Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The seven ages of English spy fiction

Malcolm's latest post promised a study of Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands. That book, which is often quoted as the first example of a now-overcrowded genre, also needs to be placed in context.

So, here's a possible structure for a historical perspective of the genre:
  • before Childers, what?
  • Childers, in 1903;
  • Richard Hannay;
  • Bulldog Drummond, and the inter-War years;
  • James Bond and the brutalities of the Cold War world;
  • John Le Carré and a new ambivalent intellectualism;
  • Len Deighton, and the post-Le Carré scene.
Three literary, social and historical forces (the point of which confluence amounts to popular taste) are at work here:

1. Who is the national enemy?

Over time this changes from
  • nebulous anarchist forces, usually associated with east European nasties, to
  • the horrible Hun,
  • to the Red Menace and the Enemy Within,
  • to nebulous nihilist forces, usually associated with Islamicist Asian nasties.
2. What is the literary climate?

This, too, changes.
  • The spy novel emerges from the miasma of the penny dreadful and Daily Mail sensationalist page-fillers.
  • The Riddle of the Sands is, self-consciously, more demanding. Indeed, at its original publication, the Times Literary Supplement suggested that "the whole story can scarcely be understood by any but practical navigators". Malcolm notes, in that context, that his hard-back copy dates from 1955, when it was published by Rupert Hart-Davis, as number 29 in the "Mariners Library".
  • Then it is back to the popular yellow-back shocker, sold through the railway bookstall, recognising the growth of a mass-market for such publications.
  • Publishing standards, and intellectual acceptance improve as, successively, Alan Lane's Penguins, then the universal wartime economy editions give way to the post-war library hardbacks feeding into well-designed paperback editions. The current vogue for "trade paperbacks" raises the quality standard even further. Malcolm's aside here is that the dust-covers Richard Copping did for Jonathan Cape's first editions of Ian Fleming are the genre's gold standard of presentation.
  • Content as well as medium has higher standards. Eric Ambler and Graham Greene bridge the chasm between popular and intellectual readership. Characterisation is vastly improved. By the time Le Carré is hitting his stride, the "spy novel" is indistinguishable from the "psychological novel".
3. The advance of technology

Over the last century, we have gone from the Martini rifle, the anarchist's bomb and the prosaic Dulcibella through poison gas, aircraft, atom bombs, death rays, the space age and missile technology, and into the cyberage. The MacGuffin changes accordingly; but the essential plot of the best spy stories still reduces to a protagonist hunting, encountering, escaping and, in the end-game, neutralising an antagonist, on a credible human level.

In this continuing post, Malcolm focuses on The Riddle of the Sands,
the first two of his suggested "Seven Ages" above.
Sphere: Related Content

No comments:

Subscribe with Bloglines International Affairs Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
Add to Technorati Favorites