The spy thriller doesn’t really fit neatly into the crime fiction genre. Certainly there are crimes committed in spy stories; but those novels generally aren’t ‘whodunits,’ or even ‘why/howdunits.’ Their suspense comes from the ‘cat-and-mouse’ plot, or sometimes from the question of which characters can be trusted and which can’t. There are other ways, too, in which spy novelists add tension and suspense to their stories.
The spy novel can take a number of forms, too. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have done their share of espionage. In novels such as By The Pricking of My Thumbs and N or M?, they find ways to outwit highly placed and well-funded spies. By no means are they bumbling amateurs, but they’re also not the sort of people we usually think of when we picture a ‘typical’ spy. And that’s part of what makes them successful.
It is for Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, too. As fans can tell you, at the beginning of the series, she’s a widowed New Jersey woman with grown children. She’s looking for a new purpose when she sees an advertisement from the CIA. She’s selected for what’s supposed to be a very easy mission: a simple delivery to Mexico. No espionage or other spy activity is involved. But things don’t work out that way, and Mrs. Pollifax is soon in much deeper than anyone thought. As the series continues, she shows the advantage she has in not looking threatening. She’s simply a late-middle-aged woman going about her business. This series is cosier than a lot of spy series are; and in that sense, it’s not, strictly speaking just a set of spy novels. But it does show the diverse ways in which fictional spies find their way into the genre.
The Cold War between the UK, USA, and their allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies provided a very effective context for some memorable fictional spies and spy thrillers. For instance, it would be hard to discuss fictional spies without discussing the work of John le Carré. His George Smiley (and some of this other characters) have become iconic. And the stories are as much about the characters as they are about the espionage and the ‘thriller’ aspects of his novels. Novels such as Call For the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold take readers into the lives of the people in the various spy agencies. That makes them more human, and it’s one reason for which many people argue that he’s the best in the spy/espionage genre.
But there are plenty of others. Authors such as Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum and Jack Higgins have also created memorable stories. The Cold War has frequently been the context for those stories, but so has World War II and its aftermath.
Today’s world, of course, is a changing landscape in terms of geopolitical realities. And authors such as Daniel Silva and Tom Clancy have addressed those changes. So has le Carré, among others. And we can see in both this changing landscape and the sorts of spies and other espionage artists that there isn’t only one way to be a spy.
But in popular culture, perhaps the most memorable spy is Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Whether you’ve read the books, seen the films, or both, it’s hard to deny that character’s influence. And it’s not hard to see why. Bond is suave, sophisticated, and smart. He has all sorts of gadgetry at his disposal, and he travels in some of the highest circles. He’s got plenty of skills, too, from baccarat to boating. And there are the women…
Several actors have portrayed Bond over the years, and we could certainly debate about which one was the best Bond. One of them, Sir Roger Moore, left us yesterday, and he will be missed. In the years between 1973 and 1985, he took the role of Bond in films such as Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, Moonraker and Octopussy. He may not have originated the role, but he definitely left his mark on the franchise.
I know, I know, fans of The Saint; he left his mark there, too.
What about you? Do you read espionage/spy novels like Fleming’s, Deighton’s, Ludlum’s or Clancy’s? Which spy characters have stayed with you?
This post is dedicated to the memory of Sir Roger Moore, who brought Bond to life for many people.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s Nobody Does it Better.