April 15, 2021

The golden age of the spy novel | Culture

The golden age of the spy novel | Culture

In a world of peace, concord and prosperity, the spies would have no work. However, London is a hotbed of agents and conspiracies, the scene of a war that has nothing cold, a reflection of a convulsed global reality of which fiction He has known how to make the most of it. To the survival of classics such as John Le Carré or Charles McCarry –alive and publishing first level novels– a new generation joins of writers like Daniel Silva, Ben Macintyre (author of historical investigations that are read as novels), Mike Herron or Charles Cumming. We speak with these last two, invited to BCNegra, to know how threats and instability have multiplied and how that is reflected in the fiction of spies, immersed in their special golden age.

"After the end of the Cold War the spies had no one to spy on and the writers of spy novels had nothing to write about. There was no longer an enemy, an antagonistic world. 9/11 changes everything and the existential threat becomes closer. The combination of Al Qaeda, ISIS and Putin has put the genre back on the map and has given it a much broader spectrum than in the Cold War, "explains Cumming, who has just published in Spain Plot in Istanbul (Salamander). But the new espionage is wilder. "The poisoning of Sergei Skrypal on English soil it was completely outside the rules of the Cold War. He was a retired spy and they would never have taken revenge on him like that. It was unthinkable. There were some conventions and Russia has broken them, "says Herron. "Yes, but I do not think Putin ordered it directly," says Cumming, who already The sixth man he portrayed the power of the Russian leader without daring to name him. "In the West he is portrayed as a bad James Bond: sophisticated, a fearsome criminal mind. But I do not think it's accurate. I think he's cynical, brilliant and ruthless but he's not as crazy as we painted him. " Is he winning the battle? "If the objective was to create chaos in the short term, it seems so," agree the two.

A much more lethal traitor

Kim Philby surrounded by journalists in his mother's apartment in 1955.
Kim Philby surrounded by journalists in his mother's apartment in 1955. Bettmann Archive

In the realm of broken loyalties, Kim Philby represented the figure of the traitor par excellence, seductive, impenetrable. That has also changed. "Philby had more glamor, but a single leak from Edward Snowden did much more damage than all the time Philby was in the service of the Soviets. It would have taken him 200 years to pass all that data. Many saw him as a hero, but he has been totally disappointing, "says Cumming, who has used the information made available to the public by the US agent to set his thrillers. The other key to the success of the genre, the two agree, is that it addresses essential concepts such as trust, friendship, betrayal or truth. Herron explains it this way: "Graham Greene always remembered that phrase of E. M. Foster that said that if they gave him the choice between betraying his country or a friend, he hoped to have the courage to betray his country. That sums up all the inner struggle of my spies, a microcosm that then explains broader realities. "

How does all this reflect current literature? Cumming (Ayr, Scotland, 1971) smiles when he denies that he has worked for MI6 – the British foreign secret service – as he has repeatedly insured and adds, again with a smile, that if he had, he would never tell us. His approach comes from very solid sources within British espionage and a premise, direct heir of the tradition founded by Le Carré: the story has to be plausible, not real. And in that framework, he says, you can create a lot because very few people know how that whole world really is. Herron (Newcastle, 1968) takes from the creator of Smiley his interest in the inner life of the spies, characters often anodyne, more real, more close to the ground, "worried about the mortgage and with whom to leave the children, incomplete figures , lonely, with unresolved personal lives, crushed in their routine by the bureaucracy, "he concludes.

Where does glamor come from, then? The life of the fictional spy has always been surrounded by myths, guilt, surely James Bond. "The image we all have is that of the movies, not that of Fleming's books. I would worry if people believed that spies work like Bond or that the CIA or MI6 are as corrupt as they are sometimes painted. You have to be careful with the clichés, but it is true that, for example, in MI6 there are many people who drink a lot, because of the stress and pressure of that life. It is also true that Smiley or 007 have greatly benefited British espionage in terms of advertising for the brand, "explains Cumming, again as if speaking from within the organization.

The Chinese threat

Herron is the author of a series of novels that has been published in Spain Slow horses (Salamandra) starring the sarcastic, alcoholic and at the same time implacable Jack Lamb, a tribute to Smiley. Cumming's novels also have terrorism as the central theme and male protagonist, but in both cases there are women in charge of the secret services. "In reality, there have already been women directing MI5, but never MI6, although I know that they have offered it to one and rejected it. In any case, this was unthinkable a decade ago. That glass ceiling has already been broken. And, in addition, we have always had very effective spies, partly because men never saw them as a danger, "explains Cumming.

Exploited, though not exhausted, terrorism and the Russian threat, a new field opens up to exploration: China. A global power, with an effective system of espionage that fiction has set aside, with few exceptions such as The Shanghai Factor, by Charles McCarry, considered one of the masterpieces of the genre. "It is a greater threat than Russia. Its expansion plan is more long-term, has more tentacles and better spread throughout the world. In addition, inside there is a bubble of discontent that can explode and destroy the system from within, something I do not think was desirable, "reflects Cumming, perhaps looking for a new scenario to carry their conspiracies.


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