The Espionage Novel Analysis

Early classics

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The first two decades of the twentieth century saw the appearance of half a dozen significant espionage novels of varying literary worth. The first is Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), set on the frontier of British India. The novel deals in part with the Great Game, the struggle between the British and Russian empires for control of Central Asia. The novel’s engaging Anglo-Indian protagonist Kimball “Kim” O’Hara is an orphan who becomes involved in several aspects of the Great Game. Kim’s growth to adulthood allows Kipling, who was born on the subcontinent, to explore a colorful and engaging cross-section of contemporary Indian society.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the prospect of war involving two or more of the great European powers fueled a popular genre known as the future war novel. Most examples of the genre have long since been forgotten. However, one—The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service (1903)—is regarded as a classic of both espionage and sailing fiction. Written by Erskine Childers, the novel is set in the shallow waters off the North Sea coast of Germany and concerns the discovery by two Englishmen, Davies and Carruthers, that the Germans are preparing for a seaborne invasion of Great Britain.

Although Childers intended a serious warning about Britain’s vulnerability, he wrote the novel as if it were an adventure, stressing action over character. Polish-born English...

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Realism and fantasy

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Later espionage writers emulated Buchan’s fast pacing and suspenseful plotting, but most writers rejected his romantic outlook, conservative political attitudes, and unquestioning patriotism. Fellow British writers Greene and Eric Ambler completed the break with the romantic espionage novel, although they retained an interest in international intrigue that had been a hallmark of the future war novelists. The two also shared a more liberal political outlook than their predecessors, as well as deep suspicions of the machinations of powerful governments and what would later be commonly referred to as multinational corporations.

Greene portrayed a Europe sliding toward disaster in his first successful novel, Stamboul Train: An Entertainment (1932; also known as Orient Express: An Entertainment, 1933). He would continue to set most of his novels abroad, focusing on the world’s trouble spots and dealing with geopolitical crises with remarkable prescience. Greene first dealt directly with espionage in The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment (1943), which describes the dilemma of an innocent man who inadvertently involves himself in a spy ring. He returned to the theme of espionage with Our Man in Havana: An Entertainment (1958), a farcical take on spying in Cuba before the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, but reserved his fullest treatment for The Human Factor (1978), his last major novel. The Human Factor...

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The golden age and after

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, a series of sensational disclosures rocked the British espionage establishment and fueled public cynicism about the country’s upper-class civil servants. The disclosures involved diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean and highly placed intelligence officer Harold “Kim” Philby, all of whom were exposed as agents working for the Soviet Union. Apparently tipped off by Philby that they were about to be interrogated, Burgess and Maclean defected to the Soviet Union in 1951; Philby himself followed in 1963. Nicknamed Kim for the title character of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Philby had been Graham Greene’s superior in British intelligence. His duplicitous actions and those of his fellow spies inspired a number of novelists and gave rise to a two-decade-long golden age of espionage fiction.

John le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead (1960; also known as The Deadly Affair), introduced a resolutely unromantic but highly competent protagonist, George Smiley. The novel attracted little attention, but with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), in which Smiley plays a minor role, le Carré produced a best seller that was also a critical success. The novel dramatizes the agonizing situation of British agent Alec Leamas, who has been tricked into protecting a ruthless East German intelligence officer (and British mole) while sending the mole’s upright colleague to his death.

Although many critics rate The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as the best espionage novel, others rate Tinker, Tailor,...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ambrosetti, Ronald J. Eric Ambler. New York: Twayne, 1994. Comprehensive and sympathetic treatment of Ambler’s writings. Includes a chronology and primary and secondary bibliographies.

Aronoff, Myron J. The Spy Novels of John le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Exhaustive analysis arguing that le Carré treats espionage as a metaphor for politics. Includes thumbnail biographies of le Carré’s characters, detailed notes, and excellent primary and secondary bibliographies.

Bergonzi, Bernard. A Study in Greene: Graham Greene and the Art of the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Analysis by a major critic arguing that Greene’s later novels, including The Human Factor, are examples of good storytelling but inferior to his earlier works. Rejects efforts by recent biographers to interpret Greene’s writings through the details of his life.

Hepburn, Allan. Intrigue: Espionage and Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. Consideration of the spy novel as developed by genre writers and adapted by such noted mainstream novelists as Elizabeth Bowen and John Banville. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Hitz, Frederick Porter. The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage. New York: Alfred...

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