There Ain’t Nobody That Spies Like Us*

EspionageNot long ago I got a request to take a look at spy/espionage crime fiction and I can see why there’s such an interest in it.  Well-written spy thrillers have lots of suspense and tension, and there’s plenty of room for the author to add in plot twists. Some spy novels sacrifice rich and well-developed characters for the sake of a fast-moving plot and plenty of action. But the best espionage fiction shows us the human side of the characters involved. And it’s interesting how even novels that aren’t generally thought of as ‘spy fiction’ actually could be labelled that way, and several authors who aren’t usually thought of as ‘spy novel’ authors have written novels like that.

Spy fiction has been around for quite a long time. Arthur Conan Doyle’s last Sherlock Holmes story His Last Bow features an espionage plot. In that story, which takes place just before World War I, Holmes and Watson investigate a German émigré named Van Bork. Van Bork has quietly been gathering information on the British government for a few years and plans to turn over what he has gotten to his own government. Holmes and Watson come up with a brilliant plan to stop Van Bork before he can do any damage and the end of this story is really (in my opinion) quite effective.

Agatha Christie mentions spies and spying quite frequently in her stories, even those that don’t focus on espionage. And fans of her Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels will know that they’ve dabbled in espionage more than once. In N or M? for instance, the Beresfords are middle-aged and considered too old for regular active espionage duty. But then, Tommy gets a new mission. A British agent has discovered that a pair of German spies has landed in England and that one of them is likely staying at the Sans Souci, a hotel/guest residence in Leahampton. Tommy is asked to go to the Sans Souci and find out whether one of the other guests is the spy. This mission doesn’t include Tuppence, but of course, that doesn’t stop her. When Tommy arrives at the Sans Souci, she’s already there under the name of Mrs. Blenkensop. The Beresfords work to find out who the spy is and soon find that they’re in quite a bit of danger themselves. In the end, a chance discovery in an unexpected (and therefore, quite effective) hiding place puts the Beresfords on the right trail.

The Cold War between the US, the UK and their allies, and the USSR and its allies lasted for decades and gave rise to some of the best-known spy/espionage thrillers. Authors such as Robert Ludlum have created memorable spy novels that have the Cold War as their backdrop. Perhaps the best-known (and in my opinion, one of the most talented) of these authors is John le Carré. He’s written (among others) several novels featuring British agent George Smiley. Two that stand out (at least for me; your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary) are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Tinker, Tailor… is the first of the Smiley novels. In it, George Smiley has been forced into early retirement and a new crop of agents has gotten into power. Everything changes though when it’s learned that a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest levels of British Intelligence. It’s soon clear to Smiley that his old nemesis Karla, a mysterious Soviet spy leader, is behind this breach of British security and he goes back on the job to catch the mole and stop Karla. Smiley plays a smaller role in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In that story British agent Alec Leamas is recalled from East Germany when several of his team members are killed on his watch. Then, when his best agent is killed, he’s asked to take on one last assignment: the murder of Hans Dieter Mundt, who’s responsible for the killings. Want to know more about le Carré? Sure you do. Check out a superb post on his work at Mrs. Peabody Investigates, an excellent crime fiction review-and-news blog that richly deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

The Cold War isn’t the only backdrop for spy thrillers. After the end of World War II, there was a great deal of speculation about Nazi plots to re-establish themselves as a world power, and plenty of spy fiction deals with that prospect. For instance, there’s Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, in which Yakov Liebermann, a Nazi-hunter, discovers a frightening plan to re-create the Third Reich. And there’s Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File in which journalist Peter Miller happens to be covering the suicide of Holocaust survivor Solomon Tauber. A diary he finds eventually leads to a top-secret worldwide organisation dedicated to re-establishing a Nazi regime.

There are also plenty of spy/secret agent stories in which the ‘targets’ aren’t just Cold War or Nazi enemies but different sorts of international criminals and crime rings. For instance, Victor Banis’ The Man From C.A.M.P. introduces us to LA secret agent Jackie Holmes. In the first of those stories, Holmes works with an agent from the US Department of the Treasury to catch a gang of counterfeiters. And there’s Len Deighton’s ‘Harry Palmer,’ whom we meet in The Ipcress File. In that novel, ‘Palmer’ and his colleagues in a special department known as WOOC(P) investigate the case of several scientists who’ve disappeared. There’s also Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, who works for a special Israeli Intelligence department called The Office. He’s gone after international arms traffickers, terrorists, and other groups as well.

Spies and spy novels come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, as the saying goes. For instance, there’s Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, who in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax decides to give up her middle-class suburban widhowhood and become a CIA agent. As an elderly ‘grandmotherly’ type, she hardly looks like a spy, but she’s quite resourceful and gets quite good at her job.

And of course, no discussion of spy thrillers or espionage stories would be complete without a mention of Ian Fleming’s Bond. James Bond. Dashing and ever-resourceful, Bond epitomises the fantasy intelligence agent. The Bond novels and films were many people’s first introduction to spy fiction.

Feel free to differ with me if you do, but in my opinion, the best espionage thrillers are those that develop the characters of the people involved. They do have action and suspense. There might even be a gun battle or explosion or two. And there’s that little matter of the escapism they offer. But they are also stories about believable people. What do you think? Do you read spy fiction? What about it appeals to you? If you dislike it, what about it puts you off? I promise; I won’t blow your cover…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Spies Like Us.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daniel Silva, Dorothy Gilman, Ian Fleming, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Victor Banis

36 responses to “There Ain’t Nobody That Spies Like Us*

  1. Spy novels aren’t something I’ve read but having read this post, I’m not sure why that’s the case. I may have to pop my head into that sub genre. I think in any good novel the characters have to be real though. It’s what makes us care that they’re being hurt etc. Why else would our pulse rise if the hero was about to get blown up if we didn’t give a joy about him? Plot and character have to work together.

    • Rebecca – It’s interesting how we don’t always pay a lot of attention to one or another sub-genre (or even genre). There are just so many books out there! I couldn’t agree with you more about the vital importance of character when it comes to drawing the reader into the story. As you say, why should we invest ourselves in a story if we couldn’t care less about the characters? And if the characters aren’t fleshed out at least a little, why would we care?

      • In today’s marketplace I’d be very surprised to find novels getting through with one dimensional characters but maybe the thrill of the chase is enough.

        • Interesting point, Rebecca. I have to say, though, that I’ve seen a few examples of ‘all-chase, no-character’ novels *sigh.* If a publisher thinks those novels will sell, they get through. They’re not my kind of story though.

  2. Margot, I must admit I don’t read many spy thrillers – my reading is mostly along traditional puzzle-mystery lines. However, I do want to put in a plug for a book that really helped to create the modern spy novel – Erskine Childers’ “The Riddle of the Sands,” first published in 1903 and still in print (and online). Slower paced than later stories about spying, it is a fascinating tale of espionage, as a couple of English yachtsmen manage to uncover and foil a German plot to invade England. The characters of the two protagonists are beautifully created and developed, and the plot is quite clever. Le Carre calls it “one of the great foundation stories of the contemporary novel of espionage and adventure with political teeth.” And Childers still has the unhappy distinction, as far as I know, of having been the only author of espionage stories to be executed by a firing squad as an alleged traitor.

    • Les – Feel free to put in a plug for your favourite novels any time. I’d heard of the Childers and of course of his execution. But but honestly I haven’t read this novel. Perhaps I ought to since it’s foundational for modern spy fiction.

  3. Thanks for the lovely mention, Margot, and for this excellent post. There are some authors here that I haven’t read and that I’ll add to my list. I’m catching up a bit on espionage following my le Carre post, and have just finished Eric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger, which was very good. Published in 1937 so it gives a very interesting insight into European politics at the time.

    • Mrs. P – It’s my pleasure; that was a wonderful post on le Carré and his work. It’s hard to keep up with some of the great espionage fiction out there so I know exactly what you mean about that. I’ll be very interested in your writeup of the Ambler if you do a review of it. I find that period in history fascinating.

  4. You know I am excited about this post. Great examples and you covered a lot of ground.

    Most of the books/ series you mention here I have at least sampled. I have The Boys from Brazil on my Kindle, and The Odessa File is one I should find. Victor Banis is new to me.

    My favorite newer spy series is a trilogy … author is Olen Steinhauer and the first book is The Tourist.

    • Tracy – Thank you – I was hoping you’d enjoy the post, and I appreciate the inspiration. 🙂 I hope you’ll enjoy The Boys From Brazil. I like Ira Levin’s writing very much and this one kept me reading. Same with The Odessa File. The Man From C.A.M.P. and its follow-up are available on US Kindle at really reasonable prices. I hope that, if you get the chance to read them you’ll enjoy them.
      Also thanks for the suggestion of the Steinhauer trilogy. I’ve heard it’s good and I ought to look for it.

  5. I think of myself as not being a big spy fiction fan these days, but I have read a lot of those you mention, and I did used to enjoy them in the 70s and 80s, when there was a Cold War relevance. I read a couple of books by Charles Cummins recently – he is being tipped as a big new name in spy fiction in the UK. The best bit about Trinity Six was that there was a key secret meeting in the book – and it took place in my local branch of Waterstones (bookshop), and characters were walking around my town, all carefully described…

    • Moira – Oh, I’ve heard about Trinity Six! I’ve read about the story behind it too. It must have been such a great experience to read about your own town, including the local Waterstone’s. I’ll bet you enjoyed reading that part. I’d like to read some of Cummins’ work. I’ve heard that he’s quite good.
      You make a well-taken point about the relevance of spy fiction. I wonder if our attitudes about it have changed over time since there’ve been so many geopolitical changes. Certainly there’ve been changes in who the targets are and so on. Great ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  6. As you know, Margot, I am not a huge fan of spy thrillers, perhaps because I lived on the ‘wrong side’ of the Cold War and there was little to be seen of the ‘glamour’ of spying. However, I do think Le Carre is very good, and I have a soft spot for Riddle of the Sands, Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’ and that irrepressible historical spy, the Scarlet Pimpernel.

    • Marina Sofia – I know you’re not much of a fan of spy novels, but the ones you’ve suggested are really excellent. They’re well-written, taut novels. You have a good point too that in real life, there isn’t much ‘glamour’ in espionage…

  7. Spy novels are a bit of a blind spot for me: I’ve read a handful, maybe (The Expats by Chris Pavone, The Quiet American). If I do dip into them, this post and these comments are good places for me to start, thanks.

    • Rebecca – I think a lot of people focus on (or don’t focus on) one or another kind of crime fiction. I’m glad you’ve found some helpful ideas in the comments; I know I have.

  8. Margot: I have found Alan Furst’s books set in and during WW II to be among the best spy novels. He captures the murky ambiguous atmosphere of espionage well. As well his books involve characters and plots from more than the traditional Great Britain, France, Germany and the USSR. I have read books that featured characters from Poland, Hungary, Greece and the Netherlands. Furst is among the few writers to show how smaller nations coped with the demands and interests of the Big Four.

    • Bill – Thanks for mentioning Furst. I’ve only just dabbled in his work, so I’m a bit less familiar with it than you are. But what I’ve read really does reflect the fact that there really aren’t clear-cut ‘good guys,’ ‘bad guys’ and so on. The business of espionage gets quite complicated and Furst’s work certainly does show that.

  9. col

    Great post Margot. I’d never heard of Banis, so I will check him out. I’ve enjoyed one Le Carre so far and a few Steinhauer’s. Just finished my First Furst – excellent. Robert Littell, Jeremy Duns, Alex Berenson, Stella Rimington, John Gardner………..a few more names for the pot, all waiting patiently at home!

    • Col – You really do have a solid selection there! I’ll be really interested in seeing what you think of them. I like what I’ve read of Gardner, Littell and Berenson and I’ve heard very good things about the others.

  10. Margot, you have reminded me that I have to read some of the spy books set in Spain during WWII like The Maze of Cadiz and Winter in Madrid to name a few.

    • José Ignacio – I would love to read those novels too. There’s quite a lot of rich history there… I am looking forward to your reviews when you get the chance to read them.

  11. Terrific post Margot, and I agree completely that it’s the characters rather than the plot mechanics that drive the best spy fiction. It does seem extraordinary that ODESSA FILE is probably as current now as it was then (and was in any event based around true events int he 1960s), which is really frightening – and at the same time, with stories of CIA agents being booted out of Moscow it does seem as if the Cold War is back on again (or that some people wish it were anyway). Some really great selections there. I’m also a big fan of the early Adam Hall thriller from the 60s and 70s featuring Quiller as well as Deighton’s later books featuring Bernard Sampson. Anthony Price’s books are particularly noteworthy for mixing topical events with historical mysteries

    • Sergio – Thanks – And you know, you’re right about The Odessa File. Even all these years later it does seem current. It is scary… I’ve been following the whole CIA/Moscow story too and I wonder too what will come of this. Hopefully, as the saying goes, cooler heads will prevail, but we shall see what will happen. As to other espionage novels, you’re right that Deighton’s later stuff is good (‘though I have to confess a soft spot for his earlier work). And thanks for the mention of Anthony Price; I must get to know his work.

  12. I think, when I read spy novels, there *has* to be good character development. Sometimes spy novel plots are so complex that I’ll admit to getting confused…but I’ll stick with the story if the characters are good.

    • Elizabeth – I couldn’t agree more. Spy novel plots can get complicated, what with double agents and all of the other ‘ins and outs’ of a spy plot. So if the characters aren’t interesting, it’s hard to find the motivation to stay with the story. And it somehow is all too superficial if the characters aren’t believable.

  13. Jan

    Personally, I think this is true of all fiction. I will not mind mediocre writing and poor plots if the character is compelling enough. If I don’t care for the main characters (or at least respond to them) then it isn’t great fiction for me. I love John le Carré for exactly that reason. Smiley is so complex. So although I’m not big on the genre – there are a few who do it so irresistibly! I like Furst and of course, Fleming. Even though Graham Greene would never be called a spy fiction writer, a few of his fit the bill just right. Thanks as always for your inspiring posts!

    • Jan – How kind of you – I appreciate it. And you’re so right about the thing that sets le Carré, Furst and Greene apart from many other spy thriller authors. They develop interesting and complex characters. The reader responds to those characters, and that’s what drives the interest. The rest does carry the story along but without interesting characters, there really isn’t much of a story…

  14. I absolutely love spy fiction. Le Carre is my favourite but I like modern writers writing about the past such as Alan Furst, Aly Monroe etc.

    • Sarah – I’m so glad you mentioned both Furst and Monroe. Both of those authors show clearly that good espionage fiction is not just limited to ‘those writers who started years ago.’ Interesting they’ve both chosen the historical-novel approach.

  15. kathy d.

    I’ve never read this genre, unless I run into spies accidentally. My father read books by John Le Carre, but I’ve never done so, although I was tempted after I saw The Constant Gardener movie.
    And I don’t read about WWII.
    I would like to try one of Aly Monroe’s books though and I may.
    What other commenters have said about the need for strong character development is quite important to me, too. The last thing I want to read is a lot of action and nothing said about the protagonist enough to care about her/him or at least know enough to care about the plot.

    • Kathy – Spy fiction is definitely not for everyone. And I think we all have those topics we choose not to read about; I know there are things on my ‘no, thanks’ list. If you do get the chance to try some Aly Monroe, I’ll be interested in what you think. The same goes for le Carré’s work. In my opinion, he’s at the top of the genre.
      And as for character development, I couldn’t agree more. A novel without strong characters loses me very quickly.

  16. Great post, Ms. Kinberg! For once, I’m happy to note that I’ve read many of the spy fiction novels mentioned in your post. I’d rate Le Carre a touch above Tom Clancy’s more glamour-filled novels though I’d cast Welsh author Craig Thomas and his conservatively-written spy thrillers above both. Of course, there is no comparison between all three except I’m more partial towards him. Thomas is an old favourite whose espionage stories are entirely believable probably because of the near absence of adrenaline-pumping action associated with most modern-day spy fiction at least. This is especially the case in Thomas’ novels where the elderly Sir Kenneth Aubrey of British Intelligence is the “hero,” if you can call him one at all.

    I still read and re-read the spy fiction of Alistair MacLean, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, Don Pendleton (Mack Bolan series), Frederick Forsyth, and Donald Lindquist among others. Surprisingly, though, I have read barely any novels of Ian Fleming, perhaps, because of the over-influence of the Bond movies.

    Les Blatt’s mention of THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS by Erskine Childers reminds me that I still have to read my hardback vintage edition of the book acquired from a secondhand bookstore two years ago.

    • Prashant – You’re fortunate to have such a fine edition of the Childers. And it’s interesting isn’t it how there are some authors whose work one can re-read a number of times. Even though we know the stories very well, we can read them again and again. You’re right too that spy fiction doesn’t have to be full of adrenaline to be gripping. Atmosphere, character and other factors can make a story really memorable whereas car chases and so on don’t necessarily have that effect. I don’t wonder that appeals to you about Thomas’ work.

  17. Hi Margot, Another terrific post. There’s also Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series, which might be considered of the espionage genre. The main character is a journalist and part-time sub rosa British operative in Germany in the 1930s constantly in danger of being caught by the Gestapo. I find the books similar in feeling to the Alan Furst novels in that they do a great job of conjuring up the atmosphere of the place and time.

    I’ll also mention Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, which is nonfiction to be sure but I wonder if Wright’s [unproven] idee fixe of longtime MI5 chief Roger Hollis as a Soviet agent was the inspiration for Le Carre in Tinker, Tailor … and its theme of a mole at the highest levels.

    • Bryan – Thank you very much for the reminder of Cantrell’s terrific series. You make a well-taken point that although they’re not per se espionage novels, they certainly have that flavour. And yes, Cantrell does a superb job of evoking the context. You make an interesting point about the similarity between Hollis and the plot of Tinker Tailor…. I don’t of course know if that’s true, but it certainly could be.

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