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Spies like us: Brit espionage fiction tops the best American efforts. Or… does it?

September 12, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Tom Hardy: Gee, I don't remember this scene from the 1979 Alec Guinness version...

Thanks to Poe, Hammett and Chandler, Americans can lay claim to detective fiction, Holmes and Maigret notwithstanding. But its cousin, the spy thriller, is indisputably a British creation, and almost all of its important practitioners have hailed from the U.K.

For a list of upcoming activities at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the center’s website. And mark your calendar: This year’s Miami Book Fair International runs Nov. 13-20.

Please, correct me if you think I’m wrong. A case can be made for an American surge in the genre in latter years, and I welcome partisans of Alan Furst, Charles McCarry, Robert Littell, or my personal fave, Olen Steinhauer, to argue in their behalf. And I hope someone will step forward to defend old warhorses like Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy.

But really, can those names stand up to the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maughum, John Buchan, John LeCarre or Ian Fleming? Sadly, no.

What got me pondering the spy game this fine clear Fort Lauderdale morning is a recent essay by Robert McCrum in the Guardian. McCrum’s observations are pegged to the forthcoming adaptation of LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring the manly trio of Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, and Tom Hardy.

McCrum’s piece includes his Top Nine list (the British are so odd) for the best spy novels ever and also functions as a brief primer on the history of the genre. As I neared the end, I realized two things: A) McCrum had neglected to mention a single book by an American author, and B) I did not mind.

Some interesting observations from contemplation of McCrum’s essay: Most striking is the high percentage of British masters of espionage fiction who served in the intelligence services of their country–who were spies themselves. These include Maughum, LeCarre, Fleming and, possibly the greatest of them all, Graham Greene.

The most notable American espionage writers who were also actual spooks: E. Howard Hunt, remembered as a Watergate conspirator, and William F. Buckley, Jr., the conservative commentator who gave a year to the CIA in the early 1950s. Neither is a spy novelist of the first rank, to say the least.

I am happy to see McCrum give credit for the genre’s founding to two very different writers. Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel (1903), about a British master spy rescuing innocents from the guillotine during the French Revolution, is a “romantic thriller” that looks forward to the the lighter-than-air exploits of James Bond. It remains great escapist fun.

Joseph Conrad, by contrast, is a very serious writer, and his 1905 novel The Secret Agent, with its labyrinthine subplots and double-crosses,  presages LeCarre’s emphasis on the anonymous monotony of espionage. It also anticipates the post-World War II rise of terrorism.

I’m pleased, too, that McCrum gives credit to such semi-forgotten masters as Erskine Childers, John Buchan and Eric Ambler, all of whom can still be read with joy and satisfaction.

In fact, the only point on which I’d take issue with McCrum is his exclusion of Kipling’s great novel, Kim. While Kim is in part a boy’s own story of a white child growing up homeless on the streets of Lahore, India, it’s also set against the Great Game, that proto-Cold War between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia, especially Afghanistan. Kim is sometimes more than a spy story, but it’s never less. It’s also a masterpiece.

Well, one more thing. It strikes me as simply perverse that McCrum stops his list at nine titles. What, you can’t think of a single additional novel that would bring the total to a nice, resounding ten? I mean, come on, man, think! Len Deighton’s Berlin Game?  The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth? Even William Boyd’s Restless, for pity’s sake!

Please, friends, add your own favorite spy novels. We must be prepared to help our British relations whenever it’s easy and doesn’t cost anything.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2011 3:56 pm

    It’s not exactly in Le Carre’s realm, but Donald Westlake’s “A Spy in the Ointment” merits a mention. It’s sort of Westlake’s comic take on “Modesty Blaise” et al. It’s short, funny and worth a look because it’s Westlake working in a different key.

    I think the Brits have this sub-genre locked up. Don’t know why they do it best; sort of like the ’60s rock thing or royals.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 13, 2011 10:27 am

      Yeah, I left that one out because a) I haven’t read it, and b) it doesn’t support my thesis. Westlake’s always a good bet, though. I’ll add it to my list.

  2. Steven WSJ permalink
    November 14, 2011 12:01 am

    Charles McCarry and Alan Furst probably represents the best of US efforts, although the movies ‘Rendition’ and ‘Syriana’ represent two of the finest spy-related stories around, with the common thread that both were basd loosely on memoirs/non-fictionalised accounts.

    But for subtlety of purpose and consistency McCarry and Furst are the co-gold medal winners of US spy fiction.

  3. Rafał permalink
    December 23, 2013 12:15 pm

    I’d like to make an observation: Joseph Conrad was, actually, a Pole who wrote in English.

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