Thursday Oct 02 2014
by Jack

The Cold War never officially ended. Unofficially, it probably was finally terminated around late 1991, when the Soviet Union blew itself up and dissolved into its component republics.  As we now know from events in the Crimea and Ukraine, that process is still playing itself out.  One of the admittedly minor consequences of the demise of the Cold War, according to several authorities, was the loss of the favourite setting for writers of spy and espionage fiction.  For years, the spy novel had concentrated on chronicling – mainly in Eastern Europe – an intricate chess game between East and West.  The leading authors were John LeCarré – who wrote nine novels featuring George Smiley and a standalone blockbuster, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Len Deighton – six Harry Palmers and nine Bernard Samsons – and Anthony Price – nineteen books between 1970 and 1989.  All these writers specialized in intricate plots involving moles, double agents, counter-intelligence, and disinformation.  Unstated but nonetheless the case, were two realities.  One was that both the United Kingdom and the United States had a good many people who provided the Soviet Union with information during and after World War II, and the British secret service was riddled with agents who were secretly working for the Russians.  The other was that Cold War espionage was a very unequal and one-way game.  The East had many key operatives in the West, while the West got its intelligence almost exclusively from defectors, of whom there were a good many, rather than from spies/agents behind the Iron Curtain.  The end of the Cold War’s purported effect on the spy novel was, of course, greatly exaggerated, for a variety of reasons. 

In the first place, there was no reason to set books exclusively in the present, particularly given the popularity of historical approaches.  In the second place, other venues in the world could readily serve as settings for international intrigue, and had the merit of being fresh and exciting.  Finally, in some ways the Cold War never quite finished.  If we look at some recent spy fiction, we can see all these factors at work.

A perfect example of the historical use of the Cold War can be found in Aly Monroe’s Washington Shadows (2009).  To my mind, Monroe is the most compelling new writer of spy stuff to appear over the last decade.  Set in the American capital in 1946, this book goes back to the early days of the Cold War, almost before the world knew that such a confrontation existed.  It is really about the disarray of the American espionage system at the end of World War II, following in the wake of the collapse of Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS.  This collapse, of course, was a prequel to the discovery of the success of Soviet intelligence-gathering at the close of the war.  Monroe gives us a good picture of the disarray, as seen through the eyes of a very attractive main character, who is less a spy than an intelligence officer.

A look at another whole world with limited ties to Europe is provided in the series of Inspector O novels written by James Church.  The first title is The Corpse in the Koryo (2001).  Church sets his books in North Korea, probably in the 1990s, in an environment in which nothing is at it seems.  O survives despite his cynicism about the system because his grandfather was a national hero and his brother is a high-ranking minister.  Negotiating his way through the plethora of security agencies and the difficulty of understanding the real issues, O muddles on manfully.

A recent entry into spy fiction is A Colder War by Charles Cumming (2014).  This one offers the modern Middle East as the background for all the double-dealing and intrigue.  Frankly, I don’t find the region very appealing, possibly because it is too much in the daily news in a way that bears little resemblance to the shenanigans chronicled by Cumming.  It is for me hard to imagine moles and undercover operators in the Muslim world of the jihad.   Cumming in his title and plot tries to suggest some sort of link of all this stuff to the earlier East-West confrontation, but I am not convinced.

Finally, we must remember that in some ways the Cold War never does die.  This point is brilliantly made by Mick Herron in his Dead Lions (2013).  The dead lions of the title turn out to be Russian moles who have been “put to sleep” at the end of the Cold War, but are to be resurrected a quarter-century later by a controller who is not taking his orders from the Kremlin.  To say more would be telling.

In any event, spy fiction remains alive and well, exploring a number of variations on the standard themes of disinformation and double-dealing.

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