This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
Though they end up in different places, I do think modernism and early spy fiction were born out of the same project. The seminal works of the early spy genre certainly were preoccupied with questions of where the individual ‘fit’ in the increasingly industrialised, overpopulated cities of the western world. There was so much social and political flux at the time; rather than merely a means of escaping the grim reality of the everyday, this type of fiction offered a means of both understanding and monitoring how society and the institutions that governed society operated and what directions they were moving.
One of the genre’s most recognisable early features is its focus on the reconciliation (and in some cases, re-establishment) of the place of the individual within a rapidly changing world, with the provision of reassurances that the institutions in place are justified and work towards their better interest.
The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) by G K Chesterton is one of those novels that constantly appears to be one thing, yet is always another — and as one of the very best, very early spy novels I would expect nothing else. I’ll only give a brief synopsis, and though it’s a bit of a spoiler, you’d easily be able to pick it up for the first time and enjoy it just as well.
At a small gathering of poets, we are introduced to the two characters that will shape the entire course of the novel. Gregory is a poet and an arnarchist. Syme is a poet and a policeman. Syme is commissioned by Scotland Yard to infiltrate and destroy the Central Council of Anarchists. The man from Scotland Yard explains that there is a difference between the naive anarchists, who merely think rules hinder freedom and thus ought to be broken, and the radicals, who actively seek to destroy the system.
‘[T]hey mean death,’ emphasises the constable. ‘When they say that mankind shall be free at last, they mean that mankind shall commit suicide. When they talk of a paradise without right or wrong, they mean the grave. They have but two objects, to destroy humanity and then themselves.’
Syme quickly secures a place on the central commity and is given a codename, Thursday; all of the council members are named after days of the week. Yet as Syme moves through the organisation, each ‘anarchist’ he uncovers is revealed to be a fellow police officer, put in place by Scotland Yard. This revelation is somewhat startling, as each of them had striven to uphold the façade as seamlessly as possible in order to avoid detection. Finally able to throw aside their disguises, they race to seek out and eliminate the elusive Sunday, leader of the council, only to discover that he embodies all that they seek to uphold. He is the very man from Scotland Yard who sent them in to investigate the Central Council of Anarchists from the start.
This revelation achieves a great number of things, but I like these two best. First, this discovery comes as both a frightening interruption in the belief in the symbolic order they (the police) think they are upholding, and a relief. In posing as the anarchist chief, the man behind Sunday forces them to question and to defend themselves. This at once both confirms the uprightness inherent within the symbolic order and emphasises the need to be constantly alert to those who threaten it in order to maintain it from harmful bodies.
Second, we find that the only true anarchist is Gregory, who takes Syme to that fateful council meeting, where he gained his entry into the Central Council of Anarchists. Gregory should have been made Thursday, but was superseded by Symes. Had Gregory managed to infiltrate the council of faux anarchists, his very presence would have lead to real anarchy. Yet, because he is the embodiment of Philosophical Anarchism, and able to argue beyond it, he is virtually unrecognisable by the people who claim to follow the same mandate. He is dismissed as fraudulent, as not being ‘anarchist enough’, at the very beginning of the adventure by the sub-committee of real, if ‘harmless’ anarchists.
These two results culminate in a feeling of there having been a narrow escape. The only true revolutionary is proven to be not merely ineffective in realising his aims, but an insignificant threat when faced with the might of the symbolic order. The superiority by the big Other, represented by Sunday, within the symbolic order, represented by Scotland Yard, is solidified, thus allowing Syme and his fellows to return to the safety of the established order, secure in the knowledge that it cannot be meaningfully disrupted.
This basic concept has had enormous repercussions on the genre that followed. The convoluted absurdity that no one is who they say they are yet to be wary of those who insist they are is a cornerstone of the genre. It is a springboard into social paranoia, xenophobia and intensified political, industrial and economic secrecy. Yet for many, particularly writers coming from the Cold War era, its acknowledgement of the extreme absurdity of basing a system of (inter)national security on assumptions and clandestinity demonstrates just how foolish the system and those who build it really are.