The history of the spy novel is almost as long as the history of the crime novel. The earlier novels are closely connected to the crime novel and the "gentleman thief" novels, and are mostly not very readworthy today. What I want to present here, are older books (i.e. not from the last few years) that should be of interest to the modern reader of spy novels.
Defining the genre is difficult, as it borders on the crime novel and the action or adventure thriller and many books contain all elements. What I include here is therefore a matter of what I have read and how I percieve the books.
The first "modern" spy stories are not novels, but the Ashenden short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, published in the 1920's. Before the outbreak of WWII, two important authors of the genre emerged: Geoffrey Household with his outstanding Rough Male and Eric Ambler with a series of books in the spy/thriller borderland.
WWII made great advances in both espionage, intelligence , security, counter-intelligence and counter-espionage, giving many a first-hand experience of this murky world. The Cold War made espionage a growth industry, and gave authors almost unlimited material to work on.
Better known for the movies than the books they originally were based upon, Ian Fleming wrote the original books about James Bond (after his death, other authors took over). These novels clearly have the "gentleman thief" genre as a forerunner, but the theme is (counter)-intelligence, heavily coupled with dashing technology.
John le Carré (pseudonym for David John Moore Cornwall) wasn't immediately successful with his first two novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. In these two novels le Carré introduced George Smiley, but this were more crime novels than spy novels. His success started with the best-selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which brought new dimensions and literary aspirations to the spy novel. Smiley became a major character, a spy master fighting his opposite number Carla, in the succeeding novels and has remained so until the more recent ones - he was pensioned off with the cold war.
Len Deighton has not made the same name for himself as le Carré, but his books are regarded as being on par with le Carré by the spy story afficionados. His first spy novel, The Ipcress File, came in 1962, after le Carré had started his writing career but before the Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Deighton is just as much an intellectual as le Carré, and there is little action of the James Bond variety in his first books. He likes leaving clues, like using crossword puzzles and crossword clues for chapter headings. His hero in the first books ( The Ipcress File, Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin, Billion-dollar Brain and An Expensive Place to Die) is a nameless bureaucrat with a working-class background that sets him off against the more upper-class background of his colleagues and bosses. In the movies ( The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion-dollar Brain), he was called Harry Palmer, brilliantly played by Michael Caine.
Following the first books came a number of spy novels. Deighton has among other things carried off writing a triology of triologies of spy novels: Game, Set and Match; Hook, Line and Sinker; and Faith, Hope and Charity, all centering on the same group of characters. Game, Set and Match was made into a 12-hour TV-series.
Francis Clifford has written two novels that earns him a place among the major spy writers. One is The Naked Runner, about a businessman being forced to act as an agent and assassin for British intelligence. (Frank Sinatra played Sam Laker, the leading role, in the movie.) The other one is All Men Are Lonely Now, a spy novel of infinite sadness that made just as much of an impression on me as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Ted Allbeury needs a whole page on his own.
John Trenhaile had immediate success with his first book Kyril (later editions called The Man Called Kyril), the main character Kyril being a Soviet agent pretending to defect in order to smoke out a high-ranking KGB officer who is also an agent for the British. We follow the double agent further in A View From the Square and Nocturne for the General. A large number of books have followed this first triology. Kyril was made into a movie, Codename: Kyril.
Nigel West has written a few spy novels, but his more interesting books are his accounts of various parts of British intelligence and security.
More intriguing and seemingly more fantastic than spy fiction are some of the true stories of intelligence and counter-intelligence.
To be continued....
This page was last updated on 05.02.2005.
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