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In literature as in life, espionage femme fatale is an endangered species.

July 15, 2010

Anna Chapman: The real deal?

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

Angelina: Hollywood's idea of a Russian spy.

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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 15, 2010 4:17 pm

    Nothing comes to my mind. But I’m sure they are out there.

    As for the Russian spy scandal–wonder if that is anything like the U.S. attempting to infiltrate say, the Taliban?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 15, 2010 9:01 pm

      Our intelligence agencies have proven their ineptitude again and again.

  2. Sean permalink
    July 15, 2010 5:12 pm

    She’s not a spy but I dig Cayce Pollard, the heroine of William Gibson’s ‘Pattern Recognition.’ She has spy-like attributes: travels the world, dresses sharp, has state of the art computer gear. Plus she gets kidnapped to a former Cold War location. The espionage going on around her is corporate: Pollard is hired by a big media company to solve an Internet mystery, and she attracts rivals and moles who do bad things using tools adapted from spying to business skulduggery.

    Do you suppose that classic state v. state spycraft, male or female, has the grip on readers today that it did in the decades of Fleming, LeCarre and Tom Clancy? I want to say not, but I can’t back that up. (Chauncey?) Today’s popular literary sleuths and adventurers mostly seem to be cops, PI’s, lawyers and journalists, with of course the occasional inked-up Swedish riot grrl.

    p.s. Anna Chapman is hot and all but she has a mean and stupid face. And she cannot have been much of a spy: I read an item about her on TPM in which she was having drinks with a couple of guys and went on an anti-Semitic, Russian-nationalist tirade. Way to keep your cover, Slick! Also, I think it was a panicked phone call – tapped by us – to a Russian relative that cinched it and led to her arrest. She should have read some LeCarre before she went to work. She’d have learned a) Don’t Call Mom and b) especially not on your personal phone.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 15, 2010 9:22 pm

      A mean and stupid face? That’s harsh, though not altogether unwarranted. State spycraft does not seem to have the hold on the imagination it once did, but I think that’s a matter of eras. When the Cold War ended, the Le Carresque spy novel, not to mention the Bondian thriller, died, at least for awhile. The public taste for thrillers has caught up again, though — witness the success of post-Bondian fantasists like Daniel Silva and elegant nostalgiasts like Alan Furst.

  3. Holly permalink
    July 15, 2010 5:29 pm

    I believe there are some female members of the Israeli spy team in the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva. And in the last few books (e.g, The Messenger), he has introduced a female American spy – Sarah Bancroft – who works for the CIA and often assists the Israeli team with undercover work. But the main focus of most of the books is usually on Allon.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 15, 2010 9:26 pm

      I’ve only read one Silva novel, so while I can attest to the speedy thrills he conveys, I can’t really say whether or not his female spies qualify as femmes fatales. Competence is not enough unless it includes that ineffable quality of vampiness…

  4. John Karwacki permalink
    July 16, 2010 9:37 am

    I hear Julia Child did some covert manuevers before bringing French cuisine to the states.
    Three questions: Who is Charles Dexter Ward? Where are the Mountains of Madness? And why can’t I find Innsmouth on a map?
    Thanks, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 19, 2010 11:10 am

      Charles Dexter Ward was an unfortunately curious young man who discovered some real skeletons in the family closet. The Mountains of Madness lie in Antarctica, though in a real way it might be said they hide behind the Wall of Sleep. Tourism at Innsmouth has greatly declined since the Fish People won a majority on the city council.

  5. Monica permalink
    July 18, 2010 4:56 pm

    I am not a big fan of spy related literature or movies, but as you know, I am a huge Dexter series (novel and t.v.) fan. The character of Lila came to mind when I read your article, although I don’t think she was written to carry a spy persona. To me, her character was mysterious and sly in somewhat of a “spy fashion”.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 19, 2010 11:12 am

      Lila is a classic femme fatale, though of the noir rather than spy fiction variety: she’s beautiful, seductive, adoring, manipulative, unstable, grasping, without conscience, as dependable as a lamprey. Kinda like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

  6. PJ Parrish permalink
    July 19, 2010 11:04 am

    Came up empty on this one, Chauncey, although I am not well read in intrigue genre. Even women spy novelists — ie Helen MacInnes — tended to write male protags. Only good one I can think of is Gale Lynds, who has strong male and females in her spy novels.

    The female spy seems to be more a construct of movies and TV, a la “La Femme Nikita.” Wonder why novelists have shied away?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 19, 2010 11:13 am

      Yes, I can think of lots of examples from film and television (The Girl From U.N.C.L.E, Sidney Bristow, to name but two from vastly different eras), but almost none from literature. It is odd, isn’t it?

  7. Sean permalink
    July 19, 2010 11:08 am

    Valerie Plame? Oh, wait …

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 19, 2010 11:14 am

      Very good, my man, very good.

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