Novel Investigations: A Brief History of Spy Fiction
If you love the intrigue of international espionage and the action and adventure of popular films like James Bond, then you probably love spy novels. Spy books rose to prominence in the world of literature as a direct response to world politics in the 20th century. Spy Fiction is a sub-genre of Crime Fiction that includes espionage as a major plot device. How did Spy Fiction become such a popular staple of contemporary literature? Here’s a brief history of spy fiction—from its beginnings to now.
The first instances of spy novels can be traced back to the 19th century. For instance, in America, novelist James Fenimore Cooper wrote the espionage novels The Spy in 1821 and The Bravo in 1831. However spy fiction didn’t really take off until the first World War.
With World War I came the world’s first spy novelist John Buchan, with novels that portrayed the war as a clash of cultures. Notable novels by Buchan include The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, both of which feature the fictional spy character Richard Hannay. The Thirty-Nine Steps was also the inspiration for the famous 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 Steps.
While wars and international conflicts have always triggered more of an interest in spy books, the spy fiction genre really took off during the Cold War. With the threat of nuclear war and terrorism, distrust and fear spread across the world. Readers turned to spy fiction to see the United States and its allies fight against the ever-threatening Red Menace (Russia and the international threat of communism). With so much anxiety and speculation surrounding the tense relationship between these world powers, spy novels became a way for writers to take a guess what was going on behind the scenes during this political turmoil. And it was a way for readers to assuage any fears they had about the state of the world.
The biggest spy to come out of the spy fiction boom of the Cold War? Bond, James Bond. The British Secret Service agent was created by British author Ian Fleming in 1953. Fleming’s 12 novels and two short story collections starring the spy also known as 007 have inspired television programs, radio series, comics, video games, and—most famously—films. As of 2021, there have been t25 James Bond movies, the most recent being 2021’s No Time to Die, starring Daniel Craig. And while Ian Fleming died in 1964, eight other authors have written authorized Bond novels since his passing. The most recent Bond novel is Forever and a Day by Anthony Horowitz, which was published in May 2018.
When the Cold War ended in 1991, the United States Congress considered disestablishing the CIA, and suddenly spy fiction had lost its main villain. Many spy novels in the late 20th century solved these issues by going historical with their spy stories. Authors who wrote popular spy fiction during the Cold War period continued their careers in the ’90s by imagining new threats; for example, John le Carré’s The Night Manager details an undercover operation to bring down a major international arms dealer.
Then came the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The fear of terrorism that followed the attacks reinvigorated interest in international politics and espionage. A new generation of spy thriller authors emerged, including William Boyd’s Restless and Olen Steinhauer’s The Tourist. 21st-century espionage novels are often set in the past but are just as often contemporary stories of spy organizations fighting terrorists threats. In recent years, readers have also shown an increased interest in nonfiction titles that get into the realities of work as a spy. Just last year, Douglas London, a 34-year veteran of the CIA, released a revealing memoir about American Intelligence entitled The Recruiter.
The fear of unknown international menaces still fuels many of the spy books that are released today, from books set in present day like Luke Jennings’s Killing Eve series (the most recent title is Killing Eve: No Tomorrow) to historical titles like Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy.