Follett called “the first modern thriller,” began an enormous boom in the spy/invasion novel genre. And John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, featuring the stereotypically stiff-upper-lipped Richard Hannay, surely a blueprint for all the Jack Ryans to come, taps significantly into the British paranoia of invasion during the First World War, portraying the conflict as a clash between civilisation and barbarity.
But the past is another country. Besides, the genre had begun to stultify and grow formulaic. So it was in the late 1930s, with the world poised on the brink of total war, that Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy appeared, with these calm opening lines: “I arrived in St Gatien from Nice on Tuesday, the 14th of August. I was arrested at 11:45 am on Thursday, the 16th, by an agent de police and an inspector in plain clothes and taken to the Commissariat.” With these words, thinks the critic Stephen Metcalf, “Ambler did away, once and for all, with cloak-and-dagger melodrama in favour of the qualmish chill of realism.”
Ambler’s books rescued the genre from its heavy-handedness and sense of Western superiority and plunged it into the morally ambiguous waters that splash through the pages of perhaps the two greatest spy writers — and writer spies — of the modern world: Graham Greene (sometime MI6 agent, and supervisee and friend of the soon-to-be-infamous Kim Philby) and John le Carré (notable MI5 and MI6 agent who left the Service after his cover in Hamburg was blown by the now-infamous Kim Philby).
Greene and le Carré, writing at the height of the Cold War, tapped into the great vat of moral uncertainty which superseded the easier convictions of the fight against Nazism and exposed the treacheries of the ideologies on both sides. Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, about the weary and tragic Alec Leamas, a pawn in the Great Game between East and West, is a bitter indictment of Cold War ethics and morals, reflecting its author’s utter disenchantment with the business of spying. And Greene’s The Human Factor is a masterful exploration