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Spy fiction

From Academic Kids

The spy fiction genre (sometimes called political thriller) arose before the World War I, at about the same time that the first modern intelligence agencies were being formed. Since its inception, the spy genre has usually enjoyed great popular success, although in the years following the end of the Cold War (the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989) readership waned. The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States reversed that trend, reigniting readers' interest in the world at large. Seldom has this literary genre met with much critical acclaim, although there have been remarkably literate and politically insightful books published in it.

Early spy novels include Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901)—based on The Great Game (espionage, politics) between Europe and Asia, centered on Afghanistan; and Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), recounting the undercover exploits of an English aristocrat's attempts to rescue French aristocrats during the French Revolution. Robert Erskine Childers's novel, The Riddle of the Sands (1903), defined the spy novel for the First World War. The most important, early, spy fiction writer unquestionably is William Le Queux, whose ordinary prose rightly has been relegated to used-book stores, but who was Britain's highest-selling author during the pre–WWI years; the second, big seller was E. Phillips Openheim. Combined, these authors produced hundreds of books, between 1900 and 1914, but they were formulaic, of little literary merit.

During World War I, the pre-eminent author was John Buchan, a skilled propagandist; his books were well-written portrayals of the First World War as a conflict between civilization and barbarism. His best-known works are the Richard Hannay novels Greenmantle and The Thirty-Nine Steps (the title of which, but not the plot, was used for an Alfred Hitchcock film.) The inter-war period's pulp spy fiction mostly concerned battling Bolsheviks. Serious spy fiction books began appearing, however, as did the first books by retired intelligence officers, such as W. Somerset Maugham, who accurately portrayed spying in the First World War in Ashenden; or the British Agent (1928) (filmed as Alfred Hitchcock's The Secret Agent).

Other, major, genres were also created in this period: Compton Mckenzie, another former British intelligence agent, wrote the first successful spy satire; Eric Ambler wrote of ordinary people caught in espionage: Epitaph for a Spy (1938), The Mask of Dimitrios (US title A Coffin for Dimitrios) (1939), and Journey into Fear (1940). Eric Ambler was notable (and shocking to some) for bringing a left-wing perspective to a genre previously featuring right-wing, Establishment attitudes.

In 1939, Glasgow-born author Helen MacInnes's first espionage novel, Above Suspicion, was published in Britain (1941 in the U.S.A.), beginning a forty-five-year career in which she was praised by many critics for her literate, fast-paced, intricately plotted suspense novels set against contemporary history. Some of her more famous titles include Assignment in Britanny (1942), North from Rome (1958), Decision at Delphi (1961), The Snare of the Hunter (1974), and Ride a Pale Horse (1984).

In 1940 a British writer named Manning Coles brought out Drink to Yesterday, the first of the critically acclaimed Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon spy novels. This initial novel was a grim story set in World War I, but, in the next five or six books set in Nazi Germany or in World War II England, a lighter tone prevailed, although the events depicted remained equally grim. After the war, the Hambledon books became formulaic, and critical interest waned.

The Cold War that followed hard upon World War II was a great impetus to the genre of spy fiction. Graham Greene drew on his experience with British Intelligence to write a number of left-wing, anti-imperialist spy novels, including The Quiet American (1952), set in southeast Asia, A Burnt-out Case (1961), about the Belgian Congo, The Comedians (1966), set in Haiti, The Honorary Consul (1973), in Paraguay, and The Human Factor (1978), about spies in London. His most notable novel, however, was Our Man in Havana, 1959, a seriocomedy about British intelligence bumbling in pre-Castro Cuba.

Another product of the early Cold War was Ian Fleming's James Bond. Although Fleming, too, had been an intelligence agent, his unrealistic world of spying held the public monopoly only for a short time; quickly, authors developed anti-Bond figures, the two most noted examples being writers John le Carré and Len Deighton. They modeled their novels on the 1930s authors who were very dubious about the morality of espionage. For the first time, American authors also were successful in breaking British control of the spy fiction genre, and, in the later years of the Cold War, authors such as Donald Hamilton, Tom Clancy, Ross Thomas, and Robert Ludlum became successful.

The post-war years, especially the 1960s, also saw an explosion of spy films, many based on works of literature. These covered a wide range from the extremely fantastical James Bond films to the grainy realism of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Norman Mailer's abiding preoccupation with American espionage produced Harlot's Ghost, a sprawling, 1300-page work published in (1991), the year that the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended.

Prominent writers of spy fiction

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