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 II, continued to develop during the Cold War, and received a fresh impetus from the emergence of rogue states, international criminal organizations, global terrorist networks, maritime piracy and technological sabotage and espionage as potent threats to Western societies.
- Nineteenth century
- During the First World War
- Inter war period
- Second World War
- The early Cold War
- The later Cold War
- Writers of other nationalities
- PostCold War
- Insider spy fiction
- For children and adolescents
- Video games and theme parks
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).
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".
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.
The major themes of spy 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. 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. Conrad's next novel, Under Western Eyes (1911), follows a reluctant spy sent by the Russian Empire to infiltrate a group of revolutionaries based in Geneva. G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is a metaphysical thriller ostensibly based on the infiltration of an anarchist organisation by detectives; but the story is actually a vehicle for exploring society's power structures and the nature of suffering.
The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, served as 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 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).
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. Its success created a market for the invasion literature subgenre, which was flooded by imitators. William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim became the most widely read and most successful British writers of spy fiction, especially of invasion literature. Their prosaic style and formulaic stories, produced voluminously from 1900 to 1914, proved of low literary merit.
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 Russian Revolution (1917), the quality of spy fiction declined, perhaps because the Bolshevik enemy won the Russian Civil War (1917–23). Thus, the inter-war spy story usually concerns combating the Red Menace, which was perceived as another "clash of civilizations".
Spy fiction was dominated by British authors during this period, initially former intelligence officers and agents writing from inside the trade. Examples include Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928) by W. Somerset Maugham, which accurately portrays spying in the First World War, and The Mystery of Tunnel 51 (1928) by Alexander Wilson whose novels convey an uncanny portrait of the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original 'C'.
At a more popular level, Leslie Charteris' popular and long-running Saint series began, featuring Simon Templar, with Meet the Tiger (1928). Water on the Brain (1933) by former intelligence officer Compton Mackenzie was the first successful spy novel satire. Prolific author Dennis Wheatley also wrote his first spy novel, The Eunuch of Stamboul (1935) during this period.
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 wrote many other spy novels in the course of a long career, including Assignment in Brittany (1942), Decision at Delphi (1961), and Ride a Pale Horse (1984).
Manning Coles published Drink to Yesterday (1940), a grim story occurring during the Great War, which introduces the hero Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon. However, later novels featuring Hambledon were lighter-toned, despite being set 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 events leading up to the Second World War, and the War itself, continue to be fertile ground for authors of spy fiction. Notable examples include Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle (1978); Alan Furst, Night Soldiers (1988); and David Downing, the Station series, beginning with Zoo Station (2007).
The early Cold War
The metamorphosis of the Second World War (1939–45) into the Soviet–American Cold War (1945–91) gave new impetus to spy novelists.
With Secret Ministry (1951), Desmond Cory introduced Johnny Fedora, the secret agent with a licence to kill, the government-sanctioned assassin. Ian Fleming, a former member of MI5, followed swiftly with the glamorous James Bond, secret agent 007 of the British Secret Service, a mixture of counter-intelligence officer, assassin and playboy. Perhaps the most famous fictional spy, Bond was introduced in Casino Royale (1953). After Fleming's death the franchise continued under other British and American authors, including Kingsley Amis, Christopher Wood, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver and William Boyd.
Despite the commercial success of Fleming's extravagant anti-Communist novels, John le Carré, himself a former spy, created anti-heroic protagonists who struggled with the ethical issues involved in espionage, and sometimes resorted to immoral tactics. 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.
Like Le Carré, former British Intelligence officer Graham Greene also examined the morality of espionage in left-leaning, 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.
Other novelists followed a similar path. Len 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 with a negative view of the Establishment.
Other notable examples of espionage fiction during this period were also built around recurring characters. These include James Mitchell's 'John Craig' series, written under his pseudonym 'James Munro', beginning with The Man Who Sold Death (1964); and Trevor Dudley-Smith's Quiller spy novel series written under the pseudonym 'Adam Hall', beginning with The Berlin Memorandum (US: The Quiller Memorandum, 1965), a hybrid of glamour and dirt, Fleming and Le Carré; and William Garner's fantastic Michael Jagger in Overkill (1966), The Deep, Deep Freeze (1968), The Us or Them War (1969) and A Big Enough Wreath (1974).
Other important British writers who first became active in spy fiction during this period include Padraig Manning O'Brine, Killers Must Eat (1951); Michael Gilbert, Be Shot for Sixpence (1956); Alistair MacLean, The Last Frontier (1959); Brian Cleeve, Assignment to Vengeance (1961); Jack Higgins, The Testament of Caspar Schulz (1962); and Desmond Skirrow, It Won't Get You Anywhere (1966). Dennis Wheatley's 'Gregory Sallust' (1934-1968) and 'Roger Brook' (1947-1974) series were also largely written during this period.
During the war E. Howard Hunt wrote his first spy novel, East of Farewell (1943). In 1949 he joined the recently created CIA, and continued to write spy fiction for many years. 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.
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 mould of Nick Carter-Killmaster.
Other important American authors who became active in spy fiction during this period include Ross Thomas, The Cold War Swap (1966).
The later Cold War
The June 1967 Six Day War between Israel and its neighbours introduced new themes to espionage fiction - the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, against the backdrop of continuing Cold War tensions, and the increasing use of terrorism as a political tool.
Notable recurring characters from this era include 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); James Mitchell's 'David Callan' series, written in his own name, beginning with Red File for Callan (1969); William Garner's John Morpurgo in Think Big, Think Dirty (1983), Rats' Alley (1984), and Zones of Silence (1986); and Joseph Hone's 'Peter Marlow' series, beginning with The Private Sector (1971), set during Israel's Six Day War (1967) against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In all of these series the writing is literary and the tradecraft believable.
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. With the explosion of technology, Craig Thomas, launched the techno-thriller with Firefox (1977), describing the Anglo–American theft of a superior Soviet jet aeroplane.
Other important British writers who first became active in spy fiction during this period include Ian Mackintosh, A Slaying in September (1967); Kenneth Benton, Twenty-Fourth Level (1969); Desmond Bagley, Running Blind (1970); Anthony Price, The Labyrinth Makers (1971); Gerald Seymour, Harry's Game (1975); Brian Freemantle, Charlie M (1977); Bryan Forbes, Familiar Strangers (1979); Reginald Hill, The Spy's Wife (1980); and Raymond Harold Sawkins, writing as Colin Forbes, Double Jeopardy (1982).
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).
Other important American authors who became active in spy fiction during this period include Robert Littell, The Defection of A. J. Lewinter (1973); James Grady, Six Days of the Condor (1974); William F. Buckley Jr., Saving the Queen (1976); Nelson DeMille, The Talbot Odyssey (1984); W. E. B. Griffin, the Men at War series (1984-); Stephen Coonts, Flight of the Intruder (1986); Canadian-American author David Morrell, The League of Night and Fog (1987); David Hagberg, Without Honor (1989); Noel Hynd, False Flags (1990); and Richard Ferguson, Oiorpata (1990).
Writers of other nationalities
French journalist Gérard de Villiers began to write his SAS series in 1965. The franchise now extends to 200 titles and 150 million books.
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).
Swedish author Jan Guillou also began to write his Coq Rouge series, featuring Swedish spy Carl Hamilton, during this period, beginning in 1986.
The end of the Cold War in 1991 mooted the USSR, Russia and other Iron Curtain countries as credible enemies of democracy, and the US Congress even considered disestablishing the CIA. Espionage novelists found themselves at a temporary loss for obvious nemeses. The New York Times ceased publishing a spy novel review column. Nevertheless, counting on the aficionado, publishers continued to issue spy novels by writers popular during the Cold War era, among them Harlot's Ghost (1991) by Norman Mailer.
In the US, the new novels Moscow Club (1991) by Joseph Finder, Coyote Bird (1993) by Jim DeFelice, Masquerade (1996) by Gayle Lynds, and The Unlikely Spy (1996) by Daniel Silva maintained the spy novel in the post–Cold War world. Other important American authors who first became active in spy fiction during this period include David Ignatius, Agents of Innocence (1997); David Baldacci, Saving Faith (1999); and Vince Flynn, with Term Limits (1999) and a series of novels featuring counter-terrorism expert Mitch Rapp.
In the UK, Robert Harris entered the spy genre with Enigma (1995). Other important British authors who became active during this period include Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller (1996); Andy McNab, Remote Control (1998); Henry Porter, Remembrance Day (2000); and Charles Cumming, A Spy By Nature (2001).
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.
Important British writers who wrote their first spy novels during this period include Stephen Leather, Hard Landing (2004); and William Boyd, Restless (2006).
New American writers include Brad Thor, The Lions of Lucerne (2002); Ted Bell, Hawke (2003); Alex Berenson, with John Wells appearing for the first time in The Faithful Spy (2006); Brett Battles, The Cleaner (2007); Ellis Goodman, Bear Any Burden (2008); Olen Steinhauer, The Tourist (2009); and Richard Ferguson, Oiorpata (2012). A number of other established writers began to write spy fiction for the first time, including Kyle Mills, Fade (2005) and James Patterson, Private (2010).
Swede Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004, was the world's second best-selling author for 2008 due to his Millennium series, featuring Lisbeth Salander, published posthumously between 2005 and 2007. Other authors of note include Australian James Phelan, beginning with Fox Hunt (2010).
Recognising the importance of the thriller genre, including spy fiction, International Thriller Writers (ITW) was established in 2004, and held its first conference in 2006.
Insider spy fiction
Many authors of spy fiction have themselves been intelligence officers working for British agencies such as MI5 or MI6, or American agencies such as the OSS or its successor, the CIA. 'Insider' spy fiction has a special claim to authenticity, and overlaps with biographical and other documentary accounts of secret service.
The first insider fiction emerged after World War 1 as the thinly disguised reminiscences of former British intelligence officers such as W. Somerset Maugham, Alexander Wilson, and Compton Mackenzie. The tradition continued during World War II with Helen MacInnes and Manning Coles.
Notable British examples from the Cold War period and beyond include Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Graham Greene, Brian Cleeve, Ian Mackintosh, Kenneth Benton, Bryan Forbes, Andy McNab and Chris Ryan. Notable American examples include Charles McCarry, William F. Buckley Jr., W. E. B. Griffin and David Hagberg.
Many post-attack period novels are written by insiders. At the CIA, the number of manuscripts submitted for pre-publication vetting doubled between 1998 and 2005. American examples include Barry Eisler, A Clean Kill in Tokyo (2002); Charles Gillen, Saigon Station (2003); R J Hillhouse, Rift Zone (2004); Gene Coyle, The Dream Merchant of Lisbon (2004) and No Game For Amateurs (2009); Thomas F. Murphy, Edge of Allegiance (2005); Mike Ramsdell, A Train to Potevka (2005); T. H. E. Hill, Voices Under Berlin (2008); Duane Evans, North from Calcutta (2009); Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow (2013).; and T.L. Williams, Zero Day: China's Cyber Wars (2017).
British examples include The Code Snatch (2001) by Alan Stripp, formerly a cryptographer at Bletchley Park; At Risk (2004), Secret Asset (2006), Illegal Action (2007), and Dead Line (2008), by Dame Stella Rimington (Director General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996); and Matthew Dunn's Spycatcher (2011) and sequels.
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). While Hamilton's Matt Helm novels were adult and well written, their cinematic interpretations were adolescent parody. This phenomenon spread widely in Europe in the 1960s and is known as the Eurospy genre.
English-language spy films of the 2000s include The Bourne Identity (2002), Mission: Impossible (1996); Munich (2005), Syriana (2005), and The Constant Gardener (2005).
Among the comedy films focusing on espionage are 1974's S*P*Y*S and 1985's Spies Like Us.
In March 2015, filming of Howard Kaplan's best selling "The Damascus Cover" wrapped in Casablanca starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, John Hurt, Jurgen Prochnow and Olivia Thirlby. It is set in Damascus and Jerusalem circa 1989 at the time of the Berlin Wall falling.
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).
In 1973, Semyonov's 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.
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, in later episodes and post-DXS employment, 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.
Television espionage programmes of the late 1990s to the early 2010s include 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), Burn Notice, Covert Affairs and Homeland.
In 2015, "Deutschland 83" is a German television series starring a 24-year-old native of East Germany who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the HVA, the foreign intelligence agency of the Stasi.
For children and adolescents
In every medium, spy thrillers introduce children and adolescents to deception and espionage at earlier ages. The genre ranges from action adventure, such as Chris Ryan's Alpha Force series, through the historical espionage dramas of Y. S. Lee, to the girl orientation of Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series, beginning with I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You.
Leading examples include the Agent Cody Banks film, the Alex Rider adventure novels by Anthony Horowitz, 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.
Spy-related films that are aimed towards younger audiences include movies such as the Spy Kids series of films and The Spy Next Door.
Other authors writing for adolescents include A. J. Butcher, Joe Craig, Charlie Higson, Andy McNab and Francine Pascal.
Video games and theme parks
In contemporary digital video games, the player can be a vicarious spy, as in the Metal Gear series, 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.
The Spyland espionage theme park, in the Gran Scala pleasure dome, in Zaragoza province, Spain, opened in 2012.