Offering a history of the spy genre is famously difficult, in part because of the genre's porous boundaries. As Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher note in Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide, the term "'spy story' is in itself a misnomer" because it is used as a blanket label not only for the activities of spies in all their forms, but also counter-spies, government functionaries employing spies,
agents . . . hired killers, planters of misinformation, or sometimes even . . . that unassuming little man at the corner shop who operates a kind of letter-box for agents.Additionally, it is possible to consider any adventure story or war story involving a bit of intelligence gathering or intriguing a spy story of sorts, so that those looking for a beginning often point to Odysseus's scouting of the Trojan lines in Homer's Iliad (making the spy story as old as literature).
Nonetheless, the spy story as we know it has two characteristics which set it apart. One is that it centers on the spy and his activities in that capacity. The other is that it engages with contemporary, real-life politics, rather than those of a historically distant setting (like James Fenimore Cooper's 1821 Revolutionary War novel The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, often described as the first English-language spy novel), or a wholly fictional one (like Ruritania, in Anthony Hope's 1894 The Prisoner of Zenda). Such fiction is largely a product of the twentieth century, during which it emerged from the intersection of two genres which emerged in the decades prior to it.
The first is the is the tale of crime and detection, a product of Romanticism's fascination with the marginalized and the extreme, and the advent of modern police forces and urban life as we know it. This genre, of course, was flourishing by the late nineteenth century, when Arthur Conan Doyle presented Sherlock Holmes to the world in A Study in Scarlet (1887).
The second is the story of contemporary politics, the new popularity of which is likely traceable to the fact that, as Jan Bloch put it in his 1899 classic The Future of War in its Technical, Economic and Political Relations,
both military and political affairs have ceased to be high mysteries accessible only to the few. General military service, the spread of education, and wide publicity have made the elements of the polities of states accessible to all.In the century after the French Revolution, Europe's once politically passive subjects had increasingly become conscripts and reservists in their nations' armed forces. They were increasingly readers as well as a result of national education systems and the wider availability and lower cost of books and newspapers, while telegraphs made news more immediate, and photography provided unprecedented illustration of that coverage. Already by the time of the Crimean War (1854-1855), public opinion was playing something like its contemporary role in foreign policy, and the trend continued through the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), "the first great war in which really large numbers of literate men fought as common soldiers," as Theodore Ropp observed in War and the Modern World. And of course, they were increasingly voters as democratization spread and deepened.
Accordingly, there was not just an audience for writing on these subjects, but a premium on appealing to public opinion, at home and abroad (public opinion in foreign countries also an increasing factor in policy calculations). Fiction was one component of such writing, with the invasion story genre launched by tales like George Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" a particularly important aspect of it. There was an obvious place for spies in these scenarios, and from fairly early on they depicted foreign agents entering a targeted country to steal secrets, commit acts of sabotage or lie low until the shooting started before joining in the fight. Nonetheless, the espionage tended to be only a small part of the story, and the spies rarely even constituted proper characters. In 1882's How John Bull Lost London, for instance, it is French soldiers infiltrated into the country as tourists who capture the British end of the tunnel linking Dover to the continent, facilitating the arrival of their comrades. The French waiter working in England, who is really part of an invading force, became a cliché.
The convergence between the two genres was already evident in the Sherlock Holmes stories, notably in 1894's "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty," in which Holmes is enlisted to track down a missing copy of a secret Anglo-Italian naval treaty, which the protagonists were anxious might find its way into the hands of the Russian and French ambassadors. This proved only the first of Holmes' forays into such affairs, and Arthur Conan Doyle far from the only writer to take such an interest. Edward Phillips Oppenheim attained a notable success in 1898's The Mysterious Mr. Sabin, the titular figure in which was a French operative – a would-be "Richelieu of his days" - working against England. William Le Queux's The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) prominently featured a foreign spy in the plot, the villainous "Count Von Beilstein," a cosmopolitan adventurer who was arrested in Russia for his criminal behavior (forging Russian notes and using these to acquire twenty thousand pounds' worth of gems), and became a Russian agent to regain his freedom.
Nonetheless, reflecting the then-prevailing tendency to view the spy's trade as "ungentlemanly," spies were predominantly foreign villains (or if they were countrymen, traitors), with the role of the usually amateur protagonist most often the frustration of their plans (as in the stories discussed above). Cooper-like stories in which a spy was the hero only began to appear after the turn of the century with books like Max Pemberton's Pro Patria (1901), Rudyard Kipling's India-set adventure Kim (1901) and Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands (1903).
The novels of Pemberton and Childers depict Britons who stumble upon mysterious foreign doings - in Pemberton's case, a secret French plan to build a Channel tunnel, in Childers', the adventures of a pair of Britons sailing the Frisian coast who have stumbled upon mysterious doings in the area. Probing into these they learn of German preparations to use the area as a staging ground for an invasion of Britain. In Kipling's novel the titular protagonist, an Anglo-Irish orphan, gets caught up in the Great Game between Britain and Russia. Today historians of the genre commonly identify either Kim or Riddle as the first modern spy novel.
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Reflections on the Jason Bourne Series
From Screen to Page: Reading Ian Fleming
The Life of a Literary Genre: Considering The Mystery
Reflections on the Dirk Pitt Series
The End of James Bond?