Spy Novels Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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.

Two Forgotten Pioneers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The earliest British spy novels were written by two highly prolific authors who both wrote in a variety of genres—William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim. Their earliest works appeared during a period in which the great European powers—France, Great Britain, Russia, and Germany—seemed to be preparing for war. A popular genre of the period, the “future war novel” or “war prophecy novel,” grew out of the international tensions of that period. The earliest such work was General Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking,” an 1871 story describing the imaginary conquest of Great Britain by Germany.

Both Le Queux and Oppenheim began writing their war prophecy novels during the last decade of the nineteenth century, the former with The Great War In England in 1897 (1894) and the latter with The Mysterious Mr. Sabin (1898). Both authors also drew upon two other popular genres of their time—the adventure novel, as it had been developed by Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard, and the crime story and novel, as developed by Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle. Successive generations of spy novelists would combine elements of these three genres in varying proportions, and many would also write about international crime and political intrigue, including the ultimate political act of assassination.

In addition to dealing with the threat of war, The Mysterious Mr. Sabin also features aspects of spying, making it Oppenheim’s first foray into the genre. Le Queux’s first spy novel is usually regarded to have been The Day of Temptation (1899). Neither Oppenheim nor Le Roux had literary pretensions, and only one of their many works—Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation (1920)—has survived the test of time. Set in East Africa and England during World War I, The Great Impersonation revolves around what was by then a tired and dated theme—a German plan for the conquest of Europe. However, it is notable for its ingenious plot. Le Queux, Oppenheim, and their imitators churned out a seemingly endless parade of ephemeral works. Long before their deaths, however, more skillful writers had begun to extend the artistic possibilities of spy fiction, using the subject as an opportunity to explore themes of loyalty, deceit, and betrayal in a gripping manner.

The Spy Novel Gains Stature

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Rudyard Kipling was born and raised in British India, a fact reflected in his most important novel, Kim (1901). That book follows the adventures of young Kimball (Kim) O’Hara, an orphan who finds himself involved in the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. Known as the “Great Game,” that rivalry had occupied much of the energy and resources of the two nations since early in the nineteenth century. Although espionage is one of Kim’s main themes, it is developed through the story of its protagonist’s gradual recognition of his Anglo-Indian heritage and his growth to maturity. Kim may be enjoyed for its headlong plot, its generous outlook, and its unparalleled portrait of everyday Indian life, but it also offers a firsthand glimpse into the attitudes of the British Empire’s rulers during a crucial period of imperial intrigue.

In contrast to Kipling, Erskine Childers wrote only one work of fiction, The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service (1903). This exciting work revolves around the voyages of the Dulcibella in the shallow waters and low-lying Frisian Islands of the North Sea off the coast of Germany. The tiny craft belongs to Arthur Davies, who has invited an old university chum and Foreign Office bureaucrat named Carruthers to sail with him. Together the two discover German preparations for a seaborne invasion of England. Childers himself was an amateur...

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John Buchan

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

William Le Queux claimed, but never offered proof, that he had worked for the British Secret Service. In the case of the Scottish-born writer John Buchan there is no uncertainty, as he is known to have served with the British Intelligence Corps during World War I. Indeed, he may be regarded as the first in a long and distinguished line of spy novelists who gained at least some of their knowledge of the clandestine world of espionage at first hand.

Buchan began working for the British government in South Africa at the end of the South African (Boer) War In 1902. He later drew on his Southern African experience to write his adventure novel Prester John (1910). That work was a success, but it was Buchan’s next novel, The Thirty-nine Steps (1915), that has remained the favorite of readers and critics. This book involves an improbable plot to steal Britain’s naval secrets and provoke a war between Germany and Russia, but it is most notable for the breathless, headlong flight its protagonist Richard Hannay must make across the Scottish countryside to escape both enemies and suspicious authorities. Director Alfred Hitchcock filmed the book in 1935. Although he altered the sense of the title, the resulting motion picture is one of the first of many notable adaptations of the spy genre to the screen.

Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps shows the influence of The Riddle of the Sands, a book that Buchan admired so...

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Three Agents

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Another British author with experience in espionage work was W. Somerset Maugham, who twice served as a British agent. However, the stories he wrote about his experiences are poles apart from the adventure-oriented works of Buchan. Born in 1874, Maugham was recruited into Military Intelligence, Division 6 in 1915; that unit was Great Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6 or the SIS. Told that the British government would disavow him if he were ever caught, he was sent to Switzerland, where he gathered information from other agents and carried out a number of mundane surveillance assignments over the course of a year. Maugham undertook a second mission in 1917, this time to Russia, where he met with the liberal leader Alexander Kerensky during that nation’s revolution in a vain effort to forestall the ascendancy of the communists.

Maugham worked his experiences into Ashenden: Or, The British Agent (1928). Ashenden is an antiheroic antidote to Buchan’s heroes, and Maugham’s disillusionment with the dull and morally repugnant aspects of espionage would set the tone of much spy fiction for decades to come. Maugham destroyed several Ashenden stories when told that they violated Britain’s Official Secrets Act. However, he later discovered to his pleasure that those he published had become required reading for a new generation of agents.

Ashenden appeared during the same year as another significant...

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Graham Greene

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Few of Graham Greene’s novels deal with actual spies, but many involve international intrigue, and all are set in the shadowy “neutral ground” that James Fenimore Cooper had identified a century earlier. In fact, during Greene’s lifetime, his critics took to referring to the settings of his novels, whatever their diverse geographical particulars, as “Greeneland.” Greene’s first important novel was Stamboul Train (1932; also published as Orient Express) and was set on the famous train that runs the breadth of Europe. Greene placed a variety of sharply drawn characters on the train, some pursuing private matters and others caught up in the increasingly desperate convolutions of European politics. In addition to publishing novels, Greene was also a film critic, and wrote Stamboul Train in the fluid, cinematic style that would later distinguish most of his fiction. His subsequent novels include The Confidential Agent (1939), which follows Spanish Loyalist attempts to secure coal in England during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and The Ministry of Fear (1943), which involves an innocent man caught up in a spy ring.

One of Greene’s last projects of the 1940’s was The Third Man, which he wrote first as a screenplay in 1949 and subsequently as a short, taut novel (1950). The story follows a naïve American writer seeking an old and, as it turns out, dangerous friend in the ruins of...

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Eric Ambler

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Eric Ambler was another British writer who set out intentionally to turn the spy novel genre on its head. He rejected John Buchan’s political outlook, sharing with Graham Greene a sympathy for left-wing causes. Also like Greene, he wrote about actual spying in only a few of his novels, dealing in others with international crime or political intrigue. Although Ambler lacked Greene’s dramatic style and gift for characterization, he helped create a new and more realistic form.

Ambler’s travels in the Mediterranean and the Balkan region of southeastern Europe during the 1930’s provided the raw material for many of his works. His first important novel, Epitaph for a Spy (1938), is set in southern France. It...

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The James Bond Phenomenon

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The Allied Powers won World War II, but Great Britain emerged from the ordeal in a seriously diminished capacity. It struggled for years to regain its economic health. Moreover, in the wake of the war, Britain’s many colonies stepped up their demands for independence. However, a fictional character who made his debut in 1953 reasserted Britain’s might and its determination to outwit a host of new and dangerous enemies. That character was James Bond, and his creator was British journalist Ian Fleming. During the war, Fleming had played an important role as personal assistant to Britain’s director of naval intelligence, but little of what he learned about the real, day-to-day world of espionage was reflected in his first Bond...

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John le Carré

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ian Fleming’s final James Bond book appeared in 1966, but the recent publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John le Carré had by then reintroduced the psychological realism and political skepticism of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. The spy of le Carré’s title is Alec Leamas, a burned-out British agent whose superiors are using him without his knowledge to protect their mole in East German intelligence. The novel concludes with a dramatic scene at the recently erected Berlin Wall, which had become the defining symbol of the Cold War. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was a best seller and a critical success and drew the praise of Greene himself.

Le Carré had served as a...

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Len Deighton

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Len Deighton’s first novel, The Ipcress File, appeared in 1962, a year before le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. For a time Deighton and le Carré were bracketed in the minds of readers and many critics. Although Deighton’s initial approach to spy fiction differed greatly from le Carré’s, his work had much of the same salutary impact on the genre. The Ipcress File introduced an anonymous British intelligence agent who would feature in several subsequent novels and be played by Michael Caine in several films, in which he was given a name, Harry Palmer. Like his creator, the agent is of lower-middle-class origins, and is resentfully aware of the rigid class structure within which he...

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Other British Spy Novels

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Many other British writers turned to spying as a theme during the second half of the twentieth century. The subject had become a favorite with readers and filmgoers, and continued to offer opportunities for examining extreme and revealing human situations. The noted poet and novelist Lawrence Durrell, for example, revived the spirit of John Buchan in White Eagles over Serbia (1957), an adventure—apparently based on true events—involving an attempt to smuggle Yugoslavia’s gold reserves out of the country during World War II.

Frederick Forsyth wrote about international intrigue in a plain, unadorned style that reflected his background as a journalist. His first and most famous novel, The Day of the...

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Modern American Spy Novels

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Twentieth century American novelists had no home-grown tradition of spy fiction on which to draw. Nevertheless, a handful of writers produced works that were critically or commercially important. The first of these was Richard Condon. Like Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, Condon’s most famous novel turns upon an attempted assassination with international dimensions. In The Manchurian Candidate (1959) he played upon Cold War fears by creating a decorated Korean War veteran, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who was brainwashed in Manchuria, China, and programmed to shoot an American presidential nominee. In a grotesque twist, the communist spy controlling Shaw is his own mother.

Most of Charles McCarry’s...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Atkins, John. The British Spy Novel: Styles in Treachery. London: Calder; New York: Riverrun Press, 1984. This single most comprehensive book on the subject of British spy novels covers all major figures but is now somewhat dated. Select primary and secondary bibliography. Wes Britton’s Beyond Bond, below, is a good supplement to this volume.

Bloom, Clive, ed. Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to Le Carré. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Wide-ranging collection of essays, including a psychopolitical analysis of the genre.

Britton, Wesley A. Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film....

(The entire section is 407 words.)