Not 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.