Spy Novels

Grove Koger. Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction. Editor: Carl Rollyson. Volume 5, Salem Press, 2008.

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

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

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 sailor, and included charts and long passages of nautical detail in The Riddle of the Sands. Many readers have found the details overwhelming, but the textual passages lend the novel an air of authenticity lacking in the works of Le Queux and Oppenheim. Childers was genuinely concerned with Great Britain’s lack of coastal defenses and dramatizes that concern through a suspenseful narrative. He also adds a touch of romance, but wisely subordinates it to his larger story. Later generations have read the book not only as an adventurous spy novel but also as a classic of sailing fiction.

Four years after Childers published The Riddle of the Sands, the renowned British novelist Joseph Conrad produced a wholly different kind of spy novel, The Secret Agent (1907). The ostensible agent of Conrad’s title is Adolf Verloc, who secretly receives money from the Russian embassy to spy on anarchist groups in London. When the cowardly Verloc is ordered to set off a bomb at the Greenwich Royal Observatory—an attack that British authorities would be sure to blame on anarchists—he persuades his na¨ve and unworldly stepson Stevie to carry out the deed. A naturalized British citizen born in Poland, Conrad was deeply skeptical of the possibilities of political change, and his skepticism damages The Secret Agent as a work of art. Conrad depicts Verloc and his anarchist acquaintances with such scorn that they are little more than caricatures; however, his treatment of Verloc’s wife Winnie and her doomed son is more sympathetic. Kim and The Riddle of the Sands would play important roles in the subsequent development of the spy novel. However, the bitter irony and unrelieved gloom of The Secret Agent limited its influence on what would become an increasingly popular genre.

John Buchan

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 much that he arranged to have a publisher for whom he worked issue a reprint of it. Buchan himself produced four sequels to The Thirty-nine Steps, the best of which, Greenmantle (1916), involves what was essentially a new and dangerous variation on the Great Game—rivalry between Great Britain and Germany in Asia. Positing a German plot to incite Muslim attacks on British India, Greenmantle drew upon Buchan’s experiences in the Turkish city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1910, his work on a history of the ongoing war, and his background in intelligence. Like most of his novels in the genre, it was unquestioningly pro-British in its sympathies.

Buchan wrote well over one hundred books, fiction and nonfiction, and ended his years of civil service as governor general of Canada. Most of his works are now forgotten, but his spy and adventure novels, which he wrote for relaxation and dismissed as literature, have remained in print and inspired succeeding generations of mainstream and genre writers alike.

Three Agents

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 anti-heroic 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 fictional work about spies, Compton Mackenzie’s Extremes Meet (1928). Already an established author, Mackenzie had been given charge of counterespionage activities in the Aegean region of Greece, which was then ostensibly neutral, during World War I. At one point, he took control of the Cyclades Islands on behalf of Greece’s pro-Allied prime minister, Eleftherious Venizelos, patrolling the waters in his own yacht. Mackenzie clearly found espionage and its machinations farcical, an attitude reflected in Extremes Meet and its sequel, The Three Couriers (1929). He was later prosecuted under Britain’s Official Secrets Act for his frank memoir, Greek Memories (1932). However, he retaliated with an even more biting spy novel, Water on the Brain (1933).

Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (1939) tempered the adventurous spirit of Buchan with the grim realities of modern power politics. Household published the book during the year in which World War II began in Europe. It depicts its protagonist as having been preparing to assassinate a European leader clearly modeled on German chancellor Adolf Hitler. With his scheme foiled at the last minute, he escapes and makes his way back to England. However, like Richard Hannay in The Thirty-nine Steps, he must elude both foe and friend alike. Shortly after completing the novel, Household joined a unit of the British War Office known as Military Industrial Research and was sent to Romania as part of an operation (betrayed at the last moment) to destroy that country’s oil fields before Hitler could seize them. His later intelligence work in the Middle East in the Field Security Police provided material for many more works, but none quite achieved the fever pitch of Rogue Male.

Graham Greene

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 naive American writer seeking an old and, as it turns out, dangerous friend in the ruins of postwar Vienna. Revolution and international intrigue figure in Green’s major novels, The Quiet American (1955), The Comedians (1966), and The Honorary Consul (1973). However, he deals most directly with spying in Our Man in Havana (1958) and The Human Factor (1978).

Set in prerevolutionary Cuba, Our Man in Havana features a British expatriate who sells vacuum cleaners and is reluctantly drawn into doing intelligence work for the British government. After making a good impression on the London office with all the information he has culled from American newsmagazines, he gets carried away and passes off drawings of the inner workings of one of his vacuum cleaners machines as diagrams of a rocket-launching base. The novel is a send-up of the espionage establishment worthy of Mackenzie and was made into a droll comedy film with Alex Guinness as the vacuum cleaner salesman.

The Human Factor, Greene’s last substantial novel, mirrors a famous real-life spy scandal. During World War II, Greene had worked under British intelligence officer Harold “Kim” Philby, who was one of several Soviet “moles” exposed during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Although the events of the novel bear little resemblance to the real Philby affair, its portrayal of British agent Maurice Castle, whose conscience leads him to betray his country, recalls Greene’s earlier public defense of Philby. Some critics praised The Human Factor as the best spy novel ever written, but others believed that Greene’s decision to set aside the manuscript for a decade had cost the work the immediacy that characterized his best writing. Although Green admired John Buchan, his own works, which combine penetrating moral analysis with a flair for describing action and violence, mark a decisive break with the complacency and reflexive patriotism of Buchan’s outlook.

Eric Ambler

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 explores the predicament of an innocent language teacher accused of taking photographs of important naval installations. The bumbling teacher’s only salvation lies in flushing out the real spy, whose camera he has apparently used by mistake. Ambler’s most important pre-World War II novel, and the one usually judged his masterpiece, is A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939; also published as A Mask for Dimitrios). This novel’s protagonist, Charles Latimer, is an English mystery writer who carries out a kind of experiment by tracking the career of a drowned Turkish archcriminal, Dimitrios Mackropoulos. As Latimer delves into Dimitrios’s unsavory past, he comes to realize that the criminal is actually very much alive and, incarnated as an influential financier, dangerous as well.

Ambler’s Journey into Fear (1940) recalls Greene’s Stamboul Train in that it follows a group of travelers brought together on a dangerous voyage—in this case aboard a ship bound from Istanbul to the Italian port of Genoa. Ambler’s protagonist is a British scientist whose knowledge of Turkey’s military plans has made him a target of Nazi assassins. Both Ambler’s and Greene’s novels, and their titles, play upon the period’s preoccupation with travel and borders.

During the 1950’s Ambler extended his historical and geographical range, but it was with The Light of Day (1962; also published as Topkapi) that he reached new audiences. This frequently comic novel follows the misadventures of Arthur Abdel Simpson, a petty thief and pimp of Anglo-Egyptian parentage who is forced to help first a band of international criminals and then the police intent on capturing them. Ambler produced a droll sequel, Dirty Story: A Further Account of the Life and Adventures of Arthur Abdel Simpson, in 1967.

Although not Ambler’s final novel, The Intercom Conspiracy (1969; also published as A Quiet Conspiracy) marked the return of Charles Latimer of A Coffin for Dimitrios and a return to that novel’s strengths. The ingeniously unfolding plot concerns the aging heads of two European intelligence agencies who purchase an obscure newsletter in which they begin to publish classified information. Realizing that they are being blackmailed, the governments of the major powers buy out the publishers, who may now retire on their handsome profits. Less fortunate, alas, is Latimer, who this time has pursued the wrong mystery.

The James Bond Phenomenon

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 novel, Casino Royale (1953; also published as You Asked for It). That novel pits Bond, who is code-named Operative 007, against a renegade agent of the Soviet assassination agency SMERSH. Bond’s assistant is the beautiful Vesper Lynd, a Russian double agent who becomes Bond’s lover before killing herself.

Casino Royale and the dozen or so Bond books that followed it owed much of their violence and frank sexuality to the American hard-boiled detective novel, a form that had also influenced the earlier and now-forgotten spy novels of Peter Cheyney. On the other hand, Fleming’s preference for archfiends and opulent, high-society settings recalled the sensational works of Le Queux and Oppenheim.

Fleming was easily the most popular spy novelist of the two decades in which he wrote, but he did little to advance the genre in literary terms and owed most of his popularity to extraliterary factors. A magazine article naming the fifth Bond adventure, From Russia, with Love (1957), as one of President John F. Kennedy’s favorite books escalated the character’s popularity. The 1962 film version of the sixth Bond book, Dr. No (1958), cemented that reputation. Afterward, a steady stream of Bond films followed, playing up the character’s taste in weaponry, beautiful women, and luxury consumer goods well into the first decade of the twenty-first century. James Bond was always a figure of fantasy, albeit a potent one, as the books’ sales and the films’ enormous popularity attest. After Fleming’s death in 1964, Bond became a franchise, with the character taking on a life of his own in films and new novels by other authors, and his very name becoming a popular cultural touchstone to millions who had never heard of Ian Fleming.

John Le Carré

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 British intelligence agent in Germany, and had written two earlier, more conventional, novels featuring cerebral, deceptively mild-mannered agent George Smiley, who also appears briefly in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Le Carré built upon his success with The Looking-Glass War (1965), which again includes Smiley, and A Small Town in Germany (1968).

The 1963 revelation that Graham Greene’s former colleague Kim Philby had been a Soviet “mole” was a stunning blow to both British intelligence and the British public, and it inspired a new wave of spy novels. The most important of these, and arguably one of the best spy novels ever written, is le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). In this story George Smiley again assumes center stage, searching out an enemy agent deeply embedded in the intelligence service. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has been likened to a chess game, and the careful pace with which it approaches its revelatory conclusion makes that conclusion all the more satisfying. Le Carré followed this novel with two equally complex sequels, The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979).

With The Little Drummer Girl (1983) le Carré turned to the Arab-Israeli conflict, producing a work that recalls the novels of the nineteenth century in its length and level of detail. The “drummer girl” of the title is Charlie, an actress chosen by Israeli intelligence to pose as the lover of a deceased Palestinian terrorist in hopes of locating the terrorist’s more dangerous brother. Le Carré was pointedly evenhanded in his treatment of the conflict, and was attacked by some supporters of Israel as a result. Greene’s A Perfect Spy (1986) constitutes le Carré’s most telling comment on the psychological roots of espionage. Its story of Magnus Pym—whose skill at suppressing his true personality makes him a perfect spy—reflects le Carré’s bitter relationship with his own father, who was a notorious confidence man.

In contrast to many other spy novelists, John le Carré responded to the end of the Cold War during the early 1990’s with renewed vigor. He dealt with the involvement of retired British agents in the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya in Our Game (1995), then turned his attention to the machinations of ruthless private interests in Africa with such works as The Constant Gardener (2001) and The Mission School (2006).

Len Deighton

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 lives and of the equally rigid bureaucratic structure in which he works. In The Ipcress File he investigates the disappearances of British biochemists, eventually stumbling onto a bizarre foreign scheme involving mind control.

Deighton’s spy novels are often as complex as le Carré’s, and in fact one reviewer complained that The Ipcress File read as if every other chapter had been left out. Deighton wrote in a gritty, staccato style that suited his character’s personality, and augmented several of the novels with seemingly (and sometimes genuinely) factual material, mitigating the often-fantastic nature of his plots. The Ipcress File, for example, concludes with several pages of appendices discussing, among other subjects, the proper handling of Smith & Wesson revolvers and a method of altering nerve cells in the brain.

Deighton utilized a variety of settings, but displayed a particular interest in Germany and especially Berlin. His novel Funeral in Berlin (1964), which involves the defection of an Eastern Bloc general, is generally regarded as the best of his first series, due in large part to the book’s grittily factual treatment of its setting. The city features again in Berlin Game (1983), the first of a trilogy involving agent Bernard Samson. This novel and its two sequels, Mexico Set (1984) and London Match (1985), are more realistic than Deighton’s earlier works, and rival le Carré’s work at its best. Like the earlier Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Deighton’s trilogy deals with the presence of a mole in British intelligence. However, Deighton’s take on the situation contains a surprisingly original twist.

Deighton continued the story of Bernard Samson with two more trilogies, concluding the nine-volume series with Charity (1996), but history was to catch up with him. The Berlin Wall, whose construction had begun in 1961, came down in 1989. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War ended. As a result, Deighton was left to tie up the loose ends of a fictional endeavor that no longer seemed relevant.

Other British Spy Novels

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 Jackal (1971), details an assassin’s plot to shoot French president Charles de Gaulle. Forsyth based his characters on actual personages, including a professional assassin and members of a dissident group of French army officers.

In The Eye of the Needle (1978; also published as Storm Island), Ken Follett produced one of the most popular spy novels of his time. Set during World War II, the book posits a German spy (code-named “Die Nadel”) who has unmasked the Allied deception over the location of the invasion of France of 1944 and then struggles to get word of the Allied scheme to German chancellor Adolf Hitler. Follett won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for this moody, atmospheric novel but was unable to match its success in his many later works.

Literary novelist Barry Unsworth wrote a metaphysical spy novel in The Idol Hunter (1980; also published as Pascali’s Island). Set on a Greek island under Turkish control shortly before World War I, the novel’s narrative takes the form of the last report of a melancholy, forgotten informer, Pascali, whose Turkish masters have never acknowledged his carefully written missives. He realizes that it is only a matter of time before his suspicious Greek neighbors turn on him. Ian McEwan’s The Innocent (1990) is a macabre variation on the spy novel. Based on a real event—a post-World War II British plan to bore a tunnel beneath East Berlin to tap into Soviet communications—the book treats murder and deceit as metaphors for the brutal manner in which East and West, communism and capitalism, had treated their vanquished enemy.

Long after the particular events involved, the treason of Kim Philby and his fellow spies continued to reverberate in the British psyche. In The Untouchable (1997) noted Irish novelist John Banville examined the double life of a prominent British art historian unmasked in his old age as a Soviet agent. The character is based on Anthony Blunt, who had been a member of Philby’s circle but whose activities were concealed for years by British authorities in return for his cooperation in their investigation of Philby.

Modern American Spy Novels

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 carefully crafted works feature Paul Christopher and his family, and deal with the “Outfit,” an intelligence organization modeled on McCarry’s former employer, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The first, densely written entry in the series, The Miernik Dossier (1973), consists of a series of documents concerning a Polish diplomat who may or may not be a master spy. Another volume, The Tears of Autumn (1974), delves into the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Robert Ludlum wrote fast-paced, best-selling novels of espionage and international intrigue as complex as McCarry’s, but with little of his contemporary’s psychological insight or sense of style. A typical work, The Chancellor Manuscript (1977), is built around the premise that Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover did not die of natural causes but was murdered. The Bourne Identity (1980), in which an amnesiac fears that he may be a professional assassin, proved to be the first of a series.

Famed American novelist Norman Mailer produced a massive fictionalized history of the CIA in Harlot’s Ghost (1991). Narrated through the life of agent Harry Hubbard, the novel not only chronicles the major events of the Cold War but also probes the psychological identity of the agency and, ultimately, of the country that produced it. The “Harlot” of the title is Hugh Tremont Montague, and is based on James Jesus Angleton, a real-life CIA official reduced to paranoia by the realization that his close friend Kim Philby was a Soviet agent.

Robert Littell’s first novel, The Defection of A. J. Lewinter (1973), dealt with the bona fides of a defecting American ceramics engineer and won a Gold Dagger Award from the Crime Writers of Great Britain. Littell followed it with eleven more books before writing The Company: A Novel of the CIA (2002). This lengthy and ambitious work recalls Harlot’s Ghost but lacks Mailer’s stylistic verve and imaginative sweep.

Alan Furst’s concerns and approach set him apart from his fellow American spy novelists. Night Soldiers (1988) was the first of a sometimes loosely connected series of historical novels set in Europe during the period of World War II. Books in the series recall the works of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler but are written in a muted, poetic style entirely Furst’s own. Night Soldiers follows a Bulgarian agent of the Soviet Union whose experiences turn him against his masters. Blood of Victory (2002) concerns a plot to sabotage Romania’s oil fields. The Foreign Correspondent (2006) describes an Italian dissident’s efforts to publish an antifascist newspaper in prewar Paris. Alan Furst wrote more distinctively about espionage and intrigue than any of his American contemporaries, and his works mark the most important development in the genre since the emergence of John le Carré.