The British Empire stuck around long enough to try most things twice, once as tragedy and again as farce. The deans of English spy fiction wrote through the interregnum. Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Le Carré and Ambler: The Sun never set on their soil, granted, but it was a near thing. If you want to get very particular about things, that claim remains true; the Sun never sets on British soil. For this the Queen can thank the saving grace and fantastic perversity of the Pitcairn Islands.
So the English espionage canon is organized around a gang of writers working by the twilight of imperial dignity, watching national character shade into a really pathetic kind of self-parody. Which, creatively, turned out not to be so terrible. In that spirit, they haunt the outskirts of Ben Macintyre’s recent history, A Spy Among Friends, which narrates the British intelligence community’s ur-embarrassment: the Cold War defection of Harold “Kim” Philby, senior man at MI6 and dyed-in-the-wool Red stooge. On top of its biographical value, A Spy Among Friends happens to be a keen study in the high quality of British spy fiction, and its reliance on a strange brand of national feeling.
Macintyre gives the impression that the British secret services were absolutely infested with writers. Graham Greene pops up in Sierra Leone, frustrated by the challenge of getting a decent supply of condoms. Philby was a good friend of Greene’s, and his flight to the Soviet Union nearly ruined The Human Factor; Greene worried his sympathetic novel of defection would be read as a dewy-eyed take on Philby’s treason. John Le Carré has written Macintyre an afterword, which he ends by intimating that Philby had hoped Le Carré would help him write his memoirs (Le Carré is an alum of MI5 and MI6 himself). Round and round the novelists circle, tidal-locked, meditating on the sense of a very British traitor.
The figures in Macintyre’s drama are brought tragicomically low by a shared confidence: that they can accurately judge the goodness of a given chap. The mystery that animates A Spy Among Friends isn’t so much why Philby betrayed his country — folks do crazy things for Communism — but why his treachery went undetected. And the solution that Macintyre offers is an indictment of Englishness per se, of secret service men who dine at each other’s clubs, booze at each other’s birthdays, and above all “know each other’s people.” Philby preyed on the integrally English sense of class loyalty; when he’s eventually done in, it’s the blue collars at MI5 who crack the case, to the disbelief of MI6’s wingtip aristocrats. The imperial ruling class was, its members discovered unhappily, an ouroboros. It had gone and cannibalized itself.
In this narrative of decay is implicated one of the grand mysteries of genre fiction: Why are all the great English-language spy novels British? Or to put it competitively: Why has the United States had such difficulty developing a strong national spy literature, with little to show for it but Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy? Part of the answer lies in Macintyre’s diagnosis of the British Cold War condition, disintegrating from within and without all in one go. That’s where Greene et al. dig up the humanity in cloaks and daggers. Picture an upper lip, caught between stiff smirk and quiver. Weakness, failure, pain: a novel needs a healthy dose of these. Good British espionage writing drew on the decline and fall of empire, against which the only emotional defense was a sharp, flippant humanism. This is a rich vein of pessimism for which American spy fiction has no good parallel (a possible exception – the Kennedy Assassination and the death of Camelot). More often, on this side of the Atlantic, the form is strangled by a slick, cheery patriotism.
On one level, you can hardly blame us Americans. We’re younger. The Central Intelligence Agency is all of 70 years old (and better not to start in on the creative sterility of the NSA). So one way of tackling the problem of quality is to say that American spy fiction is still fixed in the sickly innocence of its founding, when national fictions were obliged to be useful in a way that doesn’t lend itself to deeper fame. Or in more immediately emotional terms: We still ask that our spies be good men for bad times. A serious genealogical excavation would have interesting things to say about the trans-generic, trans-historical durability of American innocence, but you get the same impression if you just check in on the culture every now and then. James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 novel The Spy, first in its family tree, is a fawningly patriotic fiction, guest starring George Washington. Its hero, Harvey Birch, is the most stiffly principled turncoat you could ask for. Which isn’t to say that The Spy doesn’t have its merits or pleasures, but there’s only so much sense to wring out of a hero who never wavers in his moral courage. The unerring belong in epics, not novels.
And yet this is the model we’ve settled on, at least in this branch of the American literary tradition. It’s the hero of Raymond Chandler — British-American, for what it’s worth — headed down mean streets, though in the spy’s case these are the streets of Hanoi. “He must be,” Chandler had it, “the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” This is an awful lot to ask of a human being, and very little to ask of a character. Even James Bond, the least humane of the British spy “heroes,” wasn’t so exaggerated; Ian Fleming insisted that his protagonist — in the novels at least — was “an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened.” But American heroes are best men, wreathed in honor and innocence. This can get boring, though in the detective context it leaves room for some valuable disillusionment: Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown. But as the British knew, this sparkling honor is a dangerous thing to introduce to espionage.
Every national trait can be taken to a really tragic extreme. Usually it’s an adjacent culture that has to pursue the thought experiment to its conclusion, and so English propriety has never been more savagely skewered than in Pierre Boulle’s Bridge over the River Kwai, while American innocence has never been more painfully captured than in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. It’s a cruel joke, the title: The only quiet American is a dead American, and the CIA agent at the novel’s center is very dead, having fumbled his way — with great charm — into the decision to plot certain terrorist bombings in French Indochina. Greene gives his title character youth, a Harvard degree, a virginal halo, all the kit a man of the CIA requires. He is unspoiled, could never really be spoiled — but still he is capable of doing sick, rotten things, and therefore he has to be done away with.
You can accuse Greene’s brutal, beautiful novel of anti-Americanism, but his sketch of fatal innocence can’t have been far off the mark. The novel was published in 1955, when American involvement in Southeast Asia was still in its infancy. Were evil men to blame for what would come in Vietnam? Maybe, if you hew to Hunter S. Thompson’s sketch of Richard M. Nixon, but the iconic framing of the problem is exactly the opposite. It was our “best and brightest,” as David Halberstam had it, that really screwed over the Vietnamese and the Army — men of good intentions, and good hair too. Greene’s finger was clearly on some kind of pulse. The Americans are innocent to a fault, and they will have problems here in Indochina. So the political problem lines itself up with the literary one.
Of course, that was 60 years ago. Haven’t things changed, aged, matured? If it seems over-harsh to say that there are no really good American spy novels — and there really aren’t that many canonically good American spy novels — then the instructive thing to do is pick up a copy of Personal, the latest in Lee Child’s long series of Jack Reacher novels. It does not get more American than Jack Reacher, an itinerant Army vet hitchhiking those middle expanses of the country, living from black coffee to black coffee and plate of diner eggs to plate of diner eggs. Tom Cruise played him in the movie version, which is a very American sentence.
Squatting comfortably at the border of crime and espionage fiction — Personal sends Reacher to London on the hunt for an assassin, so it leans on the latter — the Reacher books are better than they probably ought to be. Child has always enjoyed a strange esteem with The New York Times, and they’ve published his tips on writing; when he insists that he thinks of himself as an entertainer, the vibe evoked is Greene (who famously divided his work between “novels” and “entertainments”) more than it is James Patterson. Morally, his hero occupies Chandler’s archetype of bland excellence as well as anyone: Reacher is a man of honor “by instinct, by inevitably, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” And yet if Reacher is dull in the American mode, he manages all the same to be a fascinating instrument. Child puts him to really intelligent, stylish use, and that’s no small thing.
Reacher has a knack for puncturing conventional plots; the queerly satisfying twist in Child’s novels is usually that the conspiracy is pettier by half than what the reader had in mind. In Personal, an attempt on the life of the French President begins with all the trappings of an international terror thriller (someone must warn the G8! The United Nations!) — but Child turns the form’s tropes on themselves. By novel’s end, the scheme reveals itself as a despairing act of American vanity, the cri de coeur of a Cold Warrior whose plots are too arcane for a world gone flat. Child consistently wrings insight out of Reacher’s firm conviction that he, like most things and people, does not matter. This is a daring, illuminating kind of idea that British spies have always been more comfortable with than American ones — they were declining, we’ve been on the up and up. So to see the idea of Not-Mattering being taken seriously in the American context would be very encouraging for the state of American spy fiction, if not for the fact that Lee Child is tragically, unavoidably, congenitally British.
So it goes. Instead, the American tradition has David Ignatius’s The Director, as clear and concise a reflection of the state of the spy novel as you’ll find on bookshelves today. The book’s reviewers negotiate on explicitly British terms. For Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times, “The Director will never be mistaken for a le Carré novel.” For Philip Kerr, writing in The Washington Post, the book is “the best spy novel I’ve read since John le Carre’s Smiley’s People, way back in 1979,” and “the kind of Smiley novel le Carré would probably write if he were 20 years younger, if he knew the CIA as well as he knows the British security services…”
For what it’s worth: Ted Scheinman, writing for Slate, ranked Smiley’s People just the ninth best le Carré novel out of the man’s 23-work oeuvre. Which isn’t to say that The Director isn’t a perfectly good outing, but a double standard is at work.
You hardly need to read the novel, then, to get the sense that American spy fiction hasn’t slipped the surly bonds of an unmatched British example — though if you were to read it, you would find Ignatius’s characters suggesting that espionage itself is British, and the CIA an invention of MI6, sneakily appended to the American Republic. This doesn’t ring especially true as history, and one imagines Ignatius, who has written on and spoken at the CIA, doesn’t share the political judgment that spying is un-American. Still the impression that he believes it in the literary sense, in his writerly bones, is tough to shake. The United States has not developed a spy-novel nationalism able to stand on its own two feet.
The case may be terminal. The geostrategic implications may well be catastrophic — or so American espionage literature might frame it. But for the stakes to forever be Higher Than They Ever Imagined is exhausting, and dull to boot. A Brit would probably shake his head and offer instead, as one of Greene’s characters once did, that “It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it.” Innocence, self-seriousness, both unstudied: These are not the constituent parts of a rich literature.
American spy fiction needs saving from its permanent immaturity. And “God save us always,” as Greene had it, “from the innocent and the good.”
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