Of late, I’ve been thinking about genre fiction. Specifically, how I don’t think I read all that much of it, until I look back at my reading log (you keep one too, don’t you) and notice that there is rather more historical fiction and detective fiction — and sometimes historical detective fiction — than I first thought.
And, espionage. Spy novels. Here are a few of my favorites, in roughly chronological order.
The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers
While there are earlier examples of the genre, it’s with The Riddle of the Sands that espionage fiction first assumes its modern form. A minor British official and a friend take a yachting holiday in the Frisian Islands and discover the base for a German invasion of England. They are nearly caught, but escape and foil the invasion plan. It’s not a complicated plot or even very subtle, but if you like espionage fiction, it’s not a bad idea to see where it started.
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan
The Thirty-Nine Steps is more thriller than spy novel, but there’s still a good deal of espionage and spies just seem to come out of the woodwork. Richard Hannay is a stiff-upper-lip, action-oriented sort of spy who, besides being one of Bond’s direct antecedents, discovers a plot to assassinate the Greek prime minister in order betray British military secrets in the run up to the First World War. He gets into — and out of — all manner of scrapes and foils the plot and preserves the secrets.
This novel has been adapted for film no fewer than three times; I prefer Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version.
Ashendon (1928) by W. Somerset Maugham
I’m not sure whether I love Ashendon because it’s a spy novel, or because it was written by Maugham (who never wrote a great book or a bad book, but did write any number of really fine ones). Ashendon is a set of loosely linked stories, all featuring the playwright Ashendon who is recruited as a spy and proceeds to have adventures throughout Europe. It’s said that the Ashendon stories are based in part on Maugham’s own experience as an agent during the First World War.
Some of the stories from Ashendon were adapted as the Secret Agent (1936) by Alfred Hitchcock.
Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming
You’ve probably seen the film–or both of them–now you should read the book. Casino Royale is one Fleming’s best, and he was a fine writer who’s been too-often eclipsed by his own fictional creation and the Bond movies that he inspired. If it’s your sort of thing, pay particular attention to Fleming’s prose; it’s a model of clarity, energy, and economy.
The Quest for Karla (1974-1979) by John le Carré
In my mind, these are the greatest of all espionage novels written by the master of the genre. The Quest for Karla is three novels: Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People. George Smiley is perhaps the most unromantic, workaday spy that you are likely to find, but also the most subtle, the most profound, and ultimately, the most ruthless. It’s the height of the Cold War and Smiley must deal with Russian spies, moles in his own organization, and Britain’s place in limbo between the superpowers. He wins some, loses some, and eventually — with infinite subtlety and with the careful application of pressure — takes down not only a high-level mole in the British Secret Service but also his Russian arch-rival, Karla.
After you’ve read the books (in order, mind you), watch the excellent television adaptation starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley.
Harlot’s Ghost (1991) by Norman Mailer
That’s right — Norman Mailer wrote a spy novel, or more precisely, a novel about the CIA. Mailer seems to be both perversely attracted and repulsed by the CIA. The story is the fictional autobiography of Harry Hubbard, which tells the story of his work for the CIA, and which eventually morphs from a recounted story to the story of the novel itself. This novel is perhaps the best and worst of Mailer, and also some of the best and worst of the genre itself. Still worth reading though, as the narration and the story carry a bizarre compulsion to be read.
Night Soldiers (1988-2010) by Alan Furst
There are now eleven loosely related — both in cast, geography, and time frame — novels in Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series. These set of interwoven espionage-thrillers traverses Europe from one end to another during the Second World War. They are action-packed, fast-paced, and filled with memorable characters on both sides — sometimes quite literally on both sides, or on no side — of the war. They also include the best restaurant in espionage fiction — the Brassierie Heiniger, in Paris and where I first read of of my favorite dishes: choucroute. While it’s possible to read them out of order, it’s still probably best to start with Night Soldiers and go from there.
What’s your favorite spy novel? Leave us a comment and let us know.