The Joy Of…. Spy Fiction

2014 Artwork Joy Of Spy Fiction sketch

Whilst I haven’t really read that many spy-themed novels (I can only think of about four or five off of the top of my head), I’ve read more than my fair share of detective and thriller novels and the spy novels that I’ve read aren’t too different from these in terms of plot, plot structure and atmosphere.

So, why am I writing about spy fiction in particular today?

Well, it’s because I love the genre when I see it in other formats – I love TV shows like “Bugs”, “Alias” and “Burn Notice”. I also quite like the “James Bond” movies, even though I absolutely hate playing computer and video games that revolve around sneaking around places. In fact, the only spy-themed video game that I actually like is “Goldeneye” for the Nintendo 64.

So, although I have a relatively limited experience of this genre, why is the spy genre so awesome?

Well, I can think of at least three reasons – the first one is that it gives us a fascinating (albeit fictionalised) glimpse into a world that is, by definition, hidden from us most of the time.

People are, by our very nature, curious and spy fiction can help us feel that our curiosity about the things that our governments do in secret has been satisfied. Of course, when details of what spies actually do are leaked to the media (like with Edward Snowden’s shocking revelations last year), it’s usually nowhere near as glamourous as spy fiction makes it out to be.

In fact, far from being glamourous, it’s usually slightly creepy and dystopic. I mean, the idea that faceless officials can be snooping on everyone’s personal data for no reason whatsoever is straight out of a George Orwell novel. So, shouldn’t this mean that spy fiction is inherently dishonest and – dare I say it – even a form of pro-Government propaganda? Possibly, but I’d argue otherwise.

Spy fiction gives us the comforting illusion that spies are actually principled people who use their skills and resources purely to stop nefarious criminal and/or terrorist plots and not to snoop on everyone’s e-mails, nude photos, phone records etc.. just because they can. Call me naive but, for the sake of my sanity, I prefer to think about the illusion rather than the reality.

In fact, whilst spy fiction might show governmental agents in a mostly positive way, I’d argue that this is more of a psychological coping mechanism for writers and readers who live in a dystopic world than anything to do with propaganda.

Secondly, spy fiction is a genre of fiction that relies entirely on intellect and resourcefulness. Although spy-themed TV shows, novels etc… might feature the occasional car chase, gunfight etc.. it isn’t really as much of a macho genre as the “James Bond” movies might make it out to be.

After all, the whole point of a spy is someone who can do things in secret in a way that the bad guys won’t notice. In other words, a good spy story is actually a story about a battle of intellects between the good guys and the bad guys. So, if you’re slightly nerdy in any way – then you’ll probably relish the chance to see someone solve problems using their brain rather than their fists.

If action movies are uplifting power fantasies for people who like to think of themselves as “tough”, then spy stories are uplifting power fantasies for people who like to think of themselves as “intelligent”.

Finally (and sorry for shoehorning yet another LGBT metaphor into one of these “the joy of…” articles), spy fiction can also be a very cathartic genre if you are LGBT in any way.

Why? Well, because it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ve had to spend at least part of your life hiding who you are from everyone around you (and you possibly still do). You’ve probably had to assume a “cover identity” as a straight person, a non-transgender person etc… in order to survive socially.

And, yes, this is nowhere near as glamourous as the secret identities that spies assume in spy fiction might seem to the uninformed reader. In fact, it can be terrifying and downright soul-destroying. So, seeing stories where this kind of thing is presented as “heroic” and “dramatic” can be incredibly comforting.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂