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Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Spies and more spies

Last night BBC4 TV aired the final part of Andrew Marr’s series on genre paperback fiction – Sleuths, Spies and Sorcerers. (See my earlier blog here).

This time it was the turn of the spies.

We visited Berlin, the remnants of the Wall, the prison where betrayed agents were incarcerated and tortured physically and mentally, and glimpsed old images of traitors such as Blake and Philby. All grist to the mill for John Le Carré’s breakthrough novel The Spy Who came in from the Cold. An old interview revealed that he wasn’t surprised that no communists liked his spy tales!

Another interview was with Frederick Forsyth; we’re shown film clips from The Day of the Jackal, whose protagonist was not a spy but an assassin; the point was that both Le Carré and Forsyth, along with several other scribes of this genre had some background in intelligence work. One of the first of these was Somerset Maugham (notably Ashenden), who confessed that looking back on his fiction he found it difficult to separate fact from fiction in his work.
 Maugham's Ashenden

Perhaps too much attention was given to the (admittedly interesting) William Le Queux’ popular sensationalist novel The Invasion of 1910 (1906) regarding a fictional account of a German armed invasion of Britain. The furore following its publication prompted the setting up of a British secret intelligence department, The Secret Service Bureau headed by Mansfield Smith-Cumming in 1909.

Other interviewees were Stella Rimington, a former director general of MI5 and author of the MI5 officer Liz Carlyle books, author Charles Cumming who has written eight spy novels since 2001, an early snippet from Len Deighton, and William Boyd who wrote a new Bond novel, Solo (reviewed here.

Other authors who are examined include (inevitably) Ian Fleming, Gerald Seymour, John Buchan, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler, with intriguing interpretations and motivations.

Quite rightly, Marr states that he is annoyed at the literary snobbery with regard to spy fiction and genre fiction in general. It’s as if being “popular” is anathema.

At their best, spy novels delve into the dark recesses of the human condition, examining the repercussions of betrayal, corruption and deceit. 

Despite the high-tech surveillance in the present, there is still a place for the human spy.

As in the earlier two episodes, there were bound to be some deserving authors omitted, among them Adam Hall (Elleston Trevor), author of the Quiller books, Erskine Childers (The Riddle of the Sands), Dennis Wheatley (Gregory Sallust novels), Helen MacInnes, Alan Furst, David Downing, Desmond Cory (Johnny Fedora series), Colin Forbes (Tweed series), John Gardner (Railton family series, Bond), and Craig Thomas (Aubrey & Hyde series), among others!

The programme is re-broadcast on BBC4 TV tomorrow, Wednesday evening. The series is also linked to the Open University - see here
where you can 'dig deeper into crime, fantasy and spy fiction'...

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