Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Where spy fact meets spy fiction

Here's an article of mine that was published in The Sunday Times last year, looking at a century of British espionage fact and fiction, and the links between the two. You can read it at The Sunday Times' website, or here: I've restored my original headline and standfirst, and added some photos and illustrations.

The Spies We’ve Loved

This year marks the centenaries of MI5 and MI6, as well as of the spy novelist Eric Ambler. Jeremy Duns looks at a century’s fascination with espionage, and the sometimes-strange relationship between fact and fiction

In the spring and summer of 1909, Colonel James Edmonds presented himself at a sub-committee of the grand-sounding ‘Committee of Imperial Defence’ in Westminster. Although nominally head of Britain’s military counter-intelligence, Edmonds’ budget was tiny and he only had two assistants – most intelligence was still being gathered by the Admiralty, the War Office and the Foreign Office. But this sub-committee had been convened to analyse the threat of a German invasion, and Edmonds saw his chance. Over the course of three secret sessions, he made the case that Britain was all but over-run with German spies, presenting detailed information about suspicious barbers and retired colonels plotting dastardly deeds across the land.

When this failed to convince the committee, a dramatic document arrived at the War Office at the last minute. It was said to have been discovered by a French commercial traveller who had shared a compartment on a train between Spa and Hamburg with a German who had happened to be carrying a similar bag. The German, it was claimed, had disembarked with the wrong bag. When the Frenchman perused the one he had left behind in the compartment, he discovered ‘detailed plans connected with a scheme for the invasion of England’. This pushed the sub-committee over the edge: a few weeks later, it recommended to the prime minister the creation of a Secret Service Bureau, divided into two sections, Home and Foreign. These sections would later split, and become known as MI5 and MI6.

If the idea of the country being overrun by German agents sounds like the stuff of spy novels, that is because it was. In a desperate bid to stop the police from taking over what he saw as his rightful domain, Edmonds had brazenly taken many of his ‘cases of German espionage’ from a novel called The Spies of The Kaiser. This had been written by a friend of his, William Le Queux, and had been published a few months earlier. The mysterious document discovered by the French commercial traveller also has all the hallmarks of a Le Queux story.

Spy fiction, then, played a key role in the birth of Britain’s intelligence apparatus. In the century since, this curious relationship has continued, with spy novels often reflecting real-life espionage events and occasionally, as in 1909, influencing them.

The First World War was not much of a success for the Secret Service Bureau, nor any other intelligence agency in Europe for that matter. Most discovered to their cost that it was relatively simple to discover the location and strength of the enemy’s forces, but extremely difficult to gauge what they planned to do with them. Spy fiction prospered during the war, though: Le Queux, John Buchan, E. Phillips Oppenheim and others turned out a stream of thrilling if implausible tales of gentlemen heroes who save England from dastardly plots.

It was not until the 1920s that the genre would receive its first dose of reality. This came from Somerset Maugham, whose short stories about British writer-turned-agent Ashenden were the first to present espionage as a rather shabby occupation, filled with loose ends and frustrating bureaucratic muddles. Ashenden is sceptical of the spying game from the start, when a colonel in British intelligence known only as R. tells him about a French minister who is seduced by a stranger in Nice and loses a case full of important documents as a result. Ashenden laconically notes that such events have been enacted in a thousand novels and plays, but R. insists that the incident happened just weeks previously. Ashenden is not impressed, remarking that if that is the best the Secret Service can offer, the field is a washout for novelists: ‘We really can’t write that story much longer.’

Maugham had personal experience of the espionage world, having worked for British intelligence during the war. But his greatest follower in this new school of spy fiction had no such background, having worked as an advertising copywriter. This was Eric Ambler, whose centenary will also be celebrated this year: on May 28, five of his novels will be reprinted as Penguin Modern Classics.

Ambler brought a new psychological dimension to the genre, and in novels such as The Mask of Dimitrios and Epitaph for a Spy he exposed the murky underworld of European politics and finance. His 1930s novels were also dominated by the spectre of the coming war - but he was not the only one to see the writing on the wall. Published just a few months before the war began was Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. This is arguably the forefather of the modern action thriller: a British gentleman tries to shoot an unnamed dictator, fails, and is pursued by enemy agents across the English countryside. Like Ambler, Household looked beyond the simplistic vision of good and evil of earlier novels, as well as introducing a dose of physical toughness to the genre.

Household’s unnamed narrator acts not out of patriotism, but principle. Once war had been declared, though, the genre would again struggle to make that distinction. The blackout created a huge demand for escapist reading material, and one of the first to capitalize on this was Dennis Wheatley. His thriller The Scarlet Impostor was published on January 7 1940, making it the first spy novel to be set during the Second World War.

Wheatley was firmly in the Le Queux and Buchan school of scrapes and fisticuffs. In order to make his baroque plots more believable, he also used brand names on a grand scale – the first thriller-writer do so. In The Scarlet Impostor, British agent Gregory Sallust is on a mission to make contact with an anti-Nazi movement in Germany. During the course of the novel we learn that he smokes Sullivans’ Turkish mixture cigarettes, drinks Bacardis and pineapple juice, carries a Mauser automatic and has his suits made by West’s of Savile Row. The romantic vision of the spy had returned with a vengeance.

Wheatley spent the war balancing the fictional and real worlds of intelligence. While still regularly publishing thrillers, he was a member of the London Controlling Section, a team within the Joint Planning Staff of the War Cabinet dedicated to planning deception operations against Germany (such as The Man Who Never Was and Montgomery's double). His novels of the time are curious mixtures of thrilling potboilers packed with up-to-the-minute analysis of the politics of the time.

With the end of the war, the Soviets became the new enemy, and it was felt that new methods were needed to defeat them. The Special Operations Executive – ‘Churchill’s secret army’ – was rapidly disbanded and replaced by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6.

While a new breed of professional secret agents were trained and sent into the field, the spy novel was also changing. The genre had long been dominated by male writers, but after the war female spy writers emerged, notably Helen MacInnes and Sarah Gainham. But the big development came in 1953, with the publication of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. With his Balkan cigarettes, vodka martinis and Savile Row suits, Fleming’s James Bond was a Gregory Sallust for a new age: the age of the Cold War.

In 1962, the first Bond film was released, and Britain’s fictional spies dominated the rest of the decade. Britain’s real-life intelligence community, however, was in disarray: paranoid, disillusioned, and turning on itself. This was the result of the discovery of an alarming number of double agents operating in its ranks, most notably the Cambridge Ring. As the extent of the deception became clear, spy novelists turned away from the fantasy of Bond. Led by Len Deighton and John le Carré, plots increasingly revolved around the hunt for these ‘moles’ – a term coined by le Carré but later adopted in intelligence circles. Like Maugham and Greene before him, le Carré had first-hand experience of espionage, and was able to give readers the impression they were privy to the inner workings of the spy world.

The genre had again turned from gung-ho physical action to the darker world of human psychology. In the Seventies, the more realistic school of Deighton and le Carré gave way to fantasy once more – albeit fantasy presented as realism. Frederick Forsyth emerged as the inheritor of Fleming, with plausible but highly melodramatic thrillers that paved the way for a new field called ‘faction’. Thriller-writers began to explore the Second World War in earnest, and for the first time Nazis were portrayed in an empathetic light (in Jack Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed and Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle, for example).

During the Seventies and Eighties, the real world of espionage sometimes seemed more extraordinary than its fictional counterparts. A Venezuelan terrorist-for-hire eluded the world’s security forces in a way that would have made Eric Ambler’s Dimitrios gasp – he was even dubbed the Jackal by the press after a copy of Forsyth’s most famous novel was said to have been found among his possessions. In London, the dissident Bulgarian writer and broadcaster Georgi Markov was poisoned with a ricin-tipped umbrella as he walked across Waterloo Bridge. A thousand would-be spy novelists picked up their pens – but as Alexander Litvinenko’s murder in 2006 shows, such techniques were not a one-off, and have not disappeared.

As the Cold War wound down, so too did the spy novel. Innovations included forays into speculative fiction (Robert Harris’ Fatherland) and new territories (Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, while not strictly a spy novel, certainly felt like one). Deighton retired and le Carré moved on to new subjects. But eventually the genre rose from the ashes, in new forms. Robert Ludlum’s frantic conspiracy thrillers and David Morrell’s brutal action novel First Blood – inspired by Household’s Rogue Male – led to the SAS adventures of Andy McNab and Chris Ryan in the Nineties, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in 2003.

In this decade, the spy story has flourished: on television and in cinemas, Spooks, 24 and the Bourne films are reflecting the current reality, while novelists such as Charles Cumming, Henry Porter and Tom Cain explore it in print. Meanwhile, writers such as Alan Furst and Tom Rob Smith shed new light on espionage history – I hope to do the same with my own novels set in the Cold War.

Nobody can know what will happen in the next century of espionage, but one thing is for certain: spy novelists will be there to tell the story.

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