Spy stories: a background of conflict

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The setting of the secret agent adventure is quite different from the detective story or the Western. Whether the action all takes place in one country or the agent is sent on a secret mission from one country to another, the background is a conflict of international political interests. The spy story pretends to take us behind the scenes of world events as they are seen in newspapers or history books. It shows us secret conspiracies which apparently determine the fate of nations. A paranoiac aura typically tints the tale. Hidden secrets are everywhere. The innocent-looking office building is actually the headquarters of a secret society plotting to bring on another war; the respectable, seemingly harmless professor is really an enemy agent; the quaint teashop harbors a secret radio which gives instructions to a network of spies; the letter inviting Smith for a weekend in the country is a code message to assassinate the prime minister. Nothing is what it seems and everything is potentially dangerous. Only the agent knows something of the truth.” (p.55)

In addition to its background of international conspiracy, the secret agent formula usually centers around a particular military or technological secret. Alfred Hitchcock liked to refer to this element as the ‘MacGuffin.’

It’s the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after. I’ll tell you about it. Most of Kipling’s stories, as you know, were set in India and they dealt with the fighting between the natives and the British forces on the Afghanistan border. many of them were spy stories, and they were concerned with the efforts to steal the secret plans out of a fortress. The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only  thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or the secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. (Truffaut, Hitchcock, p.98)

Hitchcock’s insistence that the MacGuffin is an artistic device emphasizes one important point about the setting of the spy story. Although it is usually based on current historical situations, the background of the spy story is just as much a landscape of the mind as the country house of the classical detective story or the frontier town of the Western. Spying is an important activity of the modern state and contemporary espionage organizations like the Central Intelligence Agency operate in dangerously irresponsible secrecy, but espionage does not have the same world-shaking importance as the direct and open clash of national interests. The future of the world probably does not depend on real-life counterparts of Richard Hannay or James Bond. Indeed, the secret agent’s fictional milieu with its omnipresent hidden secrets and conspiracies presents a picture of the world which is probably half reality and half extension to the international scene of the gothic castle with its hidden passages, secret panels, and lurking conspirators.
Two other common elements of the spy story reveal its original connection with gothic fantasy: the innocent hero and [-p.57] the supervillain. The gothic story commonly dealt with the trials of a heroine who whether by accident or design, was involved in the plots of some devious villain. Similarly, one of the perennially favorite spy heroes is the innocent amateur who stumbles by accident into the midst of an espionage conspiracy. This figure who, like the gothic heroine, enacts the nightmare of involvement, discovery, and realization that he is trapped and must play out the game to its end was a favorite character in the thrillers of John Buchan, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler. Although the innocent amateur today seems to have become less characteristic of the genre than the professional agent, he still plays a role in many of the most successful and popular examples of the form….” (pp.56-57)

“[Both amateur and professional agents] play out the heroic role of accepting and accomplishing a secret mission. In the case of the amateur spy, the mission is forced upon him, whereas the professional accepts it voluntarily.” (p.57)

“The tradition of the secret agent adventure has been particularly rich in colorful and exotic villains who, like their gothic grandfathers, are often more interesting than their heroic opponents and victims. [Various spy story villains] and Ian Fleming’s wonderful gallery of spectacular rogues – Goldfinger, Dr. No, Le Chiffre Sir Hugo Drax, Ernst Stavro Blofeld – contribute as much, perhaps more, to the reader’s pleasure as [the spy hero such as] James Bond. This particular emphasis on the villain seems to be a central feature of the spy thriller. In the classical detective story, the character of the villain is distinctly subordinated to his complex method of carrying out the crime. In the Western, the villain usually has a far less distinctive and colorful character than the hero. But in the secret agent story, even if the antagonist is not portrayed as an exotic master villain, the enemy organization plays a far more important role. In general, this strong treatment [-p.58] of the villain functions to give one the sense that the hero is isolated and alone in the midst of overpowering and seemingly omnipotent enemies.” (pp.57-58)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

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