British Spy Stories Go Off The Rails

The modern spy genre has been a staple of mainstream fiction since at least 1900, which was the year that Rudyard Kipling serialized his espionage novel Kim.

cover of the novel kim by rudyard kipling

There are many things to recommend the novel, as Kipling drew up0n experiences gained while he worked as a journalist in India.  It does great service to impart the impressions of a British citizen thrust into the bustling, overcrowded, wildly diverse and exotic East.

The novel also was a seminal work in the spy genre as it depicts a secret government effort to recruit, train, and deploy otherwise average people in what is known in the British Empire as The Great Game, a deadly serious rivalry between Russia and the United Kingdom to advance their agendas and gain an advantage over the other.  The novel Kim might have some overly dramatic moments, but in general it was a thoughtful and realistic portrayal of what a seasoned journalist turned fiction writer might imagine efforts to gather intelligence would entail.

The title character of Kim was a teenaged boy who grew up on the streets.  His main talent besides confidence and self reliance was to be able to blend in with the teeming millions that thronged India, passing unnoticed and invisibly in the crowd.

The spy novel advanced closer towards what modern audiences appreciate with the publication of The 39 Steps in 1915.  The plot concerns an everyman who is accused of a murder committed by spies to cover up their nefarious work, with the protagonist then forced to go on the run in a desperate effort to both clear his name and foil the enemy operatives.

cover of the spy novel the 39 steps

The description of the plot will have many of my readers rolling their eyes.  Aren’t stories concerning some average and innocent Joe who has to evade the authorities and bring the true evil plot to light a cliche in action literature?  That is very true, but this is where it all started.  Worth a read for that alone, I would say.

Other staid standbys in spy fiction saw their start in this novel.  The protagonist is extremely crafty, thinking on his feet and improvising when the pressure is on.  He also has an almost supernatural talent to getting himself out of the most dire situations, usually without using violence.

So we have an extremely competent protagonist who, through wit and pluck, manages to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.  The same general outline was used when Casino Royale was published in 1953, but with one major difference.  The protagonist might have been a civil servant fr the UK government, but his main job was to kill people.

cover of the spy novel casino royale by ian fleming

Author Ian Fleming made an effort at making James Bond an everyman with whom the reader could identify, just as John Buchan did in The 39 Steps.  As Fleming himself stated ….

“… I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened…”

I would say he pretty much failed at that.

The main difference is that James Bond has a great deal of appeal for the opposite sex, a talent he is not shy about using.  Added to this is Bond’s prowess at causing other people to die, and we see that audience identification with the main character has entered the realm of wish fulfillment.  Whereas the reader of Kim or The 39 Steps could see themselves playing the part of the hero with the proper training and under the right circumstances, with Bond we have someone we know we could never be.  We just wish we could fill his shoes.

Not to say that I don’t find the Bond stories to be interesting.  I just read some of the other stuff as well.

3 thoughts on “British Spy Stories Go Off The Rails

  1. Confession time: out of those I’ve only read ‘Casino Royale.’

    A little puzzled about the title of the post, I was expecting a comment on the decline of British spy fiction.

    Hmmm . . .

    I wonder if spy fiction can be divided into two threads; the spy story, tales of grey little men in an amoral and secret world e.g. John le Carre’s ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.’ And the spy thriller, tales of glamorous adventure, okay, sometimes gritty glamour, but a world of casinos, fast cars and hot babes. The apotheosis of this being James Bond. Just a thought.

    Second confession: I haven’t read that much spy fiction. A couple of Len Deighton’s which I thought were “okay.” And while I started to read ‘Tinker, Tailor . . ‘ I never got past the opening, although I did think it was an excellent opening.

    Random thought one: I think that Bond’s success with the ladies may owe more to the films than the books. I leant my copy of ‘Casino Royale’ to a female colleague shortly after the Daniel Craig movie came out. (Btw, she’d really enjoyed the movie.) She returned it with thanks, but added “James Bond is a sexist pig!” I can sorta see her point, but the fifties were -relatively speaking- a loooong time ago.

    Random thought two: Wishing to fill Bond’s shoes? Think about *that* scene in the movie and the book . . . -shudder-

    But as to British spy thrillers, I’d recommend checking out the late Gavin Lyall. He wrote a lot of aviation themed thrillers and then, in the eighties and nineties, he branched out specifically into espionage. Firstly with the contemporary, now historical I guess, Major Maxim novels, about an SAS soldier attached to the Secret Service. And then after the end of the Cold War he wrote the specifically historical ‘Honour’ series. Starting with ‘Spy’s Honour’ and concerning the adventures of agents of the embryonic Secret Service shortly before the Great War.

    And that concludes my personal witterings about British spy fiction.

  2. “A little puzzled about the title of the post, I was expecting a comment on the decline of British spy fiction.”

    Not decline, just a very sharp turn onto a new path.

    • Thanks for clarifying. Hmmm . . . not so much off the rails, which for a train is “not good,” but more like a car going off road.

      Possibly British Spy fiction has changed over the years because much else has changed as well. e.g. the world, attitudes, politics. Although something’s e.g. loyalty, secrecy and war, haven’t.

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