Spy Fiction: A Love Affair

Who’s Watching Who?

During my extended hiatus from blogging, one thing I didn’t stop doing was reading. I read a lot from about mid-February onwards (the reasons for doing so I laid out in the previous blog). While many of the books I’ve read in the last couple of years have been science fiction, fantasy, or other forms of dark fiction, one genre has been notably absent from my reading pile: spy fiction. Which is strange because when I was much younger, I recall visiting a local community fair and picking up a number of James Bond books at bargain prices. Some of them I read, others I didn’t. I think this is because Ian Fleming’s novels were not by and large faithfully adapted to the screen. (From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service being notable exceptions, maybe.)

When Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was adapted by the BBC in 1979, I bought the book to see if I could make sense of the complex narrative. I was 14 at the time, so I reckon John Le Carre was a little over my head at that time in my life. However, a few years later I did buy Smiley’s People, and that I read through with little difficulty. It’s amazing what a couple of years growth and maturity can do to a reader. Then, as I got into employment, one of my bosses got me into Robert Ludlum. I devoured his entire catalogue, paying particular attention of course to his Jason Bourne trilogy. These books, and ultimately the Matt Damon movies, remain firm favourites. It goes without saying that a new Bond movie is a special event in my life, but until recently, bar one notable example, I’ve not read nor featured spy fiction for this blog.

This is about to change for a variety of reasons; first and foremost among them is British author Mick Herron’s Slough House series. Herron is one of those writers that have been on my radar for some time. Practically every thriller writer going sees this series as one of the very best out there. The concept is deceptively simple: if an MI5 agent messes up in the field, or is deemed so incompetent that having them around HQ is a security risk, instead of sacking them, these agents are sent to Slough House, a dilapidated office block near Barbican Station, where they will spend the rest of their time in the Service pencil-pushing, taking on menial and meaningless tasks, until they decide its in their best interests to quit. They are overseen by Jackson Lamb, a repugnant former masterspy who reminds me of what could’ve happened to George Smiley if he let himself go and took up drinking, smoking, farting at will, and being generally unkind to his charges, his “joes”. Over the course of these magnificent novels, Lamb and his agents find themselves involved in matters of State security. They’re the fall guys if things go wrong. Lamb has made enemies of his contemporaries in the Service and the Establishment, and there’s nothing that would make them happy than to see him go away, perhaps permanently. But Lamb is always one step ahead and these books are a joy to read. But be warned, as with all spy fiction, not everyone makes it out alive. At the start of the series you will have your favourite characters, but by the end of the current book of series, Bad Actors, not all will be around to feature in the next book.

You will probably know that Apple TV has adapted the first book in the series, Slow Horses, and it’s streaming now, with season two on the way by the end of the year. Gary Oldman is perfectly cast as Jackson Lamb and you should really watch this show.

Away from the contemporary side of things, another series of books that really held my attention and doesn’t get the plaudits it deserves is David Young’s Karen Muller series, beginning with Stasi Child, published in 2016. Muller is an oberleutnant in East Berlin’s Major Crimes Unit. She is the first woman to lead such an elite division. The setting of the first book is 1975, a time in German history that is well covered in many fiction and non-fiction books. But apart from Smiley’s People, whose climax took place at one of the infamous bridge crossings between East and West Berlin, I realised I knew very little about the complexities of living withing a major European city divided by a wall and competing ideologies. Over the course of six gripping novels, David Young puts Muller and her close friends and family through the wringer; for while she investigated murders, she is closely monitored by East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, the Stasi. They are a nasty peace of work, natural successors to Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, and have no compunction against forcing members of family to spy on each other. Stalin ran a similar tactic during his time as Russia’s dictator. And who’s to say Putin isn’t adopting similar tactics today?

Young’s series is another I’d love to see adapted for the small screen. It has a resonance to what is going on around Europe and even the United States in these troubled times, and provides a historical clue to what could happen in far right ideologies gain more of a foothold than they already have. Spy fiction teaches us a lot about the human condition, and our inability to learn from past mistakes. It’s why I will continue to read it for the foreseeable future. In the right hands, these books can be very entertaining and hugely enlightening. Be forewarned.

In the last couple of months I have listend to a number of podcasts about spy fiction. Jeff Quest has one in particular that helped me restart my journey back into spy fiction. I recommend his website Spy Write, which features Barbican Station, a podcast about Mick Herron’s Slough House books. Shane Whaley runs Spybrary, an amazing podcast and Facebook group that is all things spy fiction and non-fiction. He and Jeff are great resources if you’re thinking about sticking your toe in the water. Shane in particular has introduced me to new authors that I plan to feature in upcoming articles and blogs.

What I’m reading now: The Gathering Storm, the first book in an epic trilogy set before and during the Second World War, written with fluency and great detail by Alan Jones. This trilogy is going to take me a while to finish, but the writing and characters are worth it. The Insider the second in Matthew Richardson’s Solomon Vine series, a thrilling read that lays bare the corruption in Britain’s Security Services and elite politics. I look forward to more from this suthor.

What’s Next: The Other Side of Trust, the debut novel from new author Neil Robinson. Shane Whaley passed this one on to me, so it’s got to be good. Damascus Station, another debut but this time the author, David McCloskey, has inside information: he’s a former CIA employee. What he did, he can’t tell you.

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