They are loners, drink a lot of alcohol and are usually male: agents in spy novels. Are there any alternatives?

“The name’s Bond. James Bond”. No doubt those six words are among the most famous in film history and immediately bring to everyone’s mind images of the secret agent who flies around the world for Her Majesty’s Secret Service happily sipping vodka martinis – shaken, not stirred, of course. But only few know that the explosive stories about James Bond, the spy who ensured actors like Sean Connery and Roger Moore became immortals of the silver screen, are based on novels.

In 1953 Ian Fleming published his first spy novel, “Casino Royale”, which reflected not only London’s post-War society with its focus on consumerism and entertainment, but also relied on Fleming’s own experiences as a spy. In 1933 Fleming had worked in the Soviet Union as a Reuters correspondent and had supplied the British Foreign Office with information. Fleming then went on to work for British Naval Intelligence during World War II, and even wrote a report on the German economy for the Foreign Office prior to the country’s occupation. Although James Bond, who sips champagne as frequently as he enjoys the company of women, defines the genre of the spy fiction to this day, he was not its first representative.

Male spies are clearly the majority in spy fiction

So what exactly is a spy novel? Literary scholars have to this day been unable to agree on a generally accepted definition. Usually, the genre is pigeonholed under criminal literature and distinguished from detective novels. At times, a distinction is also made between thrillers (such as Fleming’s) and novels that focus more strongly on a realistic representation of the secret services. With a few exceptions, spies in literature are, moreover, men, another aspect where they part company with reality.

Hoagy Carmichael, Fleming’s view of James Bond, Image via

In the case of Joseph Conrad who, a long time before Fleming, wrote “The Secret Agent. A Simple Tale” in 1907, the man goes by the name of Mr. Verloc. In his official life he owns a shop in London, selling curiosities and erotica, but behind this cover works for an unknown country’s embassy, supplying it with information on anarchist circles. However, his paymasters are not satisfied: “You give yourself for an ‘agent provocateur.’ The proper business of an ‘agent provocateur’ is to provoke. As far as I can judge from your record kept here, you have done nothing to earn your money for the last three years,” states his embassy contact by way of accusation. He then commissions the slightly lethargic agent with a bomb attack on the Greenwich Observatory, which he is to carry out in the name of an anarchist and does so with no heed for the safety of his family.

The proper business of an ‘agent provocateur’ is to provoke. As far as I can judge from your record kept here, you have done nothing to earn your money for the last three years.

From Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent. A Simple Tale

Maurice Castle, the protagonist of Graham Greene’s “The Human Factor” (1978), takes far greater care of his wife and child. He is a colorless, conscientious man, who officially works for the Foreign Office in London but whose job there is to process news from Africa of relevance to the intelligence services. He wishes at all costs to avoid attracting attention, since Castle, as becomes apparent in the course of the novel, is the person MI6 is hunting because of leaked information to the Soviet Union, which had previously helped him to extract his later wife unharmed from South Africa. Castle, who has long since reached pensionable age, is tired of it all and regularly drowns his sorrows and fears in a tumbler of whisky to keep depression at bay. 

Greene was following in the footsteps of possibly the best-known author of spy novels: John le Carré, who had published “The Spy who Came in From the Cold” in 1963. The protagonist here is Alec Leamas, a British agent who offers to work as a double agent for the Stasi in order to upend his archenemy there. In the prior months, several of his contacts were murdered by the other side, which prompts him to lock down his emotions ever more strongly. 

John le Carré, The Spy who came in from the Cold, 1963, First Edition, Image via

“We have to live without sympathy. That’s impossible, of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness, but we aren’t like that really. I mean ... one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold... d’you see what I mean?” suggests ‘Control’, the spymaster in London when briefing Leamas on the mission ahead. Leamas drinks a lot, is long since divorced from his wife, and no longer has any contact with his children: a broken man who, out of frustration with his private inadequacies, thrives in the nerve-racking role of the spy.

A broken figure is completely absorbed in the role as a spy

This is also true of Karl Müller, the main figure in Jacques Berndorf’s spy novel “Ein guter Mann” (Engl. “A Good Man”, 2005). Müller, who works for the BND (German Intelligence Service), and is in charge of running the agents in the Middle East, is a highly unobtrusive man; he spontaneously has to fly to Damascus after his contact man there, Achmed, sent out a distress signal on an encrypted line. Even if trips abroad as an agent always involve dangers and demand precisely coordinated precautionary measures, Müller still prefers them to staying at home. His marriage has long since gone cold and his father is on his deathbed. His boss tells him he should clear up his private problems to make certain they do not impair his work for the service – there’s no place for feelings in espionage.

Jaques Berndorf, Ein guter Mann, 2005, Image via

Or they are reserved for women. To this day, female secret agents are rare in spy novels and where they do feature as protagonists, they sooner or later get caught up in a love story. In Ian McEwan’s “Sweet Tooth” (2012), the author has Serena, a young woman in the 1970s, recruited by MI5, where she initially has a desk job before being deployed on a major mission: She is supposed to don the cloak of a literary agent and woo a young author for a literary magazine (bankrolled by the MI5), which regularly prints texts by writers loyal to the government.

Here and there, McEwan resorts a bit too heavily to cliches: “Did I have doubts or moral qualms about the project? Not at that stage. I was pleased to have been chosen. I thought I could do the job well. I thought I might earn praise from the higher floors in the building – I was a girl who liked to be praised,” Serena narrates at one point shortly before falling in love with the writer she is supposed to ‘run’ and starting a relationship with him. The code name for the mission, “Sweet Tooth” also says it all, as it alludes to the female agent as candy who appeals to the male target’s sweet tooth to get information: a task that reduces the female agent to her attractiveness – and is also a product of literary fantasy.

Did I have doubts or moral qualms about the project? Not at that stage.

From Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth, 2012,
Erste Edition, Image via

Liz Carlyle, who is the protagonist in Stella Rimington’s novel “Deadline” (2005), certainly does not play the role of eye-lash-fluttering girl. Her job is to prevent an attack on a conference on peace in the Middle East to be held in Gleneagles, a possible attack in which Mossad is suspected of being involved. Carlyle is one of the steelier protagonists who has no intention of letting her male colleagues steal the show. However, Rimington (who in 1992 became the first female director of MI5) likewise paints Carlyle as a young and attractive woman who unhappily has fallen in love with her boss and specially wears new strap stilettos to a meeting with her CIA contact. And then there is Lauren Wilkinson, whose novel “American Spy” (2019) is a retrospective account by Black CIA agent Marie Mitchell. She highlights structural sexism and racism in the secret services, but again incorporates a love story.

Unlike spy fiction in the English-speaking world, with their long-standing tradition and which, in most cases, hinge on idiosyncratic and melancholic protagonists, the genre first took off in the German writing world a few decades ago. It is noticeable that a recurrent theme in German spy novels is how families get tangled up in spying, be it during Nazi Germany or with reference to the days of East and West Germany.

Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy, 2019, Image via

For example, Dirk Brauns in his “Die Unscheinbaren” (Engl. “The Inconspicuous”, 2019) tells the story of a boy who is forced to watch his parents being arrested by the Stasi because they spied for West Germany, a story based on his own experiences. This is also the case with Eugen Ruge, whose novel “Metropol” (2019) describes his grandmother’s life: In the 1930s she worked for the Komintern news agency in Moscow. And the same goes for Ulla Lenze’s “Der Empfänger” (Engl. “The Receiver”, 2019), in which the author draws on her grandfather’s role working for the German secret service in America during World War II.

Although the novels frequently share similar structures and figures, irrespective of whether they are American, British, or German, it still remains difficult to distinguish them sharply from literature in other genres. Jost Hindermann, an expert on spy fiction, states insightfully in his study of British spy novels: “A spy novel is a novel that revolves around spying.”

A spy novel is a novel that revolves around spying.

Jost Hinder­mann


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