The spy novel as genre


“While it was once said of the mystery story that it was contingent upon the profession of the detective, the same cannot be said of the spy novel. We have always had spies … but the spy novel is a genre of our time. Only in the twentieth century has its time come round at last. It is a kind of mystery/ suspense story that we are especially susceptible to, and it speaks to us today with particular cogency and effect.” (p.58)

The spy of fiction cannot operate without his own invisibility: it is the essence of his (fictional) being. Everything about him – his job, his leisure time, his genuine thoughts, his personal life, if he should be so fortunate as to have one – must be either clandestine or disguised. And, more than any other character or occupational type, the spy must have freedom of movement.  Arrest, imprisonment, capture, or even revelation of his identity render his mission inoperative and his function in life useless. Thus, the spy of fiction should always be in danger of losing that mobility or in danger of exposure. Fear felt by the empathetic reader imparts the thrill to the thriller.” (p.58)

The subject of those fictions called spy novels

The Quiller Memorandum“The nature of the work itself has expanded in recent years. Before the 1960s, it was thought by the public to be largely spying and catching spies, but recent covert activities extend well beyond those limits: arranging assassinations, financing [-p.59] revolutions and training the combatants, bribing foreign soldiers to defect with their aircraft or their tanks intact, salvaging vessels that have sunk while on classified missions. All of these activities and hundreds more are now properly the subject of those fictions called spy novels…. The genre has been proven successful, the action of the surface suggests an excitement that is missing from most of our urban, well-regulated, bureaucratic lives, and the messages beneath the surface are compelling to our times.
The lives of real intelligence operatives, however, are frequently clerical and routine, at least as dull as our own.” (pp.58-59)

“The most natural plot for the work of the spy should be determined by the kind of adventure we would most likely expect him to have – in enemy territory – a plot we call THE SPY GOES OVER. Adam Hall’s best-selling Quiller Memorandum (1975) illustrates well many features in the narratives of this subgenre.” (p.60)

“The plot of Quiller [which the authors subject to a detailed, essentially structuralist, analysis, pp.60-66]shows how espionage fiction formulas work in context. The prime mover for the plot is the agent’s mission, which must be accomplished in secret. From this [-p.67] premise the events and episodes which comprise the bulk of the agent’s adventures are reasonably predictable. If secrecy and freedom of movement are the necessary conditions of his existence, then both must be continually threatened.” (pp.66-67)

“In THE SPY GOES OVER stories the spy does not have to go overseas on his mission. Quiller is already in Berlin. For an English agent Germany is foreign territory, but before he agrees to go on the Phoenix mission and thus change his network of secret involvements, he is on relatively safe ground. Once the mission has been accepted, however, his circumstances are  altered radically: he is still ostensibly the Red Cross representative, but now his real purpose is entirely different, and it is this deep purpose that controls his relation to his environment. Now, though he has been in a foreign city all along, Quiller is in a new sense in an alien land. The new, deeper purpose, and not a change of location, marks his GOING OVER.” (p.67)

“In a closely related structure, sympathetic characters strive throughout the narrative to achieve the BIG JOB, as in A Kind of Anger, where the JOB is selling secret papers to foreign agents…. In all of these fictions a task motivates the pivotal characters, while the others act to aid or hinder him (or her or them). Often the pivotal character attempts to prevent a major and dramatic crime, as in The Day of the Jackal.” (p.68)

“A second type of plot posits the pivotal character or hero as victim, most commonly of an agency in a spook war, though recently the agency need not be on the other side. For a good part of the time in this plot type, the hero will be ON THE RUN, even within his own land.” (p.69)

Six Days of the Condor“One’s own agency as the enemy is one of the most ominous developments in recent espionage fiction. The spy novel derives much of its appeal by striking a paranoid note: in earlier espionage fiction, such as that written before the 1970s, the secret agent had only to deal with the ostensible enemy and an occasional seeming neutral. And nearly all of those were identifiable because they were foreigners. In the past several years the secret agent of fiction may find that his own people are working against him, with lethal intent.” (p.70)

Journey into Fear“The hero is also the intended victim in a variant plot type in which he must reach a destination at a certain time or with a particular cargo intact. Often that cargo is human, and the hero functions as bodyguard. We call this plot structure, and Greene’s, after Ambler’s novel, The Journey into Fear. In the book of that title the hero is on shipboard from Turkey to Europe and the cargo he must preserve is himself. He succeeds.” (p.71)

“A third structural type, also commonly used, parallels the detective novel in its manipulation of reader sympathies and employs many of the same strategies and formulas that detective fiction does because in it, too, a criminal is sought. But in the novel of counterespionage, TO CATCH A SPY (closest in form to the detective novel), the criminal is guilty of spying. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is perhaps the best story of this kind yet written, a story in which the spy to be caught is a DOUBLE AGENT of the Kim Philby sort who schemed his way into CONTROL’s position.” (p.72)

The sphere of the fictional spy situates him alone in a potentially hostile environment in which most of the dangers are unknown to him and sometimes to the reader. His characteristic stance is ON THE RUN, the ideally expressive signifier of the man without roots, with no security, with no solace to be derived from his society because in reality he shares little with it: his occupation is a cover, he can ill afford to have friends on ‘the outside,’ and his fellow agents may well be conspiring against him. He may have no recourse to the law (“The Department will disown any knowledge of you”), and he is continually vulnerable tot he hidden, silent enemy, within and without.” (p.74)

“Motif and Type Index of the Spy Story” according to Cawelti and Rosenberg (Appendix, pp.219-220):

Plot Types

The spy goes over
The big job
The hero as victim
Jouney into fear
To catch a spy

Characteristic Episodes (motifs)

Initial ennui
Assassination (attempted assassination)
Close call
Disguised encounter/confrontation
Narrow escape
On the run [-p.220]
The drop
The plant
Planted misinformation
Doubling/turning (an agent)
Turnabout (the hunted becomes hunter)
The tag

Dramatis Personae of the Spy Novel

The Hero’s Company
The hero agent
Control (the agency director)
Control’s immediate subordinate
Control’s satellites
Heroine (often a lure, and thus a false heroine, sometimes for the other side, when the male protagonist is the hero)The Adversary’s Company
Enemy agent
Enemy control
Enemy control’s henchman

Enemy agency entourage or natives of country hostile to hero
False heroine
Ambiguous Personae
Defectors (can defect to either side) 
Double agents
Plants (whose ultimate loyalties may not be apparent)
Neutrals may initially have innocent intentions but are usually exploited by one side or the other and eventually become unwilling helpers or dupes.

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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