I Blame The Russians…

…and the Yanks and the Limeys and those Gott in Himmel Germans too!

When I first grew into adult books (as in proper novels rather than any other connotation you may be thinking of), many of the best stories were in the Spy genre. The works of Deighton and Le Carre stood out like beacons though there were others from less well known authors that also cut the mustard. How many times did I lie in that wet trench (in my warm bed) looking at the wire while I waited for a defector to come through? Then the politicians made peace! Peace from a war that never was…well was never consummated anyway!!! It killed cold war spy stories overnight 😦 Oh, I should also have blamed the demonstrators who brought down the Berlin Wall.

It seems like I know 50’s / 60’s Berlin very well. The descriptions from the tales of Deighton are so vivid that I feel I have met some of the characters personally and taken great care to not damage the china in their homes that were a crumbling expression of pre-war decadence and disappearing around them. There are times when I really miss a world that ironically I never knew. Such is the power of good writing! The death of the cold war spy story left a vacuum – what should authors seeking to examine intrigue and patronage in their novels write about?

It took a while but writers did discover new areas of intrigue to allow for new spy stories. The period of Elizabeth I’s reign and that of Henry VIII have recently proved to be fertile ground for authors seeking to create a spy mystery – suddenly the threat from Communists would be superceded by that of Catholics! Leading exponents, from my point of view, are Rory Clements, S.J.Parris and C.J.Sansom.

The ‘Elizabethan’ spy story differs from its cold war relative in a number of areas though the tension of uncertainty for the reader is much the same. Most Cold war scenarios start with an indication of a possible defection or the detection of treacherous activity requiring investigation by the hero. Deaths are generally avoided as these are bad for business, attracting public attention, and though the spies are usually armed they generally keep the Berretta inside their Trench Coat – they want to remain anonymous. Think back to the period and you know that much of what went on was shielded from the public despite the abilities of the press and tv available to tell stories at that time. Then you know how much information was available to those in intelligence! It was thus a time that authors could write about by creating much background atmosphere without making their grey foreground characters too black and white!

Medieval spy stories are very different – for starters they usually begin with a murder. If you think about it, that’s not so odd. Communications don’t travel at the speed of light in Elizabethan England and so the first intimation of enemy spies on your territory might well be a murder. Encrypted messages are the norm – well that’s not so different to the 50’s spies! But one of the biggest differences is how the scenes are set. The 50’s stories deal in shadowy figures unknown to everyone except those inside – perhaps the closest I’ve ever come to knowing who was in a spy story of the fifties was when I read Boris Starling’s Visibility and immediately recognised one of the peripheral characters as Rosalind Franklin – a young scientist at the centre of DNA research who would sadly die before her time – not as a part of the story but in the reality of ovarian cancer at the age of 37.

The medieval story is somewhat different in setting the scene – 50’s Europe is still in peoples memories and available to see in film and photographs. Most readers of Elizabethan fiction will have an image of timbered houses and possibly bad sewage but outside of that they are reliant on paintings of well to do people to get an image of the characters in a story. Maybe it is for this reason that writers setting stories in this period rely more heavily on well known people in history – the likes of Drake and Walsingham – to build the tale of their characters around. Walsingham is popular because he reputedly had lots of spies working for him – plenty of room for the inventive author! Both Cromwells are popular too 😉

So over the last few of weeks I have met two different servants of Walsingham investigating a threat against Drake and his fleet in Plymouth and in the same year! It’s also amazing that the same historical figure of John Doughty seeking to revenge his brother’s death at Drakes hand should feature in both tales. And I guess that this is the way that authenticity is built when you start writing about a period so far beyond living memory. The best way to capture the audience is to invoke those well known people of the day and well known plots against them – then you can create your spies around them to tell a tale. The difference will always fascinate me and I haven’t touched on future spy fiction at all!

This is just an observation from one who has enjoyed both versions of the genre and many others that sit somewhere between. May I commend the works of the authors mentioned above to you as classic writers 🙂



  1. I have not read any medieval thrillers Martin, but now you have piqued my interest!

    • They can be very entertaining Christine 🙂 One more I didn’t mention is Anthony Burgess who has written a wide range of novels set in different periods and locations. His book ‘A dead man in Deptford’ tells a tale around the life and death of Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe.

  2. I am going to make a note to follow up and introduce myself to the authors you’ve so highly recommended. I am really interested in the distinctions you’ve outlined, Martin. This was a welcome education!

    • Hi Debra, firstly apologies for not keeping up with you – must visit soon!

      I hope you enjoy my suggestions. They’re all authors writing flowing stories that draw you into the atmosphere whilst retaining the excitement of adventure 🙂 Try out a Deighton book too if you can, to see the difference.

  3. I was thinking of Christopher Marlowe all the way through your post. He’s a natural protagonist for literature, fiction and non-fiction alike, of which lots has been written. I didn’t know about the Burgess book — I’ve stayed away from Burgess ever since A Clockwork Orange. Violence of that kind scares me.

    • I’m pretty sure that A Clockwork Orange was on the CSE booklist when I was at school though I have never chosen to read it. A dead man in Deptford is certainly not in that style so I think you may feel safe to try it.

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