6 minute read

Spy: Michael Shea

There have been spies ever since there have been competing states. There have even been spies who were writers; for example William Wordsworth, in the late eighteenth century, was being paid by the Home Office when he travelled through northern Germany and France, to report back on what was going on in Europe in that turbulent revolutionary period. But it is only at the beginning of the twentieth century—a period of rampant xenophobia—that a distinct genre of spy story emerges: thrillers with an international setting, where the central element of the plot is usually a threat to the nation from spies sent into the country by a malignant enemy—usually Germany. Perhaps the most famous in this genre is The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Erskine Childers. It is a story of two inexperienced young British yachtsmen sailing in the Baltic, who discover a dastardly German plot to invade Britain. Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907) gave the genre literary respectability: a foreign spy working out of a rundown shop in Soho is revealed as a double agent reporting to Scotland Yard.

Spy novels about earlier periods became popular in the general mood of national paranoia. The most outstanding were written by the Hungarian-born Baroness Orczy. She recorded the adventures of Sir Percy Blakeney, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), who, using many remarkable disguises, was pledged to rescue ‘innocent’ victims from the Revolutionary terror of Robespierre's France.

Until the Second World War, the nasty foreigners are invariably confronted by heroic amateurs, usually recruited in some gentleman's club in London. Such spies emerge in a variety of guises in the writings of John Buchan, for example The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), and in the books of Sapper (pen-name of Herman McNeile), of which the best is perhaps The Return of Bulldog Drummond (1932). At a more demanding level, Compton Mackenzie's Water on the Brain (1933) reflects the workings, often comical, of the British Secret Service. Mackenzie became director of the Aegean Intelligence Service during the First World War. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden (1928), while it is episodic and somewhat dated, also captures the mood of gifted amateurism which was a feature of the actual (as well as fictional) intelligence services of the age. In Graham Greene's Stamboul Train (1932) spies and spycatchers chase each other along the rattling but gilded corridors of that famous train on its way to Constantinople. Eric Ambler was writing in a similar vein during the immediate pre-Second World War years, when Hitler and Nazism were threatening all of Western Europe. Two of Ambler's best-known works are Epitaph for a Spy (1938) and his famous The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), though he continued to write classic thrillers with an international setting long after the war as well. Epitaph for a Spy, in particular, continues to hold its allure, with its story of a very ordinary young man, a teacher, catapulted into the deadly world of international intrigue, accused of spying against the French. In a race against time, he has to find out who has framed him, and why.

The modern spy story comes from the Second World War and its cold war aftermath which finally professionalized the trade. The names which come to the fore include Ian Fleming, who brought James Bond, snobbery, sex, and new levels of violence into the gentlemanly club of spy fiction. Begin with Casino Royale (1953). Even today, largely through the popularity of the filmed versions, Fleming's books continue to maintain their fictional appeal. At a higher intellectual level (interestingly, spying has always attracted literary as well as popular authors) are John Le Carré's spy stories, in particular The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), fêted by Graham Greene himself as the best spy story he had ever read. Le Carré brought moral ambiguity into the hitherto almost wholly patriotic spy novel, reflecting the doubts and divisions of the cold war period. In a similar mould came Len Deighton with The Ipcress file (1962) and Funeral in Berlin (1964), who contributed a ruthless working-class hero at a time when the country was rediscovering the lower classes in film as well as novels. Graham Greene returned to the genre in this period with his funny and clever Our Man in Havana (1958), telling the tale of a naïve Englishman gradually dragged into a web of double dealing when his designs for a vacuum cleaner are mistaken for secret weapon plans.

Spying and diplomacy go hand in hand and some of the best writers in the genre are also, often pseudonymously, diplomats. Douglas Hurd, a career diplomat turned politician, and latterly Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, wrote a number of books, usually with a diplomatic setting, but brimful of agents and counter agents. His near contemporary, Michael Sinclair, also produced a batch of well-received thrillers in the 1970s and 1980s, most of which had a strong diplomatic setting. East–West conflicts appear again and again over the decades up to the destruction of the Berlin Wall, with Checkpoint Charlie as a frequent location for the climax both in books and in the many films that were based on them. Several of Lionel Davidson's brilliant thrillers are, in essence, spy stories, often with a Middle Eastern setting. Start with A Long Way to Shiloh (1966). Moscow follows Berlin as a favourite setting for spy writers. Martin Cruz Smith's excellent Gorky Park (1981), while essentially a detective story with a Russian setting, has its East–West secrets and tensions embedded deep within it.

Many other contemporary writers of adventure fiction set occasional novels in espionage mode. Frederick Forsyth, Bryan Forbes, Jack Higgins, and Robert Ludlum all draw on secret service backgrounds to paint vivid pictures of the constant undercurrent of tensions between nations as they battle for their own self-interests. Ted Allbeury, himself a former intelligence officer, Alan Judd, and Ken Follett, particularly his early Eye of the Needle (1992; previously published as Storm Island, 1978) and The Man from St Petersburg (1982) are other highly popular authors to look out for.

There is a commonly held belief that, with the end of the cold war, spying is no more, and that writers of spy stories have had to scrape desperately around looking for new villains to write about. Far from it. Espionage is still very active and is, by its very nature, a highly secret profession where truth and fiction run hand in hand. The new playing fields are now largely to do with industrial espionage, finding out about other companies' and other countries' economic and commercial secrets. The enemies too have changed, since we no longer have the Kremlin and the KGB to worry about. Or do we? Recently, the highly acclaimed Archangel (1998) by Robert Harris has to be seen against the real-life background of a continuing, inherited East–West conflict. A whole new wave of spy stories have Arabs or Chinese as the enemy, or stray into the general adventure story genre with Colombian drug barons as the villains. But given that the recently declared objectives of Britain's intelligence services—MI5, the Security Service, MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, and GCHQ, the international eavesdropping service—are to defeat drug barons and the international money-laundering mafia, those professionals involved in the dubious art of spying still have a long career ahead of them, as do the writers of spy fiction who continue to feed from the reality.


See also MICHAEL SHEA (b. 1938)

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction