Spy fiction

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For the Video Game, see Spy Fiction (video game).

The genre of spy fiction — sometimes called political thriller or spy thriller or sometimes shortened simply to Spy-fi — arose before World War I at about the same time that the first modern intelligence agencies were formed. Seldom has this literary field met with critical acclaim, although insightful, literate, and politically important works have been published in it.

At the same time, it has enjoyed great popular success. Readership waned only in the lull following the end of the Cold War (the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989). The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States reignited interest and have reversed that trend. Some pundits are referring to the current era as the Decade of the Spy and pointing to the renaissance in spy fiction and film as two of the indicators of this[citation needed].


[edit] Before World War II

Early spy novels include James Fennimore Cooper's The Spy (1821) and The Bravo (1831); Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901), which was based on The Great Game (espionage and politics) between Europe and Asia and centered in Afghanistan; and Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), recounting the undercover exploits of an English aristocrat's attempts to rescue French aristocrats during the French Revolution, while Robert Erskine Childers's novel The Riddle of the Sands (1903) defined the spy novel for the pre–First World War era.

While Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is mainly remembered as a protagonist of detective fiction, several of the stories are actually early examples of the spy genre. In "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans", Holmes protects vital British secrets from foreign spies, while in "His Last Bow" he is himself a double agent feeding false information to the Germans on the eve of World War I.

Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907) was a more serious look at espionage and its consequences, both for individuals and society. It includes a close study of a small group of revolutionaries and their terrorist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The result is failure and a series of personal tragedies.

The most widely read spy-fiction writer was William Le Queux, whose ordinary prose has since relegated his works to used-book stores, but who was Britain's highest-selling author during the pre–World War I years; the second greatest selling spy-fiction writer was E. Phillips Oppenheim. Together they wrote hundreds of spy novels, between 1900 and 1914, but the formulaic stories have been judged as of little literary merit.

During the First World War, the pre-eminent author was John Buchan, a skilled propagandist; his novels were well-written portrayals of the war as the conflict between civilization and barbarism. His best-known works are the Richard Hannay novels Greenmantle and The Thirty-Nine Steps (the title of which, but not the plot, was used for an Alfred Hitchcock film); Buchan's novels are still in print.

In France, in 1917, Gaston Leroux penned one of the earliest French spy thrillers with Rouletabille chez Krupp starring his fictional detective Joseph Rouletabille.

The inter-war period's pulp spy fiction mostly concerned battling Bolsheviks.

[edit] World War II

The strength and versatility of the literary form became evident in the period between the two world wars, and flowered during World War II. For the first time, there appeared novels written by retired intelligence officers such as W. Somerset Maugham, who accurately portrayed spying in the First World War in Ashenden. Compton Mackenzie, another former British intelligence agent, wrote the first successful spy satire. Eric Ambler wrote of ordinary people caught up in espionage in Epitaph for a Spy (1938), The Mask of Dimitrios (U.S. title: A Coffin for Dimitrios) (1939), and Journey into Fear (1940). Ambler was notable (and shocking to some) for introducing the left-wing perspective to a genre previously featuring right-wing, Establishment attitudes.

In 1939, Glasgow-born author Helen MacInnes's first espionage novel, Above Suspicion, was published in Britain (1941 in the U.S.A.), beginning a 45-year, highly successful career in which critics praised her for her literate, fast-paced, intricately plotted suspense novels set against contemporary history. Above Suspicion was made into a popular movie. Some of her other famous titles include Assignment in Britanny (1942), Decision at Delphi (1961), and Ride a Pale Horse (1984).

In 1940, British writer Manning Coles brought out Drink to Yesterday, the first of his acclaimed Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon novels. It was a grim story set in World War I, while his next books, which occurred in Nazi Germany or in World War II England, had a lighter tone despite the graveness of the events depicted. After the war, Hambledon's books grew formulaic, and critical interest waned.

[edit] The Cold War

The Cold War that followed hard upon World War II was a great impetus to the genre. Graham Greene drew on his experience with British Intelligence to create a number of left-wing, anti-imperialist spy novels, including The Quiet American (1952), set in southeast Asia, A Burnt-out Case (1961), about the Belgian Congo, The Comedians (1966), set in Haiti, The Honorary Consul (1973), in the Argentine town of Corrientes, near the Paraguay border, and The Human Factor (1978), about spies in London. His most popular novel was Our Man in Havana (1959), a seriocomedy about British intelligence bumbling in pre-Castro Cuba.

An early, literary phenomenom of the Cold War was Ian Fleming's counter-intelligence agent, James Bond007, who became and remains the most famous fictional spy. Although the author served in British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War, the secret intelligence world Fleming described in the Bond books is unrealistic.

Despite Fleming's enormous commercial success, other authors quickly developed heroes with anti-Bond traits. Notable examples are John le Carré and Len Deighton, who modeled their novels on those 1930s authors who were dubious about the morality of espionage. For example, in contrast to Bond, Le Carré's George Smiley, is a middle-aged intelligence officer whose wife has had several public love affairs. Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal) and Ken Follett (Eye of the Needle) approached the subject journalistically, and were praised for their dramatic use of historic events. "Adam Hall", one of the pseudonyms of Trevor Dudley-Smith, created a popular series about British spy Quiller, beginning with The Berlin Memorandum (U.S. title: The Quiller Memorandum), which has a different tack; it is both literary and focused upon tradecraft.

During this era, American authors for the first time rose to sufficient prominence to break British dominance of the genre. In 1960 Donald Hamilton published Death of a Citizen and The Wrecking Crew, the debut novels in his long-running series featuring the grim counterspy/assassin Matt Helm. The books inspired a series of comic, popular movies starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm. Robert Ludlum's first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), sold modestly in hardcover, but was a bestseller in paperback, launching Ludlum's career. Generally considered the inventor of the modern spy thriller, Ludlum has been criticized, praised, and widely imitated. The Hunt for Red October (1984), the first novel of Tom Clancy, was a major publishing sensation and also made into a film, foreshadowing the vast popular and critical interest in the best-selling novel and highly anticipated film The Da Vinci Code (2003-2006). The Welsh writer Craig Thomas is generally credite dwith creating the techno-thrilelr genre with the publication of Firefox in 1977; however, it was Clancy who took this to new heights.

The 1960s saw an abundance of spy films, many based on works of literature. They covered a wide range, from the fantastical James Bond films to the grainy, monochrome realism of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (based on the Le Carré novel of that title), to the cool commercialism of The Quiller Memorandum (screenplay for the film first released in the UK as The Berlin Memorandum is by Harold Pinter, adapted from "Adam Hall"'s eponymous novel).

Spies also were depicted on television, including James Bond in 1954 in an episode of Climax! based on Fleming's Casino Royale. Several television series — including The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Danger Man, and I Spy — aired during the 1960s; spies were parodied in Get Smart. Then, in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, The Sandbaggers presented a gritty, bureaucratic view of espionage operations to television.

In the 1970s and 1980s a former CIA employee, Charles McCarry, wrote a half-dozen, highly regarded novels such as The Tears of Autumn that were notable for mastery of espionage tradecraft and their literary quality.

[edit] After the Cold War

As the Cold War closed, literary novelist Norman Mailer's abiding preoccupation with U.S. espionage inspired him to write Harlot's Ghost, a sprawling 1,300-page work published in 1991, the year that the Soviet Union dissolved.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the once-Communist East reeled, desperately in need of financial aid from the West as it struggled to adopt democracy. The Soviet Union was gone, and Russia was not easily believable as the arch enemy in contemporary spy tales. Adding to the problem, the very existence of the CIA was in question -- the U.S. Congress seriously discussed disbanding it. Interest in espionage fiction plummeted. Deciding the game was over, The New York Times abandoned its long-running column that reviewed spy thrillers.

Still, publishers continued to bring out the new work of those authors who had been highly popular during the Cold War, hoping that most of their readership would remain loyal. That proved to be true. Besides the Cold War writers mentioned earlier, those who published successfully during this low point included Nelson DeMille, W.E.B. Griffin, and David Morrell.

At the same time, editors were naturally wary of gambling on brand-new authors. Only a handful of novelists ultimately were deemed to have written work strong or original enough to be published in hardcover. Among those in the United States were Joseph Finder, Moscow Club (1995), Gayle Lynds, Masquerade, (1996), and Daniel Silva, The Unlikely Spy (1996) and, in the United Kingdom, Charles Cumming, A Spy By Nature (2001), and Henry Porter, Remembrance Day (2000). They were rarities, whose best-selling espionage stories about the new post-Cold War world helped to keep the form alive.

[edit] The decade of the spy

Finally, the political tide turned again. The tragic events of 9/11 and the aftermath of continued terrorist attacks reawakened readers' hunger for information about the world at large. Fiction has always been a favored lens through which readers not only entertained but educated themselves. Quickly a demand for spy thrillers arose, a demand that has only grown, reflecting the widespread attention paid by the public to real-life intelligence matters not only in their own country but internationally.

Le Carre and Forsyth returned to the field with new books. Editors actively sought out espionage novels and continue to do so. Today a host of new writers across Europe and the United States publish in the field. In the United States, the New York Times bestseller list is often dominated by thrillers.

Finally, in 2004, the first international organization for professional thriller authors was formed -- International Thriller Writers -- "ITW." ITW held the first international conference to celebrate thrillers -- ThrillerFest -- in June 2006. The next is scheduled for July 2007. Also in 2007, the first spy theme park -- Spyland -- is scheduled to open near Lyons, France.

Recently, there have been several successful TV espionage series. Some, such as La Femme Nikita (1997-2001), Alias (2001-2006), and 24 (2001- ), Spooks (in the UK; re-titled MI-5 in the USA and Canada; 2002- ), have cult followings of millions of fans worldwide in both first-runs and re-runs and have become perhaps even cultural icons.

There have also been many recent independent and Hollywood-produced spy movies shown in movie theaters and distributed on DVD which have generated steady streams of both popular interest and financial profits for those involved in their production, such as: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt; Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg and nominated for five Academy Awards and two Golden Globes in 2005; Syriana, featuring George Clooney (who won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance in 2005) and several other fine actors; The Constant Gardener (based on Le Carre's 2001 novel of the same title), which garnered numerous awards including the Best Actress in a Supporting Role Academy Award for Rachel Weisz in 2006; it starred the highly acclaimed British actor Ralph Fiennes, who also received a BAFTA award for his performance in the film that year.

Spy fiction has also taken off in a brand-new direction with the arrival of digital gaming. Players can become a spy and infiltrate enemy territory without being detected. The Metal Gear (most specifically the third installment Metal Gear Solid) series pioneered the concept of infiltration and secrecy in computer gaming (as opposed to the standard first-person shooter genre), followed by games like Syphon Filter and Splinter Cell. These games feature complex conspiracy/espionage storylines and cinematic presentation that rival most espionage-based motion pictures.

At fan gatherings, writers' conferences, publishers' meetings, and in the Intelligence Community itself -- analysts, spymasters, and covert operators read the genre for entertainment and to pick up ideas -- memories of the field's near death after the Cold War are painfully fresh. But since terrorism and world unrest are not expected to end soon, the need for intelligence gathering, counterespionage, and counter-terrorism are not expected to end soon either. The future of the spy thriller is bright.

[edit] Prominent writers of spy fiction

[edit] References

  • Aronoff, Myron J. The Spy Novels of John Le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics (1999).
  • Britton, Wesley. Spy Television. The Prager Television Collection. Series Ed. David Bianculli. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2004. ISBN 0275981630.
  • Cawelti, John G. The Spy Story (1987)
  • Priestman, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (2003).

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

  • Spyland The official website for the world's first espionage theme park, Spyland, scheduled to open in 2007.

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Spy fiction

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