Modern British spy fiction dates from the beginning of the 20th century as an expression of the anxieties of international rivalries. The British took most readily to spy fiction and it is British writers which have received most critical attention and acclaim. Spy stories provide a window into the shadowy world of espionage and clandestine operations for readers who have been denied knowledge of the activities of British Intelligence through official silence, gagging and cover-ups. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many writers of British spy novels were themselves employed by Britain’s intelligence services and consequently brought a supposed authenticity to their stories. One such writer has even invented a new vocabulary to describe the tradecraft of the spy and in doing so has made it seem more credible.
The Birth of the Spy Novel
The earliest example of the espionage novel was The Spy (1821) by the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. The action takes place during the American Revolution with the forerunner of the spy, Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious, prowling about on his subtle errands, pursued by friend and foe, and finally driven to his destiny, which at once both destroys and honours him.
The Dreyfus affair in France in which a young artillery officer was falsely convicted of treason in 1895 and sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, dominated and divided French politics. Though Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in 1906, the details reported by the world press in the intervening years with tales of penetration agents of Imperial Germany betraying the secrets of the General Staff of the French Army, and French counter-intelligence agents sending a charwoman to rifle the waste papers baskets of the German Embassy in Paris, contributed much to public interest in espionage and inspired the writers of spy fiction. This extraordinary miscarriage of justice was the basis for An Officer and A Spy (2014) by Robert Harris.
Early British Spy Novelists
The major themes of spying 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.
One of the first novels by a British writer to introduce intrigue and rivalry between powerful countries was Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901), in which Kim, the orphan son of an Irish soldier, journeys across India against the backdrop of The Great Game, the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia in the mid 1880s. The ‘spy novel’ was defined in The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers, in which amateur spies discover a German plan to invade Britain. Even Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes became involved as spyhunter in The Adventure of the Second Stain (1904). The Anglo-French journalist and writer William Le Queux capitalised on invasion fears in The Invasion of 1910 (1906), one of his many pulp-fiction spy stories that had been published going back to 1894. The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad examined the psychology and ideology that motivated the members of a revolutionary cell who were determined to provoke revolution in Britain. G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was a thriller based on the infiltration of an anarchist organisation by detectives; but it was also a vehicle for exploring society’s power structures.
During the First World War
During the War, John Buchan, who had worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau, became the pre-eminent British spy novelist. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), an archetypal English spy thriller, was the first of five novels that featured Scotsman Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of sticky situations. In the novel which was set just before the outbreak of war in 1914, Hannay discovers a plot by German spies to steal British naval intelligence, but is forced to go on the run to Scotland to escape the police who suspect him of murder. At the end of the novel, the spies are waiting in a house in Kent above a private beach where a yacht is waiting until high tide to take the spies back to Germany. The path down to the beach has 39 steps. Buchan described his novel as a ‘shocker’, an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.
The Inter War Period
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the spy story was often concerned with combating the ‘Red Menace’, which was perceived as another ‘clash of civilizations’. Mysterious characters who threatened anarchy and who sought to overthrow governments were common in these stories. In 1922, Agatha Christie’s second detective novel, The Secret Adversary introduces the characters of Tommy and Tuppence, a duo of likeable upper-class detectives, who land themselves in all sorts of dangerous situations. They are employed by the British Government to locate a secret treaty signed before the war which if revealed could lead to a Bolshevik coup. The pair has to find out the identity of Mr Brown, the Bolshevik’s shady and elusive puppet-master.
Spy fiction was dominated by British authors, often former intelligence officers and agents writing from inside the trade. In his collection of short stories Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928), W Somerset Maugham portrayed spying in the First World War. It is said that he based Ashenden on himself and on his experiences working for the intelligence services in the First World War. The Mystery of Tunnel 51 (1928) the first of 24 spy and mystery novels by Alexander Wilson conveyed an uncanny portrait of the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original ‘C’, the initial that is still used as a signature by the head of MI6. Though there is no evidence that Wilson worked for the intelligence services in the First World War, Wilson led a mysterious and secret life. There were suspicions that he was involved in shady diplomacy in India in the 1930s, and he did work briefly for MI6 in the Second World War until he was dismissed because he faked a burglary in his London flat and because he was in trouble with the police.
Water on the Brain (1933) by Compton Mackenzie, best known for his comic novels set in Scotland, Whisky Galore and The Monarch of the Glen, was the first successful spy novel satire. Mackenzie worked for British intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean during the First World War, and later published four books on his experiences. Mackenzie was prosecuted in 1932 for quoting from supposedly secret documents but the trial ended with him being fined £100.
The Dark Frontier (1936) by Eric Ambler was the first of six novels that he wrote in the years leading up to the second world war, which brought a new realism to spy fiction. His tales of ordinary men and (sometimes) women caught up in the machinations of malign international corporations, or of stateless refugees facing an uncertain future in a volatile and unwelcoming Europe, revitalised the British thriller, and rescued the genre from third-rate imitators of John Buchan. Above Suspicion (1939) by Helen MacInnes about an anti-Nazi husband and wife spy team, was the first of many fast-paced spy novels occurring against contemporary historical backgrounds.