The Evolution of Espionage Fiction: “The secrecy, deception, and danger combine to produce an aura of romance and adventure.”

From a post on by Otto Penzler headlined “The Evolution of Espionage Fiction”:

Espionage has been called the second oldest profession, and with good reason. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a famous textbook on waging an effective war, devoted a great deal of significance to espionage and the creation of a secret spy network. All warfare is deception, he stated, and “Be subtle! Be subtle!” he intoned, and “use your spies for every kind of business.” It was published in 510 BC.

The craft of espionage has fascinated people ever since stories were told. . . .The secrecy, manipulation, deception, and potential danger combine to produce an aura of romance and adventure to the enterprise.

Those who are actually involved in the world of espionage and counterespionage have quite a different view, recognizing and accepting the fact that it is mostly boring work, gathering information from technical journals, computers, overlong reports, and often self-serving memos, then analyzing the staggering mountain of information in order to filter out the tiny nuggets of data that may add a worthwhile grain of gold to a dossier. . . .

There was a time when espionage fiction was far more exciting and flamboyant than it is today, mainly because it bore no connection to reality. The many thrilling spy stories of E. Phillips Oppenheim, H. C. McNeile’s “Bulldog” Drummond adventures, John Buchan’s Richard Hannay thrillers, Baroness Orczy’s novels about the Scarlet Pimpernel, and William Le Queux’s tales were aimed at entertaining readers with the rip-roaring exploits of characters whose lives were far more enthralling than their own. . . .Clandestine meetings, romantic trysts, and the surreptitious handing over of stolen documents were done in palaces, mansions, and castles, as well as on yachts. The women in these books were all young and beautiful or old and eccentric, and the heroes were unfailingly handsome, patriotic, courageous, and honorable.

The notion of honor among spies was highly regarded and perhaps carried out to a perplexing degree in an earlier time. Its apotheosis came in the form of Henry Stimson, the newly appointed Secretary of State, who shut down the Cipher Bureau because he thought it was unethical. “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” he stated, defining his peculiar foreign policy. . . .

This wholly fantastical world of spy thrillers began to see the kernel of its demise when W. Somerset Maugham wrote Ashenden; or, The British Agent in 1928. This volume of connected episodes marked the birth of the realistic espionage story in which ordinary people are caught up in extraordinary circumstances and simply try their best to cope. . . .

The conclusion of World War I impelled a large number of British authors to write espionage stories about the Kaiser’s evil intent and the relentless fortitude and intelligence of various spy heroes to outwit him. These postwar thrillers soon morphed into predictive anti-Nazi counterespionage tales that continued to elevate the level of verisimilitude, particularly among British authors, many of whom enjoyed great success, such as Graham Greene and Henry Patterson (best-known under his Jack Higgins pseudonym).

The Cold War inspired more and more complex novels and a greater requirement for accuracy as the reading public became more sophisticated. . . .There was a greater willingness on the part of news media and fiction writers to accept a greater level of moral ambiguity than had existed in other wars. It was rare to find a kind, generous, and intelligent Nazi in literature, while they abounded among Soviet Communists.

Many authors, both English and American, presented the Cold War as a nuanced game played between two powers who employed the same tactics, its spies and counter-spies equally ruthless but also just human beings employed by their respective countries.

The greatest of these authors was John le Carré, whose breakout novel was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), the dark tale that posited (and illustrated) that the British were perfectly comfortable sacrificing one of their spies. The Americans James Grady and Brian Garfield went a step further by demonstrating that it was quite all right for members of the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate their colleagues, in Six Days of the Condor (1974) and Hopscotch (1975).

Charles McCarry, arguably the greatest American writer of espionage who ever lived, maintained a clearer vision, primarily through his series character Paul Christopher, recognizing that the West, most notably the United States, was in a just battle against totalitarianism. A deep undercover agent for the CIA for eleven years, he brought a level of accuracy and believable detail to his work that would have been impossible for any author without that background.

If a single author can be said to have bridged the era of the ultraheroic, extravagantly colorful patriot it is Ian Fleming, whose James Bond character may have challenged Sherlock Holmes as the world’s most recognizable crime fighter. Bond’s extraordinary set of skills and attractiveness to women were never designed to appear totally realistic, which was fine with his readers and the millions who flocked to his cinematic adventures. . . .

The latest enemy of democracy in espionage stories is Islam and its extremist adherents. Counterespionage plays a vital role in contemporary thrillers as various secret service agencies are kept busy thwarting potential attacks on political leaders, military personnel, ordinary citizens, and even ancient landmarks that somehow offend the sensibilities of jihadists.

As the modern spy novel has become ultrarealistic, relying more on technology than on colorful espionage agents, one might think that the genre would be in danger of becoming tedious. . . .Fortunately, the talent and finely-honed skill of most of today’s practitioners make this a fear to be discarded. As long as Nelson DeMille, Lee Child, Daniel Silva, Stephen Hunter, and others continue to work in the field, the future for those of us who love the battle between Good and Evil is assured.

Excerpted from the introduction to The Big Book of Espionage, edited by Otto Penzler, published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.

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