Bond’s Men: Ten Great British Spy Novels of the Early 20th Century

Article by Benjamin Welton

Detecting the Nation: Fictions of Detection and the Imperial VentureThe espionage novel is one part “imperial adventure story” and one part detective tale. The former, which is extensively examined by Dr. Caroline Reitz in her slim study entitled Detecting the Nation: Fictions of Detection and the Imperial Venture, often details the exploits of Englishmen abroad, specifically those educated Englishmen who take an ethnographic interest in their colonial surroundings. Furthermore, these “imperial adventure” tales typically include an element of mystery, and as such they call upon the protagonists to become both gentleman adventurers and gentleman detectives.

By 1900, while the “imperial adventure” tale was beginning to coalesce into a recognizable sub-genre, the detective story was firmly entrenched in popular fiction. Thanks in no small part to the enduring popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective duo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, the British detective tale went unsurpassed until a violent challenger appeared in the form of the American hard-boiled school. Before the upstart Americans could set their guns a-blazin’ across pulp pages that were splattered with blood, British crime and mystery writers were busy crafting puzzles that called for keen observation, a scientific attitude, and no shortage of courage. These elements would serve the many fictional detectives well, especially as the black clouds of war began to form across the English Channel.

The Battle of Dorking, Before World War I’s “Guns of August” fired their first shells, Germans and Brits were battling fiercely in print and had been ever since the unification of the German lands in 1871. In that year, a retired Indian Army officer named George Tomkyns Chesney published the speculative novella The Battle of Dorking, which outlined a successful invasion of southern England by a country that seemed eerily similar to Germany. Chesney’s invasion tale spawned many imitators, from the anti-war socialist H.G. Wells to the red-meat alarmist William Le Queux. Ultimately, Chesney brought the status of the British Army into public discussion, and from there it was an easy step to ponder the capabilities of not only the Royal Navy but also the entire government’s ability to keep Great Britain safe from Continental aggression.

The espionage novel entered into the literary arena at precisely the right time. Fueled by anxieties over the increasing industrial and military might of Germany, British spy writers began proposing dire situations that could only be averted by daring-do and gumption. A little detection was called for too, and throughout the early twentieth century, the British spy of fiction was more or less an private detective who just so happened to work for His Majesty.

In honor of these early trailblazers, let’s take a stroll through ten of the best early spy adventures, from the beginning of the 20th century until the start of World War II, who might have been strong influences on Ian Fleming’s creation.

10. Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 11.58.11 AMSet against the backdrop of the Anglo-Russian “Great Game” in Central Asia, Kim is a child-like adventure tale centered around the orphaned Irishman Kimball O’Hara, better known as Kim. Kim’s long stay in British India has made him almost one of the locals, and when Russian agents try to undermine British rule in South Asia, Kim and a colorful cast of characters seek to not only outwit the Russians but also attain Enlightenment in this classic novel.

9. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 11.51.45 AMOn the surface, this novel is about two men in a boat. One of them is Davies, the stiff-backed sea-lover and the captain of the yacht Dulcibella, while the other is Carruthers, a bored young man from the Foreign Office. After setting out on a Baltic holiday, the pair discover a secret German submarine pen off the coast of the East Frisian Islands. Worse still, the Germans, who are led by a traitorous former officer of the Royal Navy, have a plan to invade the southern coast of England. It is then left up to the navalist Davies and the fiction-addicted Carruthers to halt the catastrophe.

8. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 12.01.05 PMAs one of the first novels to tackle the modern phenomenon of urban terrorism, The Secret Agent presents a tangled web of disloyalty, exploitation, and madness. Based on the mysterious Greenwich Bombing of 1894, The Secret Agent is a precursor to those postwar spy novels that approach the relationship between individuals and the state with a cynical, almost amoral eye. Conrad’s novel was certainly ahead of its time, and unlike its many contemporaries, the crimes of The Secret Agent read as all too real.

7. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (1908)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 12.01.48 PMAlthough he is better known for his crime-solving priest Father Brown, Chesterton was certainly capable of creating highly comical and highly dense novels. With The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton uses the figure of the bomb-throwing anarchist as the most sensational example of a God-less world. Instead of policing crimes after the fact, Chesterton’s strange group of special detectives and undercover agents in The Man Who Was Thursday investigate thought crimes in lines of poetry and radical calls to arms in modern paintings. In the end, God and the Devil both make appearances in this surreal journey through the topsy-turvy world of the Edwardian psyche.

6. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 12.02.23 PMFor such a short novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps has had a profound impact on the development on the thriller fiction genre. A classic case of mistaken identity, Buchan’s twelfth novel introduces the character of Richard Hannay, a tough Scotsman who has recently come to London after a long stay in Africa. After the murder of the American spy Franklin P. Scudder and the revelation of the German Black Stone spy ring, Hannay is forced to run for his life as the forces of disorder and war in Europe descended upon his trail. The Thirty-Nine Steps is the textbook definition of a fast-paced action story.

5. The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (1922)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 12.02.58 PMTommy and Tuppence are two “Bright Young Things” of the Jazz Age. After demobilizing, both of them decide to have a little fun and they advertise themselves as “The Young Adventurers, Ltd.” Before long, their desire for adventure pushes them towards a case of international intrigue. From German war-mongers to Soviet agents, The Secret Adversary presents a rouge’s gallery of anti-British forces, all of whom seek to cause a Labour Party-backed general strike that would essentially cripple British production. Reactionary to its core but undoubtedly fun, The Secret Adversary is not only one of Christie’s earliest novels, but it also one of her best espionage thrillers.

4. Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham (1928)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 12.03.41 PMWhile not a novel per se, Ashenden is a loose collection of short stories that all involve the playwright Ashenden—a recently recruited member of British intelligence. As part of his first assignment, Ashenden is sent to Switzerland, and while there he gets involved in a series of running plots involving enemy agents, dazzling dancers, and exotic lovers. Somewhat based on Maugham’s own experience as an intelligence officer during World War I, Ashenden is a sterling example of the literary possibilities inherent in the spy fiction genre.

3. The Forbidden Territory by Dennis Wheatley (1933)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 12.04.11 PMAlthough Jeremy Duns has made the convincing argument that Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust was one of the primary influences behind the creation of James Bond, Wheatley’s first adventure novel is still one of the author’s best. While the characters would gain more lasting fame with 1934’s The Devil Rides Out, The Forbidden Territory is the first time out for the trio of the French aristocrat Duke de Richleau and his friends Rex Van Ryn and Simon Aron. In The Forbidden Territory, de Richleau and Aron travel to the Soviet Union in order to rescue Van Ryn from a prison camp. Fast and crisp, The Forbidden Territory is one of the better non-supernatural novels that Wheatley ever wrote.

2. The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 12.05.12 PMAn English crime novelist, a Greek master criminal, and a Turkish setting. What more could one ask for? Ambler is an ace stylist, and The Mask of Dimitrios might be the best achievement of his career. Like his contemporary Dorothy S. Sayers, Ambler found his hero-muse in the form of a fellow novelist. It’s hard to not read Charles Latimer as Ambler’s second, but either way Latimer’s walk across the line between detection and obsession is fascinating and engrossing like a drug.

1. The Saint Series by Leslie Charteris (1928-1963)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 12.05.51 PMAmazingly, Simon Templar, the gentlemen thief known as The Saint, is little remembered today. At one time, The Saint was omnipresent, from radio plays to television shows and movies. A fashionable, debonair, yet boyish anti-hero, Templar reads today like a slightly more playful Bond with a much deeper independence streak. After Charteris’s death in 1963, several writers tried to keep Templar going, but none could match Charteris’s wit or his sophistication.

Incidental Intelligence

The Top Ten Books of Ian Fleming by Edward Biddulph

James Bond’s World War I Origins by Benjamin Welton

The Untold Influence of Dennis Wheatley on Ian Fleming by Jeremy Duns

Dennis Wheatley – Devils, Dossiers, Deception, by Michael Barber

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One thought on “Bond’s Men: Ten Great British Spy Novels of the Early 20th Century

  1. Ben Welton’s article is fine and informative, especially in pointing out how the espionage novel is a mix of the detective story and the adventure/thriller story. One correction, however; although he is correct that the Saint books were written by others after 1963, Leslie Charteris did not die in that year. Charteris died in 1993, having in the meantime written some witty introductions to later reprintings of early Saint books in the 1980s.

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