Of Spooks and Spy Thrillers

February 27, 1994

That the break-up of the Soviet empire did not put Aldrich Hazen Ames, the CIA counterintelligence officer accused of snooping for the Russians, out of a job came as no surprise to readers of the popular fiction works known as spy thrillers. The authors of espionage novels have been warning their readers for years that the duel of wits among spooks is virtually impervious ++ to changes in the immediate political outlook.

In recent years, a number of talented novelists have probed the post-Cold War world of secret agents, dead drops, cutouts and code words, from John Gardner's "Maestro," about a world-famous conductor and triple-agent, to Joseph Finder's "Moscow Club," about a CIA mole in the Kremlin. Author John Le Carre, whose "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" of 1963 established the espionage thriller as a legitimate literary genre, continues to develop the form in books like "The Night Manager," which sardonically mocks the complacent notion that Soviet communism's demise has left the West with little to worry about.

Armchair aficionados of espionage may be excused for regarding the Clinton administration's Claude Raines-like response to the Ames case -- "I'm shocked, shocked to discover people are spying on us!" -- with a jaded eye. Spying is as endemic to government as maintaining public order and collecting taxes. We spy on friend and foe, and they return the favor. The intelligence game may be a "wilderness of mirrors," as former CIA spymaster James Angleton once observed, but only the naive expect it to be supplanted by unconditional faith in the world's good intentions.

The spy novel as developed by authors like Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Mr. Le Carre and Tom Clancy was the stepchild of the Cold War's superpower rivalry. As an evolution of the traditional murder mystery and adventure story, it reflected the new geopolitical reality created by nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and the strategic doctrine of a "balance of terror." The fictive games of the espionage thriller were played for the highest stakes precisely because the consequences of politico-military failure were so unthinkable.

Though the Cold War has ended, the stakes haven't changed. The breakup of Soviet power has in many ways created an even more dangerous world, as the map of Europe reverts to its World War I-era fault lines -- a historically unstable configuration made more volatile by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Authors of spy thrillers needn't worry yet that history will pass them by. There's still plenty to write about.

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