Wednesday, June 17, 2009

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

The Apocalypse Watch: The Cold War Continues

Beginning in 1961 in the United Kingdom and spreading to the United States in 1962 was a spy craze that would overtake books, comic books, television, and movies for the better part of the Sixties. By 1967 the spy craze was coming to an end. While this meant that spy fiction was less popular in the Seventies and Eighties than it had been in the Fifties and Sixties, it did not mean that it ever disappeared entirely. Indeed, the Cold War begun in 1947 between the United Kingdom and the United States on one hand and the Soviet Union on the other hand would continue for the next two decades. This provided plenty of fodder for new spy tales. Indeed, some of the finest writers of spy fiction would start their careers in the Seventies and Eighties.

Perhaps the finest spy-fi writer to emerge during the Seventies was also one of the finest spy-fi writers of all time. In 1971 the first book by Robert Ludlum, The Scarlatti Inheritance, was published. This first book was set during World War II, but with his second book, The Osterman Weekend, Ludlum began writing stories set in the present. Ludlum would be hugely successful in the Seventies, writing novels which were often inspired by conspiracy theories. It was in 1980 that Robert Ludlum reached the pinnacle of his career with The Bourne Identity. The Bourne Identity introduced the world to retrograde amnesiac Jason Bourne. The Bourne Identity would prove successful enough that Jason Bourne would appear in six more novels (the last four written by Eric Van Lustbader) as well as three feature films. In a poll conducted by Publishers Weekly, The Bourne Identity was voted the second greatest spy novel, beat out only by The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré.

While Robert Ludlum weaved his novels about conspiracy theories, other writers would take a more journalistic approach to spy fiction. Frederick Forsyth had been a reporter for both Reuters and BBC when he became a fiction novelist. Using the techniques he had learned as a journalist and applying them to fiction, Forsyth wrote his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, based around a fictional assassination attempt on French president Charles de Gaulle. Published in 1971, The Day of the Jackal proved very successful. Forsyth would blend spy fiction with history in many of his novels, including The Odessa File and The Fourth Protocol.

Another former reporter, Ken Follett, also took a journalistic approach to spy fiction. While many of Forsyth's books were set in the present day, Follett tended to write spy fiction set in earlier, historical periods. His first novel, Eye of the Needle, was set during World War I. On Wings of Eagles dealt with the Iranian Revolution. The Man from St. Petersburg was set in World War I.

While the spy craze had ended around 1967, superspies would find a new home in the popular field of men's action novel paperback series so popular in the Seventies. Among the spies to be found in the men's action novel paperbacks was Richard Camellion, the hero of The Death Merchant series. Camellion was literally a gun for hire for those government agencies (think CIA, FBI, NSA, and so on) willing to pay his hundred grand price tag. The plots of The Death Merchant novels probably owed more to the James Bond movies and spy shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. than anything else, but with a greater quotient of sex and violence. Unfortunately, like most of the men's action novel series, The Death Merchant was not particularly well written.

While many of the men's action novel series were regarded little more than trash (and for the most part still are), there was one exception to the rule. The Destroyer series was classic in the same that the Doc Savage novels and Ian Fleming's Bond novels. It had less in common with its fellow men's action series than it did the pulp magazines of old. The villains in The Destroyer series were often larger than life and the plots often fantastic.

The Destroyer was created by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy. The first novel, Created, The Destroyer, was actually written in 1963 at the height of the Bond craze. It would be 1971 before Created, The Destroyer was published. The series centred on Remo Williams, a police officer framed for murder so that he could be "executed" and then go to work super secret government agency called CURE, an agency known only to a few people (the President of the United States and its director Harold W. Smith among them). Somewhat unwillingly at first, Remo finds himself working for CURE and training under Chiun in an ancient martial art called Sinanju, "the sun source of all martial arts." Named for the village from which Chiun comes, Sinanju practitioners are veritable supermen--they can walk up walls, punch through metal, and do nearly anything. Together Remo and Chiun faced such menaces as Nuihc (a renegade Sinanju master who also happens to be Chiun's nephew), shapeshifting android Mr. Gordons, a Chinese vampire called the Master, and Friend, a sentient computer chip who can send his consciousness from computer terminal to computer terminal. Written with tongue firmly in cheek, The Destroyer was fun in the same way as old pulp novels and spy TV series such as The Avengers and The Man From U.N.C.L.E..

In 1977 Firefox by Craig Thomas was published, creating a new subgenre to become known as the techno-thriller. Techno-thrillers combine a large amount of technical detail regarding real world technology or technology which could plausibly exist in the near future. The roots of the subgenre actually go back to the Fifties, including such forerunners as Moonraker by Ian Fleming and Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. Craig Thomas has continued to write techno-thrillers, often featuring the characters of of Sir Kenneth Aubrey and Patrick Hyde and set in MI-6.

While Craig Thomas pioneered the techno-thriller, its most popular author would be Tom Clancy. In 1984 Hunt for Red October introduced the world to CIA analyst Jack Ryan and Clancy's highly detailed style of dealing with matters of espionage and military science. Jack Ryan would prove to be one of the most successful characters in the history of spy fiction, appearing not only in several more novels, but movies as well. Tom Clancy would also write novels that were not part of the Jack Ryan series, as well as many non-fiction books. Arguably, no other writer took the techno-thriller to the heights which Tom Clancy has.

While Craig Thomas and Tom Clancy have written novels with plenty of technical detail, former CIA agent Charles McCarry has written novels with a meticulous view of the spy trade. Often McCarry's books feature superspy Paul Christopher. An admirer of both W. Somerset Maugham and Robert Condon (author of The Manchurian Candidate, shows a good deal of influence from both in writing.

Spy fiction would continue to be popular from the Seventies into the Eighties. In fact, there was no serious concern that it would decline in popularity until 1991 when the Soviet Union fell at last. The fall of the U.S.S.R. left British and American spy fiction authors without a realistic antagonist for their novels. After over forty years of popularity, spy-fi was itself in danger of extinction.

At Risk: The Spy Novel After the Cold War

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, spy fiction faced a crisis of the sort it had not faced in its nearly one hundred years of existence. Eastern Europe, once firmly in the control of the U.S.S.R., found itself in need of financial aid from the West as it moved from Communism to democracy. Even once powerful Russia was struggling to survive. There were so few serious threats to the West that the United States even considered dismantling the CIA, the organisation at the forefront of the Cold War. Interest in spies and spy fiction fell to such lows that The New York Times even ended its long running column of spy fiction reviews.

This is not to say that spy fiction ceased to exist entirely. Authors established before the fall of the Iron Curtain, continued to publish new books. The works of Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, and a few other authors continued to be popular. For the most part, editors at the time were very hesitant in publishing books by new authors in the genre. Only a very few new spy fiction writers emerged during this era.

Among these were Joseph Finder, a one time CIA employee whose works have an emphasis on realism. His first book, The Moscow Club, was published in 1991 to a good deal of success. Former reporter Gayle Lynds started her career in fiction writing men's action novels before moving into spy fiction with Masquerade in 1996. A former employee of CNN, Daniel Silva began a career in spy fiction with The Unlikely Spy, set during World War II and published in 1996. He would become best known for his series featuring assassin Gabriel Allon. Charles Cumming used his experience working for MI-6 in his novels.

While there were these exceptions to the rule, for the most part spy fiction struggled to survive during the Nineties. This situation would change with the tragic destruction of the World Trade Centre by terrorists on September 11, 2001. With new opponents to face in the form of al-Qaeda and similar terrorists, spies soon found themselves back in print. Writers such as John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth returned to the genre. Writers such as Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy who had continued writing spy fiction during the lean years saw a resurgence in their popularity. New writers began to emerge in the genre in significant numbers, the first time since 1991.

Spy fiction written by those who had worked for the various intelligence agencies became very popular in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Allan Stripp, a former British cryptographer, wrote the popular novel The Code Snatch, published in 2001. Retired CIA officer Thomas F. Murphy would have success with Edge of Allegiance. Among the most successful new writers in the field of insider spy fiction is the former Director General of MI-5 herself, Dame Stella Rimington, author of such novels as At Risk, Secret Asset, Illegal Action, and Dead Line.

The renewed popularity of spy fiction would even see a series of spy novels written for the youth market, the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. Spies found renewed popularity on film, with the emergence of the Jason Bourne series, as well as the successful reboot of the James Bond series started with Casino Royale. New spy dramas would debut on television in the forms of Alias, 24, Spooks, and Chuck.

Tales of spies date back to the Torah and The Iliad. Spy fiction itself has existed as a genre since the late 19th century. And while it has risen and fell in popularity over the years, there can be little doubt that it will not end any time soon. As long as the nations of the world find a need for spies, there will probably be a demand for spy fiction.

No comments: