Thursday 18 January 2018

The spies coming in the from the cold

Edel Coffey on why the dusty old spy novel is this year's hot new literary trend

Reboot: Tom Hiddleston in the BBC's flashy adaptation of John Le Carré’s spy novel The Night Manager.
Reboot: Tom Hiddleston in the BBC's flashy adaptation of John Le Carré’s spy novel The Night Manager.

At one point in the not too distant past, the spy novel had become a dusty, old, outdated thing. They were the kind of novels that your dad might read - Len Deighton paperbacks piled high, or perhaps Ian Fleming's endless, interchangeable Bond books.

But something changed somewhere along the line. Maybe it was Daniel Craig's blue micro swimming shorts in Casino Royale, the remake of Fleming's first Bond book, that rebooted the genre. More likely, it was Paul Greengrass's adaptation of Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne novels 15 years ago, which reinvented the genre completely for a modern era. Greengrass and his star Matt Damon announced last month that they have reunited to make a fifth film in the series so there is no sign of that particular franchise's popularity waning any time soon.

And let's not forget the exquisite 2011 remake of John Le Carré's classic spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and most recently, the BBC adaptation of his book The Night Manager, which saw 10 million people sitting in on a Sunday night to watch Tom Hiddleston's every move as maverick spy Jonathan Pine. The role was as good an audition as any for the lead in the next Bond film, should Hiddleston care for the job.

Le Carré himself shows no sign of slowing down, having released a new novel last month. So, if you're looking for this year's hot new literary trend, forget vampires and mummy porn -spies have come in from a long spell in the cold and the genre has karate kicked its way back into contemporary life with an ultra slick-modern gloss, thanks partially to the success of its TV and film adaptations.

It's easy to see why spy fiction fell away. The fall of the Berlin wall, the dropping of the Iron Curtain, the retreat of itchy fingers from nuclear-primed buttons. There wasn't much at stake any more. By the 1990s, spy novelists had trouble getting published. Not that that stopped the juggernaut that is the commercial success of the definitive Cold War spy novel. They are the equivalent in many ways of romance fiction. Somehow, they struggle through times of being uncool and unfashionable, buoyed by die-hard fans, before the wheel turns full circle and they find themselves flavour of the month once more.

To cope with the loss of any real and present danger, the spy genre simply turned its attention to the good old times, the Cold War, and became an almost exclusively historical fiction genre. But then the world changed. The Twin Towers came crashing down, and the world has been under threat ever since. The political backdrop is the perfect setting for a spy novel renaissance. WikiLeaks. Panama Papers. Putin. Litvinenko. ISIL. North Korea. Brexit. We are living in a world of terrorism, political uncertainty, secrets and surveillance, fertile ground for spy thrillers.

The earliest spy fiction can be traced back to the early 19th century, with the imaginatively titled The Spy by American novelist James Fenimore Cooper amongst the earliest. The genre really came into its own around the beginning of the 20th century, as World War I took shape and writers like Joseph Conrad, who had direct experience, started to put their thoughts on paper. It was Irishman Erskine Childers who defined the spy novel with his 1903 The Riddle of the Sands, which saw the yacht-sailing hero Arthur Davies expose a planned German invasion. (Childers' yacht The Asgard played its part in the 1916 Rising, as it was used to smuggle guns into the country.)

The golden era for the spy novel was the Cold War between America and Russia. The juxtaposition of glamorous, capitalist America with Iron Curtain communist Russia made perfect cultural counterpoints. It's in this era that the classic spy fiction authors made their names - Le Carré, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, whose Bond books have continued to be written from beyond the grave by a series of famous ghost writers.

Many of the authors of spy novels were former agents themselves, who had the inside knowledge to recreate the life of a spy in authentic detail. Even today, former spies continue to pen novels, including Stella Rimmington, who was the former director general of MI5, and now writes page-turners about a female MI5 agent. In a way, spying is just like fiction, in that it's about making up stories and hoping you will be believed.

Le Carré is the man to beat as he combines subtle writing skills with thrilling tales of espionage. He is the master of the genre (Publisher's Weekly called The Spy Who Came in From the Cold the best spy novel of all time) and, in fact, he has transcended the genre to be considered simply one of the best novelists of our time.

Publishers are poised to benefit from the renewed appetite for spy fiction with big releases due this summer, including the latest in the Thomas Kell series by Charles Cumming. Cumming used to do a fine line in historical Cold War thrillers but moved to the Middle East with his last novel, A Colder War, and his latest, A Divided Spy, coming in June, sees his disgraced spy Thomas Kell take on yet another top secret mission.

So what is it about spy novels that we love so much?

They appeal to our sense of fear, our vulnerability as a people and a society, when faced with suicide bombers and random gun attacks, but also, on a personal level, spy novels are always working within the balance of loyalty and betrayal, secrets and lies, and these are very human flaws. Add a handsome hero into the mix and you've got this year's mummy porn, version 2.0.

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