Part 1: The Genre
While not necessarily the most well versed in literature as a whole, I would call myself somewhat a connoisseur of spy novels, since I've read a rather wide variety of these types of books. In my years of reading I've covered classics, new masterpieces, and a fair amount of the mediocre books that make up the rank and file of the genre. I suppose one of the facets that distinguishes these types of books from more "literary" types of novels is the large number of them that amount to little more than high selling junk. If you go into any airport newsstand or the paperback section of a bookstore like Barnes and Noble, you will see these up and coming best sellers. Each one adversities intrigue, action, attractive main characters, and little else that might disrupt your easy reading pleasure. I find that while it tends to give the books a wider readership, the existence of so much mass market junk tends to give the rest of the genre a bit of a bad name. I personally believe that the reason that we don't rank authors like Fleming, LeCarre, and Ludlum as highly as other novelists is because they were dragged down by their peers.
One of the core draws of the genre is the way that the plot is constructed, which remains almost the same across any of the books. Those of you who remember almost anything from high school english will probably recall the standard plot development graph which looks something like this.
A large portion of the book is consumed by the rising action in which the tension is slowly building. We reach the climax point of the novel, the point with the highest tension overall, and then we enter the falling action in which the tension is gradually released. The flat tail at the end is a sort of optional piece called the denouement, in which the overall plot is explained and analyzed.
That’s all fine and well for The Great Gatsby, however, the standard plot development graph for a spy novel looks something like this.
The first change you’ll likely notice is the sharp initial rise in the action. With these sorts of books the reader is usually moved from normalcy to crisis very rapidly as the main action of the book is established. Whatever the tension is, whether it be that the president is hostage, the terrorists are at large, the soviet spy is cut off, etc. usually only the first one or 2 chapters set up the problem, and the inevitable showdown. The reader can usually discern what the nature of the final showdown will be whether it be that out hero saves the president, kills the terrorist, or traps the spy, but the driving force behind the novel is the expectation of that showdown. The rest of the novel may contain relatively little rising action as the hero is usually tracking, or observing, or planning before the climactic encounter, but the feeling that the climax is always around the corner is what gives these books their page turner reputation.
The other change, and the one that makes spy novels some of my favorite books to read, is the rapid falling action after the climax. Instead of a prolonged winding down period, the novel ends with a short burst of action, as the entire plot can hinge on one bullet, one card, or one second on the time bomb. Usually with one pull of the trigger, our dauntless hero erases the antagonist and the conflict with him, as the reader breathes a sigh of relief. This near instantaneous, high stakes, release gives the reader a thrill that keeps me coming back, over and over, to these types of novels when I have time to sit and enjoy myself. I feel that besides detective novels, very few other genres have mastered this type of climax, where the revelation of a single piece of information collapses the tension and functionally ends the novel.
A last notable plot trope is the role of the denouement in the spy novel. While not considered a necessary part of most novels, it is rare to see a spy novel without some sort of debriefing or resolution at the ends that serves this purpose. Usually either a commander or a friend will sit down with the protagonist, and reveal the inner machinations of the enemy, and sometimes of their own agency, giving he reader a sudden glimpse with a gods eye view over the plot. This tying up of loose ends gives the novel a very complete resolution, almost never leaving the reader with questions as to what driving force there was behind the conflict (unless of course, that driving force is the subject of a sequel).
The last element that I think may spy novels very unique is the standard nature of the main characters and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the supporting cast. The protagonist is always male in my experience (if someone has read a novel like this with a female lead, please tell me since I’d love to read it). Our hero is usually a clean cut, businesslike character. Though he may have expensive tastes, he generally keeps a low profile and exudes an air of silent class. Our hero is generally heterosexual, and quite attractive, although he hates to let women get in the way of his mission. The role is notably static across novels and even series, with little real development in the character of the protagonist as the plot progresses. Borrowed from the Cold War era of espionage, he is the eternal suit wearing gunman.
The rest of the characters are relatively predictable, and sometimes underdeveloped. Usually the protagonist will have at least 1 love interest that is somehow related to the mission. This woman will be young, and somewhat infatuated with the spy, but likely has some sort of dark secret. The antagonist is almost always male as well. This man shows no remorse in killing, and is often either mentally unstable or a sexual deviant. This character uniformity does sometimes hurt the overall quality of the plot, but the better writers of the genre do find ways to make these characters new and interesting.
The genre certainly does have its faults. Its formulaic plots can get old if not done well, and its dealing with gender roles is hardly progressive. However I think that the quality of the plot structure and pacing make these books well worth reading. This is probably the part where an English major tells me that I’ve misinterpreted a lot of things, but I’ve sort of opened myself up to that anyway by blogging about something outside my field. But you'll have to wait until after...
Part 2: The Specimens
This is just a review and a recommendation for a few of my favorite spy novels. If you want a taste of the genre, this is a good place to start.
By Ian Fleming
The classic. This book has James Bond at his best, with a beautiful woman under one arm and a Beretta under the other. In this book we see 007 take on the soviet agent LeChiffre, in an attempt to bankrupt him at baccarat. With all of the class and intrigue that one expects from the genre, the book makes the genre feel new again with Fleming's clean cut writing style. This book almost defines the espionage genre, and it is the first of a long running series by the same author.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
By John LeCarre
If Casino Royale defines the genre, this book turns it on its head. LeCarre's spies live not in a world of intrigue and daring, instead they have to deal with the bureaucracy and the dreariness of their nations respective espionage machines. In this book, a director of a network of spies in NATO Berlin recalled to Britain for a special assignment. On the verge of becoming burnt out after having watched as his entire team was killed off one by one, he infiltrates deep into soviet territory, masquerading as a defector, in order to accomplish one final mission. In undoing the traditional spy novel (no girl, no gun, no glamour) LeCarre gives us an alternate world of espionage, in which spies exist mostly to kill other spies simply because they exist. The universe is expanded on in his other works about "The Circus" including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
The Bourne Identity
By Robert Ludlum
In one of his many classic espionage works, Ludlum gives us the spy novel almost in reverse. We begin with Boune knowing only his codename "Cain" and his mission, to kill the renowned assassin known as Carlos. Having suffered from amnesia after washing up on a beach in Marseilles, he seeks to uncover his own identity, as his name "Cain" is tied to another international assassin. The novel seems in reverse as, instead of learning more about the the location and identity of Carlos (although we do get some insight into his operations) we are granted more and more details about the background of the protagonist as the novel progresses. A true thriller, and a great read.
The Kill Artist
By Daniel Silva
This novel and the series that follow give us a far more modern take on the espionage genre. Instead of pitting cold war powers against one another, our protagonist in this case is Gabriel Allon, Israeli assassin turned art restorer. Called into service again by the aging director of the Israeli Secret Service, he is sent to hunt down the head of the terrorist organization that killed his son and grievously injured his wife. Our protagonist is a different beast from the usual dashing spy. As an older man who feels responsible for the car bomb that killed his son and sent his wife to a mental hospital, he has little desire to return to the world of espionage and assassination, and he is plagued by PTSD-like flashbacks and regrets. However in the face of growing unrest in the Middle East and persistent anti-Semitism in Europe he feels a duty to Israel to fight its enemies. A welcome breath of fresh air in an occasionally tired genre.
Thanks for reading. I hope you all can enjoy these books as much as I have.