First published on The Trebuchet
Britain – it could be argued – invented the archetypal spy novel. Born out of political fears and insecurities during two World Wars and a subsequent Cold War, heroes and anti-heroes were dreamt up by a distinguished line of novelists including Erskine Childers, John Buchan, Eric Ambler, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. For the most part these early British spy novelist portrayed the British spy as a true-to-life character, but with sufficient pluck and derring-do.
Ian Fleming’s James Bond came along in the early 1950s, when post-war Britain needed some glamor and escapism back into their lives after World War 2. The scandal of the Cambridge Spy ring was another shot to the gut, which might have also spurred Fleming on, to restore some pride into Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Fleming’s Bond was and is a sort of anti-hero though; ruthless, cold – a killer even. Bond does and probably always will stand out from the crowd as a contradictory spy – possibly not a good one in the truest sense, where everyone knows his name and he doesn’t speak Russian.
The Cold War spy novels introduced another kind of asset; spooks that harken back to the pre-Bond days. John Le Carre‘s shadowy spymasters and agents like George Smiley and Alec Leamus were company men but always with a whiff of ‘the traitor within’; Kim Philby and Co. still haunting the ‘Firm’ years afterwards. The spy fiction arms race is heating up again and don’t forget the old master himself, Le Carre, still knocking out classics after all these years – his latest is A Delicate Truth. Len Deighton gave us Harry Palmer – the working class, tough agent, with less complexity than Le Carre but more than Fleming.
The spy genre continues to flourish – boosted by the revitalized Bond movies and upstart Jason Bourne. Even Le Carre’s slow-burners are getting the movie treatment such as Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy and the upcoming A Most Wanted Man – incidentally Phillip Seymour Hoffman‘s last role. American appetites for the spy thriller are high and the US has produced some fine ones from pens of Alan Furst, Joseph Kanon and Olen Steinhauer.
So where does this leave the Brits?
You could say that in recent years, there has been a lot of double agent activity going on. One of the most respected authors of our time – Ian McEwan – wrote the clever and semi-autobiographical Sweet Tooth, although told from the point-of-view of a female recruit into MI5. Sebastian Faulks, author of the revered Birdsong has dabbled in the genre with Charlotte Gray and most notably a fairly weak Bond continuation novel, Devil May Care.
Next up William Boyd, who recently also penned a better Bond continuation novel – Solo – has written a handful of spy-related novels including Any Human Heart, Waiting for Sunrise and Restless. Restless is terrific fun. Similar to McEwan’s Sweet tooth, told in the third person of a new recruit into MI6 this time at the turn of the Second World War and also in the first person of her daughter some time in the 70s, who unbeknownst for years, finds out that her mother was a spy. Boyd drew much of his inspiration for this novel from the exploits of William Stephenson’s secret intelligence unit under orders from Winston Churchill, to pass information onto the Americans, falsify news stories and even forge Nazi maps in the hopes of getting the US into the war.
These ‘Irregulars’ included none other than Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, David Ogilvy and Ivar Bryce. It also seemed to me that Boyd based one of his main characters – the spymaster Lucas Romer – on disgraced double agent Anthony Blunt, the fourth member of the Cambridge Spies to have been uncovered. When Boyd dabbles in the genre, he dabbles with conviction and clearly has fun doing it.
If the main protagonists in the genre seem to be more female dominated in recent years, then one author who must be mentioned is Dame Stella Rimington. As the first female head in history of MI5, she is better qualified than any of the aforementioned authors of recent times to give us the goods. Her novels receive high praise and she is clearly well versed in the fictional version of espionage, even Fleming. She writes:
“It is perhaps not surprising that in 1956, when Fleming wrote the book, he could imagine only two roles for women in the intelligence services: torturer or seductress. But it is a testament to his abiding influence that even in the ’90s, his was still the popular image. The idea that women like me might be leading investigations, running sources or even running entire intelligence services was unimaginable.”
Last but not least is Charles Cumming (right). His books – 6 and counting – are all set in the present day and like Rimington, worked for the Secret Intelligence Services. His experiences are minor compared, but a combination of these experiences and an education in Le Carre, Fleming, Ambler and Deighton; provides the readers of Cumming’s books a sort of ‘best of’ feeling. We get an insight into the inner workings of the spy game, the true feelings of an agent in the field, gripping sequences, sex and witty dialogue. If you want a cocktail of all your favorite spy writers in one – he’s your man.
Perhaps he might get a crack at 007 after Anthony Horowitz‘s continuation novel this year? The British espionage genre is still thriving, over 50 years after Ian Fleming’s death.