Boredom in spy novels


Writing about the heroes of spy stories, Cawelti and Rosenberg once declared:

Whatever stirs the hero from his lethargy at the beginning of the adventure, commitment to a cause, patriotism, or simply ‘the right,’ impels him once the action is underway.” (p.104)

I find it quite a provocative statement – and I wonder how it applies to other spy fictions.

Slightly further on, they add: “Ambler’s Kenton plays a more modest role [than Hannay in Buchan;s The Thirty-Nine Steps], seldom being more than an interested bystander while the Zaleshoffs and their agents recapture their crucial documents: Kenton’s role remains minor, though he gradually becomes deeply committed in the spook war around him. It is a scenario which tells us that though we readers are not professionals, such adventures are possible in the most routine of lives, and it enables us to see what events motivate men, from ennui to engagement. It is the pattern Ian Fleming will use again and again to show us how his jaded superagent psyches himself up for yet another mission. It is the condition of Childer’s Caruthers, suffering through “the dismal but dignified routine of office, club, and chambers’ (The Riddle of the Sands, p.16), who will shortly risk his life to discover the riddle of the sands. By these means does an author signal the reader that the forthcoming adventure will be compelling. This movement, from boredom to involvement, is so prevalent and so natural a thrust for this genre, that we need not worry about direct attribution; it is simply one of the best ways to tell and adventure story. It prepares the reader for the exciting adventure to come, signaling that the author is about to exit the everyday-life world into the dark and dangerous universe of spy wars.” (p.104)

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


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