The Special Branch, UK First Edition paperback, 1981

The Special Branch, by LeRoy Panek - 1981


This is an idiosyncratic little book, but is actually a very informative overview of the books and authors which have defined British spy fiction. This narrative charts the unrivaled popularity of the spy novel genre, and notes that despite this popularity, the genre has not yet been subject to criticism and review by the academic community to which more 'serious' novels are readily submitted.

The author chooses seventeen novelists which he believes represent the British spy genre. For each he undertakes basic literary analysis and criticism, placing each novelist and their books in their historical perspective and then analysing the content and form of their output. Sixteen pages of the book are devoted to an anlysis of Len Deighton's books; he describes the author as 'a writer devoted to giving his readers a realistic peep through the veil into the hidden world of spying and spies.'

Other authors critiqued in the book include The 39 Steps author John Buchan, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Peter Cheyney, Manning Coles, John Le Carré and, naturally, Ian Fleming. The author is rather dismissive of the latter, attributing his success as much to the films as the quality of his writing: 'Ian Fleming [was] a minor writer who, himself, did little to advance the form. Fleming possessed only meager talents as a maker of plots.'

Why it's interesting

It appears to be self-published or at the very least published in a very small quantity, so it has curiousity value. The author taught English at a small college in Maryland and his academic background is in literary criticism and English literature, and the content and style of the book reflects this, with his emphasis on identifying the linguistic and stylistic trends and evolution within the genre across the ninety years covered. He is reasonably complimentary about Deighton's writing, identifying him as advancing the genre in the sixties with his first four novels and representative of the 'Golden Age' of the spy novel.

Sample text

'He [Deighton] deals with serious, contemporary issues within the tested conventions of the detective novel and the spy story. He has interest in narrative craft, beyond simply repeating elements of the adventure story. His principal character is more than a stooge, and he grows to reflect the writer's own development. While Deighton still remains a spy novelist instead of simply a novelist, he brings a good deal of repute to the form.'.

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