Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Spy-Fi: The Long History of Spy Fiction Part Two

Ministry of Fear: The Spy Novel During WW II


World War II was the largest conflict ever known to Man. It involved several nations, including every single one of the world powers of the time. In total, over 100 million people were mobilised to take part in the war. World War II saw the creation of several different weapons of mass destruction, not the least of which was the atomic bomb. It was effectively the first wholly modern war.

One would have expected that during the largest conflict ever known to man that spy fiction would have experienced a heyday. Surprisingly, this was not the case, as more spy novels were produced prior to the war than during the war itself. This is not to say that there was no spy fiction produced during World War II. Authors who had written spy fiction prior to the war would continue to do so. In fact, World War II would see a major shift in spy fiction. Before the eve of World War II, most spy novels were period pieces set during World War I. Ashenden, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Drink to Yesterday, and yet other novels were all set shortly before or during the First World War. On the eve of World War II, more and more spy novels would be set in the present day. The first Thomas Hambledon novel, Drink to Yesterday, by Manning Coles was set in World War I. The next several Hambledon books were set in either Nazi Germany or World War II era England. Of course, from the beginning the novels of Helen McInnes were set in the present. Her first novel Above Suspicion featured newlyweds assigned to spy on Nazi Germany. Her second novel Assignment in Brittany, took place in Nazi occupied France. Her third novel The Unconquerable was set on the eve of the German invasion of Poland.

While World War II saw more and more spy novels set in the present day, almost no new authors in the genre emerged. The exception was a man who would become one of spy-fi's greatest writers, Graham Greene. By the time he wrote his first spy novel, Graham Greene had already been a successful author for nearly seven years. It was in 1936 that his first espionage novel was published. A Gun For Sale centred on Raven, a man hired to kill the Minister of War, taking from him secret notes. He was among the earliest of a new breed of anti-hero--the assassin with his own personal code of honour. While Graham Greene would continue to write in other genres, A Gun For Hire was only the beginning of a highly successful career in spy-fi. The Ministry of Fear, published in 1943, concerned an Englishmen caught in a spy ring during the Blitz. After the war Greene would rise to even greater prominence as a spy fiction writer, one who often questioned the morality of espionage. His most famous works are also classics in the genre, The Third Man (published in 1949), The Quiet American (published in 1955), and Our Man in Havanna (published in 1958). Graham Greene established himself as one of the most intelligent and literate of all writers of spy-fi.

While World War II produced little in the way of new spy fiction, it would have a lasting impact on the genre. The very nature of the conflict forced the world powers to modernise espionage and intelligence gathering techniques. While codes and code breaking had been a part of espionage for centuries, they would prove vitally important during World War II. Means of eavesdropping on private conversations such as wiretapping and electronic bugs were being used more and more. While assumed to be a fictional invention of Ian Fleming, spy gadgets were a reality in World War II, as they had been before. Bombs disguised as frozen eggs or even chocolate bars, microdots, knives hidden in shoes, miniature cameras, and yet other gadgets were all used at some point or another during World War II.

Perhaps the most lasting result of modernisation in espionage that took place during World War II was the modernisation of intelligence agencies. In the United Kingdom both MI-5 and MI-6 increased recruiting for the manpower necessary for the coming war. New recruits also meant that the British intelligence agencies had to establish training for them as well. At least Britain had intelligence agencies in place at the start of the war. Alone amongst the world powers, the United States had never had a centralised intelligence agency. World War II forced the United States to establish the Office of Strategic Services or OSS, the country's first centralised intelligence agency. While the OSS was disbanded at the end of the war, it laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA in 1947.

Of course, World War II would bring an even greater change than the modernisation of espionage. With the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Western Allies (led by the United Kingdom and the United States) and the Soviet Union decided to divide Europe amongst themselves. This naturally led to disagreements between the one time Allies. These disagreements would only be intensified by the establishment of the Eastern Bloc by the Soviet Union, a collection of countries that had either been annexed into the U.S.S.R. (such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) during World War II or turned into satellite states of the Soviet Union (East Germany and Poland). The disagreements between the Western Allies and the U.S.S.R. would never break into armed conflict, but by 1947 a Cold War existed between the United Kingdom and the United States on one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. The Cold War would be fought through propaganda, military alliances, and competition in technological development (including weapons development and space exploration). As might be expected, much of the Cold War was fought utilising spies.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service: The Cold War and Superspies


The Cold War which lasted from 1947 to 1991 would prove to be the most fruitful period for spy-fi in the history of the genre. Particularly during the Fifties and the Sixties there was an outright boom in spy fiction which introduced new authors and new recurring characters as well. Indeed, by the Sixties spy fiction had proven so successful that spies had not only overwhelmed the paperback racks, but television and movie screens as well. While there can be no doubt that continued tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union was responsible for much of the newfound popularity of spies, much of the popularity of spy fiction in the Fifties and Sixties may have been due to the most famous fictional spy of them all. James Bond, Agent 007 for MI-6, was created by Ian Fleming in 1953. By the early Sixties Bond would become phenomenally popular, bringing not only new readers to spy-fi, but new authors as well.

Contrary to popular belief, James Bond was not the first of the new breed of superspies. That honour should go to a character largely forgotten now. Johnny Fedora was an agent for British Intelligence created by Shaun Lloyd McCarthy, using the pen name of Desmond Cory. He first appeared in the novel Secret Ministry in 1951. On the surface Johnny Fedora would seem quite similar to 007. Both came from humble backgrounds. Both often became entangled with seductive women. Both were debonair men who dressed sharp and appreciated the finer things in life. The similarities would end there, however, as Fedora and his milieu were very different than James Bond and the world Ian Fleming provided for him. Fedora was as much a hired assassin as he was a spy, compelled as much by the desire to avenge his parents' deaths as he was out of patriotism. His adventures would have a more deliberate pace than those of Bond, with plots that were far more complex and far more intellectual. Indeed, Johnny Fedora would eventually be labelled "the thinking man's James Bond." Although he inspired no movies and is largely forgotten today, Johnny Fedora proved quite popular. He appeared in sixteen novels from 1951 to 1971.

The success that should have belonged to Johnny Fedora would eventually go to James Bond. His creator, Ian Fleming, had served in British Naval Intelligence during World War II, so he could lend a good deal of authenticity to the Bond novels. In fact, while heavily romanticised, the first two Bond novels (Casino Royale and Live and Let Die) tended to be more realistic than future outings with 007. It would be with the third Bond novel that Ian Fleming would blend spy fiction with a touch of the fantastic, creating a new subgenre of spy fiction--the Bondian spy novel. Moonraker centred on James Bond's effort to prevent rogue industrialist Hugo Drax from destroying London with a nuclear missile. Published three years before the first successful test launch of an ICBM, the novel was a bit ahead of its time. In further adventures Bond would face even more fantastic plots, from Dr. No's sabotage of American missile tests to Goldfinger's plot to detonate an atomic device in Fort Knox. The appeal in the adventures of James Bond would not be a realistic portrayal of espionage, but instead a romantic fantasy version of the spy game.

Although moderately successful from the beginning, it would take several years before James Bond would become a phenomenon. In fact, for much of the Fifties the Johnny Fedora novels outsold the James Bond novels. Regardless, as the Fifties passed James Bond would grow popular enough that Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory, Ivar Bryce, and Jack Whittingham would make an attempt to create a James Bond television series. The idea died on the vine. James Bond took a giant leap in popularity in the United States when President John F. Kennedy confessed in an interview which appeared in the March 17, 1961 issue of Life that From Russia with Love was among his favourite books of all time. At the same time a spy craze was growing in Britain with TV series such as The Avengers and Danger Man. In the end, James Bond would come to motion picture screens in the movie Dr. No in 1962, establishing Bond as the most famous superspy of all time.

Johnny Fedora and James Bond would not be the only superspies of the Cold War era. Edward S. Aarons created a spy very similar to Bond in the form of Sam Durell, a tough agent of Cajun descent for a super secret section of the CIA. Like Bond, Durell often became involved with sexually provocative women and often battled fantastic opponents. Like Bond, Durell could be one tough customer, deadly with a gun and fierce in hand to hand combat. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Durell was a mere Bond imitator. The first Sam Durell novel, Assignment to Disaster, was published in 1955, only two years after the first Bond novel. This was a time when James Bond was little known in the United States and it seems unlikely that Edward S. Aarons had heard of Bond. The similarities between Bond and Durell may simply be due to the fact that the time was ripe for superspies.

While Bond would produce many imitators, particularly after Dr. No inaugurated the highly successful Bond movie franchise in 1962, it seems as if many novelists were intent on creating heroes as different from Bond as possible. This was probably the case with what may have been Bond's biggest literary rival, the American counter agent Matt Helm. Seeing continued success with Edward S. Aarons' Sam Durell series, paperback publisher Fawcett Gold Medal approached author Donald Hamilton about creating a counterspy who fought spies within the United States. They further suggested that this new counterspy should be an assassin. Hamilton created a spy as unlike Bond as possible. Matt Helm was a happily married man, an accomplished writer, and an avid hunter. He also happened to serve as a government assassin during World War II. Not only was Helm a wholly different character from Bond, but Donald Hamilton's writing style was very different from that of Ian Fleming, bringing to mind the dark, cynical style of hard boiled detective fiction. Matt Helm would prove popular enough to be adapted into a series of movies starring Dean Martin. Sadly, the movies turned Helm into an ersatz James Bond and his deadly serious adventures into something decidedly campier than even the most outlandish Bond adventures.

Ian Fleming's James Bond offered an overly romantic view of espionage with events in the books that sometimes bordered on the fantastic. With the Bond series growing in popularity, for many the time may have seemed right for novels which portrayed intelligence work more realistically. David John Moore Cornwell had served in the British Army's Intelligence Corps starting in 1950 and by 1952 was working for MI-5. In 1960 he would transfer to MI-6. With plenty of experience as a spy in real life, Cornwell was ideally suited to write espionage novels that would be more realistic in tone than those featuring Johnny Fedora and James Bond. Taking the pen name John Le Carré, his first novel, Call For the Dead, was not only more realistic than anything written by Ian Fleming, but gave the world a spy who was more realistic than James Bond or Matt Helm. George Smiley was an intelligence officer working for MI-6. He also happened to be middle aged, quiet, and very mild mannered. He lived by his wits rather than the gun, and preferred to outsmart his opponents rather than engage them in combat. Smiley was not given to sleeping with woman after woman as Bond did. Indeed, more often than not Smiley was cuckolded by his wife Ann. The character of George Smiley would prove very popular, appearing as a major character in five more novels.

If Ian Fleming and John Le Carré represented two ends of the spectrum of spy fiction, Len Deighton would probably be found somewhere in the middle. The anonymous agent Deighton introduced in The IPCRESS File, published in 1962, was a more realistic character than the nearly superhuman James Bond. He was a working class man who lived in a cheap flat and sometimes even seedier hotels. He hardly lived the high life of 007, shopping in supermarkets and often desiring a raise in his pay. Worse yet, Deighton's unnamed agent was near sighted enough he had to wear glasses, a condition probably made worse by the endless paperwork he had to fill out serving the British government bureaucracy. While the anonymous agent of Deighton's novels is a more realistic character than James Bond, he sometimes faced plots that were Bondian in scope. In The IPCRESS File he uncovers a plot involving mind control. Billion-Dollar Brain centred on a supercomputer and a weapons grade supervirus. Len Deighton's anonymous agent would prove popular enough to appear in four novels in total, as well three feature films starring Michael Caine. In the movies the spy's name is given as Harry Palmer.

Len Deighton would later write a series of novels featuring a spy named Bernard Sampson, a somewhat jaded, middle aged agent for MI-6. Sampson first appeared in the novel Berlin Game in 1983. He would appear in seven more novels. Despite this, Sampson is not nearly as well known as Len Deighton's earlier, unnamed agent.

Len Deighton was not the only author of spy fiction to occupy the middle ground between Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. Writing as Adam Hall, Elleston Trevor also occupied that ground with his Quiller novels. Quiller was an extremely talented spy who worked freelance for a British intelligence agency only known as "The Bureau." He was a skilled linguist, driver, pilot, and martial artist. He did not carry a gun, preferring to take opponents out through his skill in Shotokan karate. He could resist interrogation and even torture. Quiller first appeared in The Berlin Memorandum in 1965, proving successful enough to be adapted as the movie The Quiller Memorandum and to appear in seventeen more books. While Quiller himself was nearly superhuman, his adventures tended to be much more realistic and down to earth than those of James Bond or Sam Durell.

For much of the Sixties both the United Kingdom and the United States were overtaken by a spy craze that included television and motion pictures. It is then surprising that by the mid-Sixties there were fewer and fewer new superspies appearing in print. Among the few to make his debut in the mid-Sixties was Michael Jagger, the creation of novelist William Garner. Michael Jagger was a disgraced former agent who loved the high life, hated himself, and found risking his life exhilarating. He would make his first appearance in the novel Overkill published in 1966 and appear in three more novels.

If there was an award for the strangest superspy of the Sixties, it might well go to Philip McAlpine. The creation of Adam Diment, McAlpine shared James Bond's love of sex, fast cars, and jet planes, but there the similarities end. Philip McAlpine was young, long haired, used the latest British slang, and smoked both hashish and marijuana. Philip McAlpine first appeared in 1967 in the novel The Dolly Dolly Spy and proved a hit with both critics and readers. His success would lead to three more novels. Still successful with the publication of the final novel, Think Inc. in 1971, author Adam Diment disappeared from public view and has not been heard from since.

The spy craze that had overtaken the British and American public would come to an end in the years 1967 and 1968. While the Cold War continued, then, the heyday of spy fiction tapered off as the Sixties became the Seventies. This is not to say that the Seventies would see a dearth of new spy fiction. In fact, some of the best writers in the genre would make their debut in the Seventies, even creating new subgenres in the spy-fi genre.

2 comments:

RC said...

Interesting post --- I think it's interesting Spy Fiction was so light in WWII, but in many ways I have a hard time imagining spy fiction pre-Ian Fleming, I feel like he did something powerful, plus the Cold War is such a perfect backdrop for a Romanticized spy story because you don't have to deal with human tragedy/death the way you encounter it in other combative wars.

Plus such cool weapons :-)

Mercurie said...

As much as I always like the novels of John Le Carre, I always preferred the romanticised work of Ian Fleming and similar writers. While I know that the spy trade is really a dark, dangerous business, I have always enjoyed sheer escapism. And you are right, the weapons are way cool...