Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Classic Spy Novels Revisited

Summer brought an urge for light reading, so I looked up some old favourites in the spy genre, representative volumes from four British authors who made a major impact on the genre. Remarkably they're are still in print despite being more than a half-century old. At times they seem like historical novels giving us a glimpse into a (perhaps deceptively) simpler past.

For example, when Bond flies to Istanbul on a Vickers Viscount, he does not have his weaponized attaché case inspected before boarding, and lights up a smoke as soon as the seatbelt sign is off.

In the Deighton books, [Harry Palmer] still has his milk delivered by a milkman, and his boss is one of the most powerful men in England because he has an IBM computer. Berlin is still a divided city.

Eric Ambler


Ambler’s heroes tend to be ordinary people. They do not work in the intelligence community and get drawn into dangerous situations against their will.

Ambler's most well-known novel is probably The Mask of Dimitrios (aka A Coffin for Dimitrios), which came out in 1939. It begins in Istanbul, takes the reader through Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Geneva, and ends with a neat twist in Paris. On re-reading it, though, I was rather disappointed by the number of times that the protagonist is reduced to the role of a listener, as others fill in the backstory of Dimitrios Makropoulos, a shadowy criminal whose body is found in the Bosporus at the beginning of the book.

Two other novels written around the same time are better: Cause for Alarm (1938) and Journey in Fear (1940). Alarm takes place in Fascist Italy where an out-of-work British engineer fills in for a murdered predecessor, and is inexorably drawn into a dangerous scheme by a general who rouges his cheeks.

Fear, like Dimitrios, begins in Istanbul with a minor role once again played by the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki. WWII has just begun, but is still in the Phoney War phase where nothing much is happening in Western Europe.

As in Alarm, the protagonist is a British engineer, this time doing munitions work for the Turkish navy. An attempt is made on his life, which results in Haki taking charge of his return to England by arranging passage for him on an Italian freighter. There are a few other passengers as well, and of course several of them are not what they seem.

When the ship stops in Athens another person comes aboard, and suddenly Graham finds himself sitting across the dinner table from the man who tried to shoot him in Istanbul. (His reflections upon guns at this point are particularly ironic.)

The ship has become a trap. Desperate to escape he makes a deal with a German agent, and they disembark at Genoa. The story reaches its conclusion on a train to Paris.

What I enjoyed most about Journey into Fear were the droll characterizations, the international cast, and the liberal use of foreign phrases (French, Italian, Turkish). There are some delicious twists in store for the reader, and the writing is first rate.

When Ambler passed away, the NYTimes referred to him as “the thriller writer who elevated the genre to literature.”

Ian Fleming


The first Bond book and the first issue of Playboy magazine came out in the same year, 1953. From Russia with Love, the fifth in the series, arrived in 1957 and is often mentioned as one of the best. It's more action-packed than the other books discussed here, boasts exotic locations (Istanbul, the Orient Express) and has a surprise ending. There are also some pretty turns of phrase, such as “the silver spray of a bicycle bell.”

It is also rather unusual in that Bond is absent from the first third of the book, which is devoted to SMERSH's plan to eliminate and disgrace him. Fleming takes great care in setting up his adversary, Donovan Grant, aka Red Granitsky. Their similarities are enlightening.

Bond has a “cruel mouth” and “cold arrogant eyes,” while Grant has “cruel lips” and eyes “empty as oil slicks.” Bond smokes Morland cigarettes with three gold rings at the end, while Grant smokes gold-tipped Troika cigarettes. Bond's boss is an admiral known only as M, the head of British secret service, while Grant's is G, a general who is the head of SMERSH. Bond and Grant are professional assassins, Grant being the chief executioner for SMERSH, while Bond as 007 has a licence to kill. Both are equipped with gadgets that they use on each other in the fight scene on the train.

There are a few differences. Grant has no interest in sex and is a moon-driven serial-killer, whereas Bond is a womanizer who, despite being “tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear,” dislikes killing in cold blood.

A nice touch is the way books are used as signposts. Bond packs The Mask of Dimitrios when he flies to Istanbul. The book Grant reads on the Orient Express is War and Peace, within which is a gun fired by an electrical battery. But most telling of all is the favourite book of Bond's love interest, Tatiana Romanova, A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. Bond reminds her of the hero, Pechorin, a Byronic figure who likes to fight and gamble. What is not stated is that Pechorin describes himself as a “moral cripple.”

On the negative side the book has more than a whiff of xenophobia. The loudspeakers in the airport at Rome “jabber.” Turkey is slagged as “a country of stunted little men,” the Balkans smell of “very old sweat and cigarette smoke and cabbage.” The gypsies are savage and primitive.

Worse is the misogyny. Bond's friend, Darko Kerim (a version of Colonel Haki), remarks that women dream of being dragged off to a cave and raped. Rosa Klebb, a powerful member of the SMERSH hierarchy, is described as a repulsive toadlike creature. Two gypsy women fight over a man and very quickly tear each other's clothes off. And when Bond and Tatiana are alone together on the train, Bond pulls her head back by the hair and kisses her “cruelly.”

When the book ends, Bond is wearing Grant's watch.

Len Deighton


Deighton's first novel, The Ipcress File, was an overnight sensation when published in 1962. In a new introduction Deighton mentions that its publication “coincided with the arrival of the first James Bond films,” and that critics used him “as a blunt instrument to batter Ian Fleming about the head.” Deighton, by the way, knew Fleming and recently produced an article entitled “James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father,” which is available for the Amazon Kindle. 

Ipcress kicked off a series of four books featuring a nameless hero, whom I'll refer to as [Harry Palmer], the name given to him in the movies. Like Bond, he is a professional spy. He's spent three years in Military Intelligence, six months with the CIA, and is now working as a civilian with “the smallest and most important of the Intelligence Units - WOOC(P).” What the acronym stands for is never revealed, but it has a mocking ring to it.

The books are told in the first person, which allows a greater freedom for sarcasm, a key feature of the series. Where Bond is loyal and patriotic, [Palmer] is cheeky and impertinent. “Forgive me,” [Palmer] says to his boss, “if my lack of ignorance is an embarrassment to you.”

[Palmer] is more intellectual than Bond, but also more down-to-earth. He likes sherry, smokes Gauloises, and collects books on military history. He knows his Shakespeare and is able to quote from Paradise Lost. And although there are action sequences in Ipcress, [Palmer] also has to wrestle with more bureaucratic red tape than Bond. His inbox is lockable.

Another major difference is that the [Palmer] books are far more convoluted than the Bond books. Purposely so. As [Palmer] says in the Prologue to Ipcress, “It's a confusing story. I'm in a very confusing business.” The confusion, I think, is a reflection of the blurred loyalties and dubious moral grounds inhabited by people in the spy business.

So, Ipcress is a very different read from Russia with a lot to recommend it, including some fiendish reversals. I won't mention the main one, but in the end [Palmer] finds himself working with one of the villains he was pursuing, and aids a SMERSH agent in fleeing the country.

Nevertheless, my interest flagged when [Palmer] went abroad, first to Lebanon and then to a Pacific atoll, where events seemed laboured and not very believable, so I tackled the remaining books in the series. Horse Under Water (1963) involves opium smuggling and a sunken German submarine off the coast of Portugal. Funeral in Berlin (1964) -- I enjoyed this one the most -- has [Palmer] helping a Russian colonel to defect. And Billion Dollar Brain (1966) takes [Palmer] to Finland, America, and finally Russia. 

Deighton went on to publish many more spy novels, and while I haven't tried any of them yet, I can highly recommend two of his non-fiction books: Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain, and Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II.  Both are superb.

John LeCarré


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold came out in 1963, a year after Ipcress. When I first read it I was convinced le Carré would never write another spy novel. Why would he try when this one was so perfect?

Even now, re-reading it many years later, I could scarcely put it down despite knowing how it ends. It was like watching the Titanic steam toward its iceberg. The moral ambiguity hinted at in the previous books reaches its fullest expression here, and reflects the pessimism of the Cold War.

The hero is Alec Leamas, the burnt-out head of British Intelligence in Berlin, who has just seen his last East German agent shot down as he tried to cross into West Berlin. His opposite number is Hans-Dieter Mundt, a ruthless killer whose description (“the blank, hard face beneath the flaxen hair”) makes him sound like Donovan Grant elevated to a supervisory position.

When Leamas is released by the service he takes to drink and ends up in jail. The lone bright spot in his life is a girlfriend he acquires, ironically a member of the Communist Party. Yet he remains embittered and is recruited by the opposition. He is taken to the Netherlands where he meets a “kindly, plump woman” who reminds him of “an old aunt he once had who beat him for wasting string" -- a clever foreshadowing of future betrayals when the British are revealed as scarcely less principled than their adversaries. Here is Leamas's boss, Control:


“We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and everywhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things”; he grinned like a schoolboy. “And in weighing up the moralities, we go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can't compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?”



Le Carré, who worked for MI5 and MI6, positions his Intelligence headquarters at Cambridge Circus. It is frequently referred to simply as the Circus, which surely has an ironic connotation, as does the name of one of his recurring characters, George Smiley.

If Thomas Hardy had lived long enough to write a spy story, it could scarcely have been more tragic or more powerful than this.