, meet to discuss the phone call and, by pure coincidence, bump into Malcolm and Wendy. A gun battle leaves Wendy critically injured and the three men fleeing the scene, but not before Malcolm notes Atwood’s car licence number.
Thinking that Wendy is dead, Malcolm finds Atwood’s address and goes to his house for revenge…
At the house, [blackout]Atwood captures Malcolm and gives him a truth drug to make him tell him everything he knows about the plot (which is very little). Malcolm sees a piece of paper noting a flight the next day[/blackout].
Atwood [blackout]orders Maronick to kill Malcolm. In the woods, Maronick tells Malcolm what the conspiracy was all about: the group was using the book shipments to Department Seventeen to smuggle heroin into the USA. When Heidigger noticed that not all the book shipments arrived at the department, he had to be eliminated, and as Heidigger had told the entire department of his suspicions, they all had to be killed too. [/blackout]
Maronick [blackout]suspects Atwood will double-cross him, so he plans to disappear. Instead of killing Malcolm, he lets him go, hoping to appease the CIA, so they don’t try to trace him. [/blackout]
Malcolm [blackout]returns to the house and shoots Atwood in both knees. He goes to the airport and when Maronick arrives, kills him too.[/blackout]
Finally, [blackout]with all the conspirators dead or badly injured, Malcolm can return to the CIA, where he learns Wendy isn’t dead.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
Six Days of the Condor: Analysis
Six Days of the Condor has a classic Conspiracy plot (see Spy Novel Plots):
The ‘Conspiracy’ Plot
- Witnesses an Inciting Incident by an unknown group of Conspirators headed by the Antagonist.
- Realises they are not safe from the Conspirators.
- Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or infiltrated by the Conspirators.
- Goes on the run, pursued by both the Conspirators and the authorities.
- Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally, there is a romance subplot with one of the Allies).
- Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Conspirators and the authorities.
- Works out who the Conspirators are.
- Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Conspirators.
- Confronts the Conspirators, unmasks the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) the Conspiracy.
Like Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Malcolm is inordinately lucky. He’s a junior, desk-bound analyst with ‘cursory training’, but wins two shootouts with professional killers and survives a third. Again and again, the conspirators make ‘one small mistake’. Also, like The Thirty-Nine Steps, Six Days of the Condor is a short novel, around 50,000 words.
The main difference is that Grady wrote Six Days of the Condor in a less trusting, more cynical era: in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Richard Hannay knows he can rely on the British Establishment’s help, once he speaks to the right people and persuades them of his innocence and the conspirators’ guilt. In Six Days of the Condor, the CIA manipulates Malcolm for its own ends and he has to deal with the conspiracy himself, only returning to the CIA fold after eliminating all the conspirators.
Grady wrote Six Days of the Condor in a straightforward, detached, non-fiction-like style. For example, the first six pages of the book describe the position of Department Seventeen in the hierarchy of the CIA, the building it occupies, and its procedures for keeping a low profile. This inside-information feel is very attractive to the readers of spy fiction.
The resolution of Six Days of the Condor turns on a massive coincidence – [blackout]Malcolm and the conspirators just happen to walk past each other on the street and recognise each other[/blackout]. This is desperately poor plotting, especially as the novel had just set up a different plan for flushing the conspirators into the open. John Buchan might have been able to rely on implausible events rescuing his hero from ‘scrapes’, but the spy novel had moved on by the time Grady wrote Six Days of the Condor.
I couldn’t help noticing that every time Grady introduces a female character in Six Days of the Condor she’s described primarily in terms of how large her breasts are. I guess we could argue that the Protagonist is a young man and young men are obsessed with women’s breasts, so it’s in character, but still, it got a bit ridiculous.
A Triumph of High Concept
If the plot of Six Days of the Condor relies on luck and coincidence so much, and it’s not particularly well written, why is it notable? I think the answer is: it has a superb high concept:
What if you came back from lunch to discover everyone in your office had been murdered?
This goes to show how vital a powerful concept is to selling a novel, both to publishers and readers. In fact, the concept was so strong that Grady had Six Days of the Condor picked up by Hollywood and in production before the paperback even came out.
I discuss how to develop a high concept in Spy Novel Plot Ideas: How to Discover a Blockbuster
Six Days of the Condor: Alternative Book Cover
Over-literal images of condors flying have dominated the commercial covers for Six Days of the Condor. Instead, I focused on the inciting incident: this is the sight that confronts Malcolm as he returns from his lunch – his colleagues slaughtered.
Six Days of the Condor: My Rating
A great high-concept premise for a novel. It’s a quick, easy read with a nice style and good momentum. It’s well worth an afternoon’s attention.
Three Days of the Condor: the Movie
A film adaptation of the Six Days of the Condor (renamed to Three Days of the Condor) was released in 1976, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. Sidney Pollack directed it.
The movie shares only the inciting incident and the basic ‘conspiracy’ structure with the novel. The reason the assassins attacked the office, for instance, is completely different, and that leads to a different denouement.
It’s a good movie and addresses some problems with the original plot. It’s also even more cynical than the novel.
Shadow of the Condor: the Sequel
A sequel to Six Days of the Condor, called Shadow of the Condor, was published in 1978. Although it was a bestseller, Grady felt Robert Redford’s movie version had upstaged his hero. So, rather than continuing the series, he moved on to other novels.
Want to Read/Watch It?
Here’s the trailer.
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