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

Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Ambler and Greene


According to Cawelti and Rosenberg, “Eric Ambler and Graham Greene transformed the spy novel irretrievably. In tone, in characterization, in theme as well as in the episodes and plots used to express all of these features, the genre changed from the naive to the sinister, from a story of adventure to one of treachery and betrayal. These important novelists, whose writing careers span World War II, were themselves altered by that cataclysm, but also helped bring about those changes that now characterize the genre. Ambler’s early novels, those written before England’s active entry into World War II, are modeled on the plots and for the most part  the characters of his predecessors.” (p.101)

Writing of Ambler’s politics – and particularly the novels, Passage of Arms (1960); Doctor Frigo (1974); The Levanter (1972); State of Siege (1956); Dirty Story (1967); The Light of Day [aka Topkapi] (1963) – Cawelti and Rosenberg observe: “The partisan politics of the real world are absent from all of these novels; Ambler has always placed his character in the borderlands of danger, the natural habitat of the spy and international intrigue. In these marginal areas the law is weak and order is shaky. Everything is in flux, and nearly everything is possible. This vision of liminal regions owes its debt, ultimately, to Cooper’s The Spy. Before World War II the Balkans was the area of greatest intrigue, the Mediterranean in general a close second. After the war, the non-man’s-land fraught with danger and the lawlessness that inspired intrigue and duplicity had shifted: for Ambler, as for so many other spy novelists, it was the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.” (p.110)

Ambler’s postwar phase makes few concessions to the directions taken by other spy story writers. He lacks le Carré’s deep questioning of clandestine agencies per se, Len Deighton’s [-p.124] glibness and fast-moving action, Trevanian’s sadistic cruelty, and Fleming’s and Hall’s fascination with technology. Ambler and Greene brought the spy novel a long way toward respectability. Ambler has disciplined himself in telling an engaging story of intrigue and suspense. …Greene has from the first seen the deeper implications raised by the existence of spies and their trade in an open society. He has explored the role of clandestinity in our world and has, perhaps deepest of all, scrutinized the values of loyalty and patriotism, obligation and commitment. More than any spy novelist (in his case especially, a writer who has written spy novels), Greene has returned the spy novel to the mainstream of contemporary fiction. It began as a story of adventure, moved to become a genre in its own right, and by the excellence of some of its most accomplished practitioners is moving back into the main currents of what is simply good fiction.” (pp.123-124)

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

Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Buchan


Cawelti and Rosenberg write:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the secret agent adventure had begun to assume a definite shape in the work of writers like Kipling, Stevenson, and Conrad. A number of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories came close to being accounts of counterespionage activity, and on the eve of World War I, in ‘His Last Bow,’ Holmes came out of retirement in order to foil the plots of a German agent. But it was the generation which came of age in the early twentieth century that made the spy story a major literary archetype by producing masses of formulaic spy adventures (e.g., Rohmer’s Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, LeQueux’s Secret Service, Wallace’s Four Just men) as well as a number of more complex fictions involving espionage as a theme (e.g., Childer’s Riddle of the Sands, Kipling’s Kim, and Conrad’s Secret Agent). The Richard Hannay stories of John Buchan span the distance between the popular spy adventure and the novel of espionage. Like the popular stories, Buchan’s tales are deeply romantic; his hero is a gentleman amateur, definitely one of that breed later labeled “clubland [-p.80] heroes.” His enemies are supervillains who represent the threat of non-British races and cultures to the English hegemony. Their complex criminal organizations, like the international criminal syndicate of Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, threaten the very heart of the homeland. With the help of a few other gentleman friends, however Buchan’s dauntless hero is invariably able to uncover and defeat the supervillain’s plots, saving the empire for the time being. Though his hero antagonists sometimes lapse into the manichean simplicities of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchy and Sir Dennis Nayland Smyth, Buchan’s moral earnestness, his sense of humor, and his concern for literary values make his Hannay stories the very model of the early twentieth-century spy story.” (pp.79-80)

Buchan, more than any other writer, assembled the formula for the modern secret agent story.” (p.80)

If Richard Hannay were only a typical clubland hero defending British social tradition with the help of higher powers, Buchan’s work would doubtless have faded into the oblivion that has swallowed up most of his contemporaries and followers like Dornford Yates and Sapper. However, Buchan also responded in his fantasies to a more contemporary sense of ambivalence about the social and religious tradition. While he worked to resolve this ambivalence through characters like Sandy Arbuthnot, who remains a cool British aristocrat despite his total involvement in Eastern ways of life, the fascination with the new forces unleashed in the world remains an important undercurrent of Buchan’s fantasy. Though his works of adventure are optimistic on the surface and he imagines a revitalized Christian social tradition able to overcome the threats of the twentieth century, his stories also reflect on a deeper level a sense of the critical failure of modern civilization and a yearning for a more glorious, simpler, and more mystical way of life. On this level, he still speaks to some of the major currents in the fantasy life of men in the twentieth century. The modern spy story, even in the cynical and despairing [-p.100] intrigues of John le Carré and Len Deighton, has come to express this kind of feeling still more strongly. Thus Buchan was instrumental in giving both a model of form and an inner spirit to the story of espionage, giving it through his vision of the world a capacity to express in terms of contemporary international politics and intrigue the yearning for a lost world of fullness and heroism.” (pp.99-100)

Buchan’s heroes were very much in control of their destinies, so it seemed, for despite the danger that continually threatened him, Hannay always extricated himself with relative [-p.114] ease: with a cunning disguise, the lucky discovery of an explosive carelessly stored in the barn in which he was imprisoned, that glib and oily art which enabled him to pass himself off as a political orator with almost no preparation. And his supreme confidence in himself is shared by those around him, even staff officers of the admiralty, who incredibly permit Hannay to take command of the operation to crush the Black Stone. Ambler’s and Greene’s early heroes are rather ordinary, far less than heroic amateurs, undistinguished people caught up in intrigues in which they need professional help either from the police or from friendly agents. And they are more believable for that.” (pp.113-114)

Those characters who seem most real to us, who seem to have lives quite independent of their fictional plots, have been invested with complexities and ambiguities that lift them out of the formulaic plots where we found them. Thus does the writer of formula fiction charge his characters with life.” (p.114)

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

Unemotional characters of genre fiction


When everyone around him is a potential (or real) enemy, the secret agent must be detached, unemotional, dispassionately observant – in a word, cool. This is his legacy from the Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective. This posture is necessary because his survival depends upon his constant [-p.76], accurate evaluation of all around him, people and events. In that respect the spy is what many of us want to be; in that respect we participate in the action of the story. Puzzle-solving, code-deciphering, and character-analyzing are the modes of his survival.” (pp.75-76)

“The secret agent may be acting out our fantasies in his sexual adventures as well. This aspect has been thoroughly discussed and needs no supplement here: most spies have a compelling way with beautiful women, at least since the 1950s. Their occupations make our fantasies complete: the agency will not allow attachments or emotional involvements of any kind, and so the spy is not only free to love and leave, he is under national security orders to do so. Le Carré has reminded us, in his fiction, that even spies can have families, though for the most part his operatives are bound to their London offices. Greene’s confidential agent was once married, but that was long ago and in another country; now, her haunting memory hinders his action. Bond tries marriage once and pays for it when the opposition murders his bride. It is much better, espionage fiction tells us, to remain detached. If you love a woman, you will get hurt.
If the fictional spy expresses (predominantly male) sexual impulses, he also is a medium for expressing our noblest aspirations. In his loneliness, his isolation, there is also the opportunity for heroism, manifested as self-possession, inner [-p.77] strength, the courage to do what he feels is right and to make such decisions while removed from societal pressures. There are no Joneses to emulate in his milieu. Thoreau would approve.” (pp.76-77)

“The spy novel also enables us, as spectators, to purge and then obliterate the worst that is in us. Movie ads often describe the spy’ls life as one of ‘cheating, lying, and stealing’: in what sphere of the psyche is that quite attractive? In what sphere of our psyches do we want to be free to break any of the rules we wish, as it is convenient, and never be held accountable? The spy can do just that because he is invisible, because he is an alien body in his host society. He moves horizontally to intrude into the lives of others, but his own life is structured vertically. We want to be a part of that life, perhaps even to live that life, but in one sense only: we realize that we cannot really lie, steal, and kill, that we are not really like that.” (p.78)

“We have always had spies, but only recently have we made them our heroes. Their time has come round at last because it is our times that see in their work a part of our own desires and our fears. The spy novel, ostensibly so restricted in its possibilities, allows us to pierce deeply into ourselves, where the possibilities are infinite.” (p.78)

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

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

Spy stories: a background of conflict


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

A history of the spy story


The spy story gradually took shape in the nineteenth century and became a widely popular narrative formula around the time of World War I. The first novel to be entitled The Spy and to have a secret agent as one of its main characters was published by James Fenimore Cooper in 1821, shortly before Cooper began his major series, ‘The Leatherstocking Tales’ with The Pioneers in 1823. Significantly, Cooper explored the possibilities of the spy in literature before he went on to develop the Western. He was apparently fascinated by characters caught in the middle between large opposing forces.” (p.34) “The Spy is not Cooper’s most honored novel; yet as the first literary exploration of liminality, it is underrated….” (p.36)

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