Secret Agents in Fiction, by Lars Ole Sauerberg - 1984

Reference Books

Summary

In the same year as John Atkins' critical review of spy literature, Lars Ole Sauerberg, a lecturer in English literature at Odense University, took a more focused look at the structure and development of the spy novel genre by focusing on three of the giants - Ian Fleming, John Le Carré and Len Deighton - in a compare-and-contrast approach that seeks to find the common threads that mark them out as shaping the development of the novel in the second half of the twentieth century.

He demonstrates how Fleming's anachronistic patriotism after the war had to give way to the growing realisation of Britain's second-rank status in the Cold War, leading Fleming to turn to more fantasy enemy figures instead of the traditional Red fiend.

This realism in spy fiction is taken up by Deighton and, as Sauerberg shows, is demonstrated clearly in the working class spy character who would become Harry Palmer. The author believes the spy genre became a vehicle of traditional literary conventions and a framework which was well-suited for preserving the international tensions of the Cold War in an exciting and dramatic way.

Why it's interesting

It's a comprehensive analysis of the conventions of the genre. He looks at the relationship between the spy hero and his superiors, and the dramatic tensions created by this; he uses Deighton's spy characters to explore the issue of the problem of conscience for any spy, who in seeking to uphold the interests of his superiors is often forced into a moral grey world of violence and chicanery.

The differences between the three writers are well explored, and the writer does provide a fresh external perspective on their writings, and on how significantly the genre had changed in twenty years.

Sample text

'While the nameless hero of Deighton's stories retains a cool and detached attitude to the ethical problem of his occupation from The Ipcress File to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy, he shows a growing awareness of its existence. That professionalism means ethical callousness is obvious from The Ipcress File. Partly in the circumstance that the hero is forced to remain as ruthless as the other side if he wishes to remain alive, partly in his own ruthless - perhaps forcedly ruthless - comment on a mistake which costs the lives of a number of American agents: "Look, it was a mistake. There's nothing anyone could do. Just a mistake. What do they want me to do? Write to Jackie Kennedy and say I didn't mean it?"'

SecretAgents

Secret Agents in Fiction, UK first edition, 1984

Did you know

The author - like a number of other writers when they have written about Deighton's work - mistakenly concludes that Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy is a 'Harry Palmer' novel. It could be read that way, but it is not.