Tuesday, December 11, 2018


Today CrimeReads provides "A Brief History of Spy Fiction." The essay is actually the introduction to The Folio Society's new edition of The Spy’s Bedside Book (1959) edited by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh. The introduction is by Stella Rimington, former Director General of MI5.
.... What really is a spy story? Is John Buchan’s Greenmantle, which supplies the anthology’s first tale, truly a spy story or is it merely a ripping good yarn, a pure adventure story about a gang of Scottish, South African and American swashbucklers who persuade themselves, and us, they are English patriots, prior to sloshing a beastly Prussian called Von Stumm and stealing his motor car? Aren’t the coded messages, the hidden journeys, the secret rendezvous and all the stuff about the jihad and the fire sweeping from the East to combust the dry leaves of European civilisation, merely what spies call “chickenfeed,” information intended to attract and puzzle the recipient? In fact, like Kipling’s Kim before it and so many spy stories after it, it was based in reality and has, as T.E. Lawrence observed, “more than a flavour of truth.” ....

.... Nothing, save only the Cold War, ever gave the genre such a boost as did, successively, Russian covetousness for India, and Kaiser William’s designs on England. The two most influential of all spy stories were published at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both were British—Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), and The Riddle of the Sands (1903), Erskine Childers’ story about preparations for a clandestine German invasion across the North Sea. Selling, reportedly, over three million copies, The Riddle of the Sands not only influenced public attitudes but also demonstrated the profitability of the new genre. The only comparable masterpiece of spy fiction before the Cold War and le Carré is Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), inspired by an older world of international conspiracy and terrorism, springing from anarchist and revolutionary movements. If you put together the twentieth-century forces of national rivalry and the nineteenth-century forces of revolutionary conspiracy, you have most of the springs of the “classical” spy story (and arguably of the modern profession of intelligence). .... (more)

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