Ten Reasons We Love Spies

top secret

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!


24 thoughts on “Ten Reasons We Love Spies

  1. I know a proper ex spy! He’s young, good looking, a real family man and is my friend’s b-i-l. How cool is that? Banging into him dog walking by the Chess a few months back it was all I could do to stop myself saying in response to his,
    “have you seen a Jack Russell charge by?”
    “You’re a spy!”
    But I’m under threat of death by girlfriend. She told me in a weak moment and a bottle of wine. So I said,
    “Just passed him a mile or so back.”

    • That is so, so cool. I spent my entire time at Cambridge as an undergrad wondering if I’d get a tap on the shoulder or be invited to ‘that’ kind of party (I was reading languages after all!) but it never happened. Nothing. Nada. Not a peep. Your story made me laugh so – such admirable restraint!

  2. I really wonder why the spy story or the character of the spy does so not appeal to me. Maybe I find them dishonest. I guess that’s it. I think because bringing everything into the open, talking about things, revealing secrets is important to me. Not sure…

    • You might like the latest wave of spy fiction an awful lot better. The Ian McEwan I read, Sweet Tooth, is really only incidentally a spy novel and much more about literature. But still, there’s plenty to read out there and sometimes it’s a relief not to have to add to the TBR pile!

      • I liked Sweet Tooth and although you are right to say it is not a ‘proper’ spy novel, it might be more about what most spying is actually about, the mundane part of it all. In another way there is a lot of ‘spying’ going on in the novel that is not official spying you might say!

  3. One of my great “finds” last year was Daniel Silva who writes the Gabriel Allon spy novels. I read my first one because I felt I had to (after a friend put a copy in my hands). Spy novels have never been something I would have picked up before. Since then I’ve read 2 more in the Allon series and have 3 sitting on the shelf. I simply adore them! On top of exciting, they are extremely well written! Naturally, Allon always defeats the foe, always gets out of tight jams…but is an art restorer as well! You have to love him.

  4. This is such a great post! It makes me wish I did link round-ups so that I could link to this. I didn’t really know about the change in the status of a spy in the twentieth century — it’s making me want to read a historical novel that deals with the low status of spies in the olden days. I feel like when I’ve read modern-written historical novels about spies, they’ve emphasized Spies Are Awesome and not really their low status.

  5. I’ve been trying to find one for you! But the critical studies I’ve got are a bit tight-lipped about earlier novels. There’s one, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy: A Tale of Neutral Ground, although that is also trying to do a bit of rehabilitation on the character. I suppose the sordid spies I think of come from Graham Greene mostly – Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American. They certainly don’t pedal the awesomeness angle. And thank you so much for liking the post! You made my day.

  6. I wasn’t able to get hold of any of the spy novels you are reading, but just finished SPY IN THE HOUSE, by Ying Lee, a Chinese Canadian with a Ph.D. in Victorian life and literature. It’s set in 19th-century London and has a woman spy. I didn’t think it was relevant for your “spy week” until I read your “10 Reasons.” Check out my review. http://wp.me/p24OK2-Ly

    • I’d never heard of the author or the series, but it sounds most intriguing! I’ll have to look out for it and see if it’s available in the UK.

  7. I love spy movies and TV shows (MI-5 was sooo good!) but have never really gotten into spy novels. I wonder why that is? Perhaps one of the books in your forthcoming spy reviews will inspire me 🙂

    • Heh, well, I DO try to tempt you often! Have you ever watched Spooks from the UK? My brother and sister-in-law are very keen on that one!

      ETA – just read Danielle’s comment – they are the same thing! Oops!

  8. I have to admit to not being a great reader of spy fiction so I shall be very interested in your forthcoming pieces but your first point here did immediately make me think of Shakespeare’s Wall in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ who makes so much of having a ‘chink’ through which the fearful lovers are to whisper. I shall have to go back and explore what meanings the word was given in the 1590s and see whether there is a spying connotation implied.

    • I would think there might be – 16th century was an era of spying and court intrigue, wasn’t it? Well, I’m out of my depth here – I hope you’ll report back! I find the recent batch of spy fiction to be much more accessible than the Graham Greene/John le Carre sort of thing. But still, you can see if anything piques your interest!

  9. You have put into words the reasons I love spy novels! #6 puts me in mind especially of MI-5/Spooks a show I was totally addicted to (and was sad to see go away…). Every episode was an adventure (and even with strong female leads, too), the world, or London at least on the brink of disaster only to be pulled back at the very last minute and all put safely to rights! Ah yes, I do love a good spy story–so much potential there! 🙂

    • Ohhhh, I have just realised that the MI-5 of which Stefanie spoke WAS Spooks! Well thank you for clearing that up! I have so enjoyed reading the spy novels. I’m definitely hooked now!

    • Welcome to espionage week, writemybrainsout! Spy novels all week (well, until Thursday – ran out of time to read more, alas). I’ve loved them!

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