THE BEST EARLY SPY NOVELS
It can be genuinely argued that literature within the spy genre is something that is almost uniquely British. Similarly, it is beyond doubt that British involvement in the world of intelligence gathering was, until the end of the Second World War, preeminent.
True, other nations were involved, but the British intelligence services were the largest, best organized, and ultimately the most effective.
The history of English spy novels and other writings has largely had its origins in the late nineteenth century and continued with ever increasing popularity, especially during the period leading up to the First World War. Some of the early tomes had a great effect on the English public and in many ways were an accurate portent of what spying was morphing into and what the world was heading toward, namely, world instability and ultimately, war!
For the British authorities, the period of time leading up to World War I involved three issues: what the Russians were up to, how big a threat Imperial Germany was, and whether anarchists were likely to affect England’s way of life. The most influential writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was undoubtedly Rudyard Kipling who paraphrased the issues surrounding Russia with the words the great game. This alluded to the constant fear the British had that the Russians would encroach on their Indian empire and try to increase their sphere of influence into the surrounding central Asian countries. This was a feature of Kipling’s book Kim, which was written shortly after the turn of the century.
Even though Imperial Russia and England were to become allies before WWI erupted, the issue of Russian ambitions in central Asia was a constant source of stress for Britain and, in fact, continued with the advent of the Soviet Union and its expansionist policies during the 1920s and 1930s.
The issue of the ambitions of imperial Germany and its emperor, the Kaiser, had begun a naval arms race, which, as well as its great cost, fanned the flames of patriotic fervor. This resulted in some great spy novels as the English public—and the authorities—were well aware of Germany’s ambitions and the perceived threat that was close to home.
I was originally asked to comment on the ten best spy novels of the early twentieth century, especially leading up to and including WWI. As I am of the opinion that only four can be regarded as great stories, I will instead list those stories that I believe laid the foundations for the modern spy genre.
Of these, three stand out: The Riddle of the Sands, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Kim.
The first two I have read several times—originally when I was a teenager and again over the past twenty years. To me, they were and are superb pieces of writing that have stood up to the test of time. That they were both turned into successful and well-made films has only increased their worth.
The Riddle of the Sands was written by Erskine Childers in 1903 and can almost be described as a story from a Boy’s Own Paper, a publication popular among Victoria and Edwardian school boys. The story line is almost uncanny in its warnings of secret German naval bases and threats of invasion, which morphed into fact during both world wars! That it was a best seller and has continued to be in print says much for its literary content.
John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps has been seen as equally profound and as it was first published in 1915, with WWI raging, the issue of a German spy ring was very current. The added spice of murder and the case of mistaken identity, plus the famous train journey, have caused it to be seen by many as the first English spy novel.
Kim is altogether a much lighter story, although it is both interesting and accurate. My father, who was an Indian Army officer shortly after the first war and fought in Afghanistan (he also served briefly with British intelligence in 1938-39), told me it was a very accurate story.
My fourth choice is The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. Although it was not written until 1907, it was set in 1886, so cannot really be described as a modern spy novel. However, the story line resonates with current issues as it deals with terrorism, albeit of the anarchy variety.
To me, these four books are the grandparents of the modern spy genre that has seen the great novels by such as John le Carré and Ian Fleming become the classics of today.
Colin Roderick Fulton is a former senior political TV and radio journalist in Australia. For the past 25 years, he has run his own consultancy working in the areas of Risk Management and Strategy for both government and the corporate world. His work has taken him to Asia and the Middle East, including Iraq and China.
In the 1970s and 80s he produced and directed a number of documentaries for Australian TV and is a published author with two other books – a biography of Australia’s most famous racing driver and a historical fiction set during World War 2.
His novel – ‘The Molotov Addendum’ which is set from 1915 to 1939, contains the classic elements of espionage and intelligence gathering involving Soviet Russia and Britain. The central theme is the escape of a senior Russian politician, airman and engineer who steals a copy of the infamous ‘Non-Aggression Pact’ and flees to England just before WW2 begins.