Posts Tagged ‘genre inauguration’

The Riddle of the Sands (1903) was pretty much an immediate sensation when it first came out and propelled its author, Erskine Childers, to fame. It’s widely considered the first true spy novel, though there’s a surprising degree of debate surrounding that claim. (You could argue that Caleb Williams (1794) by William Godwin should really take that crown, but it’s less about a spy than it is about the consequences of spying — two very different things. There are others, too, that could take the mantle, but we’ll look at those another day.) However, there are several interesting facets about Childers’s book that make it of particular appeal. Father of Mary Shelley he is not, but the novel did lead him to being executed for treason. The irony of this is almost excruciating, and entirely befits a spy novelist.

Childers was born in England and, though not entirely politically minded, he was so outraged by the injustices of the British occupation in Ireland that he ended up joining Sinn Fein and eventually rose to the position of secretary-general of the newly formed Irish Republic. Unfortunately, this very public position eventually led to his downfall. Winston Churchill, who apparently privately admitted the armament of Britain was largely due to the exposure of their potential defensive weaknesses in Riddle of the Sands, once claimed of Childers,

No man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth.

The short story is that he strongly opposed the final draft of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and effectively became blacklisted by both sides in his effort to find a better way forward (the long story is both a bit more boring and a lot more bloody). As a result, he went into hiding, having been accused of duplicity and ‘starting one war and trying to start another’, and was finally charged with gun-possession and executed by a firing squad.

Riddle of the Sands is one of those books I wasn’t really expecting to like. Despite the debt they owe, many of Childers’s literary descendants accuse Riddle of being a glorified yachting adventure novel with a thread of espionage loosely woven through the centre — hardly a commendation. Also, it was essentially a propaganda novel, playing off growing fears among the British that The Enemy was not only in their midst but due to slack national security could successfully invade at any moment. However, it’s actually really well written and has an oddly lyrical nature to the narration. In fact, I frequently find myself reading it in the same voice as I would Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.

The story follows the adventures of a civil servant named Carruthers who is invited on a sailing holiday in the Baltic to escape the routine world of the office and finds himself embroiled in a plot by the Germans to invade Britain. Carruthers and his companion, Davies, must now escape notice (and capture) and try not to fall for the ‘horrible nuisance’ of a heroine, all the while racing to warn the authorities and stop the invasion of their fair shores. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the era and provides a marvellous springboard into any discussion on the development of social paranoia.

I think what makes this novel particularly interesting to me is that it was written before there was a genre proper, so any generic ‘conventions’ we find are actually borrowed from adventure and detective fiction, and ‘masculine romances’. I think because of this, it seems rather removed from the conspiracy, clandestinity and slightly camp subterfuge experienced by the heroes and anti-heroes from later examples of the genre, such as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (le Carre, 1963) or The Berlin Memorandum (Hall, 1965). However, at the time, fledgling thrillers like this one offered a stark contrast to the adventure tales aimed largely at schoolboys, or the police procedural novels found in railway station bookshops. Early espionage novels dealt with the political world stage. They encompassed real fears of international instability and the consequences of the quickening pace of modernisation. (It should come as no surprise that the genre emerged amid burgeoning modernist concerns with alienation and social order, even if the spy genre and literary modernism ended up in different places.) Early spy fiction is deeply perturbed by the increasing impotence of the ordinary individual. In particular, these early novels attempt to resolve these issues by trying to reconcile with the potential for invasion or subversion by an unknown Other.

I won’t get too into it here, but this can really be seen at work in Riddle. The two heroes, Davies and Carruthers, are still bound by a social system in which privacy is practically held on a pedestal. (In this respect you could argue that this is why ‘respectable’ women couldn’t really be seen alone in public, because they were representatives of the home, that hallowed sphere of the private.) Carruthers is shocked by Davies’s conviction that Dollmann (the villain of the piece) is a German spy and almost immediately dismisses the possiblity on the grounds it is ungentlemanly. You can imagine his reaction when Davies deduces that they themselves must spy on Dollmann in order to confirm their suspicions about his activities.

Yet, it’s only when they can discover that Dollmann is in fact English (and thus himself breaking the rules of engagement) that their own spying becomes acceptable. In order for the heroes to expose the spy, they must themselves become spies; in order for Dollmann to be uncovered as the ‘enemy’, he must be found to be already a traitor. Thus, they rely heavily on the presence of a higher authority (what Lacan would term ‘a big Other’, i.e. here the abstract authority of social mores) for justification and reassurance in their cause, and they actively strive to uphold the tenets of that authority. As Carruthers eventually concedes,

the man is an Englishman, and if he’s in Germany he’s a traitor to us, and we as Englishmen have a right to expose him. If we can’t do it without spying we’ve a right to spy, at our own risk.

So, even when their faith in their ability to get out of their predicament begins to waver, they ultimately find security in the belief that the symbolic order is right. Despite Dollmann’s protests that he is in fact working for the English inside Germany as a double agent, they decide the only way to solve the situation is to take him back to England. There he will either prove right or be hanged as a traitor. However, just as they are entering the North Sea, Dollmann jumps overboard and lets the weight of his chains sink him to the bottom. His suicide serves to both confirm Davies and Carruthers’s assertions that he is up to no good and validate their belief in the symbolic order they are trying to uphold.

There seems to be a bit of renewed interest in Riddle of late, there was a review of it in the Guardian a couple of days ago and the BBC did a radio play of it last year. If Julie for Forgotten Classics does end up deciding to read it, I know I for one will be listening.


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This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

After reading Rogue Male, I simply had to pick The Thirty-nine Steps next. You can see so much of Buchan’s classic that there was just no way out of it.

The basic plotline of The Thirty-nine Steps (1914) is thus: Richard Hannay is taken into confidence by a man who has been hunting down evidence that proves supposedly friendly powers are decidedly un-. He has uncovered a plot that will effectively start a Europe-wide war, with devastating consequences for all sides. This plot is scheduled to unfold on 15 June. It is now 24 May. The man has been followed by agents of this unfriendly power, who not-much-later kill him in Hannay’s rooms. Hannay, fearing these agents him be after him and sure the police will believe him the murderer, flees London to Scotland where he must hide out for nearly three weeks before he can make any attempt to foil the coup. In the days that follow he is chased all over Britain, takes on various disguises, in captured and escapes, makes friends with someone who happens to be god-son of one of the high-ups in the Foreign Office, returns to the South to counterplot with the authorities (who no longer believe him a murderer) their foil.

The Thirty-nine Steps is perhaps the first truly successful work in the genre that simultaneously helps define it. Of course, the shape would shift and change several times over the course of the next 50 years, but it boasts virtually all the features that we later come to expect: a vague conspiracy that could spell the end for civilisation as we know it, cunning agents from foreign powers, incredulous persons in positions of authority, a counter conspiracy to deactivate the initial plot. But in particular, the position of the hero himself becomes defined. Hannay virtually contorts himself through the various functions the hero performs simultaneously: the hero as receiver of information, the hero as hunted from the enemy, the hero as hunted from his own society, the hero as necessarily something other from mainstream society, the hero as possessing unique depths of courage/intelligence.

With The Thirty-nine Steps, Buchan established another aspect of the hero which took well over 40 years to shake. Richard Hannay is an amateur. He is an otherwise insignificant and ordinary person who stumbles upon information that something huge in international politics is about to happen. He is forced to participate by virtue of his knowledge, to become the defender of order (rather than the restorer, as in other types of thrillers/adventure narratives). His ability to rise to the occasion is vital to the security of everything he holds to be true. However, in being forced into action, rather than initiating it, he must chase the course of the action as it unfolds. This ultimately means that we see him engage in something like Zeno’s paradox in which he must race to achieve his aim, the object always in sight, yet constantly in fear that he’ll never quite make it.

However, perhaps even more importantly than the hunted-male plotline, Buchan establishes precisely what makes the villain so dangerous: just as the hero is expelled from ‘normal’ society, the villain is virtually welcomed, so seamless is his disguise. A good spy villain is evil incarnate; a great spy villain appears to be a saint. It is only by forcing the villain to expose himself that he can be caught, yet exposure comes in the form of a gesture, the twitch of an eyelid, the slight tilt of the head. Nothing that the hero pinpoint if asked, but enough that he knows without a doubt that the person before him is not who they say they are.

This is perhaps Buchan’s lasting legacy, as virtually the most grotesque of all villains hereafter are those appear to be little more than your neighbour.

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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 Thirty-nine Steps, The Secret Agent and Riddle of the Sands are all excellent examples of this, but today’s book is perhaps the best example of all.

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.

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