Espionage—spying on enemies to obtain strategic information—is an age-old practice, but its treatment in fiction did not begin in earnest until the late nineteenth century. With this new theme, writers could begin to explore questions of courage, loyalty, and patriotism against a background of international conflict and intrigue. This combination of factors has proven attractive to readers, who have made many espionage novels best sellers. In time, a few espionage novels—those that explore not only the craft of spying but also what celebrated novelist Graham Greene called the human factor—have gained classic status. Even less successful efforts provide crucial insights into the social, political, and psychological makeup of their troubled times.
Espionage novels traditionally mirror world events. War, impending war, international crises, shifting perceptions of world power and influence, real-life episodes of espionage—all have inspired the durable and popular genre of espionage fiction.
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 novelist Joseph Conrad produced an entirely different work a short time later in The Secret Agent (1907). Set in London and based on real events, the novel centers on the activities of a slothful and conscienceless anarchist, Adolf Verloc, actually in the pay of the Russian embassy. Ordered to set off an explosion that will be blamed on his fellow revolutionaries, Verloc tricks his slow-witted stepson into planting the bomb—with fatal results. Although many readers were put off by the novel’s somber tone and convoluted plot, later writers such as Graham Greene and John le Carré would find its linking of personal and political treachery instructive.
Working largely in the mold of Childers, Scottish writer and public servant John Buchan played a key role in the development of the espionage novel as a popular genre, writing a number of thrilling narratives of escape and pursuit. In The Thirty-nine Steps (1915), published during the second year of World War I, his resourceful protagonist Richard Hannay thwarts a plot to steal Britain’s naval secrets. In Greenmantle (1916), Hannay uncovers the details of a German plot to incite a Muslim uprising in the Middle East that would threaten British India. Buchan subsequently produced several more sequels.
E. Phillips Oppenheim had written prolifically in the future war genre before publishing his masterpiece, The Great Impersonation (1920). Most of Oppenheim’s works are forgotten, yet The Great Impersonation survives because of a strikingly original plot hinging on a double deception.
Realism and Fantasy
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 describes the fate of a British intelligence agent, Maurice Castle, who supplies classified information to the Soviet Union out of a sense of gratitude to a communist who saved Castle’s South African wife and son. (Greene had worked for British intelligence during World War II.) By the time he died in 1991, he was acknowledged as one of the foremost writers of the twentieth century.
Few of Ambler’s novels deal directly with spying, and those that do treat it somewhat tangentially. Nevertheless, his practice of examining serious geopolitical issues through exciting narratives helped shape the modern espionage genre. Epitaph for a Spy (1938), like Greene’s The Ministry of Fear, describes the dilemma of an innocent bystander caught up in spying. Ambler’s best work came the following year in A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939; also published as The Mask of Dimitrios), in which another innocent figure, writer Charles Latimer, pieces together the life and career of a sinister Turkish criminal. Latimer’s investigations reveal the connections between the seamy criminal underside of contemporary Europe and the supposedly respectable world of high finance. Years later, Ambler produced a sequel with The Intercom Conspiracy (1969; also known as A Quiet Conspiracy). Here, the dangerously naïve Latimer investigates the publishers of a tiny newsletter beginning to carry classified intelligence—a ruse, it turns out, to blackmail the governments of the countries involved.
Greene and Ambler were both popular writers, but neither achieved the kind of fame enjoyed by Ian Fleming and his most famous creation, James Bond. Bond’s first outing was in Casino Royale (1953; also known as You Asked for It: Casino Royale, 1955), and the spy, code-named Operative 007, would appear in a number of sequels and a seemingly endless series of films. Despite Fleming’s popular success, however, he did little to advance the espionage genre, relying instead on a titillating mixture of sex, violence, and upscale gadgetry to sell his books.
The Golden Age and After
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, Soldier, Spy (1974) more highly. Here, Smiley returns to a central role, investigating four of his colleagues to determine which one has been leaking classified intelligence to the Soviets. Smiley’s relationship with his beloved but adulterous wife, Ann, mirrors the professional challenges he faces. Two more novels, The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1980), complete a trilogy that le Carré called the Quest for Karla, referring to the cunning (but ultimately human) Soviet spymaster who Smiley defeats in the final novel.
Le Carré took up the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in The Little Drummer Girl (1983) but returned to the world of Cold War politics in A Perfect Spy (1986). After the end of the Cold War, he wrote about a wider range of geopolitical subjects but did not neglect the complex and often tortured psychology of his characters.
Len Deighton’s first novel, The Ipcress File (1962), introduced a hard-boiled British agent working for the imaginary intelligence agency WOOC(P). Whatever its ostensible purpose, WOOC(P) operates like many other bureaucracies; its leaders are intent on protecting their domains and infighting is rife. The bafflingly complex plot of The Ipcress File hinges on the cynical machinations of a double agent, yet the gritty realism of its details harks back to the work of W. Somerset Maugham. Deighton followed with Horse Under Water (1963) and Funeral in Berlin (1964). The latter is generally acknowledged as his best early novel and signals his first use of the divided German city of Berlin as a setting and metaphor for the ambiguities and vexed loyalties of the Cold War. Deighton wrote five more books for the series.
In the 1980’s, Deighton began a series of nine novels featuring agent Bernard Samson and written in a more realistic vein. Berlin Game (1983), Mexico Set (1984), and London Match (1985) breathed new life into what had become by then an overly familiar theme—the penetration of the British intelligence services by a mole. However, the remaining two trilogies in the series failed to live up to the promise of the opening novels.
Most espionage novelists have been British. One American writer, Alan Furst, produced the first in a line of acclaimed espionage novels with Night Soldiers in 1988. Furst set his novels before and during World War II, writing about the difficult choices of those caught up in that dark conflict. Historical novels about espionage existed before Furst set out to write his own, but Furst’s success suggested a new direction for the genre.
Source: Rollyson, Carl. Critical Survey Of Long Fiction. 4th ed. New Jersey: Salem Press, 2010.
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