Spy novel

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The term spy novel called in the crime fiction genre of the facts with the espionage involved thriller .

In literary studies , the terms spy novel and agent novel are often used synonymously. The espionage novel is not a sub-genre of the crime novel . Although the Bible already speaks of espionage, the espionage novel does not begin as an independent genre until the second half of the 19th century .

The British spy novel up to World War II

The starting point in the Anglo-Saxon area is invasion novels , especially the story “ The Battle of Dorking ” (1871) by George Tomkyns Chesney . In the episode of Chesney's story, several stories appeared in which an invasion of Great Britain was prevented because the British were informed of the enemy's plans at an early stage through spies.

This pattern is also the basis of the first real spy novel The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers according to general consensus . Two English gentlemen expose a British traitor in the service of the Germans and thwart the Germans' plan to conquer Great Britain.

In the years up to the First World War , many novels of this type were published, whereby the enemy image of the global political situation increasingly focused on the German Reich . The most famous authors at the time were William Le Queux and Edward Phillips Oppenheim . The heroes of these early spy novels were always gentlemen who not only fought against foreign policy opponents, but also internally against political and social unrest. These early spy novels were openly didactic and propagandistic .

During the First World War, John Buchan wrote his spy novels about Richard Hannay. Hannay made his first appearance in The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). He happens to be involved in a plot by German spies, flees to Scotland by the police and German spies, and is finally able to uncover the conspiracy. In the following novels, Richard Hannay is not only active in the theaters of war against the Germans, but also on the home front against pacifists and socialists . Buchan's novels were openly propagandistic and designed as entertainment for the soldiers at the front. His hero Richard Hannay should serve as a role model.

After the victory over the German Reich, a new enemy image quickly emerged in the British spy novel: Bolshevism . Especially Herman McNeile , who wrote under the pseudonym “Sapper” (= pioneer), used this enemy image. His hero Bulldog Drummond is a demobilized officer who works as a private detective out of boredom. In his first novel, Bulldog Drummond (1920), he comes across a plot to start a revolution in England. Behind the Bolsheviks stands an international “master criminal”. In the second novel, The Black Gang (1922), Drummond and former war comrades found a secret army dressed in black, which interned Bolsheviks, Jews and criminals in a private prison camp - a kind of private concentration camp run by a private SS.

In addition to these right-wing spy novels, spy novels also appeared in England in the interwar period, proclaiming an opposite political message. Geoffrey Household writes Rogue Male, a thriller about a big game hunter who tries to assassinate an unnamed European dictator. The attack fails, the hero escapes and literally digs himself into the English countryside. The style is reminiscent of the thrillers by Buchan and Sapper, but Households Held is not acting out of patriotism, but out of personal motives: He wants revenge for his beloved, who was murdered by the dictator's secret police. In addition, it remains to be seen whether the dictator is Hitler or Stalin. Households Held is an individualist who condemns all forms of totalitarianism .

At the beginning of the Second World War , the then famous crime writer Agatha Christie tried her hand at the genre. In their spy novel Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf , published in 1941, the British secret agents Tommy and Tuppence Beresford uncovered moles of the so-called fifth column in their own ranks. The mastermind is a high-ranking officer in the defense. The "good German" appears as a noble scientist who fled the Nazis to Great Britain and now works for the British government. Christie takes conservative positions in this spy novel, but takes a critical look at the internment of all Germans in Great Britain without regard to individual personality, as the British government operated in that early phase of the war. The secret service couple appear here as more liberal, individualistic-minded patriots with a thirst for adventure in their blood.

Eric Ambler makes an even more radical break with tradition . He uses the form of the spy novel to get a left-wing political message across. His hero is not a patriotic gentleman or ex-officer, but an anxious average citizen who is embroiled in a political intrigue abroad and has to choose a political direction. The enemy in Ambler's novels is not communism ( Soviet agents even appear as funny helpers to the hero), but capitalism . For Ambler, capitalism is to blame for war and crises, big industry, especially the arms manufacturers, pull the strings in the background. This attitude also explains why Ambler in his novels from the 1930s - e. B. The Dark Frontier (1936), Cause for Alarm (1938) or The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) - not used by the National Socialists as an enemy. Ambler only changed his political stance after 1945. He recognized the horrors of communism and addressed the Stalinist show trials in Judgment on Deltchev (1951).

The British spy novel until the end of the Cold War

The Cold War, with its two-part world and a clear image of the enemy, offered ideal conditions for the spy novel. In the 1950s and early 1960s, one name in particular dominated the scene: James Bond . The creator of the top agent 007 with the license to kill is the Briton Ian Fleming . James Bond quickly became a "cultural hero" who was condemned by many critics but loved by other critics and readers. The success of James Bond increased through the novel adaptations to previously unknown proportions. One reason for the success of the novels is probably that they reflect the zeitgeist exactly: the emerging affluent society and sexual liberation are reflected in the 007 novels. Bond always surrounds himself with selected luxury items and consumes women as well as champagne. As far as the image of the enemy in the novels is concerned, Fleming has also adapted to the prevailing mood here. In the early novels, the Soviets are the enemy, when the Cold War subsides, Fleming invents the secret organization SPECTER, an association of gangsters and members of extreme political organizations, evil par excellence. Bond's opponents are always "master criminals" like Dr. No, Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld. These figures are so exaggerated that they appear like caricatures. Fleming is, as Umberto Eco called it, an "engineer of the consumer novel" who serves the prejudices of his readers without sharing them himself. Fleming's Bond novels are clearly in a line of tradition with the novels of Buchan and Sapper, but unlike his predecessors, Fleming has no propaganda message, but only writes to earn money.

In the 1960s there was a counter-movement in the British spy novel. Authors like John le Carré and Len Deighton had great success with their realistic spy novels. In her novels the world is no longer clearly divided into black and white, instead gray tones predominate. In response to real-life British espionage scandals, her novels often feature traitors, double agents and moles.


  • Jens-Peter Becker: The English spy novel: historical development, subject matter, literary form. Goldmann, Munich 1973, ISBN 3-442-80019-6 .
  • John Atkins: The British spy novel: styles in treachery. Calder, London 1984, ISBN 0-7145-3997-X .
  • Bernd Lenz: Factifiction, agent games like in reality. Reality claim and reality content of the agent novel. Winter, Heidelberg 1987, ISBN 3-533-03776-2 .
  • John G. Cawelti, Bruce A. Rosenberg: The spy story. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1987, ISBN 0-226-09868-0 .
  • Myron J. Smith, Terry White: Cloak and dagger fiction: an annotated guide to spy thrillers. Greenwood Press, Westport 1995, ISBN 0-313-27700-1 .
  • Jost Hindersmann: The British espionage novel. From imperialism to the end of the cold war. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1995, ISBN 3-534-12763-3 .