The 21st Century Spy Novel

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Some readers may long for the (fictional) days of the Cold War—a nostalgia fueled by the brilliant movie Bridge of Spiesand the dark-soul novels of John LeCarré and Graham Greene. At least then, we knew who the enemies were. After the disintegration of the iron curtain that protected Soviet secrets, the spy novel became a bit of an anachronism, but now it’s surging back in popularity and creativity, 21st century style.

While the antagonists may have changed—or, with what’s going on in Russia these days, be cycling back again—clandestine operations persist among countries that are enemies. And, as Wikileaks has reminded us, spying even occurs among friends. “As a piece of news, this surely sits alongside the Pope’s status as a Catholic,” said Christopher J. Murphy for CNN last year. As a consequence, the espionage writer has a lot of conflicts to choose among.

Tthe techno-thriller subgenre, so well explored in the past by writers like Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal) and Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October), has rapidly expanded fictional possibilities. Every day, it seems, more sophisticated technologies emerge that can be used to create political instability in other countries or groups and damage their military and economic security.

A recent Library Journal article said, “One needs look no further than today’s headlines to see the global issues available to present-day storytellers that weren’t there even 20 years ago.” A good case in point was the 2015 near-future thriller, Ghost Fleet (by P.W. Singer and August Cole) about the vulnerability of a U.S. military dependent on communication technologies—like GPS and wireless—and compromised by the computer chips that make them possible.

Recent popular espionage thrillers illustrate how diverse the threats are: Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim, involves deadly biological warfare; cyberespionage in David Ignatius’s The Director; Close Call by Stella Rimington (first female director general of MI5) covers counterterrorism; and the agents in Todd Moss’s Minute Zero face political instability in Africa.

Books like these turn reading and watching the daily news into a quest for the story beneath the story.

UPDATE:  Great minds . . . Dawn Ius wrote about this same trend in The Big Thrill magazine, 1/31/16.

2 thoughts on “The 21st Century Spy Novel

  1. V- If you aren’t already familiar with them, you should read some of Joe Kanon’s novels. They’re fairly “old school” and set in various European cities during the 1940’s and 50’s. You’d also enjoy the fact that Joe was an editor, then President of Little Brown and quit that job in his 40’s to write novels.He’s been very successful.


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