Eight of the best spy novels - Hindustan Times
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Eight of the best spy novels

The Economist
Nov 26, 2023 11:00 AM IST

Former spooks make especially strong authors

“KIM” published in 1901, may be the first spy novel. Rudyard Kipling recounts the adventures of an orphan who becomes a player in the Great Game, Britain’s competition with Russia in the 19th century for influence in Central Asia. MI5 and MI6, Britain’s domestic and overseas intelligence services, appreciating the value of imagination to intelligence work, recruited novelists. On leaving those agencies they incorporated their knowledge of tradecraft into their fiction. James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s cold-war spymaster, majored in English at Yale. He advised trainee agents to read William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, believing Empson’s literary criticism to be analogous to intelligence work. It was Angleton who famously called spying “a wilderness of mirrors”, a phrase he lifted from the poet T.S. Eliot. English speakers are especially apt to travel between the seemingly distant realms of spying and novelising, which is why most of the books on our list were written in that language. We have ignored some very good books that emphasise politics at the expense of snooping, which are often, though not always, written in languages other than English. One example is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathiser”, published in 2015, set in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. This much-garlanded novel, written in English, is more social commentary than espionage. The eight books we recommend here are guiltier pleasures.

Alec Guinness as John le Carré’s most famous spy, George Smiley, in the BBC adaptation of the novels.(BBC) PREMIUM
Alec Guinness as John le Carré’s most famous spy, George Smiley, in the BBC adaptation of the novels.(BBC)

“KIM” published in 1901, may be the first spy novel. Rudyard Kipling recounts the adventures of an orphan who becomes a player in the Great Game, Britain’s competition with Russia in the 19th century for influence in Central Asia. MI5 and MI6, Britain’s domestic and overseas intelligence services, appreciating the value of imagination to intelligence work, recruited novelists. On leaving those agencies they incorporated their knowledge of tradecraft into their fiction. James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s cold-war spymaster, majored in English at Yale. He advised trainee agents to read William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, believing Empson’s literary criticism to be analogous to intelligence work. It was Angleton who famously called spying “a wilderness of mirrors”, a phrase he lifted from the poet T.S. Eliot. English speakers are especially apt to travel between the seemingly distant realms of spying and novelising, which is why most of the books on our list were written in that language. We have ignored some very good books that emphasise politics at the expense of snooping, which are often, though not always, written in languages other than English. One example is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathiser”, published in 2015, set in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. This much-garlanded novel, written in English, is more social commentary than espionage. The eight books we recommend here are guiltier pleasures.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. By John le Carré. Penguin; 400 pages; $19 and £9.99

There is no doubt as to the identity of the best spy novelist—John le Carré. The only question is which is his best book. Many pick “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, published in 1963, which was considered transgressive at the time for suggesting that, in the business of espionage at least, the West and the Soviet bloc were moral equivalents. But le Carré’s masterpiece is surely “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, published in 1974 at the height of the Cold War. This is the fifth novel in which George Smiley appears, this time as a spymaster brought out of forced retirement to hunt for a Soviet mole in MI6. Suffused with menace, paranoia and treachery, “Tinker Tailor” has never been bettered as a depiction of the grey, often seedy world of espionage. Le Carré was both a first-class novelist and a former intelligence agent; here the combination works to its full advantage. Rueful, cuckolded Smiley, “small, podgy, and at best middle-aged”, is his greatest creation. Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman (pictured) have played him on screen.

From Russia, with Love. By Ian Fleming. HarperCollins; 336 pages; $18.99. Vintage; £9.99

If le Carré showed that the spy novel could be great literature, Ian Fleming conceived of the genre as that of action-thriller. He set the template for all who followed. Robert Ludlum’s hero, Jason Bourne, is a tad more nuanced than Fleming’s misogynistic loner James Bond, but he is still recognisably the same sort of impossibly resourceful beefcake. A journalist by trade, Fleming worked for British naval intelligence during the Second World War and his novels often depict the tradecraft of the era. President John Kennedy was a fan. Unlike le Carré’s intricately plotted novels, a Bond book can easily be devoured in an afternoon. The appeal lies in the gadgets, honeytraps and outrageous villains. “From Russia, with Love”, published in 1957, has an especially memorable cast of SMERSH assassins, including the muscle-bound psychopath Donovan Grant and Rosa Kleb (of the lethal toe caps). It has to be the best of the Bonds.

Tomás Nevinson. By Javier Marías. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Knopf; 656 pages; $32.50. Hamish Hamilton; £22.00

Here a great Spanish novelist is drawn to the genre for the opportunity it affords him to address the themes of secrecy, duplicity and deception—with spectacular results. Javier Marías, who died in 2022, wrote dozens of short stories and novels. Only towards the end of his career did he turn to espionage; “Tomás Nevinson” was his last book. Marías, an Anglophile, takes many of his tropes from le Carré. The Spaniard’s spymaster, Bertram Tupra, bears more than a passing resemblance to Smiley. The plot of “Tomás Nevinson” revolves around a disillusioned spy who is lured out of retirement to find and possibly kill Basque terrorists responsible for a bombing in Barcelona. The narrative winds sinuously and discursively between fact and fiction, suggesting that Marías took inspiration from the German writer W.G. Sebald as well as from le Carré. This is the spy novel as high art.

Dead Lions. By Mick Herron. Soho Press; 384 pages; $16.95. John Murray Press; £9.99

Mick Herron’s novels about the “screw-ups” of Slough House—agents demoted by MI5 and forced to do dreary legwork in the expectation that they will quit out of boredom—have acquired a cult following. Naturally, these “slow horses”, the title of Mr Herron’s first outing for the gang, turn out to be anything but useless. Unlike most authors on this list, Mr Herron did not work for an intelligence service (as far as we know), but he more than makes up for that in brilliant characterisation and sheer verve, especially in “Dead Lions”. The second book of the series lopes out of the gates with the discovery of the corpse of a cold-war-era spy, from which complications ensue. Jackson Lamb, the horses’ minder, may be the least prepossessing spymaster ever devised: his “shoulders dusted with dandruff; green V-neck stained by misjudged mouthfuls of takeaway; frayed shirt cuffs poking from overcoat sleeves”. Lamb’s office is “heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream; illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer”. But fear not, the West is safe. Chicken-tikka-masala-spattered Jackson Lamb—another character played by Mr Oldman—and his team of unfavoured equines always get the job done.

Damascus Station. By David McCloskey. W.W. Norton; 432 pages; $17.95. Swift Press; £9.99

Of the contemporary heirs to Fleming, David McCloskey is the most readable and exciting. A former CIA analyst, Mr McCloskey writes novels that bristle with tradecraft and gadgets. His best book, “Damascus Station”, published in 2021, includes long riffs on “dead drops”, a sapphire necklace containing a micro-camera, and exploding car doors. “Damascus Station” turns on real events: the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 and the subsequent civil war in Syria. The author likes punchy female heroes. Mariam, the Syrian insider turned by the CIA in “Damascus Gate”, chops and kicks her way through any number of presidential bodyguards. But don’t expect much ambivalence about the CIA. As Mr McCloskey acknowledges, he “loves and admires” the agency.

Secret Asset. By Stella Rimington. Knopf; 368 pages; $16. Cornerstone; £9.99

Stella Rimington, the first female head of a British intelligence agency, was also the first director of MI5 whose name was disclosed upon her appointment. Even so, it was a surprise when she started writing spy novels after her retirement in 1996. Her heroine, Liz Carlyle, is one of the few female protagonists in the genre. Dame Stella’s tenure at the top of MI5 coincided with a rise in Islamist terrorism, so her early works deal with the world of counter-terrorism. In “Secret Asset” Carlyle pursues an Irish Republican Army terrorist who offers his skills to al-Qaeda. The strengths of Dame Stella’s books lie in their tight plotting and depictions of how the machinery of government actually reacts to domestic threats. It is often lamented that too few women write—or read—spy novels. Dame Stella may have begun to change that.

Transcription. By Kate Atkinson. Little, Brown; 368 pages; $16.99. Transworld; £8.99

Dame Stella may know more than most novelists about tradecraft, but Kate Atkinson knows better than almost anyone how to write. In the superb “Transcription” Ms Atkinson has created a female lead for the ages. Juliet Armstrong is a perfect foil for the discreet, male-dominated world of espionage. Armstrong subverts her patronising superiors with humour and wit. “You have a good ear,” one spy chief tells her. “I have two, sir,” she replies brightly. Recruited at the beginning of the second world war by MI5, her job is to go undercover to penetrate Britain’s networks of posh Nazi sympathisers before they can harm the war effort. Aside from writing sparkling prose, Ms Atkinson also does her homework: overflowing with new recruits in 1940, MI5 really did move into Wormwood Scrubs prison.

Our Man in Havana. By Graham Greene. Penguin; 256 pages; $17. Vintage; £9.99

In the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 it turned out that Western intelligence services had suffered from a fateful bout of confirmation bias. The spooks—and their political masters—wanted to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to justify invasion, so they swallowed any old rubbish that appeared to confirm that belief. In one case, the British only started to rumble that a source was dodgy when they realised that his description of a chemical-weapons device was remarkably similar to one in the Hollywood movie “The Rock”. If they had only re-read their Graham Greene! In his masterful satire “Our Man in Havana”, from 1958, a Hoover salesman in Cuba, James Wormold, invents a spy network in order to make a bit of extra money from MI6. Eager to ingratiate himself, he describes the existence of new weapons, modelled, in fact, on vacuum-cleaner parts. His spy chiefs laud his contributions, with comic consequences. Greene himself worked for MI6 during the second world war, and so had a good idea of how the espionage business could both create heroes and go disastrously awry.

Also try

Read our reviews of a “riveting” history of espionage during the cold war and of an equally compelling book about Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB agent who gave Soviet secrets to the West. In 2016 we published a special report about espionage. A Bagehot column from 2017 says that Britain is best understood through its spy novels. A later article added Mr Herron’s “Joe Country” to the list of spy books that illuminate Britain. Here are our picks for the best non-fiction books on spying.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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