Penny Fielding: A deadly return for the spy novel

The best spy novels bring trauma to our everyday world, though the search for                                          whodunnit is rarely the end of the story, as spies deal in long-term plans and global conspiracies
The best spy novels bring trauma to our everyday world, though the search for whodunnit is rarely the end of the story, as spies deal in long-term plans and global conspiracies
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Imbued with global anxieties, the spy novel is the perfect vehicle for this post-truth era, writes Penny Fielding

The most famous spy on the big screen gives his identity away by always ordering the same drink, and introducing himself by his real name: “Bond. James Bond.” It doesn’t seem like the best strategy for surviving in the secret world. But most fictional spies are more accomplished and less visible. You could pass John le Carré’s George Smiley on the street, and he can appear both as a ruthless runner of double agents and, in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a “kindly, worried little man”.

To do their job properly, spies don’t want to be noticed. And in any case, perhaps they are more like us ordinary working people than we might think. Perhaps we read spy fiction because it reminds of the way secrets are built into the bureaucracies that govern our everyday lives. The spies we meet in literature are often workers themselves, labouring in the faceless institutions that employ them. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the British “Circus” faces the East German “Abteilung” (mening “Department”). The secret agency in Adam Hall’s Quiller novels is even called the “Bureau”. Spies are kept in the dark by their spymasters and rarely understand the full extent of the operations in which their job skills are exploited. No wonder that Karl Marx believed that the ruling principle of a bureaucracy was the secret.

Yet the best spy novels grip us by inserting bursts of violence or trauma into our everyday world. Mick Herron’s Slough House series features a collection of failed spies, relegated to an “administrative oubliette of the intelligence service”, yet their dull office-bound lives are punctuated by terrorism and explosions.

The spy novel is catching up in popularity with the detective novel; but there is a difference between them that tells us something about the way we use literature to plot our responses to the world. Detectives solve murders, close cases. They patrol local, identifiable places – Sherlock Holmes and London, Rebus and Edinburgh, Morse and Oxford. And although they uncover grisly and discomforting truths about our society, they generally see that the guilty are punished and that order is restored. Spies are different. They drift around the world, unattached to specific localities, lurking in everyday situations. People are killed in spy novels, but the discovery of whodunnit is rarely the end of the matter. Spy novels deal in long-term plans and conspiracies, and the secret machinations of the state will continue long after the plot of an individual novels ends.

As fictional spies traverse the globe, spy fiction is imbued with global anxieties. Many political situations that we thought we had left behind in the 20th century have returned to haunt us – the rise of the far right in Europe, the attempted murder of Russians on British soil and the consequent expulsions of spies. In the case of the president of the United States, we are even entertaining the possibility of that most 20th century of spy techniques – sexual blackmail (and Russian sexual blackmail at that). Spy novels engage with our distrust of the state and growing uncertainty of how well governments can represent us. In our “post-truth” times, we are reading more and more espionage fiction and it shows us – without having to resort to conspiracy theories – that governments are things to be distrusted.

In an increasingly globalised world, spies test our understanding of who we are, and where we come from. Spies in early 20th century popular thrillers were intensely patriotic as they fended off fiendish invasion plots. Now we are not so sure. All spies have to pin them down is their loyalty to their country. Everything else can be disguised or betrayed.

Spies can adopt any identity they choose. Even Richard Hannay, that most heroic of John Buchan’s heroes, puts his success in The Thirty-Nine Steps down to his ability to fade into any immediate situation and to forget his own identity. In Jeremy Duns’s Paul Dark series, the “hero” and narrator is a traitor with (almost) no loyalties whatsoever. As we follow his lies and manipulations we recognise that his treachery is his only consistency.

Since the end of the Cold War (if it ever did end), we can now find out more about the clandestine world that lurked just beneath newspaper reports of defections, spy swaps, and narrowly-averted nuclear incidents. Now, as secret archives are opened, we find that the history we thought to be true isn’t quite how we experienced it. We are discovering more about the role of women spies and codebreakers. And in literary terms, we reassess a predominantly masculine genre in an area of history that has not been as male as the spy novel might suggest. New writers such as Stella Rimington (herself a former head of MI5), Aly Monroe and August Thomas are innovating the genre, as we recover the earlier work of, for example, Sarah Gainham and Helen MacInnes.

As we feel the ground of the past shifting under our feet, spy novelists are turning to revaluate this ground. Charles Cummings’ The Trinity Six revisits the Cambridge spy-ring in a very modern context. James Robertson’s epic historical novel of modern Scotland, And the Land Lay Still, returns to the SNP of the 1970s, partly through the jaundiced eyes of Peter Bond, sent by the government to spy on Nationalists including the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. History and fiction merge in multiple ways. What better genre to explore the way the past was fictionalised at the time than the novel of espionage?

Does spy fiction offer us escapist pleasure? Or allow us to believe that the seamy, treacherous world of spying is fictional? Or encourage us to look again at secret history?

These are all questions that we will address in the University of Edinburgh’s Spy Week festival of the fiction, films and history of espionage.

l Penny Fielding is Grierson Professor of English at the University of Edinburgh

l Spy Week runs from 16-20 April at various venues around Edinburgh. All events (excluding films) are free. See:­