Introducing their book, The Spy Story, in 1987, John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg wrote:
“We live in a time that has become deeply obsessed with espionage, conspiracy, and other forms of clandestinity. What Edward Shils called ‘the torment of secrecy’ has pervaded our national life, as the exposure of the Watergate cover-up revealed. But Watergate was only one in a series of developments in American culture that had their roots in the aftermath of World War II. That conflict thrust America into a new global position where our potential vulnerability to the economic and military strengths of other countries came to seem more threatening than ever before. With their anxieties intensified by the fear of atomic weapons, political leaders and ordinary citizens became deeply concerned about secret conspiracies, both at home and abroad. While such obsessions have often appeared in the aftermath of wars – both the Civil War and World War I left a disturbing legacy of suspicion and suspension of due process in the attempt to counter secret conspiracies – it was only after World War II that Americans institutionalized clandestinity on a large and permanent scale. Our generation has harvested the first fruits of that major cultural change.” (p.1)
“Those in power and a substantial segment of the public have come to believe that clandestine operations are indispensable to the security of a modern nation. This belief, and the institutions, attitudes, and actions to which it gives rise, have had a profound cultural impact. Though we desperately need to understand the processes of clandestinity more fully, this is difficult because much of the necessary evidence remains buried in secret archives. Even if the historical data are available, to evaluate the actual impact of clandestine operations is very difficult and has become a subject of considerable controversy among historians. Some believe that such clandestine coups as British and American codebreaking during World War II made the difference between defeat and victory, while others assert that much information gleaned by espionage has been useless and largely ignored by commanders in the field. Manifold ambiguities cluster around the subject of historical espionage. What does one say about the terrible fate of those thousands who perished in agony during the destruction of Coventry because Churchill feared that to give advance warning of the bombing would reveal that the British had broken the German code? On the other hand, could the Allied invasion of Europe have succeeded without those clandestine operations designed to mislead German intelligence about the actual site of the landings?
Whatever the actual military, economic, and political importance of espionage, the twentieth century has become in many ways the Age of Clandestinity. One symptom of the pervasiveness of secret operations in our lives is the fact that the spy story has become one of the major popular genres of our time. The secret agent protagonist is now one of our favorite mythical heroes….” (p.2)
“…in spite of the long and fascinating history of spying, it was not until the twentieth century that the secret agent became the heroic protagonist of a major form of popular narrative. As the century progressed into the 1980s, the spy hero became still more important, increasingly replacing earlier popular heroic figures like the cowboy and the hardboiled detective.” (p.3)
John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg define the spy story “as a story whose protagonist has some primary connection with espionage. Clearly,” they elaborate, “there are many stories of which this is true which one would hesitate to call spy stories, and usually for good reasons. One example is Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which figures deservedly in almost any discussion of the spy story. However, other interests in The Secret Agent are as important as the protagonists’ involvement with espionage. Verloc is a pathetically comic figure, for one thing, and the real protagonist of the novel is the more tragic figure of his wife, Winnie. Spy thrillers, however gloomy and cynical, are not usually tragedies, as we can see if we [-p.6] compare the most glum of John le Carré’s stories of betrayal and corruption with a tragic novel involving espionage such as The Secret Agent. Though Alec Leamas, of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, is shot along with the woman he has come to love, there is a kind of moral triumph at the end. Leamas now understands the corrupt and evil nature of the forces he is involved with; he has learned how to differentiate between good and evil and to have the moral courage too reject a life of further servitude to these evil principles. Thus, his death is both a positive moral action and a symbolic stand against the perverted means used in fighting the Cold War. Leamas begins in apparent moral decay but his death at the Berlin Wall is a heroic as well as despairing rejection of the corrupt world of power politics.
In Conrad’s Secret Agent, however, there is no heroism and no meaningful conflict between good and evil. The true protagonist, Winnie Verloc, is not even involved in espionage, and her inexorable descent to murder and suicide is grimly unrelieved by any sort of spiritual triumph. The world of The Secret Agent is one in which no group of characters has a moral advantage over the others. With the sole exception of the mad anarchist professor, everyone is in pursuit of some kind of personal advantage. Even Winnie, the most selfless character in the novel, is in many ways a betrayer.” (pp.5-6)
Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London