The practice of collecting information about adversaries through secret and extralegal means is as old as civilization itself. References to this pursuit, variously known as spying or espionage, date from the time of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses the Great, who reigned during the thirteenth century b.c.e. The books of the Old Testament are replete with tales of spies, and other such tales may be found in the chronicles of ancient China, Persia, and Greece. Despite the long history of espionage, no writer made fictional use of the subject until the early nineteenth century, and the popular genre of the modern spy novel dates from much later—the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.
The spy novel is primarily an English-language genre, and most of its practitioners have been British. However, it is a curiosity of literary history that the first novel to deal with spying was actually written by an American, James Fenimore Cooper. Nevertheless, although there have been many American spy novelists since Cooper’s time, few of them have enjoyed the popularity and critical acclaim accorded their British counterparts.
Spy fiction has developed over the years in response to wars, anticipation of wars, and other stressful and even traumatic international events. Cooper set his novel The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821) during the American Revolution. Although he succeeded in describing the ambiguous moral terrain—the “neutral ground”—in which spies operated during that conflict, his work is virtually unreadable by twenty-first century standards. Cooper subsequently turned to novels about the American frontier in his Leatherstocking tales, laying the groundwork for what would become another popular genre, the Western.