Spies I’ve Known

Posted on 29th July 2016 by Sally Campbell
Our Thriller of The Month for August is Nicholas Searle’s assured debut The Good Liar. Searle grew up in Cornwall and studied languages at the Universities of Bath and Göttingen before becoming a civil servant for many years.  He has recently been named one of The Observer’s New Faces of Fiction 2016. Spanning nearly a century, his debut centres on expert con-man Roy who embroils naïve, wealthy widow Betty in an intricate ploy. In an exclusive article for Waterstones, Searle has selected his favourite fictional spies, as well as writing a comprehensive introduction to the espionage genre

I think I’m qualified to speak about the portrayal of spies in fiction. Among other things, I’ve read enough spy stories to fill a lifetime several times over. Some attempts I’ve found dreadful – unconvincing both to the professional and to me as a general reader. Others speak to me profoundly, and are deeply affecting. I don’t think it necessarily comes down to the background of the writer: there are former spies whose fictional descriptions of espionage are – to me at least – crass and unconvincing. On the other hand some writers with little or no experience of that world write with authority and conviction. And then of course there are those former spooks who are also excellent writers. They have an advantage of course, having been in the business, which gives them a wealth of professional experience to draw on. But the critical element in spy fiction has always been and always will be characterisation.

There’s an obvious division of fictional spies into two categories. First, there’s the escapist: the hero or anti-hero who lives a fantastical existence moving from one scrape to the next untroubled entirely by thoughts of consequences or morality. Then there’s the individual wracked with doubt, who doesn’t know who to trust and who is in constant inner turmoil over the rightness or wrongness of what he or she is doing. Once in a while the fantasy is great, surfing an adrenaline wave of certainty and unreality, but I prefer these inwardly conflicted individuals, partly because they’re more true to life, partly because I find them more interesting and partly because they give us greater insights into what makes human beings tick. If there’s one thing spy fiction can do that lifts it from simple escapism, it’s the distillation of human experience that exists in that dark-cornered world: the deceptions, the doubts, the moral dilemmas, the fears that we all experience are all brought into sharp focus in the best spy fiction. The best spy fiction is not primarily about spies: it’s about us.

These spies will also tend to be outsiders, worn down by a life of espionage to the point where they do not know where to turn between idealism and cynicism – a thin line, indeed. I’d take issue with those who argue that the true milieu of the outsider is the crime novel and that spy novels tend to reinforce the conformist status quo. I don’t think such generalisations are accurate, and what’s important is characterisation: for every Rebus there’s a Dalgliesh or a Wexford; for every James Bond there’s a George Smiley or a Maurice Castle. And up to a point every interesting protagonist in every novel is an outsider.

A recent Guardian article by Natasha Walter suggests we need more female spies in fiction. I agree, there’s a gap. The quality fiction about spies that was produced in the 70s and 80s was of its time. In John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the only active female character (apart from the little-seen but central Ann Smiley) is Connie Sachs, who is one of my favourite le Carré characters but who in the panoply of le Carré’s Circus has a supporting role (one that is not to be disparaged or understated, though), researching and building an encyclopaedic knowledge of Soviet intelligence. That’s because that was how it was, and continued to be well into the 1980s. It is a little frustrating, though, that latterly fiction has not really begun to represent fact. As recently as Ian McEwan’s 2013 Sweet Tooth, the protagonist, Serena Frome, is more the subject of men’s actions than an actor herself (again, we can forgive McEwan, I suppose, given that the action takes place in the 1970s). Popular culture today has a scattering of female spies but few seem to me to be particularly rounded. There seems undue emphasis as opposed to their personal qualities and spying competencies. I wouldn’t describe Carrie Mathieson in Homeland, for example, as one of my favourite fictional spies, not least because the characterisation (of her and her male colleagues) is arguably sexist. It is Carrie who is riddled with doubt and wrestles – quite superficially, to me – with the moral issues (and moreover suffers from bipolar condition), while her male counterparts, including Saul, are chock-full of male certainty. It all seems to me to be rather simplistic.

The critical element, regardless of the gender of the character, is the individual’s believability. I’d have loved to see Connie Sachs out in the field, running agents. She would have done a great job. Equally George Smiley could just as easily (with a few character tweaks) have been a woman today. So Natasha Walter’s right. Spy fiction with almost exclusively male characters no longer reflects the reality. I must try to do something about that. Watch this space.

This acts as something of an explanation of (not an excuse for) the fact that my list of favourite spies in fiction consists almost entirely of men. Here it is:


Mr Verloc (Joseph Conrad)

The Secret Agent is a remarkable book, weaving such intrigue into such a compact and tight narrative, and marks a major departure from some of Conrad’s other, more grandiose literature, studded with complex language. Its themes are also astonishingly contemporary, full of dark figures whose motives are unclear, non-State actors and potential suicide bombers. Once you manage to penetrate the dated language and settings, you gain entry into a dark and compelling story, a literary page-turner.

Richard Hannay (John Buchan)

While Buchan may not have been a spy himself (though he worked in Intelligence), he clearly had considerable insight into the world of espionage through his various official roles. Hannay is the hero of numerous Buchan novels, the most well-known of which are The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle. I use the word ‘hero’ advisedly: Hannay’s world is not one of moral ambiguity or doubt over allegiances. We are light-years away from the world of Mr Verloc and the Assistant Commissioner. The stories are, though patchy in terms of style and plot consistency, marvellously rip-roaring and exciting. Hannay is the true precursor of Fleming’s James Bond.

Emma Peel 

I’ve thrown a random character into the mix, mainly because I grew up with Emma Peel (Diana Rigg’s portrayal, that is) and like her so much. The Avengers was a TV programme, not a book, and I’m not at all sure that either Steed or Mrs Peel (I love that ‘Mrs’, rather than ‘Miss’, suggesting that a married, or widowed, woman could have a life of her own, not always the orthodoxy in the 1960s) were spies in the classic sense. Goodness knows what they were; it didn’t really matter. The series was brilliantly written, with wry knowingness and massively implausible storylines held together by the characters of Steed and Peel, she seemingly always a step ahead of him, using her cunning and martial arts to save the day. So much was achieved with language, and lavish pyrotechnics were unnecessary – or at least incidental. Mrs Peel was sassy, intelligent, fiercely independent and utterly Steed’s equal in the relationship. And – of course – The Avengers screened at about the time I was entering puberty, so I was suitably spellbound.

James Bond (Ian Fleming)

I must confess to being in two minds here. There are a number of issues. When we think of James Bond, is it of the books or the films? Predominantly the latter, I think; and that faces me up with a problem. While the debate continues whether the next Bond should be black, a woman, gay, or whatever, it’s still very clearly the case that at heart to date he’s been a misogynist, violent, prejudiced, unthinking, though quite witty, little Englander. The storylines are implausible beyond breaking point (a ridiculous thing to say, I know, in respect of such evident fantasy) and the whole caboodle is only held together for me by the humour. Delve into the books and things become even more questionable. The only excuse is that, as with Conrad and Buchan, they are of their time. But should we today be encouraged to indulge in this kind of escapism? On balance I think I disqualify Mr Bond from my favourite spies.

Maurice Castle (Graham Greene)

Ah, Greene. Who to pick: the comedic Wormold from Our Man In Havana, the idealistic, blundering Quiet American Pyle, bringing catastrophe to all around him by his meddling, Raven, the assassin from A Gun For Sale? Might we even stretch the category for Pinkie from Brighton Rock, or Harry Lime from The Third Man, both classic Greene outsider characters, charismatic and up to their necks in intrigue and nastiness, pursuer and pursued at the same time – just like spies, but not quite?  I’ve plumped for Maurice Castle, from The Human Factor, confronted with huge dilemmas of personal morality and conscience but at the same time aware that he is a pawn in the game of geopolitics.

Bernard and Fiona Samson (Len Deighton)

Len Deighton’s spy novels are something of a forgotten delight, especially the two 1980s trilogies, Game, Set and Match and Hook, Line and Sinker. Deighton was writing these books at the same time as le Carré’s huge success, and in the same genre with very similar themes; and while his books were huge bestsellers at the time his reputation doesn’t seem to have endured quite so well. But there’s some marvellous reading here (which is best done in the right order) and we have familiar elements: the experienced, tired spook, world-weary to the point of cynicism, thrown into dark uncertainty and self-doubt by events, who does not know where to look let alone who to trust. For the avoidance of spoilers, I won’t explain why I’ve included both Fiona and Bernard Samson, but there’s great characterisation here.

George Smiley, Bill Haydon and Karla (John le Carré)

Of course. I go no further than to look than that magnificent 1970s trilogy of books, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People, possibly the apogee of British espionage fiction. The blend of depth and surface, thrills and spills and anxious self-examination, moral righteousness and desperate uncertainty, is breathtakingly well-delivered, in a dry, unemotional yet emotion-evoking style, with brilliantly drawn, true-to-life characters. I could have chosen several of these: Ricki Tarr, Peter Guillam, Connie Sachs, Jim Prideaux, even Alleline, Esterhase and Bland. Even Oliver Lacon. But I’ve stuck with that infernal triangle of Smiley, Haydon and Karla, played off against each other brilliantly through the three books. I can remember devouring the books, long before I became involved in ‘matters relating to security’ myself. Since then I’ve realised just how much of these books is true. And how brilliantly brought to life in the BBC TV series of the time (I’m not so keen on the recent film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I have to say). It’s not just Alec Guinness, who just is Smiley, it’s the supporting cast too – Hywel Bennett as the evasive Tarr, Michael Jayston as the loyal Guillam, the wonderful Beryl Reid as Connie, Bernard Hepton as bumbling Esterhase – as well as the other main characters, Ian Richardson exuding superior charm and menace as Haydon and Patrick Stewart as Karla (who appears only briefly, in a non-speaking role but whose acting speaks volumes). 


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