In literature as in life, espionage femme fatale is an endangered species.
Even today, after the bust and the negotiations and the swap with the erswhile Evil Empire, I can barely write the words “Russian spy ring” without snickering. But this week’s news that Anna Chapman may sell her story for big bucks has me pondering the tradition of dangerous women in spy fiction.
And today’s newer news that Angelina Jolie has invited Chapman to the Moscow premier of her new action film Salt, makes me want to weep into my fingers. When did the fun house mirror stop being fun? Angelina, don’t you know, plays a woman accused of being a Russian spy…sigh.
The “Boris and Natasha” quality of the actual case, with Chapman and 10 others posing as ordinary Brits or Americans, has been mined to good effect by wits who got here before me, but let me say for the record that this case’s most telling trait is the spectacular ineptitude of the Russian “spies.” And not just the agents on the ground, as we say in the espionage biz, but their handlers and superior officers going all the way up the ladder to “Moscow Center.”
I mean, this pack of nitwits was dispatched to “infiltrate American society,” as Newsweek puts it? Please. Infiltrating American society is a lot like going to the Mall. You walk in, you shop, you buy a soda at the food court — voila! Mission accomplished. As others have noted, you’d get more good info for less expense and trouble with a subscription to The New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
That Russian spymasters have, 21 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, no clue about the workings of an open society is, in its
way, dispiriting: These are the dark geniuses who outwitted as every turn during the Cold War? Who got Kim Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Five to sell out Britain’s dearest secrets to the Soviet Union? Who pilfered America’s nuclear secrets and drove James Jesus Angleton into paroxysms of counterintelligence hysteria at the CIA?
While this risible episode in espionage history fades (I bet Steven Soderbergh is already planning a comic film, or maybe the Coen Brothers), let’s consider some femmes fatale from another, richer tradition: The spy novel. Before we do, though, let me direct your attention to Elizabeth Renzetti’s excellent and amusing column at the Globe and Mail on what real spies are like: “Female spies: Less femme fatale, more single mom.”
Two caveats: 1) No James Bond. With names like “Pussy Galore,” Ian Fleming’s dangerous beauties are not remotely to be taken seriously, while Rosa Klebb, his greatest female creation, may be a woman and she may be lethal, but she’s no one’s idea of a femme fatale. 2) A femme fatale can work on our side, as well as the enemy’s.
Er, uh: This is embarrassing. Wracking my brain, not to mention increasingly fevered searchings of the Internet suggest maybe espionage fiction is not such a rich source of femmes fatal after all. Noir crime fiction? Sure, the crazy dangerous ladies are all over the place. Spy fiction? Not so much. Movies, da; novels, nyet.
Maybe it’s just my reading, which I’ve wasted on serious literature and, in a bid at redemption, sci-fi and horror (ask me an H.P. Lovecraft question! Go on, anything! I dare ya!) So to get the discussion started, here are three literary femmes fatale of my acquaintance:
1. Little Drummer Girl, by John Le Carre: A radical left-wing English actress is recruited by Israeli intelligence to track and entrap a Palestinian terrorist. Despite her politics, she does her job all too well.
2. A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler: Really, with its droll, pitch-black humor and world weary view of the way things work, this is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read. Dimitrios’ women are only a small part of the story, but they are exemplary femmes fatal, leaving wreckage wherever they go.
3. Restless, by William Boyd. Sally Gilmartin is not your conventional femme fatale, but I like Boyd’s novel of World War II British espionage so much, I’m going to include it anyway. She’s on the side of the angels, for one thing, but she’s smart, beautiful, and she kills a brute with nothing but a sharpened pencil. My kinda gal. To read about, I mean.
If someone out there has read more deeply than I in the spy novel tradition, please suggest a few more classic literary spy femmes.