Spying might not be the oldest profession, but it probably comes a close second. It has traditionally been used by nations as an instrument of diplomacy or war. But as well as using it in their dealings with other powers, it is also used for internal security and even to discourage dissent among their own citizens. Spy stories deal with all kinds of undercover activities, in both war and peace, from passive gathering of information at home or abroad, to the active mounting of operations behind enemy lines. The form of the spy story has changed in line with changes in the real world of local and international politics. Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of spy story writers have themselves had experience in the secret world.
Spy stories are fiction, but they take their cues from the real world. Although spying is age-old, spy and secret agent stories are relatively new, and their rise to popularity corresponds with industrialisation and the rise of the nation state. Like the mystery thriller, which is a close relation, spy stories first became popular in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was a time of relative peace and security in England. But there were threats to this peace from growing competition between the great powers. This in part took the form of an arms race, in which it was worthwhile trying to steal information about weapons and military secrets. There was also a growing militancy among working class movements which on the Continent found expression in upsurges of revolution and in anarchist acts of terror. Britain had its own problems with unrest and pressure for Home Rule in Ireland. The newly literate public imagination was easily caught by stories about international intrigue, terrorists, evil foreign powers and brave struggles against them.
A number of serious writers used spying – or at least the collection and reporting of information about hostile powers – in their stories. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859), set at the time of the French Revolutionary wars, is arguably about spying – though much else besides. In Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), set in India and (present day) Pakistan, Kim learns to become a secret agent, taking part in ‘the Great Game’ of spying for the British Secret Service. And perhaps the best of them is Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), a story about an attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, in which both agents and authorities are presented as pathetic rather than frightening – though this does not prevent violence and tragedy from occurring.
The popular spy story was much more crude. The category covered everything from international crime to straight espionage. Some of the early spy stories were attempts to persuade the public of the possibility of war, first with France, and then with Germany. William Le Queux, a journalist and writer of popular romances, was a master of this genre. He wrote a number of ‘adventure’ spy stories featuring Duckworth Drew (possibly a model for James Bond). But he was also known for his predictions of war. In 1894, he wrote The Great War in England in 1897 with France as the invader. After the Anglo French entente in 1904, he switched to using Germany as the enemy. In 1906 he wrote a hugely popular ‘account’ of an attack on England by Germany, also set in the future, entitled The Invasion of 1910, With a Full Account of the Siege of London. He claimed to have knowledge of secret service operations in a number of European countries, and during World War I produced several ‘exposés’ such as The German Spy System from Within (1915) and German Spies in England: an Exposure (1915). He was popularly believed to have been a spy himself. A far better work with a similar purpose, that of alerting the British public to the threat of invasion by Germany, was produced by Erskine Childers in 1903. The Riddle of the Sands is presented as a true story, supposedly published to ‘avert a great national danger’.
World War I gave rise to more anti German spy stories, some of them very good, for example John Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps (1915), where Richard Hannay uncovers a German spy ring in Britain just before the war, and Greenmantle (1916), where Hannay himself becomes a spy in Germany. Even Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes gets into the act, when in the short story His Last Bow (1917) he outwits and captures a German master spy.
The fall of the Czarist Empire and the victory of the Bolsheviks gave new impetus to fears about international anarchist or communist conspiracies. Most of the books dealing with such material, like the Bulldog Drummond stories by Sapper (pen name of H.C. McNeile), are simplistic, chauvinist and largely unreadable today. Agatha Christie’s characters Tommy and Tuppence, who have some vague remit from the Foreign Office, battle shadowy conspiracies that involve foreign agents and criminals – apparently much the same thing – but these stories are not among her best. Others who mixed crime with foreign intrigue were Dornford Yates, Sax Rohmer and Edgar Wallace, none of whom has retained the popularity they enjoyed in the 1920s and 1930s.
Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories (1928), based on his own experience as a member of the British Intelligence Department during World War I, are an exception to the general run of 1920s spy stories. Cool and detached, they emphasise the mundane nature of spying. Maugham notes that ‘The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless’.
Much greater realism was also emphasised in the work of Eric Ambler in the 1930s. He wrote convincingly about ordinary people caught up in spying, and followed the example of Somerset Maugham in suggesting that espionage can be a dirty business for all concerned. Unlike most other writers of spy stories to that time, Ambler was on the political left, and presented communists in a sympathetic light, especially when they were opposing German and Italian fascism.
World War II temporarily displaced the spy story as a popular genre, in favour of stories about war exploits. The immediate post war years were dominated by stories about heroism and atrocities in war, about escapes from prisoner of war camps and about local movements that had resisted the Germans. These often included elements of spying, but were not spy stories as such. Many stories about espionage during the war, such as Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca (1980) and Jackdaws (2001), Robert Harris’s Enigma (1995) or Daniel Silva’s The Unlikely Spy (1996) were only written well after the war was over.
The onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, followed by the policy of military containment of the Soviet Union and its satellites, offered new possibilities for a revival of the ‘saving the world from communist conspiracy’ spy stories. It has been suggested that crime stories written after the war tended to show the detective as an ordinary person, rather than as the super-clever hero of pre-war popular fiction. This left the superhero field open to the secret agent. A typical example of this approach is found in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories. Bond battles evil individuals who in the early stories have some link with SMERSH, the name Fleming gives to the Russian counter espionage service, meaning ‘death to spies’. (There was a unit of the Red Army called SMERSH during the war, but it didn’t deal with foreign spies.) His opponents in the later books are SPECTRE, which is more of a criminal gang, and other evil villains bent on world domination. Fleming died in 1964, but the Bond ethos lives well beyond him, largely because of the Bond films. Several other authors were commissioned to continue writing ‘James Bond’ stories after Fleming’s death, and these are still appearing. So strong was the Bond ‘bang bang kiss kiss’ ethos (a term Fleming used himself of his work) that a character created by John E. Gardner called Boysie Oakes, who was supposed to be a send up of James Bond, was actually taken seriously by some readers. Perhaps not surprisingly, Gardner became one of the ‘new’ Bond writers.
However the tensions between the West and the Eastern block countries also set the scene for some much more sophisticated spy stories. These were more realistic, and addressed some of the moral and political questions raised by spying. Len Deighton’s first hero, unnamed in the four books in which he appears, but called Harry Palmer in the films of these books, inhabits a world of spying beset with snobbery and organisational rivalries and with betrayal and double crosses. John Le Carré, who had worked for the British Foreign Office, took this further with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and his brilliant series of stories featuring George Smiley. In Le Carré’s world, spying is not about violence and action – or rather it is so only when things go wrong. ‘Good intelligence work’ argues Control, the head of Le Carré’s secret service ‘was gradual and rested on a kind of gentleness’. Smiley agrees with Control in detesting ‘the silk-shirt agents, who hogged large chunks of the budget to the detriment of the bread and butter networks’ which he considered ultimately more effective. Le Carré is also interested in what attracts people to spying, and what sometimes makes them into traitors. The first of the Smiley stories, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) reflects the real life defection of the double agents Burgess, McLean and later Kim Philby to Moscow. These defections also influenced Graham Greene’s The Human Factor (1978).
Deighton, Le Carré and other writers of spy stories since the 1960s such as Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum depict a ‘secret world’ of spying that is both large and complex. There are broadly three different kinds of spy organisations. The first engages in international espionage, where a country spies on its enemies – and sometimes its friends – using agents located in those countries, and increasingly, electronic surveillance of communications etc. In Britain, this is the task of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, (known in Le Carré’s books as ‘the Circus’) and in the US of the CIA. Secondly, there is counter espionage, where a country tries to defend itself against the spies of other countries, both foreign nationals and local residents. In Britain, this is the task of MI5 and the FBI in the US. Thirdly, there is surveillance of residents of a country who are considered to be a danger to its stability – this is usually the role of variously named ‘secret police’ organisations. In addition to these major players, there are all the operational intelligence units run by the military. Then there are the high tech intelligence and surveillance organisations. And police forces also need to collect intelligence to fight both local and international crime. Spy stories in general focus on espionage and counter espionage, rather than internal surveillance of citizens, even though a number of the organisations and the methods they use are similar in all three.
Given this complexity, it is not surprising that modern spy stories often involve overlap between these organisations and competition between them. Being secret, there is room for the abuse of power by organisations devoted to surveillance, and this is also sometimes a theme.
While competition between the West and the Eastern block was the major international reality, spy stories mostly presented the Russian KGB as the enemy. There are some notable exceptions to this, however, such as Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) set in Vietnam, Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1971), about an attempt to assassinate General de Gaulle in the aftermath of the Algerian crisis and much of Ambler’s later work which is set in areas such as Indonesia and Latin America. Some of these works are probably better described as belonging to the sub genre of international intrigue than being strictly about espionage. The line between international political activities like terrorism, arms dealing, fomenting civil war and coups d’état, international crime like drug running and money laundering, and espionage, is often thin or even non-existent; the one supports the other. Spy stories focus on the secret world and therefore tend to deal with state sponsored espionage or counter espionage, rather than the free enterprise variety, but the boundaries between these are permeable, in fiction as in life.
Some commentators suggested that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union would mean the end of the spy story. This has not proved to be the case, though it may have seen the end of the traditional kind of spy story. Le Carré was one of the first to engage with the new world order, with Single and Single (1991), about arms dealing in a disintegrating Russia, and Our Game (1995) dealing with a British secret agent who defects to a Chechnya-like fragment of the old USSR. Another recent book, The Constant Gardener (2001), is about corruption and exploitation by a multi national corporation in Africa, and fits better into the international intrigue category. Gerald Seymour is another whose early books (though not his first two, Harry’s Game (1975) and The Glory Boys (1976) which dealt with the IRA) used standard Cold War themes but he has also moved into the modern international realities of state involvement in terrorism, drugs, civil war and insurgency.
Changes in technology are also changing the nature of spying, spies and spy stories. Up till the middle of the twentieth century, the arms race between the great powers made it worth while for spies to go to a lot of trouble to find out about technological developments in weapons and about the military plans of other countries. But this is now increasingly done through satellite or electronic surveillance, interception of communications, computer hacking and the like. Certainly no spy now could usefully memorise the British naval disposition in the event of war (as in The Thirty-Nine Steps), or take civilian photos of siege guns at Toulon (as in Epitaph for a Spy). As early as 1959, Ian Fleming noted that the sort of spy story where the embassy butler stole the code book was dead, and that ‘the spy is a ticking seismograph … measuring distant atomic explosions on the other side of the world, or instruments carried in aircraft that measure the uranium or plutonium content of the atmosphere’ – though he admitted liking the old fashioned human spy story better. John Gardner, in a non-Bond spy story, The Nostradamus Traitor (1979), also argues for the continuing importance of the individual agent; he says ‘the pundits were wrong and that modern intelligence gathering was not merely a question of satellites, computers, and electronic hardware’.
Nevertheless, new technology is changing the nature of the spy story. American spy thrillers have always been closer to the action thriller tradition than the more reflective, puzzle-based stories by writers like Le Carré. Current writers have developed this tradition into a sub genre which is sometimes called the ‘techno-thriller’ because of the mass of technical military detail they contain. An early example of this was Tom Clancy’s first book, The Hunt for Red October (1984) which is very much an action thriller, addressing the Cold War from an American military perspective. The hero is a junior analyst from the CIA, motivated by high minded patriotism. Clancy’s later books, many of which have been made into ‘action’ films like Patriot Games, tend to glorify American technical achievement and the CIA.
The new world order that emerged from the shattering of the old East verus West divide is also contributing to the development a rather different sort of espionage story in Britain, and a new generation of writers. In place of the manoeuvres of two or three large secret bureaucracies engaged in internal conflict and in competition with each other, recent British writers deal with conflicts all over the globe, where there is urgent need for operational information, and often little in place by way of established spy networks. Thus Andy McNab and Chris Ryan, both former SAS soldiers, write about secret operations in the Falklands, in Bosnia, in Ireland, in Iraq and Iran, but these are conducted by military men rather than by the traditional civilian secret agent; McNab’s hero, Nick Stone, is an ex-SAS soldier. The books of these writers are also in the tradition of action thrillers and certainly action and suspense are often more important than the mystery, or puzzle around which many earlier spy stories were written. In terms of action, they resemble Buchan more than Le Carré.
It could perhaps be argued that as spy stories came to prominence with the rise of the nation state, globalisation will put an end to them. But the dominance of a single world power, the USA, has not stopped conflict between states, or within them, in ways that threaten global security. The world of international politics continues to be rent with competition and conflict, and where this is so, there will always be espionage, surveillance, spying and counter spying. And as the world has good reason to know, the existence of large, secret bureaucracies has not been able to counter significant terrorist activities by a variety of radical and religious organisations which stand outside the borders of the traditional nation state. In the face of these new realities, the spy story may change, but won’t go away.