1. The original meaning of the word spy comes from the ancient Chinese and means ‘a chink’, ‘a crack’ or a ‘crevice’. Hence the iconic image of spying – the eyeball peering through a gap, seeing what is not meant to be seen. Transgressive viewing, voyeurism, finding out other people’s secrets… spying justifies what might otherwise be seen as naughty and wrong. Perhaps because we believe that what is best hidden is most vital and true.
2. This was why in the 19th century the spy was considered someone disreputable and shameful. It was not a gentleman’s profession. The twentieth century changed all that – partly because it embraced the antihero, along with the general disgracefulness of humankind, and partly because spying was rehabilitated as heroic, as the cult of the individual grew and grew.
3. There’s a spectrum of spying with James Bond at one end of the scale, the glamourous maverick hero, who is reckless but reliably successful, and at the other the sort of dreary, tedious and dispiriting work undertaken by some of Graham Greene’s chaps, where being flawed and mistaken and often drunk has its own seedy appeal. So we have every flavour of spy now, to identify with or fantasise about.
4. Spying celebrates disguise, dissimulation, deviousness and cunning, as well as the necessity of going ‘beyond’ the limits of the law, which is understood to be insufficiently protective or too slow in its workings. The spy embodies the duality in the human heart, combining the instinct for political responsibility and the instinct to hide from authority. And if it all works out, s/he gets to be rewarded for any successes whilst remaining anonymous and unpunished for crimes committed. These are the advantages of being a spy.
5. But there are disadvantages: a spy is never fully innocent, just as their situations are never transparent. S/he is called upon to negotiate complex events where right and wrong are not easy to discern, and might not be known until much later on. Ends justify means, and powerful negative emotions may be provoked by deceit and betrayal at every turn. Spies suffer a lot, both physically and emotionally, and paranoia isn’t an illness for them but a necessity.
6. Spies can give us a lovely sense of schadenfreude – how close we may have come to international disaster! How our lives may have been threatened! Only we never knew because someone was working silently and fearlessly for our protection. The greater the threatened danger, the greater our readerly comfort.
7. Spies are so good for stories because nothing in their circumstances may be as it seems, and yet everything is thick with potential meaning (codes are a fine example). We are drawn into a web of surmise and interpretation that may well be misguided, and yet lives depend upon it. Intelligence alone is not sufficient – the spy will need flair and luck, some sort of semi-mystical ring of protection in order to suvive.
8. In the spy story all the ordinary certainties are challenged – identity, truth, loyalty, patriotism. But nothing is destroyed. Instead: hello conspiracy theory! The implication is that below or beyond the obvious but deceitful structures lie deeper, disguised ones that are more efficient, more effective and much stronger. How awful to think that no one was in control and nothing was organised! Never fear – the spy will take us to that deeper level where the ultimate goodies and baddies reside.
9. As information becomes ever more cloaked in secrecy and harder to get hold of, so technology comes to rescue us with ever more miraculous inventions. Spies tell us just how much we love gadgets, and how much faith we have in them.
10. The 21st century is proving to be the era of the female spy. Some novels explore the idea of the ruthless female, others challenge feminine innocence and gentleness and put love and loyalty on trial. All the novels I’ve read or read about are set in the past, when women were invisible because they were considered not just harmless, but useless. What a foolish error!