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Why spy novels are still a great read?

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Espionage thrillers are still a growing genre despite the Cold War ending more than two decades ago. They have action, pace, heroic exploits by flawed characters, strong plots, the larger than life villain of the piece and the obligatory twist that you never see coming. However, the essential characteristic of a spy novel is that the main protagonist is a spy who leads a double life.

The better novels make excellent films, as Robert Ludums' Jason Bourne books can attest to. Lee Childs, John LeCarre and the father of them all, Ian Fleming describe worlds filled with intrigue, the bulldog spirit and the ethical loner willing to die in the service of his Country. It is usually a hero rather than heroine.

There is something evocative about a person who forgoes a personal life to ensure the rest of us can live ours in ignorant bliss. We leave the perils and enemies of our country to be defeated in clandestine wars whilst we shop at the Tesco express or play taxi to our kids.

For me, the appeal of spy fiction comes from us, the readers, wanting to be challenged to solve the mystery along with the main character. In spy fiction, the main characters always live exciting lives. They have no constraints of normality, like a 9 to 5 working day. They never get bogged down by mundane schedules. Everyone drinks cocktails or hard spirits, there is not a glass of Prosecco in sight. They live on fast food, if they eat at all and rarely need a bathroom other than to mop the blood up from their last fight.

The reality is we all love the excitement and the intrigue. Anything that arouses our curiosity and hints at the illicit and we are hooked. It is the pure escapism that we enjoy so much. When most of us live treadmill lives that lack even basic variety, we can live vicariously through our favourite characters.

We like to understand what makes people tick and we are fascinated by the human behaviour laid bare by the genre. If there is a mystery to solve, we want to get there before the author reveals it.

The great authors of the genre also pose ethical dilemmas for us to wrestle with. When is one life worth forfeiting to save a number of others and exactly how many lives is one life worth? Would you commit a treasonable act if the cause was just: world peace, the stop of a pandemic or the assassination of a despot?

The Cold War maybe over but by swapping the geographical locations from Russia to China or the Middle East, the spy novel is still alive and kicking. Combining the intrigue and complexity of the traditional spy plot with contemporary themes and skilfully realised locations brings us new stories for the 21st Century.

So fans of spy fiction like me can still rejoice. The spies are coming back in from the cold and there is still plenty of intrigue and double crossing tales to keep us guessing.


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