Getting the most from genre fiction: spy novels

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This last month I’ve been really enjoying the BBC series ‘Sleuths, Spies & Sorcerers: Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes.’  For all kinds of reasons, traditional escapist literature is very appealing at the moment, but there were additional causes for my enjoyment.

Although my literary tastes can often be defined within the hideous genre title of ‘literary fiction,’ I do try to read widely and cover as much ground as I can.  I’m very aware that many of my favourite novels fall within the Gothic tradition and once you go down that route, differences between high and low-brow literature get pretty fluid.

I can also feel a rather smug and knowledgeable when it comes to some genres.  This year, through the blog, I’ve been getting to grips with great sci-fi, but even before then my reading past has been punctuated by passions for this or that genre.  I can look back with pleasure at my reading habits over the years, when, in addition to a steady and continuous diet of classics, I can define my reading ages fairly neatly:

  1. Early teens – fantasy novels, starting with my father trying to engage me with ‘Lord of the Rings’, but really coming into its own once I discovered Terry Pratchett and his sprawling, enthralling Discworld series.
  2. Late teens – romance novels, most memorably Georgette Heyer and Jill Mansell, but I read everything I could and remember regular library trips with a ratio of 5:1, books with a glamorous beauty on the cover: heavy-weight literary classic.
  3. Early twenties – crime, crime and more crime.  I read lots of Patricia Cornwell and other top crime writers, but I wasn’t fussy and devoured anything that looked like suitably chilling and gory escapism.
  4. Late twenties – maybe it all got too much for me at this age, because I associate these years with cosy crime, especially Agatha Christie.

Basically, I was really on board with a BBC series about genre conventions.  The first episode worked through the history and traditions of the crime novel and I felt fully within my comfort zone. It’s true that I don’t read much crime these days, but I know that it will be there waiting for me when I next need it.

The second episode was about fantasy.  The timing was perfect; not only had I just finished and loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’ but I was watching very shortly after realising 2017 would be the perfect year to finally re-read ‘The Lord of the Rings.’  Things were looking good.

Then I got to the final episode, all about espionage novels.  I have a confession to make.  Apart from the food bits in Fleming’s books and the action adventure moments in such classics as ‘The Riddle of the Sands‘ and ‘Trouble on the Thames‘ I have a hard time with spy novels.  The truth is that I’ve always preferred Austin Powers to James Bond and I’ve only ever liked spy books if I could laugh at them.  The only possible exception is Helen Dunmore’s ‘Exposure‘ which I read earlier this year, but I think my appreciation came more from The Railway Children references than the spy novel conventions.  I’m ashamed to say that my experiences with John Le Carré have always left me cold and I honestly can’t remember ever really getting engrossed in a modern spy novel.

I really hate admitting that there’s a whole genre of literature that I have written off, but watching the show I realised that this had nearly happened.  Now I’m begging for good recommendations for espionage novels.  My mission for 2017 is to learn to love a new section of literature, and right now I don’t know where to start.  Please do get in touch with non-intimidating introductions to spy-fiction; who knows, it could be that the genre for my mid-30s is just round the corner.

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18 Responses to Getting the most from genre fiction: spy novels

  1. I’m a bit picky about spy books too – I tried some modern ones and struggled with some. However, Kolymsky Heights was one I really enjoyed. As for classic spy books, on the evidence of one of his 1930s titles, Eric Ambler is excellent, and I know a lot of bloggers agree. Happy exploring!

  2. BookerTalk says:

    Shame you don’t like Le Carre because I was going to,suggest The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. One option would be Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle. I havent got as far as the spy episode but have really enjoyed the first two programmes in the series.

    • Thank you for the Follett suggestion. I do hope to re-read and actually enjoy ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ at some point, but I think it’d be wise to lead up to it…

      • Jeff says:

        As a primer for that re-read, I can recommend Stasiland. It’s a non-fiction that gives a sense of the reality the novel was set in, as well as how the present reflects the past. Journalistic and accessible.

    • Jeff says:

      I agree. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a fascinating beast. Partly history, partly existentialism confronted with politics, and partly hard-boiled drama, it’s written in scratchy black and white newsreel slowed down. I’ve reviewed it, and also more recently, a non-fiction on Philby.

      • Thank you for the recommendations (and Le Carré pep talk). You could be right with your suggestion to look at non-fiction as a starting point. I’m also starting to wonder if my enjoyment of Cold War fiction will come more naturally as I get more into Soviet, as opposed to Russian, literature in the coming year. Thanks for the comments, they’ve given me a lot to think about …

  3. Sarah says:

    My suggestion would be ‘Restless’ by William Boyd. It’s a cracking ‘unputdownable’ read examining the effects of a life of espionage on an individual’s psyche, and how that goes on to affect their future life and family. A daughter, now a mother herself, discovers that her elderly mother has had a secret life and is only telling her now because she believes she is in danger. It gives an incredible insight into the loneliness and the great personal cost of a life of espionage but also has all the thrills that you’d expect from a spy novel, too!

  4. Elle says:

    Tightrope by Simon Mawer is also excellent and, I would say, straddles the literary/espionage genres with aplomb, much as Boyd’s “Restless” does! Also, Graham Greene: Our Man In Havana will give you something to laugh at, but The Human Factor is incredible, heart-wrenching, and The Ministry of Fear has a phenomenal opening scene at, of all places, a village fete, where Greene nails the sinisterisation (probably not a word) of ordinary things.

  5. John Buchan’s The thirty-nine steps? I have only seen the Hitchcock movie though. I’m not a big reader of any sort of genre fiction really, but I have read The spy who came in from the cold, as my foray into the genre. I remember rather enjoying it, but it was a long time ago.

  6. FictionFan says:

    Robert Harris’ Enigma is a spy novel of a sort but not really in the Le Carré mould. I too struggle with that genre, but Exposure and Enigma both took my fancy this year.

    • Robert Harris is another of those authors I keep meaning to read, so thank you very much for both the espionage recommendation and for giving me a starting point for getting into Harris!

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