The seven ages of English spy fiction

by Malcolm Redfellow

Back at the ranch, Malcolm was considering the reviews of the forthcoming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy re-make. Which would make it a film of the TV series of the book — almost a dynastic progression, or at least a genre development suggested by the original dustcover.

“Two countries divided by a common language”

What those reviews of Tomas Alfredson’s film demonstrate is a clear distinction of British and the US concepts of this sub-genre. A perceptive and extended piece on Playlist, albeit arguing from a filmic perspective, addresses just this:

The spy genre, is generally speaking, a euphemism for ‘action movie’—look at the explosions, fistfights and car chases of the Bond films, of the Mission: Impossible series, of the Bourne franchise, none of which have much in the way of actual tradecraft. The business of being a spy is hard, boring work, made up of listening and talking and without a lot of glamor. One of the men who best understands this is novelist John Le Carré, himself a former spy, who for close to half a century has been behind some of the most acclaimed literary examples of the genre. But aside from the much-loved The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and the more recent The Constant Gardener (the latter not strictly speaking an espionage picture), his works haven’t had a huge amount of success on the big screen, lacking the speedboats and fireballs of Ian Fleming or Robert Ludlum

Well, that’s what the cinema audiences, at least those not at art-houses, seem to want. So it’s demand, and supply. Moreover, even as far back as Douglas Fairbanks (père and fils), swinging from a gothic chandelier was more sensational on the silver screen than on the printed page.

Way back, when this blogging thing first got to him, Malcolm attempted an overview of the British spy novel, here reprised.

That was following a re-reading of  Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, a book still often cited as the prototype for a now-overcrowded genre, which also needs to be placed in context.

So, here’s Malcolm’s possible structure for a historical perspective of the genre:

  • before Childers, what?
  • Childers, in 1903;
  • Richard Hannay;
  • Bulldog Drummond, and the inter-War years;
  • James Bond and the brutalities of the Cold War world;
  • John Le Carré and a new ambivalent intellectualism;
  • Len Deighton, and the post-Le Carré scene.

That assumes the crash, bang wallop of much US “spy fiction” (see the Playlist piece above) hasn’t spawned an explicitly cis-Atlantic variant — or, if it has, that Malcolm remains in blissful ignorance.

We may return this way in a future post.

Three literary, social and historical “forces”  are at work here. Where these three forces overlap in a Venn-diagram is the present moment of popular taste. Perhaps that should be “popular paranoia”.

1. Who is the national enemy?

Over time this changes from

  • nebulous anarchist forces, usually associated with east European nasties, though the Yellow Peril has its fifteen minutes,
  • who segue into the horrible Hun, and
  • by the 1950s again mutates into the Red Menace and the Enemy Within,
  • and finally back to nebulous nihilist forces, but now usually associated with Islamicist Asian nasties.

2. What is the literary climate?

This, too, changes.

  • The spy novel emerges from the miasma of the penny dreadful and Daily Mail sensationalist page-fillers.
  • The Riddle of the Sands is, self-consciously, more demanding. Indeed, at its original publication, the Times Literary Supplement suggested that “the whole story can scarcely be understood by any but practical navigators”. Malcolm notes, in that context, that his hard-back copy dates from 1955, when it was published by Rupert Hart-Davis, as number 29 in the “Mariners Library”.
  • Then it is back to the popular yellow-back shocker, sold through the railway bookstall, recognising the growth of a mass-market for such publications.
  • Publishing standards, and intellectual acceptance improve as, successively, Alan Lane’s Penguins, then the universal wartime economy editions give way to the post-war library hardbacks who are recycled into well-designed paperback editions. The current vogue for “trade paperbacks” raises the quality standard even further. Malcolm’s aside here is that the dust-covers Richard Copping did for Jonathan Cape’s first editions of Ian Fleming are the genre’s gold standard of presentation.
  • Content as well as medium has higher standards. Eric Ambler and Graham Greene bridge the chasm between popular and intellectual readership. Characterisation is vastly improved. By the time Le Carré is hitting his stride, the “spy novel” is indistinguishable from the “psychological novel”.

3. The advance of technology

Over the last century, we have gone from the Martini rifle, the anarchist’s bomb and the good ship Dulcibella, through poison gas, aircraft, atom bombs, death rays, the space age and missile technology, and into the cyberage. The MacGuffin changes accordingly; but the essential plot of the best spy stories still reduces to the protagonist hunting, encountering, escaping and, in the end-game, neutralising an antagonist, on a credible human level.

George Smiley

Here we have one of the greatest, and most sophisticated characterisations of English fiction. Smiley is developed so subtly, so gently. Fortunately, we have a full background history, by as the opening chapter of Call for the Dead, Smiley’s first outing:

They had brought him in during the war, the professional civil servant from an orthodox department, a man to handle paper and integrate the brilliance of his staff with the cumbersome machine of bureaucracy. It comforted the Great to deal with a man they knew, a man who could reduce any colour to grey, who knew his masters and could walk among them. And he did it so well. They liked his diffidence when he apologized for the company he kept, his insincerity when he defended the vagaries of his subordinates, his flexibility when formulating new commitments. Nor did he let go the advantages of a cloak and dagger man malgré lui, wearing the cloak for his masters and preserving the dagger for his servants. Ostensibly, his position was an odd one. He was not the nominal Head of Service, but the Ministers’ Adviser on Intelligence, and Steed-Asprey had described him for all time as the Head Eunuch.

Which is why Malcolm will be off to see how well Gary Oldman carries it off in Alfredson’s treatment.