Friday, 18 October 2013


meGeoff’s Guide to Thrillers and Espionage Novels

Contrary to our existing narcissistic ethos of celebrity of any sort, there are those among us who prefer to go about their work in quiet, anonymous ways. This group may include cat burglars, blackmailers, Ponzi schemers, white collar fraudsters and most certainly intelligence agencies. Each would agree that business is best conducted under the radar. Media glare only means the proverbial red-handed catch.

Last week was not a good week for Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the country’s signals intelligence organization whose very existence is unknown to most Canadians. Most Canadians don’t care about the state of Brazil’s mining industry but now we all know CSEC does and that’s all well and good and probably in our national interest except for the tricky getting caught part. The alleged source of this revelation is United States fugitive and former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden who followed legendary British MI6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6 – foreign intelligence) mole Kim Philby’s footprints to sanctuary in Moscow.

Snowden and his figurative partner in treason, Wikileaks document dumper Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (nee Bradley Edward Manning), are curiously uninteresting players of the great game, pale malcontents with Robin Hood complexes and Internet access. I am reminded of Our Man in Havana, a Graham Greene novel in which a vacuum cleaner salesman sends drawings of vacuum cleaner parts and accessories to MI6 but describes them as military goings-on, missile sites and what have you. In all three cases there is EYES ONLY content yes, but does any of it really matter? Life has imitated art.

I am also reminded of a snippet of a telephone conversation from 15 years ago. My father was on the line from Ottawa. Then, as now, our family such as it is, is all over the country so one of our catch up lines is always, ‘What are you reading?’ Dad asked me that and I replied somewhat sheepishly, ‘I’m slumming: Ian Fleming, Bond, From Russia with Love.’ Dad, who had introduced me to the rich and complex secret world of John le Carre probably 15 years before this particular call, replied, ‘I’ve always got time for a good story.’

And my, what stories there are in spy fiction. Stories that will keep you up half the night with the lights on though you’ll be careful not to be silhouetted in a window; stories that may cause you to shake up the routine of your morning commute just because you never know who may be watching nor why. The vast majority of readers do not inhabit the secret world and indeed we may never know when we’ve unwittingly brushed up against it, but its twin drivers of fear and paranoia become heightened and enhanced, very real, when manipulated by great writers.

Lord Tweedsmuir, John Buchan, Canada’s 15th Governor General, is generally credited as the creator of the genre. His Richard Hannay stories, notably The Thirty-Nine Steps, are set against the backdrop of the First World War and the machinations of the dreaded Hun. The line from H. Rider Haggard’s Alan Quartermain adventure stories for boys (King Solomon’s Mines, She) to Buchan is an easy one to trace. Literary merit would follow little more than a decade later with the publication of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden: Or the British Secret Agent collection of short stories. Ian Fleming, who served as a commander in British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War, continued the tradition of the super-spy protagonist as hero although Bond was somewhat more ruthless than Richard Hannay and Ashenden. The Bond novels are much less fantastical than the films and Fleming’s prose style, its economy, reminds me of the elegant terseness of Ernest Hemingway – not that they’re on the same page. The Spy Who Loved Me offers a slight Canadian link, the novel is narrated by a young Canadian woman named Viv.

The Europe we now know was not a stable place for most of the 20th century. From the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 up until the cessation of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the continent was a confusing landscape of shifting ideologies, realpolitik and fertile soil for intrigue, a sinister place for a guileless man to be.

Eric Ambler, a former advertising copywriter and name-checked in From Russia with Love as Bond’s favourite author, introduced the everyman to the genre, the innocent who embarks upon a Journey into Fear with just Cause for Alarm. Graham Greene, one of the 20th century’s truly great authors, dabbled in what he described as ‘entertainments,’ thrillers which he perceived as inferior to his more serious works of literature despite their common themes of moral uncertainty. Greene, who worked for MI6 under Kim Philby and remained friends with him after his defection, wrote The Ministry of Fear, the ultimate tale of an inadvertent stumbling onto secret knowledge. Things get complicated after that.  Neither author, like the ones who would follow them, asks the reader to suspend any sense of disbelief.

John le Carre, the literary gift of my father, worked for both MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5 – domestic intelligence) and MI6. His best known work, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is a fictional recreation of the British security services’ hunt for Kim Philby, one of their upper class own. Le Carre took the super-spy and made him an everyman, a dusty cuckold, a bureaucrat with an Oxford pedigree, combing through yellowed files in even dustier folders. Betrayal lies within, in triplicate, but patience and an aptitude for puzzles are required. Like Ambler and Greene, le Carre transcends the spy genre. Despite many embedded insights into the tradecraft, action in the Bond sense is almost nonexistent although it’s impossible to lay any le Carre novel aside in order to get a good night’s sleep. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, le Carre has delved into Big Pharma, international banking, money laundering and private military contractors. The research is thorough and the related details seem to be beyond the scope of the non-clandestine scholar. Every word rings alarmingly true.

The novels of Len Deighton, like Ambler a former ad man, while less cerebral than le Carre’s, fuse the spy story with the narrative techniques of American detective noir. The nameless hero of The IPCRESS File and Funeral in Berlin is a product of London’s East End, certainly not Eton. Bernard Samson, the hardboiled narrator of the Game, Set and Match trilogy is all too aware of the upper class consciousness of his colleagues and superiors.

The Innocent and Sweet Tooth, both by Ian McEwan, a vocal admirer of le Carre’s prose, are recent and worthy literary additions to the canon.

American characters - ‘the cousins’ - populate many of the works I’ve cited yet spy fiction remains to me an overwhelmingly British genre. Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer’s novel of the CIA, is noteworthy because of the author’s stature in American letters. Joseph Weisberg’s contemporary CIA novel, An Ordinary Spy, which will not prop open a door, is a better read. Last year’s Mission to Paris by Allan Furst is an elegant return to the world of Ambler: Europe of the late 1930s beneath the vortex of the gathering storm. The most significant Canadian contribution to the spy genre is The Red Fox, a novel by Anthony Hyde which was released in the latter half of the 1980s.

Happy reading. Don’t trust a soul. Stay out of lighted windows, do not venture into poorly lit places and use pay phones whenever possible.

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