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Spy fiction, a genre of literature involving espionage as an important context or plot device, emerged in the early twentieth century, inspired by rivalries and intrigues between the major powers, and the establishment of modern intelligence agencies. It was given new impetus by the development of fascism and communism in the lead-up to World War 2, continued to develop during the Cold War, and received a fresh impetus from the appearance of Muslim fundamentalism as a potent force.
As a genre, spy fiction is thematically related to the novel of adventure (The Prisoner of Zenda, 1894, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905), the thriller (such as the works of Edgar Wallace) and the politico–military thriller (The Schirmer Inheritance, 1953, The Quiet American, 1955).
In nineteenth-century France, the Dreyfus Affair (1894–99) contributed much to public interest in espionage. For some twelve years (ca. 1894–1906), the Affair, which involved elements of international espionage, treason, and anti-Semitism, dominated French politics. The details were reported by the world press: an Imperial German penetration agent betraying to Germany the secrets of the General Staff of the French Army; the French counter-intelligence riposte of sending a charwoman to rifle the trash in the German Embassy in Paris, were news that inspired successful spy fiction.
Early examples of the espionage novel are The Spy (1821) and The Bravo (1831), by American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. The Bravo attacks European anti-republicanism, by depicting Venice as a city-state where a ruthless oligarchy wears the mask of the "serene republic".
The lead-up to the First World War
The major themes of spy fiction in the lead-up to the First World War were the continuing rivalry between the European colonial powers for control of Asia, the growing threat of conflict in Europe, the domestic threat of revolutionaries and anarchists, and historical romance.
Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling concerns the Anglo–Russian Great Game of imperial and geopolitical rivalry and strategic warfare for supremacy in Central Asia, usually in Afghanistan. But the term "spy novel" was defined by The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Irish author Robert Erskine Childers. It described amateur spies discovering a German plan to invade Britain, thus being an early example of the invasion literature sub-genre. William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim became the most widely read and most successful British writers of spy fiction, especially of invasion literature. Despite having been their genre's first and second writers, their prosaic style and formulaic stories, produced voluminously from 1900 to 1914, proved of low literary merit.
Meanwhile, the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, is a spyhunter for Britain in the stories "The Adventure of the Second Stain" (1904), and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" (1912). In "His Last Bow" (1917), he served Crown and Country as a double agent, transmitting false intelligence to Imperial Germany on the eve of the Great War.
The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad examines the psychology and ideology motivating the socially marginal men and women of a revolutionary cell determined to provoke revolution in Britain with a terrorist bombing of the Greenwich Observatory.
In Continental Europe, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Orczy chronicled an English aristocrat's derring-do in rescuing French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror of the populist French Revolution (1789–99).
During the First World War
During the War, the propagandist John Buchan, became the pre-eminent British spy novelist. His well written stories portray the Great War as a "clash of civilisations" between Western civilization and barbarism. His notable novels are The Thirty-nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916) and sequels, all featuring the heroic Scotsman Richard Hannay. In France Gaston Leroux published the spy thriller Rouletabille chez Krupp (1917), in which a detective, Joseph Rouletabille, engages in espionage.
After the successful Russian Revolution (1917), the quality of spy fiction declined, because the Bolshevik enemy had won the Russian Civil War (1917–23); thus, the inter-war spy story usually concerns combating the Red Menace, which was then perceived as another "clash of civilizations".
Despite poor writing and plotting, spy fiction endured, and former Intelligence officers and agents began writing quality spy fiction from inside the trade. Examples are Ashenden or: the British Agent (1928) by W. Somerset Maugham, about counter-revolutionary British espionage against Bolshevik Russia, and The Mystery of Tunnel 51 (1928) by Alexander Wilson whose novels conveyed an uncanny portrait of the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original 'C'. Water on the Brain (1933) by former intelligence officer Compton Mackenzie was the first successful spy novel satire. 
Second World War
The growing threat of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain, and the imminence of war, attracted quality writers back to spy fiction.
British author Eric Ambler brought a new realism to spy fiction. The Dark Frontier (1936), Epitaph for a Spy (1938), The Mask of Dimitrios (US: A Coffin for Dimitrios, 1939), and Journey into Fear (1940) feature amateurs entangled in espionage. The politics and ideology are secondary to the personal story that involved the hero or heroine. Ambler's Popular Front–period œuvre has a left-wing perspective about the personal consequences of "big picture" politics and ideology, which was notable, given spy fiction's usual right-wards tilt in defence of the Establishment attitudes underpinning empire and imperialism. Ambler's early novels Uncommon Danger (1937) and Cause for Alarm (1938), in which NKVD spies help the amateur protagonist survive, are especially remarkable among English-language spy fiction.
Above Suspicion (1939) by Helen MacInnes, about an anti-Nazi husband and wife spy team, features literate writing and fast-paced, intricate, and suspenseful stories occurring against contemporary historical backgrounds. MacInnes's many other spy novels include Assignment in Brittany (1942), Decision at Delphi (1961), and Ride a Pale Horse (1984).
Although Alan Furst wrote after this period, his novels are generally set around the Second World War period.
Manning Coles published Drink to Yesterday (1940), a grim story occurring during the Great War, which introduces the hero Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon. However, further novels featuring Hambledon were lighter-toned, despite occurring either in Nazi Germany or Britain during the Second World War (1939–45). After the War, the Hambledon adventures fell to formula, losing critical and popular interest.
The metamorphosis of the Second World War (1939–45) into the Soviet–American Cold War (1945–91) gave new impetus to spy novelists.
Desmond Cory and Ian Fleming introduced the secret agent with a licence to kill, the government-sanctioned assassin. The glamorous playboy James Bond, secret agent 007 of the British Secret Service, is perhaps the most famous fictional spy, a mixture of assassin and counter-intelligence officer introduced in Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming. After Fleming's death the franchise continued under other British and American authors, including John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Jeffery Deaver and William Boyd.
Despite the commercial success of Fleming's extravagant anti-Communist novels, other former spies, such as John le Carré and Len Deighton, created anti-heroic protagonists who struggled with the ethical issues involved in espionage, and sometimes resorted to immoral tactics. Their novels feature protagonists antithetical to James Bond. Le Carré's middle-class George Smiley is a middle-aged spy burdened with an unfaithful, upper-class wife who publicly cuckolds him for sport. Deighton's anonymous spy, protagonist of The IPCRESS File (1962), Horse Under Water (1963), Funeral in Berlin (1964), and others, is a working-class man. Adam Diment's Philip McAlpine is a long-haired, hashish-smoking fop in the novels The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967), The Great Spy Race (1968), The Bang Bang Birds (1968) and Think, Inc. (1971).
Former British Intelligence officer Graham Greene examined the morality of espionage in left-wing, anti-imperialist novels such as The Heart of the Matter (1948) set in Sierra Leone, the seriocomic Our Man in Havana (1959) occurring in the Cuba of dictator Fulgencio Batista before his deposition by Fidel Castro's popular Cuban Revolution (1953–59), and The Human Factor (1978) about British support for the apartheid National Party government of South Africa, against the Red Menace.
Noteworthy examples of the journalistic style and successful integration of fictional characters with historical events were the politico–military novels The Day of the Jackal (1971) by Frederick Forsyth and Eye of the Needle (1978) by Ken Follett. Under the pseudonym "Adam Hall", Trevor Dudley-Smith wrote the Quiller spy novel series, beginning with The Berlin Memorandum (US: The Quiller Memorandum, 1965), a hybrid of glamour and dirt, Fleming and Le Carré. The writing is literary and the tradecraft believable.
Other leading examples of espionage fiction during this period include the Peter Marlow series, beginning with The Private Sector (1971) by Joseph Hone, which is set during Israel's Six Day War (1967) against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and William Garner's secret agents, the fantastic Michael Jagger, in Overkill (1966), The Deep, Deep Freeze (1968), The Us or Them War (1969) and A Big Enough Wreath (1974) and the realistic John Morpurgo in Think Big, Think Dirty (1983), Rats' Alley (1984), and Zones of Silence (1986).
Other important British writers who first became active during this period include Desmond Bagley, William Boyd, Brian Cleeve, Michael Gilbert, Jack Higgins, Ian Mackintosh, Alistair MacLean, James Munro, Manning O'Brine, Anthony Price, Desmond Skirrow and Dennis Wheatley.
In time, US spy novelists achieved a measure of parity in a genre dominated by British writers. In 1955, Edward S. Aarons began publishing the Sam Durell CIA "Assignment" series, which began with Assignment to Disaster (1955). Donald Hamilton published Death of a Citizen (1960) and The Wrecking Crew (1960), beginning the series featuring Matt Helm, a CIA assassin and counter-intelligence agent. Hamilton's novels were adult and well-written, but the cinematic interpretations were adolescent parody. The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971) by Robert Ludlum is usually considered the first American modern (glamour and dirt) spy thriller weighing action and reflection. In the 1970s, former CIA man Charles McCarry began the Paul Christopher series with The Miernik Dossier (1973) and The Tears of Autumn (1978), which were well-written, with believable tradecraft.
The first American techno-thriller was The Hunt for Red October (1984) by Tom Clancy. It introduced CIA deskman (analyst) Jack Ryan as a field agent; he reprised the role in the sequel The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1987).
The Nick Carter-Killmaster series of spy novels, initiated by Michael Avallone and Valerie Moolman, but authored anonymously, ran to over 260 separate books between 1964 and the early 1990s and invariably pitted American, Soviet and Chinese spies against each other. With the proliferation of male protagonists in the spy fiction genre, writers and book packagers also started bringing out spy fiction with a female as the protagonist. One notable spy series is The Baroness, featuring a sexy female superspy, with the novels being more action-oriented, in the mold of Nick Carter-Killmaster.
Julian Semyonov was an influential spy novelist, writing in the Eastern Bloc, whose range of novels and novel series featured a White Russian spy in the USSR; Max Otto von Stierlitz, a Soviet mole in the Nazi High Command, and Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka. In his novels, Semyonov covered much Soviet intelligence history, ranging from the Russian Civil War (1917–1923), through the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), to the Russo–American Cold War (1945–91). In 1973, his novel Seventeen Moments of Spring (1968) was adapted to television as a twelve-part mini-series about the Soviet spy Maksim Isaev operating in wartime Nazi Germany as Max Otto von Stierlitz, charged with preventing a separate peace between Nazi Germany and America which would exclude the USSR. The programme TASS Is Authorized to Declare... also derives from his work.
Cinema and television
Much spy fiction was adapted as spy films in the 1960s, ranging from the fantastical James Bond series to the realistic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), and the hybrid The Quiller Memorandum (1966).
In television, the American adaptation of Casino Royale (1954) featured Jimmy Bond in an episode of the Climax! anthology series. The narrative tone of television espionage ranged from the drama of Danger Man (1960–68) to the sardonicism of The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964–68) and the flippancy of I Spy (1965–68) until the exaggeration, akin to that of William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim before the First World War (1914–18), degenerated to the parody of Get Smart (1965–70). However, the circle closed in the late 1970s when The Sandbaggers (1978–80) presented the grit and bureaucracy of espionage.
In the 1980s, US television featured the light espionage programmes Airwolf (1984–87) and MacGyver (1985–92), each rooted in the Cold War yet reflecting American citizens' distrust of their government, after the crimes of the Nixon Government (the internal, political espionage of the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War) were exposed. The spy heroes were independent of government; MacGyver works for a non-profit, private think tank, and aviator Hawke and two friends work free-lance adventures. Although each series features an intelligence agency, the DXS in MacGyver, and the FIRM, in Airwolf, its agents could alternately serve as adversaries as well as allies for the heroes.
Because the end of the Cold War in 1991, mooted the USSR, the Iron Curtain countries, and Russia as credible enemies of democracy, espionage novelists were at a (temporary) loss for nemeses. The US Congress even considered disestablishing the CIA. The New York Times newspaper ceased publishing a spy novel review column. Nevertheless, counting on the afficionado, publishers continued to issue spy novels by writers popular during the Cold War era, among them Harlot's Ghost (1991) by Norman Mailer and novels by Nelson DeMille, W.E.B. Griffin, and David Morrell.
In the US, the new novels Moscow Club (1991) by Joseph Finder, Masquerade (1996) by Gayle Lynds, and The Unlikely Spy (1996) by Daniel Silva, and in the UK, A Spy By Nature (2001) by Charles Cumming and Remembrance Day (2000) by Henry Porter, maintained the spy novel in the post–Cold War world.
Other important American authors who first became active during this period include Stephen Coonts, R J Hillhouse, David Ignatius and Kyle Mills. British authors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Leather and Swedish author Jan Guillou also began to publish during this era.
The terrorist attacks against the US on 11 September 2001, and the subsequent War on Terror, reawakened interest in the peoples and politics of the world beyond its borders. Espionage genre elders such as John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Littell, and Charles McCarry resumed work, and many new authors emerged.
Some post-attack period novels are about intelligence officers and the profession of intelligence, and some are by insiders, as were W. Somerset Maughum and Graham Greene in their generations. At the CIA, the number of manuscripts submitted for pre-publication vetting doubled between 1998 and 2005. American examples are Saigon Station (2003) by Charles Gillen, The Dream Merchant of Lisbon (2004) and No Game For Amateurs (2009) by Gene Coyle, Edge of Allegiance (2005) by Thomas F. Murphy, A Train to Potevka (2005) by Mike Ramsdell, Voices Under Berlin (2008), by T.H.E. Hill and North from Calcutta (2009) by Duane Evans. British examples include At Risk (2004), Secret Asset (2006), Illegal Action (2007), and Dead Line (2008), by Dame Stella Rimington (formerly the Director General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996) and The Code Snatch (2001) by Alan Stripp, formerly a cryptographer at Bletchley Park.
Other important writers of this period include British authors Charles Cumming and Andy McNab, American authors Ted Bell, Alex Berenson, Jeffery Deaver, Vince Flynn, Olen Steinhauer and Brad Thor, and Australian author James Phelan.
Recent television espionage programmes are La Femme Nikita (1997–2001), Alias (2001–2006), 24 (2001-2010, 2014), Spooks in the UK (release as MI-5 in the USA and Canada) (2002-2011), NBC's Chuck (2007-2012), FX's Archer (2009-present) and Covert Affairs.
Recent English-language spy films are The Bourne Identity (2002), Mission: Impossible (1996); Munich (2005), Syriana (2005), The Constant Gardener (2005) and Casino Royale (2006), a relaunching of the James Bond series.
Spy fiction today
For children and adolescents
In every medium, spy thrillers introduce children and adolescents to deception and espionage at earlier ages, as in the Agent Cody Banks film, the Alex Rider adventure novels by Anthony Horowitz, chick lit novels such as I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You and the CHERUB series, by Robert Muchamore. Ben Allsop, one of England's youngest novelists, also writes spy fiction. His titles include Sharp and The Perfect Kill. Other authors writing for adolescents include A. J. Butcher, Ally Carter, Joe Craig and Charlie Higson.
In contemporary digital video games, the player can be a vicarious spy, as in the Metal Gear, especially in the series' third installment, Metal Gear Solid, unlike the games of the Third-Person Shooter genre, Syphon Filter, and Splinter Cell. The games feature complex stories and cinematic images. Games such as No One Lives Forever and the sequel No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way humorously combine espionage and 1960s design. Evil Genius (game), contemporary to NOLF series, allows the player to be the villain and its strategy occurs real time.
International Thriller Writers
The International Thriller Writers (ITW) established themselves in 2004, and held their first conference in 2006. The Spyland espionage theme park, in the Gran Scala pleasure dome, in Zaragoza province, Spain, will open in 2012.
- Spy-fi: espionage and science fiction are integral to glamorous escapist fantasies emphasising derring-do, rather than detection and investigation, in thwarting either world domination or world destruction, et cetera.
- Spy comedy: usually parody the clichés and camp elements characteristic to the espionage genre.
- Spy horror: spy fiction with horror fiction.
- Edward Aarons
- Eric Ambler
- Desmond Bagley
- Ted Bell
- Raymond Benson
- Alex Berenson
- William Boyd
- John Buchan
- William F. Buckley Jr.
- A. J. Butcher
- John le Carré
- Ally Carter
- Leslie Charteris
- Robert Erskine Childers
- Tom Clancy
- Brian Cleeve
- Manning Coles
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Joseph Conrad
- Stephen Coonts
- James Fenimore Cooper
- Desmond Cory
- Gene Coyle
- Joe Craig
- Charles Cumming
- Jeffery Deaver
- Len Deighton
- Nelson DeMille
- Adam Diment
- Duane Evans
- Joseph Finder
- Ian Fleming
- Vince Flynn
- Ken Follett
- Frederick Forsyth
- Alan Furst
- John Gardner
- William Garner
- Michael Gilbert
- Charles Gillen
- Tony Gilroy
- Ellis Goodman
- James Grady (author)
- Graham Greene
- W. E. B. Griffin
- John Griffiths
- Jan Guillou
- Adam Hall
- Donald Hamilton
- Robert Harris
- Jack Higgins
- Charlie Higson
- T. H. E. Hill
- R J Hillhouse
- Joseph Hone
- Anthony Horowitz
- E. Howard Hunt
- Noel Hynd
- David Ignatius
- Rudyard Kipling
- Hugh Laurie
- Stephen Leather
- Y. S. Lee
- Gaston Leroux
- Robert Littell
- Robert Ludlum
- Gayle Lynds
- Helen MacInnes
- Ian Mackintosh
- Alistair MacLean
- Norman Mailer
- Somerset Maugham
- Charles McCarry
- Andy McNab
- Kyle Mills
- David Morrell
- Robert Muchamore
- James Munro
- Thomas F. Murphy
- Manning O'Brine
- E. Phillips Oppenheim
- Baroness Orczy
- James Phelan
- Henry Porter
- Anthony Price
- William le Queux
- Mike Ramsdell
- Stella Rimington
- Daniel Silva
- Desmond Skirrow
- Olen Steinhauer
- Alan Stripp
- Craig Thomas
- Ross Thomas
- Brad Thor
- Gérard de Villiers
- Dennis Wheatley
- Alexander Wilson
- Spy film
- List of fictional secret agents
- List of thriller authors
- Thriller fiction
- Thriller film
- List of genres
- Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Third Edition (1991) pp. 908–09.
- Drabble, Margaret. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Sixth Edition (2000) pp. 962–63.
- Cook, Chris. Dictionary of Historical Terms (1983) p. 95.
- Aronoff, Myron J. The Spy Novels of John Le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics (1999).
- Britton, Wesley. Spy Television. The Prager Television Collection. Series Ed. David Bianculli. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2004. ISBN 0-275-98163-0.
- Britton, Wesley. Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2005. ISBN 0-275-98556-3.
- Britton, Wesley. Onscreen & Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2006. ISBN 0-275-99281-0.
- Cawelti, John G. The Spy Story (1987)
- Priestman, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (2003).
- Spy-Wise is a spy fiction website.
- Spy Fiction Iliad, Henry V, The Spy, The Riddle of the Sands, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle