Today historians of the spy story commonly identify either Rudyard Kipling's Kim or Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands as the first modern spy novel. Of course, it might be argued that Kim is essentially a picaresque which traces the early part of a spy's career, and Riddle a sailing story which involves espionage. However, it was not long before writers started to produce works more fully focused on this theme, and in the process established the rough boundaries of the field – its core themes, concerns and plot formulas - as well as the range of viewpoints within which subsequent authors generally worked.
William Le Queux went beyond his early forays into this area as a writer of invasion stories in Spies of the Kaiser: Plotting the Downfall of England (1909) offered a collection of loosely connected stories centering on German schemes against England (notable for their use of the theft of technical secrets as a basis for a spy story), and Edward Phillips Oppenheim did the same, notably in the book for which he is best remembered today, The Great Impersonation (1920), an early treatment of the idea of the deep-cover mole. John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) offered the perennial theme of an innocent man forced to go on the run by villains whom he must take on nearly single-handed to clear his name and save the day (and gave the spy genre its first major series' character in Richard Hannay). H.C. "Sapper" McNeile's Bulldog Drummond (1920) presented a hugely influential proto-James Bond in its titular protagonist.
Meanwhile, Joseph Conrad was already treating espionage as a subject of serious drama, and offering a more critical take on the game itself in The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911). Stories of seedy little men playing seedy little games which destroy human lives, they dealt with terrorism and counterrorism, agent provocateurs and false flag attacks - as well as how the game looks from the standpoint of a double agent, and a foretaste of later stories of depravity on the part of the forces of order. W. Somerset Maugham brought irony and humor to the genre in Ashenden (1928), as well as a strong sense of espionage as a matter of tedious routine, a consciousness of the scale and organization of modern intelligence operations, and a memorable spymaster in "R" (a generation before Ian Fleming gave us "M").
In the next decade Eric Ambler stood the conventions of Oppenheim, Buchan and company on their head - and offered a leftish view of them - in novels like The Dark Frontier (1936), as well as Background to Danger (1937), Cause for Alarm (1938) and A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939). The Dark Frontier was an outright parody of the genre's conventions (which offered a protagonist who doesn't remember his true identity and instead thinks he's a legendary super-operative long before The Bourne Identity, and the theme of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of "rogue" states), while the outsiders pulled into the game in novels like Background to Danger do not give a heroic account of themselves in the manner of Buchan's Richard Hannay, but are simply ordinary people fighting for their lives. Graham Greene, getting his start in the genre at roughly the same time, took a similar course in books like This Gun for Hire (1936), which depicted an operative who turns on villainous employers after they betray him. The stories of Ambler and Greene are also noteworthy for their depiction of the threat as coming not from foreigners or domestic radicals (e.g. Communists and anarchists), but from within "our" Establishment (like British business interests happy to do business with Fascists in Background to Danger and Cause for Alarm, or industrialists who welcome, or even provoke, war for the profits it will bring them in This Gun for Hire), and heroism located not in "our" people, but those normally regarded as villains (like Ambler's Soviet superspy Andreas P. Zaleshoff).
Looking on this list of works it may seem there was little for later writers to add after 1940, beyond the genre's obvious adaptation to changes in international politics (the outbreak of World War II, or the Cold War), technology (like jet travel, communications satellites, and computers) and attitudes toward race, gender and sex (one way in which Drummond was not like Bond), the adoption of "difficult," Modernist storytelling techniques (which touched every genre over the course of the twentieth century) and the tendency of books to lengthen (a matter of trends in the publishing industry as a whole). Nonetheless, the genre evolved over subsequent decades in three notable ways.
The first is the changing nature of the protagonists. In the early novels mentioned above (the idiosyncratic works of Conrad aside) the heroes were typically men with public-school educations, independent incomes and servants; gentlemen-sportsmen at home in London clubs and on rural estates. They often led lives of leisure, having inherited wealth (like Everard Dominey in The Great Impersonation, Sapper's Drummond, and the unnamed protagonist of Geoffrey Household's 1939 Rogue Male), or already accumulated it (like Buchan's Hannay, who at the start of The Thirty-Nine Steps has already made his fortune in southern Africa before coming to Britain). Such jobs as they did hold were typically of the kind to which the upper-class commonly gravitated, and which were likely to allow a lengthy leave (like Childers' Carruthers in The Riddle of the Sands, a Foreign Office official able to take a month off just to go sail and shoot in the Baltic – or for that matter, Ambler heroes like Coffin for Dimitrios's Charles Latimer). They tended to have conservative outlooks, and adhered to the political and social orthodoxies of their day, including a simplistic nationalism. And they typically entered the adventure on their own initiative, often after a chance meeting, with a restless nature and a taste for adventure crucial factors in their decision (these last treated most blatantly in Drummond's case).
Later protagonists were less likely to be such examples of upper-class gentility, as with the unnamed hero of Len Deighton's The IPCRESS File (1961) and its sequels, and Adam Hall's Quiller, who pointedly tells the reader that "We are not gentlemen" as he watches a member of the opposition burn to death in a car after deciding not to save him in The Berlin Memorandum (1966).1 Not only were they more likely to be ambivalent about the game, but they were often cynical about nationalism and political ideology. This was not only the case when they were outsiders unfortunate enough to get mixed up in the business, like journalist Thomas Fowler in Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955), but also when they were professional intelligence operatives, like John le Carré characters like Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963). At times, this went as far as outright hostility or disdain toward the Establishment, with not only leftist but rightist writers as well expressing such sentiments (as in William Haggard's idiosyncratic Colonel Russell novels). Additionally, the professionals increasingly squeezed out plucky amateurs like Bulldog Drummond, certainly where series characters are concerned.
The second is a growing recognition of, and response to, what might usefully be termed the "tiny rivet" problem. As Maugham put it in Ashenden,
Being no more than a tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine . . . [his protagonist] never had the advantage of seeing a completed action. He was concerned with the beginning or the end of it, perhaps, or with some incident in the middle, but what his own doings led to he had seldom a chance of discovering. It was as unsatisfactory as those modern novels that give you a number of unrelated episodes and expect you by piecing them together to construct in your mind a connected narrative.In that novel Maugham worked within the framework he described to give us a protagonist who does not see completed actions (the drama in his heroes' adventures typically supplied by other events and factors), but this was a rarity, and other writers dealt with it in two different ways.
One group simply ignored or worked around the fact, with heroes fortuitously having fuller participation – for instance, because some unlikely circumstances have forced them to operate on their own (as in the stories by Buchan and Ambler mentioned above). The other group devoted increasing attention to the "vast and complicated machine," describing its operations at length – both bureaucratic, and technological. Ian Fleming's novels, for instance, presented James Bond as part of a vast organization, and made the reader quite conscious of the fact in novels like Moonraker (1955) and Thunderball (1961) (even as his membership in the special double-o section placed him in the kinds of exceptional positions noted above). Other, later authors went further, not concentrating their narrative on one character, or a few characters, but rather using a large number of viewpoint characters to show as well as tell about more aspects of the machine's functioning – so that the plot is really the heart of the story, and the national security state the real protagonist, with the ostensible characters really just "rivets" inside of it. (At most, one of those characters might be recognizable as a protagonist because he occupies a place within the machine that lets him have a fuller view of the picture than the others.)
Frederick Forsyth was a crucial developer of the latter approach, with novels like his classic The Day of the Jackal (1971), in which the titular assassin begins and ends the story as a cipher, and the opposition is not so much Claude Lebel (who is not introduced until halfway into the story), but the French security state over which Lebel exercises exceptional powers for a brief spell. Seven years later Forsyth repeated the approach, on an even larger canvas, in The Devil's Alternative (1978), as did Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre's The Fifth Horseman (1980). However, Tom Clancy may be said to epitomize this "epic" approach to the tale of international security crisis, his hero Jack Ryan (first introduced in 1984's The Hunt for Red October) tellingly not a field operative but an intelligence analyst, who in the sequels occupied positions of successively greater responsibility - all the way up to the presidency itself by the end of Debt of Honor (1994).
The third is a late but significant Americanization of the genre from the 1970s. Certainly there were some Americans who met with a measure of success writing in the genre before then, like Edward Aarons, author of the Sam Durrell novels, Donald Hamilton, who penned the Matt Helm series, and Richard Condon with the classic The Manchurian Candidate (1959), but nearly all of the important innovators in this area pre-1970, all of the writers remembered and being read today, are British. In his 1972 history of the crime story, Mortal Consequences, Julian Symons speculated that this was due to
the prevailing air of sophisticated coolness about ends and means. Certainly the Americans . . . have never been able to treat the existence of spies threatening or betraying their security with anything but the most narrowly nationalistic seriousness.2There seems something to this analysis, especially as the American writers who made a splash at this time, like Robert Ludlum in The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971) and The Matarese Circle (1979), Trevanian in The Eiger Sanction (1972), James Grady in Six Days of the Condor (1973) and Charles McCarry in The Miernik Dossier (1973) and The Tears of Autumn (1975), offered more varied and nuanced views of such matters. There is no question that many American writers came to enjoy vast commercial success (as Ludlum and Clancy did), and while it would be difficult to point to an American with the status of a Greene or a le Carré, for instance, there was something more like parity in the status of later American and British writers in the field.
All three of these changes were clearly well-established by the end of the 1970s, by which time the spy genre was starting to look a bit worn-out again. Considering the fact I am once more reminded of John Barnes' argument in the essay "Reading for the Undead" that genres tend to follow a three-generation life cycle, with the first generation discovering something new, a second generation finding an established field and going on to develop its still unexploited potentials (a process likely to be guided by a critical reassessment of previous work) – and the third less concerned with innovation than "doing it well" as it turns into
something like an inside joke (as with much of live theatre), a treasured family story (as with opera or jazz), or a set of exercises in which to display virtuosity (as with ballet and with much of orchestral music).It is easy to fall into the trap of fitting facts to theories. Still, the spy story (much like the mystery and science fiction) does seem to me to have traveled something like this course, with writers like Childers, Le Queux and Oppenheim being first-generation early innovators, and Ambler and Greene early second-generation authors bringing new ideas (political as well as aesthetic) and greater skill to a genre that was already threatening to grow stale prior to their appearance.
In the third generation, clearly underway by the 1970s, there seemed a greater tendency to look back, evident in such things as the genre having become so over-the-top that parody went unrecognized – as happened with Trevanian's Jonathan Hemlock novels and Shibumi (1979), which were almost universally read as straight thrillers by critics and general audiences alike (much to that author's frustration). There is also the increased prominence of stories set in World War II (and other earlier periods) in the output of new authors like Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett, and the resurrection of James Bond by John Gardner and Glidrose Publications in 1981 with License Renewed.3
It seems that generic boundaries get fuzzy at this stage of the life cycle, and this tendency was evident in the life of the spy story as well, increasingly hybridized with elements from other genres providing the principal interest – as with Craig Thomas "espionage adventures" like Firefox (1977), military techno-thrillers like Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books, Dale Brown's Day of the Cheetah (1989) or Payne Harrison's Storming Intrepid (1989), and the Dirk Pitt novels of Clive Cussler, like Raise the Titanic! (1976) and Deep Six (1984), which combine espionage and military action with historical mystery and maritime adventure (in a way, coming back full circle to Childers).
Developments within the genre aside, it seems that world events encouraged such a turn. The tendency to look back can be seen as at least partly a reflection of the cultural mood of the 1970s – a sense of national decline (as the post-war boom ended, the energy crisis hit, and the decline of colonial powers like Britain and France ran its course), and of ambivalence about present-day politics (in reaction to Vietnam, Watergate and the like) making earlier periods where claims to national greatness were more credible and clear-cut "good guys" and "bad guys" easier to identify more attractive (like World War II).4
It is worth remembering, too, that the spy story arose in an era of profound international tension, over which the danger of systemic, great power war constantly hovered – and great ideological tension, as nineteenth century liberal society faced challenges from left and right. The advent of détente, and the partial waning of Cold War tensions that went with it, may have made it appear somewhat less compelling as subject matter for some, and earlier conflicts commensurately more attractive. A decade later, the end of the Cold War took a great deal of the remaining steam out of the genre. (To put it bluntly, industrial espionage, terrorism, international crime, rogue states and the faint possibility of Western conflict with Russia or China were no substitute for the Soviets.) Spy novels continued to be written afterward, by new authors – like Charles Cumming, Henry Porter, Barry Eisler and Daniel Silva - as well as the older writers so established as to be nearly immune to such fluctuations in the market - like Forsyth, Clancy and le Carré (all still publishing). However, their book sales and overall cultural impact tended to be less impressive than formerly (though Clancy still managed to be one of the top-selling authors of the '90s), and noteworthy innovation scarcer, and the tendency to look backward growing only more pronounced.5 In the 2000s the most successful stories of international intrigue were more likely to be concerned with historical-religious-Masonic mysteries in the manner of Dan Brown's Robert Langdon novels (or Matthew Reilly's Jack West novels) than conventional political intrigue. I see little sign that the genre is going to stage some comeback, but, to use John Barnes' term, its "afterlife" is at the least a presence in the cultural landscape.
1. Fleming's Bond can be thought of as halfway between these and a later generation of action heroes. Like the older style of protagonist, he went to Eton, enjoys an independent income and has a housekeeper looking after his apartment. However, he is also a long-serving professional intelligence operative in the British Secret Service (and one with a "license to kill" at that), flouts Victorian mores in his attitudes toward gambling and sex, and is not unknown to express ambivalence about his profession and the ends it serves.
2. Symons attributes this difference to the United States' "direct involvement in various wars." This is unconvincing, however, as Britain was more lengthily and completely involved in both of the World Wars than the United States (and suffered far more in them by any measure); far closer to the "front-line" in the Cold War; and in the decades after 1945, involved in dozens of conflicts as it disengaged from its empire, not all of them small in scale (as with the Malaysian Emergency). Rather, the context in which they fought those wars would seem relevant. The spy genre appeared in Britain during a period of concern about the country's decline relative to other, rising powers (like Germany), fears which became realities as the century progressed. The 1970s, when the change arrived for American spy fiction, saw the arrival of a comparable mood in the United States (amid the Vietnam War, the end of the Bretton Woods economic order, the oil crisis and other such challenges). One might conclude from this that the genre flourishes in a period when the pious simplicities of jingoism and national exceptionalism are shown up, and public opinion reckons with life's more complex realities.
3. Ludlum's first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), used an incident in World War II as a frame for a story of the rise of the Nazis in the '20s, and the The Rhinemann Exchange (1974) was wholly set during World War II, as was a significant part of The Gemini Contenders (1976), and the opening of The Holcroft Covenant (1978), which had for its theme the post-war legacy of the Third Reich. Ken Follett made his name as a thriller writer with a World War II story, The Eye of the Needle (1978), as did Jack Higgins with the spies-and-commandos story The Eagle Has Landed (1975). Frederick Forsyth's first two thrillers, The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File (1973), were both set in the early 1960s, during past periods of political crisis. By and large, the major works of the 1950s and 1960s did not make such use of earlier periods.
4. Certainly some British writers compensated for Britain's diminution by emphasizing the country's "special relationship" with the United States, as Fleming did in novels like 1953's Casino Royale (where the combination of American cash and British skill defeated Le Chiffre), and as others have continued to do down to the present. However, by the 1960s and 1970s many writers were taking a more ironic view, like le Carré in The Looking Glass War (1965), A Small Town in Germany (1968), and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), and Joseph Hone in The Private Sector (1971) – in all of which books, the inability or unwillingness of British officials to adapt to their country's decline was a prominent theme.
5. One of le Carré's best-received post-Cold War novels, 1995's The Tailor of Panama, was a homage to Greene's Our Man in Havana (1958). Another example of this is the decision of the publishers of the post-Fleming James Bond novels to return 007 to the 1960s, as happened in Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care (2008). A number of authors have also combined such homages with elements of science fiction and fantasy, like Charles Stross in his "Bob Howard" novels and stories, and Tim Powers in Declare (2001).
A History of the Spy Story, Part I: The Birth of a Genre
Thoughts on W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden
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?