The genre of spy fiction—sometimes called political thriller or spy thriller or sometimes shortened simply to spy-fi—arose before World War I at about the same time that the first modern intelligence agencies were formed. The Dreyfus Affair contributed to public interest in the subject. For a whole decade, an affair involving the operations of spies and counter-spies held center stage in the politics of a major European country, and was widely and continually reported all over the world. The details of German Intelligence having an agent in the French Army's General Staff and getting through him important military secrets, and of French counter-intelligence riposting by getting a charwoman to go through the wastebaskets of the German Embassy in Paris, were the stuff of daily news - and natually inspired fictional tales involving similar themes.
Seldom has this literary field met with critical acclaim, although insightful, literate, and politically important works have been published in it. At the same time, it has enjoyed great popular success.
Readership waned only in the lull following the end of the Cold War (the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989). The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States reignited interest and have reversed that trend. Some pundits are referring to the current era as the Decade of the Spy and pointing to the renaissance in spy fiction and film as two of the indicators of this.
While Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is mainly remembered as a protagonist of detective fiction, several of the stories are actually early examples of the spy genre. In "The Naval Treaty", "The Second Stain" and "The Bruce-Partington Plans", Holmes protects vital British secrets from foreign spies, while in "His Last Bow" he is himself a double agent feeding false information to the Germans on the eve of World War I.
Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907) was a more serious look at espionage and its consequences, both for individuals and society. It includes a close study of a small group of revolutionaries and their terrorist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The result is failure and a series of personal tragedies.
The most widely read spy-fiction writer was William Le Queux, whose ordinary prose has since relegated his works to used-book stores, but who was Britain's highest-selling author during the pre–World War I years; the second greatest selling spy-fiction writer was E. Phillips Oppenheim. Together they wrote hundreds of spy novels, between 1900 and 1914, but the formulaic stories have been judged as of little literary merit.
During the First World War, the pre-eminent author was John Buchan, a skilled propagandist; his novels were well-written portrayals of the war as the conflict between civilization and barbarism. His best-known works are the Richard Hannay novels The Thirty-Nine Steps (the title of which, but not the plot, was used for an Alfred Hitchcock film), Greenmantle and other sequels; Buchan's novels are still in print.
The inter-war period's pulp spy fiction mostly concerned battling Bolsheviks.
In 1939, Glasgow-born author Helen MacInnes's first espionage novel, Above Suspicion, was published in Britain (1941 in the U.S.A.), beginning a 45-year, highly successful career in which critics praised her for her literate, fast-paced, intricately plotted suspense novels set against contemporary history. Above Suspicion was made into a popular movie. Some of her other famous titles include Assignment in Britanny (1942), Decision at Delphi (1961), and Ride a Pale Horse (1984).
In 1940, British writer Manning Coles brought out Drink to Yesterday, the first of his acclaimed Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon novels. It was a grim story set in World War I, while his next books, which occurred in Nazi Germany or in World War II England, had a lighter tone despite the graveness of the events depicted. After the war, Hambledon's books grew formulaic, and critical interest waned.
An early literary phenomenon of the Cold War was Ian Fleming's counter-intelligence agent, James Bond–007, who became and remains the most famous fictional spy. Yet despite Fleming's enormous commercial success, other authors quickly developed heroes with anti-Bond traits. Notable examples are John le Carré and Len Deighton, who modeled their novels on those 1930s authors who were dubious about the morality of espionage. For example, in contrast to Bond, Le Carré's George Smiley, is a middle-aged intelligence officer whose wife has had several public love affairs. Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal) and Ken Follett (Eye of the Needle) approached the subject journalistically, and were praised for their dramatic use of historic events. "Adam Hall", one of the pseudonyms of Trevor Dudley-Smith, created a popular series about British spy Quiller, beginning with The Berlin Memorandum (U.S. title: The Quiller Memorandum), which has a different tack; it is both literary and focused upon tradecraft. Also notable are the novels of Joseph Hone, with the hero Marlow, beginning with The Private Sector.
During this era, American authors for the first time rose to sufficient prominence to break British dominance of the genre. Edward S. Aarons published his "Assignment" series starting in 1955. In 1960 Donald Hamilton published Death of a Citizen and The Wrecking Crew, the debut novels in his long-running series featuring the grim counterspy/assassin Matt Helm. The books inspired a series of comic, popular movies starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm. Robert Ludlum's first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), sold modestly in hardcover, but was a bestseller in paperback, launching Ludlum's career. Generally considered the inventor of the modern spy thriller, Ludlum has been criticized, praised, and widely imitated. The Hunt for Red October (1984), the first novel of Tom Clancy, was a major publishing sensation and also made into a film. The Welsh writer Craig Thomas is generally credited with creating the techno-thriller genre with the publication of Firefox in 1977; however, it was Clancy who took this to new heights.
Outside USA and UK, Julian Semenov was one of the most influential spy fiction writers of the Socialist bloc. His novels covered a wide range of Soviet Russian intelligence history, from the Russian Civil war to espionage in World War II and during the Cold War. TV Series "Seventeen Moments of Spring" and "TASS is Authorised to Announce..." were filmed after his books.
The 1960s saw an abundance of spy films, many based on works of literature. They covered a wide range, from the fantastical James Bond superspy films to the grainy, monochrome realism of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (based on the Le Carré novel of that title), to the cool commercialism of The Quiller Memorandum (screenplay for the film first released in the UK as The Berlin Memorandum is by Harold Pinter, adapted from "Adam Hall"'s eponymous novel).
Spies also were depicted on television, including James Bond in 1954 in an episode of Climax! based on Fleming's Casino Royale. Several television series — including The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Danger Man, and I Spy — aired during the 1960s; spies were parodied in Get Smart. Then, in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, The Sandbaggers presented a gritty, bureaucratic view of espionage operations to television.
In the 1970s and 1980s a former CIA employee, Charles McCarry, wrote a half-dozen, highly regarded novels such as The Tears of Autumn that were notable for mastery of espionage tradecraft and their literary quality. Tom Clancy also joined the genre, beginning a series of novels starring CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Though the novels are usually described as technothrillers, they included various elements of spy fiction, particularly early novels The Hunt for Red October and The Cardinal of the Kremlin.
1980s television featured MacGyver and Airwolf, two shows that were also rooted in Cold War espionage but were reflective of the era's post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War era distrust of the government. Thus the heroes in both shows mostly worked independently (MacGyver for a non-profit think tank and Airwolf's Hawke with a pair of close friends), and the intelligence agencies featured (the DXS in MacGyver, the FIRM in Airwolf) could serve as antagonists as well as allies for the heroes.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the once-Communist East reeled, desperately in need of financial aid from the West as it struggled to adopt democracy. The Soviet Union was gone, and Russia was not easily believable as the arch enemy in contemporary spy tales. Adding to the problem, the very existence of the CIA was in question—the U.S. Congress seriously discussed disbanding it. Interest in espionage fiction plummeted. Deciding the game was over, The New York Times abandoned its long-running column that reviewed spy thrillers.
Still, publishers continued to bring out the new work of those authors who had been highly popular during the Cold War, hoping that most of their readership would remain loyal. That proved to be true. Besides the Cold War writers mentioned earlier, those who published successfully during this low point included Nelson DeMille, W.E.B. Griffin, and David Morrell.
At the same time, editors were naturally wary of gambling on brand-new authors. Only a handful of novelists ultimately were deemed to have written work strong or original enough to be published in hardcover. Among those in the United States were Joseph Finder, Moscow Club (1995), Gayle Lynds, Masquerade, (1996), and Daniel Silva, The Unlikely Spy (1996) and, in the United Kingdom, Charles Cumming, A Spy By Nature (2001), and Henry Porter, Remembrance Day (2000). They were rarities, whose best-selling espionage stories about the new post-Cold War world helped to keep the form alive.
Le Carre and Forsyth returned to the field with new books, as did Robert Littell and Charles McCarry. Editors actively sought out espionage novels and continue to do so. Today a host of new writers across Europe and the United States publish in the field. In the United States, the New York Times bestseller list is often dominated by thrillers.
Finally, in 2004, the first international organization for professional thriller authors was formed—International Thriller Writers—"ITW". ITW held the first international conference to celebrate thrillers—ThrillerFest—in June 2006. The next is scheduled for July 2007. Also the first spy theme park—Spyland—will be open in the Zaragoza province of Spain. Construction of this part of Gran Scala leisure complex is scheduled to start in late 2008, and developers hope the project will be complete in 2010.
Spy thrillers and similar works that are aimed at a younger demographic have emerged as well, introducing the world of espionage to audiences of an increasingly younger age. These range from farcial teenage spy comedies such as the film Agent Cody Banks to the fairly serious series of Alex Rider novels written by Anthony Horowitz and chick lit novels such as I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You. Ben Allsop, one of the youngest authors in England, also writes spy fiction, including titles such as "Sharp" and "The Perfect Kill." Most recently, the "CHERUB" series has joined the list of spy fiction entitling to a school type place where orphans are sent to and trained to infiltrate adult organisations written by Robert Muchamore.
Recently, there have been several successful TV espionage series. Some, such as La Femme Nikita (1997–2001), Alias (2001–2006), 24 (2001- ), and Spooks (in the UK; re-titled MI-5 in the USA and Canada; 2002- ), have cult followings of millions of fans worldwide in both first-runs and re-runs and have become perhaps even cultural icons.
But most notably, there have been a recent surge of independent and Hollywood-produced spy movies shown in movie theaters and distributed on DVD which have generated steady streams of both popular interest and financial profits for those involved in their production.
The most popular, and profitable, of these have been the Jason Bourne films and Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible films, as well as the recent James Bond revival in Casino Royale. But most interestingly, the once strictly-popcorn spy genre has begun to achieve a semblance of critical acclaim, with Steven Spielberg's Munich leading the pack, nominated for five Academy Awards and two Golden Globes in 2005. In addition, Syriana, featuring George Clooney and The Constant Gardener (based on Le Carre's 2001 novel of the same title), also garnered numerous awards including Best Supporting Actor for George Clooney, Best Supporting Actress for Rachel Weisz and a BAFTA for Ralph Fiennes.
Spy fiction has also taken off in a brand-new direction with the arrival of digital gaming. Players can become a spy and infiltrate enemy territory without being detected. The Metal Gear (most specifically the third installment Metal Gear Solid) series pioneered the concept of infiltration and secrecy in computer gaming (as opposed to the standard first-person shooter genre), followed by games like Syphon Filter and Splinter Cell. These games feature complex conspiracy/espionage storylines and cinematic presentation that rival most espionage-based motion pictures. Some games such as "No One Lives Forever" and its sequel "No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s way" combines the very serious story type mentioned above with much humor and over-the-top 1960s retro design. Evil Genius (game), set in the same age and design as the NOLF series gives the player an opportunity to become the evil villain and differs from other spy games as it is a real time strategy game.
At fan gatherings, writers' conferences, publishers' meetings, and in the Intelligence Community itself—analysts, spymasters, and covert operators read the genre for entertainment and to pick up ideas—memories of the field's near death after the Cold War are painfully fresh. But since terrorism and world unrest are not expected to end soon, the need for intelligence gathering, counterespionage, and counter-terrorism are not expected to end soon either.