Spy fiction  

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“I’m not sure that Bond is a spy. I think that it’s a great mistake if one’s talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all.”--John le Carré interviewed by Malcolm Muggeridge, first broadcast on February 8, 1966, 16:45

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The genre of spy fiction—sometimes called political thriller or spy thriller or sometimes shortened simply to spy-fi—arose before World War I at about the same time that the first modern intelligence agencies were formed. The Dreyfus Affair contributed to public interest in the subject. For a whole decade, an affair involving the operations of spies and counter-spies held center stage in the politics of a major European country, and was widely and continually reported all over the world. The details of German Intelligence having an agent in the French Army's General Staff and getting through him important military secrets, and of French counter-intelligence riposting by getting a charwoman to go through the wastebaskets of the German Embassy in Paris, were the staff of daily news - and naturally inspired fictional tales involving similar themes.

Seldom has this literary field met with critical acclaim, although insightful, literate, and politically important works have been published in it. At the same time, it has enjoyed great popular success.

Readership waned only in the lull following the end of the Cold War (the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989). The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States reignited interest and have reversed that trend. Some pundits are referring to the current era as the Decade of the Spy and pointing to the renaissance in spy fiction and film as two of the indicators of this.



In nineteenth-century France, the Dreyfus Affair (1894–99) contributed much to public interest in espionage. For some twelve years (ca. 1894–1906), the Affair, which involved elements of international espionage, treason, and anti-Semitism, dominated French politics. The details were reported by the world press: an Imperial German penetration agent betraying to Germany the secrets of the General Staff of the French Army; the French counter-intelligence riposte of sending a charwoman to rifle the trash in the German Embassy in Paris, were news that inspired successful spy fiction.

Before the First World War

Early examples of the espionage novel are the American stories of The Spy (1821) and The Bravo (1831), by James Fenimore Cooper. The Bravo attacks European anti-republicanism, by depicting Venice as a city-state where a ruthless oligarchy wears the mask of the "serene republic". Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling concerns the AngloRussian Great Game of imperial and geopolitical rivalry and strategic warfare for supremacy in Central Asia, usually in Afghanistan. In Continental Europe, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Orczy chronicled an English aristocrat's derring-do in rescuing French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror of the populist French Revolution (1789–99).

In Britain, the term "spy novel" was defined by The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers. It described amateur spies discovering a German plan to invade Britain, thus being an early example of the invasion literature sub-genre. William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim became the most widely read and most successful British writers of spy fiction, especially of invasion literature. Despite having been their genre's first and second writers, their prosaic style and formulaic stories, produced voluminously from 1900 to 1914, proved of low literary merit.

Meanwhile, the detective Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, spied for Britain in the stories "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" (1893), "The Adventure of the Second Stain" (1904), and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" (1912). In "His Last Bow" (1917), he served Crown and Country as a double agent, transmitting false intelligence to Imperial Germany on the eve of the Great War.

The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad examines the psychology and ideology motivating the socially-marginal men and women of a revolutionary cell determined to provoke revolution in Britain with a terrorist bombing of the Greenwich Observatory.

During the War, the propagandist John Buchan, became the pre-eminent British spy novelist. His well-written stories portray the Great War as a "clash of civilisations" between Western civilization and barbarism. His notable novels are The Thirty-nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916) and sequels, all featuring the heroic Englishman Richard Hannay. After the War, in France, Gaston Leroux published the spy thriller Rouletabille chez Krupp (1917), in which a detective, Joseph Rouletabille, engages in espionage.

The inter-war period

After the successful Russian Revolution (1917), the quality of spy fiction declined, because the Bolshevik enemy had won the Russian Civil War (1917–23); thus, the inter-war spy story usually concerns combating the Red Menace, which was then perceived as another "clash of civilizations". Despite poor writing and plotting, spy fiction endured. Former Intelligence officers and agents began writing spy fiction from inside the trade. Examples are Ashenden or: the British Agent (1928) by W. Somerset Maugham, about counter-revolutionary British espionage against Bolshevik Russia, and The Mystery of Tunnel 51 (1928) by Alexander Wilson whose novels conveyed an uncanny portrait of the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original 'C'.

The genre was not all about clashing civilizations; Water on the Brain (1933) by former intelligence officer Compton Mackenzie was the first successful spy novel satire. [1]

Away from the professionals, Epitaph for a Spy (1938), The Mask of Dimitrios (US: A Coffin for Dimitrios, 1939), and Journey into Fear (1940) by Eric Ambler, concern the fortunes of amateurs entangled in espionage. The politics and ideology are secondary to the personal story that involved the hero or heroine. Ambler's Popular Front–period œvre has a left-wing perspective about the personal consequences of "big picture" politics and ideology, which was notable, given spy fiction's usual right-wards tilt in defence of the Establishment attitudes underpinning empire and imperialism. Ambler's early novels Uncommon Danger (1937) and Cause for Alarm (1938), in which NKVD spies help the amateur protagonist survive, are especially remarkable among English-language spy fiction.

The Second World War

Above Suspicion (1939) by Helen MacInnes, about an anti-Nazi husband and wife spy team, features literate writing and fast-paced, intricate, and suspenseful stories occurring against contemporary historical backgrounds. MacInnes's other spy novels include Assignment in Brittany (1942), Decision at Delphi (1961), and Ride a Pale Horse (1984).

Manning Coles published Drink to Yesterday (1940), a grim story occurring during the Great War, which introduces the hero Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon. The next novels featuring Hambledon were lighter-toned, despite occurring either in Nazi Germany or Britain during the Second World War (1939–45). After the War, the Hambledon adventures fell to formula, losing critical and popular interest.

There were also some Children's spy novels made in the 21st century about WW2 including Henderson's Boys which was a spin off CHERUB, the same thing but based in the present day.

The Cold War

The metamorphosis of the Second World War (1939–45) into the Soviet–American Cold War (1945–91) gave impetus to spy novelists. In the 1950s, Desmond Cory and Ian Fleming introduced the secret agent with a licence to kill, the government-sanctioned assassin. Former British Intelligence officer Graham Greene examined the morality of espionage in left-wing, anti-imperialist novels such as The Heart of the Matter (1948) set in Sierra Leone, the seriocomic Our Man in Havana (1959) occurring in the Cuba of dictator Fulgencio Batista before his deposition by Fidel Castro's popular Cuban Revolution (1953–59), and The Human Factor (1978) about British support for the apartheid National Party government of South Africa, against the Red Menace.

The British

A noteworthy Cold War spy is the heroic, upper-class James Bond, secret agent 007 of the British Secret Service, a mixture of assassin and counter-intelligence officer introduced in Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming. Despite the commercial success of Fleming's fantastical anti-Communist novels, other former spies such as John le Carré and Len Deighton created anti-heroic men doubtful of the manichaeism justifying the immorality of matching the anti-democratic enemy in defence of democracy. Their novels, which were written and structured in the genre's 1930s style, feature protagonists antithetical to James Bond. Le Carré's middle-class George Smiley is a middle-aged spy burdened with a faithless, upper-class wife who publicly cuckolds him for sport. Deighton's anonymous spy, protagonist of The IPCRESS File (1962), Horse Under Water (1963), Funeral in Berlin (1964), and others, is a working-class man. Adam Diment's, Philip McAlpine is a long-haired, hashish-smoking fop in the novels The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967), The Great Spy Race (1968), The Bang Bang Birds (1968) and Think, Inc. (1971).

Noteworthy examples of the journalistic style and successful integration of fictional characters with historical events were the politico–military novels The Day of the Jackal (1971) by Frederick Forsyth and Eye of the Needle (1978) by Ken Follett. Under the pseudonym "Adam Hall", Trevor Dudley-Smith wrote the Quiller spy novel series, beginning with The Berlin Memorandum (US: The Quiller Memorandum, 1965), a hybrid of glamour and dirt, Fleming and Le Carré. The writing is literary and the tradecraft believable. Other examples are the Peter Marlow series, beginning with The Private Sector (1971) by Joseph Hone, which is set during Israel's Six Day War (1967) against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and William Garner's secret agents, the fantastic Michael Jagger, in Overkill (1966), The Deep, Deep Freeze (1968), The Us or Them War (1969) and A Big Enough Wreath (1974) and the realistic John Morpurgo in Think Big, Think Dirty (1983), Rats' Alley (1984), and Zones of Silence (1986).

The Americans

In time, US spy novelists achieved a measure of parity in a genre dominated by British writers. In 1955, Edward S. Aarons began publishing the Sam Durell CIA "Assignment — " series, which began with Assignment to Disaster (1955). Donald Hamilton published Death of a Citizen (1960) and The Wrecking Crew (1960), beginning the series featuring Matt Helm, a CIA assassin and counter-intelligence agent. Hamilton's novels were adult and well-written, but the cinematic interpretations were adolescent parody. The Nick Carter-Killmaster series of spy novels, initiated by Michael Avallone and Valerie Moolman, but authored anonymously, ran to over 260 separate books between 1964 and the early 1990s and invariably pitted American, Soviet and Chinese spies against each other. The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971) by Robert Ludlum is usually considered the first American modern (glamour and dirt) spy thriller weighing action and reflection. In the 1970s, former CIA man Charles McCarry began the Paul Christopher series with The Tears of Autumn (1978), which was well-written, with believable tradecraft.

The British Firefox (1977) by Craig Thomas, detailing the Western (Anglo–American) theft of a superior Soviet jet aeroplane, established the techno-thriller, in which technology and its threats determine plot. The first American techno-thriller was The Hunt for Red October (1984) by Tom Clancy. It introduced CIA deskman (analyst) Jack Ryan as a field agent; he reprised the role in the sequel The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1987).

The Russians

Julian Semyonov was an influential spy novelist, writing in the Eastern Bloc, whose range of novels and novel series featured a White Russian spy in the USSR; Max Otto von Stirlitz, a Soviet mole in the Nazi High Command, and Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka. In his novels, Semyonov covered much Soviet intelligence history, ranging from the Russian Civil War (1917–1923), through the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), to the Russo–American Cold War (1945–91). In 1973, his novel Seventeen Moments of Spring (1968) was adapted to television as a twelve-part mini-series about the Soviet spy Maksim Isaev operating in wartime Nazi Germany as Max Otto von Stirlitz, charged with preventing a separate peace between Nazi Germany and America which would exclude the USSR. The programme TASS is Authorised to Announce... also derives from his work.

Cinema and television

Much spy fiction was adapted as spy films in the 1960s, ranging from the fantastical James Bond series to the realistic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), and the hybrid The Quiller Memorandum (1966).

In television, the American adaptation of Casino Royale (1954) featured Jimmy Bond in an episode of the Climax! anthology series. The narrative tone of television espionage ranged from the drama of Danger Man (1960–68) to the sardonicism of The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964–68) and the flippancy of I Spy (1965–68) until the exaggeration, akin to that of William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim before the First World War (1914–18), degenerated to the parody of Get Smart (1965–70). However, the circle closed in the late 1970s when The Sandbaggers (1978–80) presented the grit and bureaucracy of espionage.

In the 1980s, US television featured the light espionage programmes Airwolf (1984–87) and MacGyver (1985–92), each rooted in the Cold War yet reflecting American citizens' distrust of their government, after the crimes of the Nixon Government (the internal, political espionage of the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War) were exposed. The spy heroes were independent of government; MacGyver works for a non-profit, private think tank, and aviator Hawke and two friends work free-lance adventures, although each series features an intelligence agency, the DXS in MacGyver, and the FIRM, in Airwolf.

Post–Cold War

Because the end of the Cold War in 1991, mooted the USSR, the Iron Curtain countries, and Russia as credible enemies of democracy, espionage novelists were at a (temporary) loss for nemeses. The US Congress even considered disestablishing the CIA, considering its chartered mission, of defeating the "International Communist Conspiracy", had vanished. The New York Times newspaper ceased publishing a spy novel review column. Nevertheless, counting on the aficionado, publishers issued spy novels by writers popular during the Cold War proper, among them Harlots Ghost (1991) by Norman Mailer and novels by Nelson DeMille, W.E.B. Griffin, and David Morrell.

In the US, the new novels Moscow Club (1991) by Joseph Finder, Masquerade (1996) by Gayle Lynds, and The Unlikely Spy (1996) by Daniel Silva, and in the UK, A Spy By Nature (2001) by Charles Cumming and Remembrance Day (2000) by Henry Porter, maintained the spy novel in the post–Cold War world.


The terrorist attacks against the US on 11 September 2001, and the subsequent War on Terror, reawakened interest in the peoples and politics of the world beyond its borders. Espionage genre elders such as John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Littell, and Charles McCarry resumed work. At the CIA, the number of manuscripts submitted for pre-publication vetting doubled between 1998 and 2005. Some post-attack period novels are about intelligence officers and the profession of intelligence, and some are by insiders (as were W. Somerset Maughum and Graham Greene for their generations). American examples are Saigon Station (2003) by Charles Gillen, The Dream Merchant of Lisbon (2004) and No Game For Amateurs (2009) by Gene Coyle, Edge of Allegiance (2005) by Thomas F. Murphy, A Train to Potevka (2005) by Mike Ramsdell, Voices Under Berlin (2008), by T.H.E. Hill and North from Calcutta (2009) by Duane Evans. British examples are At Risk (2004), Secret Asset (2006), Illegal Action (2007), and Dead Line (2008), by Dame Stella Rimington (formerly the Director General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996) and The Code Snatch (2001) by Alan Stripp, formerly a cryptographer at Bletchley Park.

In every medium, spy thrillers introduce children and adolescents to deception and espionage at earlier ages, as in the Agent Cody Banks film, the Alex Rider adventure novels by Anthony Horowitz, chick lit novels such as I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You and the CHERUB series, by Robert Muchamore. Ben Allsop, one of England's youngest novelists, also writes spy fiction. His titles include Sharp and The Perfect Kill. Recent television espionage programmes are La Femme Nikita (1997–2001), Alias (2001–2006), 24 (2001-2010) and Spooks in the UK (release as MI-5 in the USA and Canada) 2002-. Recent English-language spy films are The Bourne Identity (2002), Mission: Impossible (1996); Munich (2005), Syriana (2005), The Constant Gardener (2005) and Casino Royale (2006), a relaunching of the James Bond series.

In contemporary digital video games, the player can be a vicarious spy, as in the Metal Gear, especially in the series' third installment, Metal Gear Solid, unlike the games of the Third-Person Shooter genre, Syphon Filter, and Splinter Cell. The games feature complex stories and cinematic images. Games such as No One Lives Forever and the sequel No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way humorously combine espionage and 1960s design. Evil Genius (game), contemporary to NOLF series, allows the player to be the villain and its strategy occurs real time.

The International Thriller Writers (ITW) established themselves in 2004, and held their first conference in 2006. The Spyland espionage theme park, in the Gran Scala pleasure dome, in Zaragoza province, Spain, will open in 20l2.


  • Spy-fi: espionage and science fiction are integral to glamorous escapist fantasies emphasising derring-do, rather than detection and investigation, in thwarting either world domination or world destruction, et cetera.
  • Spy comedy: usually parody the clichés and camp elements characteristic to the espionage genre.
  • Spy horror: spy fiction with horror fiction.

Notable writers

See also

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