Books: Eight of the world’s favourite secret agents

Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Orczy

It is jarring to discover that Emmuska Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy, to give the Hungarian-born Baroness her full name, died in 1947—the novel by which she is remembered today, The Scarlet Pimpernel, seems a product of a far earlier century than the 20th. Sir Percy Blakeney was an early version of the swashbuckling spy intent on performing feats of derring-do, in this case rescuing French aristocrats from the terrors of La Guillotine. In an early foreshadowing of comic book heroes like Superman, the Pimpernel had the perfect cover—as Sir Percy, he is known to be an apathetic, cowardly aristocrat, and no one would ever expect him to be “that demned elusive Pimpernel”. Baroness Orczy wrote several sequels, from The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel to The Elusive Pimpernel, but none matched the success of the original. It must be admitted that those of us who were fascinated by the word “pimpernel” were somewhat disappointed to discover that it refers to a small herb with scarlet or white blossoms that close at the approach of rainy weather.

Hurree Babu, the Lama and Kim, created in Kim by Rudyard Kipling.
Also read: Peter Hopkirk’s classic The Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game, and George MacDonald’s Flashman novels, particularly Flashman in the Great Game and Flashman and the Mountain of Light.

“When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished,” Kipling wrote. “Not before.” In retrospect, Kipling’s achievements in Kim were astonishing. He created a young spy in Kimball O’Hara, who can pass for either Oriental or white man, sharing with many real-life spies a certain fluidity of identity, and had as his immediate superior and trainer a Bengali intelligence operative working for the British called Hurree Babu. Though Kim was set against the backdrop of the Great Game—the power struggle between the British and the Russians in the subcontinent—Kipling’s chief achievement was not to chart the intricacies of espionage but to make the phrase “the Great Game” an iconic one, and to accurately capture what the white man’s—or boy’s—burden was like in those days. In this early political thriller, Kim and the Babu plied their trade without the assistance of gadgets, guns or girls, relying instead on disguise, subterfuge, misdirection and games of memory—the trick of using a tray of objects to train the memory is still, in some circles, referred to as “Kim’s game”.

Harry Palmer, created by Len Deighton in (probably) The Ipcress File, (almost certainly) Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, (possibly not) Spy Story andTwinkle, Twinkle Little Spy.

”My name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever had been,” says the unnamed agent who’s the narrator of Len Deighton’s classic The Ipcress File. In the film versions of Deighton’s hard-boiled novels, where the author’s sympathy clearly lay with the footsoldiers of the espionage business, Harry Palmer was the name of the character played by Michael Caine. The Palmer stories scored in the level of technical detail and Deighton’s ability to keep the story moving, earning him fans such as P G Wodehouse. What the British loved about Harry Palmer, though, is that he wasn’t a toff who’d been to Eton or Oxford—he was a bespectacled,working class spy, and that is how he’s remembered to this day.

Maurice Castle in The Human Factor, created by Graham Greene
Similar authors: Somerset Maugham (Ashenden), Joseph Conrad (TheSecret Agent), Eric Ambler

Among writers of spy fiction, Graham Greene has the unique distinction of being a Kim Philby recruit—the notorious spy enlisted Greene a while before his own defection to the Soviet Union. It was, however, Greene’s younger sister, Elizabeth, who recruited the writer intoMI6. In later years, Greene’s unconcealed anti-Americanism—“I was a piece of grit in the state machinery,” he boasted once–meant that he was often spied on by US intelligence. US diplomats reported a 1983 meeting between Greene, Fidel Castro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “The trio sat up till three in the morning, presumably talking about Our Man in Havana.” The reference is to one of Greene’s most sardonically funny spy novels, where “our man in Havana” sets up as a spy as an easy way of earning a comfortable living.

Maurice Castle, the protagonist of The Human Factor, bore a striking resemblance to Kim Philby—he’s a double agent working in the British Secret Service. Greene wrote several novels around the world of espionage—often bleak studies of disillusionment and treachery, such as his bitterly funny Vietnam novel The Quiet American, or the tricky pitfalls of identity that drives Harry Lime in The Third Man. But The Human Factor was the most strongly concerned with the implications of secrecy, the moral fallout of leading a double life, while laying bare the workings of a secret service that now seems almost desperately antiquated. Still, it has a place alongside Somerset Maugham’s spy yarn, Ashenden, and offers a glimpse of a way of espionage, at once gentlemanly and ruthless, that has now died.

Faber, aka The Needle, created by Ken Follett in The Eye of the Needle
Also read: Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal and Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity set of novels

Many Follett fans would cite The Key to Rebecca as his best spy thriller, but for a certain generation of readers, the one we remembered was The Eye of the Needle.Like many authors in the field, Follett had a voracious appetite for WWII history, and read about the “fake army” that the Allies created in East Anglia in a successful attempt to persuade the Germans to leave the beaches of Normandy undefended. What if, Follett wondered, one German spy saw the “tanks” and “Spitfires” for the cardboard props they were, and had managed to report back to Germany? In The Eye of the Needle, what stops Die Nadel, also known as Heinrich Rudolph Hans von Muller-Guder or more simply as Henry Faber, is a woman called Lucy. The film caused a brief if intense moral dilemma among my women friends—would you sleep with an enemy spy who’s an expert at killing with a stiletto? The answer was simple: if it’s Donald Sutherland playing Die Nadel, well, heck, yes.

Commander James Bond,created by Ian Fleming.
Bond franchise continued by Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and others writing as “RobertMarkham”, also Charles Higson, creator of the Junior Bond series, often referred to as “Bond 003 ½

As a teenager, I didn’t want to be James Bond—wanting to be 007, with his dapper suits, fancy gadgets, endless supply of eventually inept villains and usually compliant Bond girls was, in any case, a fantasy reserved for boys, not girls. I didn’t want to be a Bond girl, either, though we gaped just as much as the men at Ursula Andress rising from the sea in that iconic bikini (Dr No) and secretly aspired to Grace Jones’ physique.

What I did want, desperately, was to drive one of Those Cars (all right, I also wanted to get under Sean Connery’s hood, but so did every other red-blooded woman in the world). The Aston Martin DBS from Goldfinger with the ejector seat for passengers you didn’t like and the really cool retractable tyre slasher; the BMW Z3 Roadster from Goldeneye, the Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me.

What made Bond such an icon? Not the plots of Ian Fleming’s spectacularly successful novels, where the goal of every second villain was the disappointingly vague “world domination” and where the 007 take on espionage was boyishly, cartoonishly simplistic. Perhaps it was the accessories—the henchmen, like Jaws and Oddjob, the cat-stroking, sinister men of evil, those sleek, delectable, occasionally deadly Bond girls, the cars, the guns, the nifty little gadgets that allowed every man in the world to stay true to his inner boy. Not always the actors who played him. Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan were the only two actors who seemed to slide as easily into Bond’s skin as the spy would into one of his well-tailored jackets. Fleming wanted the role to be played by David Niven, James Stewart or Richard Burton—perhaps one of them might have given Connery a run for his money in a fashion neither RogerMoore nor George Lazenby ever captured.)

But John Le Carre, the creator of a very different, if equally memorable, spy, nailed Fleming’s creation when he commented: “Bond, you see, is the ultimate prostitute. He replaces love with technique.”

There are many takers for the classic Bond book and film,from Goldfinger to OHMSS to Live and Let Die or From Russia With Love. But the most resonant of the Bond books is still the first one–Casino Royale, where Fleming offers us a cold, clear look at the real James Bond: “Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.” Raymond Chandler felt that Casino Royale was the strongest of the Bond books:”I have just re-read [it] and it seems to me that you have disimproved with each book.”

It’s in Casino Royale that Commander James Bond parts with his recipe for the perfect martini, though he skipped the phrase, “Shaken, not stirred.” To be served in “a deep champagne goblet”, the perfect dry martini would require: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?” Bond would drink rose wine, horrifying his acolytes, in Goldfinger and then again in Kingsley Amis’ lone Bond novel (Colonel Sun, written after Ian Fleming’s death),but the rest of us drank martinis, the 007 way. What other way was there that counted?

George Smiley, created by John Le Carre, appeared in eight novels, most notably the trilogy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

There couldn’t have been a greater contrast to 007 than the ”breathtakingly ordinary” George Smiley, the philosopher-king of spies. Through his eyes, we saw the Cold War as a perverse morality play, an exercise in multiple betrayals and false loyalties that constantly tested the fragile fabric of human nature. Smiley was an exceptionally ordinary spy: “I think I’m just a rather fat old man wedged in between the pudding and the port,” he said in his last major appearance (The Secret Pilgrim). He brought to the battlefield an intimate understanding of betrayal, courtesy the frequent alarums, excursions and exits of his beautiful and unfaithful wife, Lady Anne Sercombe, and a fierce, lonely, shockingly un-twentieth century sense of the importance of the human soul in a war that used people as counters. Not that this made him ineffectual: “Once in the war,” goes a classic Le Carre line, “he had been described by his superiors as possessing the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.”

Smiley’s nemesis was Karla, whom he meets first in a “hot Delhi jail”; unlike Bond and his villains, who play off each other, Karla and Smiley are yoked together in a terrible game that they have the misfortune to play very well indeed. Le Carre denied that his career in intelligence had helped him much in the creation of George Smiley: “I spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence…. Apart from spying, I have in my time sold bath towels, got divorced, washed elephants, run away from school, decimated a flock of Welsh sheep with a 25-pound shell because I was too stupid to understand the gunnery officer’s instructions, taught children ina special school.” After the Cold War, he turned his attention to corporate espionage, government doublespeak and other forms of the subject he knew so well—betrayal—in an acknowledgement that the Great Game hadn’t ended so much as shifted to other boards.”

Jack Ryan, created by Tom Clancy in The Hunt For Red October and several other spy techno-thrillers.

It’s said that Tom Clancy’s novels are used as training manuals for the CIA and several other intelligence services the world over, and he is probably responsible for dragging the spy novel out of the cold and into the specialized universe of the techno-thriller. CIA agent Dr. John Patrick Ryan, Lt. USMC (Ret.), appeared in early Clancy works but came into his own in the massive, fiendishly detailed Hunt for Red October , where he helped a divorced Soviet missile submarine captain defect. Jack Ryan became a huge favourite with readers, and has perhaps reached the highest rank of any secret agent, becoming first Vice President and then President of the United States. These days, Tom Clancy has morphed into a brand, retired Jack Ryan, introducing his children instead, with limited success, and writes his increasingly large compendiums with other production specialists in the world of spy content management. If that last sentence makes you nostalgic for the old Tom Clancy, you’re not alone—few of his recent works compare with the pathbreaking Jack Ryan technothrillers.

(Published in ‘The Man’ magazine, 2006)