As hard as it might be to believe today, spy novels were not always so plentiful. Today paperback racks will usually boast a good number of them, and libraries have entire sections dedicated to the genre. But there was a time when novels about spies were a rarity, and spy fiction or "spy-fi" as a genre was virtually unknown.
This is not to say that the business of espionage is anything new or that stories about spies did not exist before the 19th century. Espionage is among the most ancient professions. The ancient Egyptians utilised spies to great effect. The Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu and the Indian strategist Chanakya both discuss espionage in their writings. Founder of the Maurya Empire (which existed in India from 321 to 185 BCE) and a student of Chanaya, Chandragupta Maurya not only used secret agents to gather intelligence, but even to commit assassinations.
With the antiquity of espionage, it should not be surprising, then, that among the earliest accounts of spies can be found in Numbers XIII of the Torah. God instructed Moses to send men "that they might spy out the land of Canaan..." Moses sent his secret agents out into the wilderness of Paran with orders to "see the land and the people who dwell there, and whether they be strong or weak, few or many, and whether the land in which they dwell is good or bad, what cities they dwell in, whether those cities are strongholds or camps." Unfortunately, the intelligence which Moses' spies gathered was put to poor use, and the Hebrews would spend forty years in the wilderness. Fortunately, The Book of Joshua in the Tanakh tells of a more successful spy mission which led to the successful conquest of Jericho.
Espionage not only figured in ancient Jewish writings, but in ancient Greek writings as well. In The Illiad Odysseus and Diomedes ventured behind Trojan lines to assassinate Rhesus, who was at the centre of a prophecy which said if his horses drank from the river Scamander then Troy would never be taken.
Despite the fact that espionage was among the most ancient of professions, novels about spies would be far and few between prior to the late nineteenth century. The reason for this is simply that, while every country utilised spies, the profession was seen as a dishonourable one for much of Europe's history and later even North America's history. It was then inconceivable that anyone would write a novel in which a spy was the hero. In fact, what can be considered the first true spy-fi novel would not be published until 1821. That novel was The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground by James Fenimore Cooper. The novel centred upon Harvey Birch, an American in the state of New York during the American Revolution wrongly suspected of being a British spy. As the first true piece of spy fiction The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground is surprisingly sophisticated, dealing with the inherent dishonesty of the spy profession and the necessity of the profession's use during time of war. At the same time, however, it is very much a romantic novel, in which Cooper drew heavily upon the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott for inspiration. Cooper would revisit the theme of espionage in The Bravo: A Tale, set in early 18th century Venice.
Cooper's novels were not enough to establish spy fiction as a genre. For spy fiction to be established as a genre it would take British concerns over Britain being invaded by a foreign power and a writer of much less talent than James Fenimore Cooper. Following the Boer War the United Kingdom grew worried that the British Empire was in decline. Worse yet, as of 1900 the entire British Army was not in the United Kingdom. Between concern that the Empire was in decline and the absence of an army to defend the country, Britain was swept by fear of impending invasion from a foreign power. It was only a matter of time before a British novelist capitalised on the invasion scare in the United Kingdom at the turn of the century. That novelist was William Le Queux.
William Le Queux was an Anglo-French journalist for the Daily Mail who became the first author to write spy fiction regularly. It was in 1894 that his first novel was published, a novel which dealt with British concerns over invasion. The Great War in England in 1897 portrayed the French invading England with aid from Russia. Through the use of freedom fighters and espionage, Britain eventually turns the tide and defeats its French and Russian enemies. The Great War in England in 1897 proved wildly successful, leading Le Queux to write yet more espionage novels and even to write more invasion novels. In England's Peril French spymaster Gaston La Touche plots the downfall of Britain, in the end to be defeated by the brave agents of the British Secret Service (never mind MI-5 had yet not been founded...).
Concerns over the French invading the United Kingdom were soon dashed by the Entente Cordiale, a series of agreements signed on 8 April 1904 between the United Kingdom and France. This would not put an end to the invasion fantasies of Le Queux and his imitators. While Britain no longer worried about an invasion from French, it grew increasingly concerned at an invasion from another enemy, Germany. In 1906 The Invasion of 1910 by William Le Queux (with naval chapters by H. W. Wilson) was published. The novel centred upon Germany invading Britain by way of large force landing on the East Coast of England. Again, through a popular uprising and espionage, the British defeat the German invaders. This novel also proved very successful.
While William Le Queux was definitely a pioneer in the genre of spy-fi, his works are not well respected today. Although wildly successful in his day, today Le Queux's books are regarded not only as having an overly romantic and unrealistic view of espionage, but as very poorly written as well. Nonetheless, Le Queux would inspire more than his fair share of imitators. E. Philips Oppenheim cannot really be considered an imitator of Le Queux, although he too would explore the idea of German plots to overthrow Britain. His first novel, Expiation, published in 1887, dealt with neither espionage nor invasions, but he would turn to the genre which would make him famous soon enough. In 1898 Oppenheim's first espionage novel, Mysterious Mr. Sabin, was published. The novel dealt with Mr. Sabin, who steals British secrets with the intent of selling them to Germany. His most successful novel, The Great Impersonation was published following World War I. It concerned a German plot to keep Britain out of the war.
If anything Oppenheim had an even more successful career than Le Queux. Oppenheim ultimately published more than one hundred fifty novels, most of them either spy fiction or thrillers. Despite this, today Oppenheim is only a regarded as a little better than Le Queux. His most lasting legacy is only that he would have an influence on better authors than he was, namely John Buchan and Geoffrey Household.
Strangely enough, the invasion fantasies of Le Queux and Oppenheim would play a role in the foundation of MI-5. With undue concern over perceived plots by Germany to invade Britain (none of which actually existed) and worries over a perceived network of German spies in Britain (which did not exist either), the Secret Service Bureau (later renamed MI-5) was founded in 1909. The spy fantasies of the era played nearly as much a role in the foundation of MI-5 as any actual plots of Germany's secret service. Already spy-fi was having an impact on the public perception of spies.
Between William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim it might be tempting to write the earliest spy-fi novels off entirely. While Le Queux and Oppenheim may have been the genre's pioneers, they were hardly great writers. Fortunately, they would be joined by writers of quality soon enough. In fact, no less than Rudyard Kipling wrote one of the earliest and greatest spy-fi novels of all time. Kim, first serialised in McClure's from 1900 to 1901, has been called the "first spy novel." Given that it is pre-dated by Le Queux and his imitators, this is not quite accurate, but it was definitely the first spy novel of quality. Kim centres on the Great Game (as espionage was often called at the time) between Britain and Russia in Central Asia. It is notable not only for the most realistic portrayal of espionage up to that time, but for its detailed description of India and its peoples. It would have a lasting influence on the genre and prove that spy-fi could be a genre to be taken seriously.
Rudyard Kipling was not the only writer of quality to work in the genre of spy fiction. Author and adventurer Robert Erskine Childers began his writing career writing light detective stories for the Cambridge Review. He recorded his experiences in the Boer War in his first book In the Ranks of the C. I. V.. In 1903 his first work of fiction was published, The Riddle of the Sands. Like many novels of the time, The Riddle of the Sands concerned a German plot to conquer England. Unlike many novels of the time, it was a work which treated espionage realistically and contains an enormous amount of detail to add authenticity to the story. In this it would prove extremely influential, having an impact on authors as diverse as John Buchan, Ian Fleming, and John Le Carre.
Arthur Conan Doyle occasionally delved into espionage in his Sherlock Holmes stories. "The Naval Treaty", "The Second Stain," "The Bruce-Partington Plans," and "His Last Bow" all feature Sherlock Holmes going against spies. In "His Last Bow" Holmes even acts as a double agent, one of the earliest instances of such in fiction. Doyle then not only pioneered detective fiction, but then spy-fi as well.
Adventure novelist Joseph Conrad also wrote a spy fiction novel. The Secret Agent, published in 1907, was one of the first serious spy novels. The novel followed Mr. Verloc in his work as a secret agent. Not only did it provide a realistic view of espionage, but it examined the ideas of anarchism and terrorism as well, one of the earliest novels to do so.
World War I would see the emergence of the most influential of the early spy-fi authors. John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, began his writing career with the novel John Burnet of Barns, published in 1898. In 1910 his first adventure novel, Prester John, was published. Nineteen fifteen saw the publication of his first espionage novel and what may be his most famous novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps. Set shortly before World War I, The Thirty-Nine Steps centred on stiff upper lip Englishman Richard Hannay, who uncovers a plot to assassinate the Greek Premier and steal British plans for the beginning of the war. The novel would prove extremely influential. Not only did it continue the tradition of providing the reader with an enormous amount of detail, started by Kipling and Childers, but it is also one of the earliest examples of the "man on the run" plot, not only influencing future spy thrillers, but other genres as well. It also introduced the genre's first recurring hero in Richard Hannay. Richard Hannay would appear as the protagonist in four more books: Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924), and The Island of Sheep (1936). While Rudyard Kipling and Robert Erskine Childers only dabbled in spy-fi, John Buchan became the first writer of quality to work in the genre regularly.
The end of World War I would not mean an end to spy fiction. If anything, following World War I the genre would become more sophisticated. Author W. Somerset Maugham had actually served as an intelligence officer in World War I, His novel Ashenden (1928) would then be a very accurate portrayal of wartime espionage. Ashenden would prove to have a influence on those spy-fi writers to come, including authors as diverse as Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, and Robert Ludlum. Strangely enough, another former intelligence officer would provide the genre with what may its first parody. Water on the Brain, published in 1933, was written by Sir Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie, better known simply as Compton Mackenzie. While other works focused on the adventure and romance of espionage, Water on the Brain was a rather savage satire on the absurdities of the espionage profession, based on Mackenzie's own experience in intelligence.
While other authors wrote about professional spies, thriller writer Eric Ambler introduced the idea of ordinary people who become involved in espionage. Ambler first explored this theme in his second novel, Uncommon Danger, first published in 1938. In the novel a British journalist, Kenton, inadvertently finds himself involved wish spies in pre-war Europe. Ambler would explore the idea of ordinary people caught in the spy game again and again, most notably in Journey into Fear (1940), in which a British engineer runs afoul of German agents.
Spy-fi has generally been the province of men, but among the earliest authors in spy fiction were women. The first espionage novel of Helen MacInnes, Above Suspicion, was published in 1941. The novel centred on British newlyweds who find themselves recruited by British Secret Service to spy on the Germans on the eve of World War II. The novel began a career which would span 45 years. Another woman would also be responsible for many classic spy-fi novels. Adelaide Frances Oke Manning and her neighbour Cyril Henry Coles wrote several spy thrillers under the pseudonym Manning Coles. Their first such novel, Drink to Yesterday, introduced one of spy-fi's earliest recurring characters. Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon would appear in 26 of the Manning Coles novels in total. A teacher in a British boarding school at the beginning of Drink to Yesterday, Hambledon finds himself involved in espionage during World War I. Hambledon would not always be the protagonist in his appearances in the Manning Coles novels, appearing only in a small role in some of them. The Manning Coles novels benefited from the real life experiences of Cyril Coles, who worked for British Intelligence in both World War I and World War II.
Geoffrey Household was another author who wrote spy-fi before World War I. While Household would also write works with elements of the supernatural and even science fiction, some of his more notable works were spy-fi. His most famous work may be Rogue Male, published in 1939. In Rogue Male an un-named British sportsman decides to hunt the most dangerous game of the era--Adolph Hitler. Household's career would span fifty years.
As stated above, many of the writers of spy-fi from the turn of the century to the eve of World War II would prove very influential. Indeed, Kim, Riddle of the Sands, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Secret Agent, Ashenden, Journey into Fear, and Above Suspicion would all be adapted into motion pictures (the most famous of which may well be Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. These movies would in turn influence future spy-fi writers. Of course, September 1, 1939 would see an event that would change spy fiction forever. It was that day that World War II, the biggest conflict known to man, began. Not only would it change Europe and Asia forever, but spy-fi would never be the same.