“A normal teenage girl…who is also a spy” was my favorite type of young adult fiction. The girl had to balance crushes and homework alongside solving international crimes and defeating bad guys. In this genre, authors emphasize the protagonist’s very normal teenage girl behavior juxtaposed with her super-sleuth espionage skills. For example: A few pages into the first book in Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, I’d Tell You I Love You but Then I’d Have to Kill You, 15-year-old Cammie explains, “even though the Gallagher academy is a school for girl geniuses, sometimes the emphasis should be kept on girl.” Like, obviously! The protagonists were always super smart, highly trained in combat, and of course, also had to deal with their crush not liking them back. They were everything.
Nostalgic for these YA spy stories, I sought out contemporary spy fiction with female leads. The premise of Mick Herron’s This Is What Happened seemed promising enough: Maggie, the protagonist, is “just the kind of person MI5 needs to infiltrate the establishment and thwart an international plot that puts all of Britain at risk.” But as I started reading, about a quarter of the way through, it turned into not a spy story but an abusive-man-keeps-woman-hostage-and-gaslights-her-to-keep-her-prisoner-in-his-basement story. All I wanted was a strong female being sneaky, kicking ass, and thwarting the bad guys. Not another story of a victimized woman. Is that too much to ask? Not as a teenager.
Female spies populate young adult fiction and are nowhere to be found in contemporary spy fiction. This is for two reasons: One, female authors dominate YA—and female authors often write female protagonists. Two, YA spies are based on a fantasy (teenage spies don’t exist), not the reality of the intelligence world (as contemporary spy fiction draws from).
Young adult fiction has female spies galore. Like many YA books, these spy stories allow teenagers to imagine that, under different circumstances, they, too, could be a hero. In Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Perfect Cover, Toby, a quiet, shy high school sophomore is recruited to the cheerleading squad, which is actually a cover for teenage spies (duh!). When she passes the tests, the captain describes the squad to her as “Charlie’s Angels meets James Bond meets Bring It On…We’re the best of the best. We’re pretty, we’re smart…we’re in perfect physical condition, and best of all, we never get caught. After all, who’s going to suspect the cheerleaders?”
Girl spies flourish when female authors write them into existence. Ally Carter, Robin Benway, Shannon Greenland, Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Kat Carlton, T.A. Maclagan, Annabel Monaghan, Laura Pauling… the list goes on; these eight women are just a sampling of authors who have written contemporary YA books featuring female teenage spies. And the amount of them should not be surprising, yet I am still taken aback by the dominance of women in the genre.
Contemporary fiction does not have nearly the same number of women. The “great authors” of the contemporary spy genre are men who typically place male protagonists at the center of their novels. As Paul Vidich describes the genre at Electric Literature, “the spy genre, perhaps more than any other genre, has been the province of men, often men who once served in the intelligence community.” In “Bias She Wrote,” a 2010 analysis of the New York Times Best-Seller List, Rosie Cima found that authors of spy/politics fiction best-sellers were 97 percent male and 3 percent female. Wikipedia’s list of notable writers in spy fiction includes 124 authors—only six are female.
Notably, among the few female contemporary spy fiction authors, there’s Stella Rimington. Rimington was the first female Director General of MI5 and held the position from 1992 to 1996 (she’s also rumored to be the inspiration for Judi Dench’s “M” in the Daniel Craig James Bond movies). After retiring, she began writing a fictional series about a female intelligence officer, Liz Carlyle; the first novel, At Risk, was published in 2004. Remington has now published nine Liz Carlyle novels. In 2015, Rimington told the Edinburgh International Book Festival that her goal was to “rescue spy stories from the blokes.” She went on, “When you think about it, all fictional spies are blokes, and spy writers when I started were chaps too. So I was certain that my character was going to be female. I wanted her to reflect accurately what a female does in my former service.” Rimington’s Carlyle is remarkable. In At Risk, she is at lunch with a rival and asks him why he joined the service. In response, he tells Carlyle, “Really, of course, it was the women. All those glamorous Foreign Office secretaries. I’ve always had a Moneypenny complex.” Carlyle coolly responds to his misogyny, “I don’t see many Moneypennys in here.”
Other female authors, like Gayle Lynds and Francine Mathews, worked in the field before turning to writing. Their intelligence backgrounds are notable; it is as if publishing houses only took them seriously in such a male-dominated genre because of their career experience. Mathews, who spent four years at the CIA before becoming an author, wrote in a blog post:
Women populate the clandestine landscape as thickly as men. But women are not always admitted to exclusive clubs, and even more rarely to the literature of spying. [John] le Carré’s women are usually victims; [Ian] Fleming’s are always babes. They stumble in their high heels, arms outstretched, and die on the word James. Women are not the point of the safehouse and the glass of whiskey; they live on the fringe, in the bedroom and near the hearthfire. They are never in control. It’s hard to love spy fiction as a woman in America. The club doors are closed, and we’re all out in the cold.
This idea that “women are the victims, never in control” reverberates throughout contemporary spy fiction; the ladies who do exist are femme fatales—or martyred. Male authors rarely write female protagonists (something that is not unique to espionage stories). That’s not to say men cannot write female characters or that female spies do not exist in the works of male spy writers; females take the reins in William Boyd’s Restless and Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. But the default of spy fiction is (white) male. Natasha Walter explains in The Guardian, “despite its richness, I have often felt alienated by spy fiction because it has often seemed so rigidly masculine.” The female characters in traditional spy fiction, as Walter writes, are characters who are “subsumed into the needs and desires of the male hero.”
So why don’t the teenage spies grow up? Perhaps because teenage girls are less threatening to the “rigid masculinity” of espionage. One may find it easier to imagine a cheerleader taking down the bad guys—because it’s so implausible—than to think a woman could be the CIA’s best agent. The fantasy element of teenage spies is key. Of course teenage spies don’t exist, and since they don’t exist, sure, they can be female. And this fantasy is at the heart of the power of YA fiction: escapism. As Meghan Lewit writes in The Atlantic, “The stories and the genre itself represent a world of limitless potential. As a young reader, I didn’t comprehend that the opportunity to disappear into the lives and adventures of strong-willed young women represented a kind of feminist victory.”
Hopefully, contemporary spy fiction catches up with its YA counterpart. Even though YA spy fiction has its own problems—the protagonists are overwhelmingly white and straight—it’s remarkably gender equal. A good start is Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly? Knecht, unlike her female spy writer peers, has no intelligence background (…that we know of). The novel could be defined more broadly as literary fiction than spy fiction—yet it is a classic spy story. The titular Vera Kelly, recruited by the CIA, is sent to Argentina in 1962. Kelly navigates understanding her sexual identity, her strained relationship with her mom, and finding any KGB sleeper agents in Buenos Aires. The story follows her from her troubled teenage years to how she eventually got recruited by the CIA. She’s the teenager who grew up that the spy genre needs.
Image: Flickr/CLAUDIA DEA
Throughout his career, William Boyd has evaded classification. What kind of novelist is he? What kind of books does he write? The themes in his works are various, and as a result stubbornly refuse to be filed under any handy group heading. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was farcical fun. 2002’s Any Human Heart was a magnificent fictional autobiography, and recent offering, Restless, was an evocative Second World War spy novel which shone a fresh light on the genre, chiefly in its treatment of identity. So what about the identity of the author? Who could he sit comfortably alongside? For if we can’t categorise his oeuvre then we may have more luck categorizing him – such is this British insistence on shacking British writers up with likeminded literary bedfellows.
Many critics think he has been robbed and should always have been the fourth wheel of the McEwan-Amis-Rushdie triumvirate (or sneaky fifth column if you accept the inclusion of Julian Barnes). Others feel he has a claim to inclusion only because of generation, not artistic merit. Boyd could be the outsider, ploughing his own furrow and glad of it. He has the dark naturalism of McEwan but eschews the verbal dynamism of Amis and magical realism of Rushdie. For my money his closest teammate is Sebastian Faulks. We might still be waiting for Boyd to produce something as durable as Birdsong but both write competent, confident fiction and are equally adept at relighting the past as they are at providing rich insight into the present. Any Human Heart has the same broad strokes and masterful period detail as Human Traces, and with its backdrop of war and desperation, Charlotte Gray is an antecedent for Restless.
Now, in his new novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd returns to the red thread that ran through its predecessor and spools it round a new reel. If Restless was about the search for identity then Ordinary Thunderstorms, is about the need to conceal it. Ordinary Thunderstorms begins with familiar territory. During a trip to London for a job interview, Adam Kindred gets into conversation with an immunologist in a restaurant. When Adam visits the man’s apartment later to return the folder he left behind he finds him dying, with a knife stuck in his side. The man dies on him in mid-sentence and Adam flees from the scene of the crime with the folder. The novel deals with Adam trying to evade capture by the police for a crime he didn’t commit, and a nut-job contract killer eager to get his hands on the folder for his paymasters.
Armadillo (1998) starts in a similar fashion, with the protagonist walking in on a hanged man. But Boyd has made no bones about this opener being an updated Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s a pity its beginning couldn’t have been as plausible. Adam’s fellow diner asks him the time and then “they inevitably began to talk.” This is a cheap conceit to join dots and unite characters. Also “inevitably” is too presumptuous, unless Boyd himself is one of those garrulous, gregarious sorts who like nothing better than to acquaint themselves with taxi drivers, check-out assistants and the person sitting next to them in the aisle seat. We make a sharp slide from presumptuous to preposterous. Following the dying man’s orders Adam pulls out the knife – yes, that was pulls out the knife – and then finds himself faced with a double quandary: his fingerprints are on the knife, but, now more pressing, he has heard movement on the balcony outside. Clearly the scientist’s attacker hasn’t yet exited the building. Managing to escape in one piece, Adam then acts even more recklessly by opting to head for a Pimlico pub where, temporarily shored up, he can recover from his shock by downing several whiskies and devouring bags of peanuts. The problem an author faces when presenting such characters is that one man’s reckless is another man’s idiotic; foolhardy is not a large jump to foolish. We lurch onwards and are forced to suspend our disbelief some more when Adam abstains from dialling 999 and protesting his innocence and instead settles down to a life lived rough on a patch of waste ground in Chelsea until things blow over.
The thriller that Boyd set out to write has by turns gripped us then cheated us, and we’re only at the end of chapter one. Luckily, chapter two heralds a new character, Rita Nashe, a policewoman, and chapter three introduces us to Ingram Fryzer, head of the pharmaceutical multinational for which our corpse once worked. Extra characters are needed to offset dopey Adam, and it is a relief to know he is not to carry the whole of the novel on his shoulders. Boyd brings Adam back in chapter four and in doing so takes two steps back from the one step forward he’s made by giving us the hope of a wider perspective seen through the eyes of Rita and Fryzer. Adam decides to stay off the grid and go underground. From now on he’ll shun phones, internet and cash machines and become an “urban ghost”, one of the 600 people who go missing in Britain every week. It isn’t long before he is erecting a make-shift tent, bathing in the Thames and eating seagulls.
He – or perhaps the reader – is bailed out as Boyd feeds us more characters from all walks of London life. He expands on the Fryzer strand by introducing Ivo, his brother-in-law and a louche Lord of the Realm; Mhouse, a prostitute, who laces her son’s cornflakes with rum and crushed Diazepam, and whose life on a Rotherhithe sink estate is unflinchingly portrayed as a daily fight for survival; and our two villains, Alfredo Rilke, the shady owner of Rilke Pharmaceutical, whose “controlling interest” extends to people as well as companies, and Jonjo our hitman-for-hire who injects not only violence but menace.
The novel works best when Boyd rouses Adam from his self-pitying funk and gets him away from his wasteland and interacting with the rest of the cast and London itself. We are gripped when it seems that Jonjo is closing in on him; there is a tenderness in the scenes where he teaches Mhouse’s son Ly-on to read; and the satiric scenes in the Church of John Christ – complete with charlatan preacher and a congregation made up of illegal immigrants, scamsters and paedophiles – are blackly comical. When he ventures out, London becomes alive, Adam becomes alive and the novel takes shape. With the city, Boyd is particularly interested in the river. The Thames opens and ends the book and permeates key chapters, providing settings for the vagrant Adam, a backdrop for Rita’s new career in the Marine Support Unit and her domestic life on her father’s houseboat, and a dumping ground for two bodies. With each tidal ebb the river shifts in character, sometimes sinister, sometimes with the same colours as a Fauvist painting – indeed, “at low tide everything changed”, and for the worse: “Correspondingly, the city suffered aesthetically.”
Thus the river has the power to transform the city, regenerating it and wrecking it, and in a similar way Adam’s changes bring colour to what would otherwise be a humdrum thriller. He goes from Adam Kindred, climatologist, to an identity-less nobody on the embankment, to John 1603, and lastly re-enters society as Primo Belem. In his essay”‘On Personal Identity” William Hazlitt states that for all the admiration and envy we feel for others, “no one ever wishes to be another, instead of himself.” However, necessity prevails here: Adam has to slough off one identity and assume another. It is when he does so that Boyd increases the momentum, as if remembering he has set out to write a thriller. And if the last section of the book has Adam running around the city a little too much like Jason Bourne, it is still immensely preferable to him sitting still in Crusoe-like solitude at the beginning. We might scorn them but the two main rules of the thriller are incontestable: excitement is the drama of movement rather than stasis; and you can strain the reader’s credulity but don’t try our patience.
The book isn’t as thrilling as a thriller should be, and it is almost as if Boyd got bored halfway through of the genre he had shackled himself to and was far more interested in fleshing out his characters. The scenes in The Shaft, Mhouse’s estate, are extremely effective, and Boyd is able to add colour and the requisite grittiness to the gangs, pimps and pushers, not to mention the poor victims caught in the crossfire, while remaining unpatronizing. Mr Quality, Mhouse’s landlord, is lightly sketched but we get enough strokes to learn it’s not only exorbitant rent he commands from her. Boyd even invents a Clockwork Orange-esque vernacular for The Shaft’s cheap hustlers: good things are flat, ordinary people are mims; “You scatter my head,” Mhouse tells Adam. A thriller writer is allowed to slow the pace and insert postmodern pyrotechnics but there had better be a good reason to do so. Boyd gets mixed results. True, the momentum is drastically impeded, but the characters are so good and their street-talk so vibrant that the reader is prepared to make allowances. Boyd is of course less successful when the bit-parters don’t light up the page. Fryzer’s family are stock caricatures, right down to his spoiled-brat kids and long suffering wife; and his doctor, a benign old Scot, is a chronically bad pick-and-mix stereotype who enjoys a dram of whisky during surgery hours and even says “You’ll have had your tea.” All that is missing is the kilt and shortbread. Finally, there is the nagging suspicion that Boyd is also keen to expand on this theme of identity, or better still, being identity-less in the twenty-first century. This would have been an intriguing topic to explore, particularly in a country which has a huge overreliance on CCTV and yet has reversed its decision to introduce mandatory identity cards. In fiction, we are fascinated by characters with concealed identities – from the amnesiac walking-wounded or Victorian dispossessed in search of an identity, to the spies or confidence tricksters with too many identities, multiple passports and aliases. Sadly the idea is only touched upon here, with more screen time being dedicated to the almost hackneyed thriller staples of innocent men on the run, maniacal rent-a-killers and the collateral damage caused by the corporate greed of bad Big Pharma.
Coming in at four hundred pages, Ordinary Thunderstorms is a lengthy thriller. The pace meanders like the river at its heart and only towards the end is there a current-like narrative pull. Miraculously Adam doesn’t die from drinking from the Thames (“brownish water with some sediment but the taste was acceptable”) but thanks to the strong omniscient voice the reader is kept guessing until the end as to whether Adam will elude Jonjo in their cat-and-mouse game. Weighing the strengths of Ordinary Thunderstorms we can declare it could be weightier, that it is full of untapped ambition and potential, with snapped-off strands which could have led off in more interesting directions but instead are left dangling. Boyd is not Buchan but nor does he try to be. Unlike many of his Scottish contemporaries he is also no purveyor of tartan noir. Which brings us back all the more tenaciously to our original problem: how to categorise him? How to categorize the novel? Does it even matter? It is clear the book suffers from the same identity crisis shared by its protagonist. Only Boyd will know if he has accomplished what he set out to achieve. Whatever, he deserves respect for attempting to do something new with London, and for creating a panoply of characters, low life and high society, all of whom in the main ring true enough to belong there.
When I picked up Restless, I expected the usual array of smart, twisted, unfortunate and hilarious characters that traditionally abound in William Boyd novels. I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw instead.Boyd, it seems, opted for a new genre in his last novel. Restless is a mystery that unfolds in a series of letters provided by an aging mother to a confused daughter. Ruth, a single mom and struggling PhD candidate at Oxford, is in a rut. Her inability to make decisions affecting her life and desire to be a good mother create an inescapable conflict and further plunge her to despair.Now, imagine for a second that you are 28 years old and your mother, a frail old British woman who lives in peace tending her garden at a countryside home, sits you down and says: “I used to be a spy, someone is trying to kill me on unfinished business, you will help me get that person.” That’s what happens to Ruth.And thus the reader is drawn into a historic journey beginning in the 1930s and ending in the late 1970s. Intertwined with Ruth’s thesis and her professors is the beginnings of her mother Sally Gilmartin’s career. And while the daughter struggles to find emotional satisfaction, the mother’s emotions are being abused. Whereas Ruth battles modern day evils attacking the individual, Sally is busy spreading misinformation in New York to draw the U.S. into World War II, being chased by Nazi spies and suspecting her own comrades in the fight against Hitler and communists.And of course there are the Boyd antics: Ruth’s son Jochen’s German father’s brother settles in her house announced; his anarchist girl follows; a student of hers falls in love with her and she fails to handle the situation delicately, and so on. In the meantime, the young Sally is hopping from France to England, Belgium, the U.S. and Canada.Boyd’s spy world makes for a read accurately captured in the title: restless. And although I missed the absurd histrionics of the writer in his latest work, a trace of wry humor lingers in the book and the piecemeal narrative tying past and future is, simply put, entertaining and gripping. As with all other Boyd novels I read, Restless left me thinking, really, is this the end, can’t I have some more, please?