On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan, standing near the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, pointed a finger at the looming structure behind him and in a booming voice challenged his Russian counterpart with these stirring words, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this plot device!"
Sure, most of the world heard him say, "tear down this wall," but hundreds of spy novelists blanched on hearing this challenge, seeing their livelihood circling the swirling drain of perestroika. Peace between East and West? Evil, leather-coated Stasi agents dancing around the maypole, hand in hand with their democratic counterparts?
In 1989 the wall did indeed come down, and, at least for a while, our Russian adversaries became our Russian friends; casting them in the enemy role seemed dated and even churlish. So much so that the New York Times even dropped its spy classification from the bestseller list. Defense appropriations were scaled back, and for a few brief shining moments the government was operating with an economic surplus and politicians were seriously considering disbanding the CIA. After all, why do we need spies if there are no enemies to spy on?
But the thriller writer is a clever, inventive craftsman; soon enough, most of those laboring in the spy/political realm settled back at their desks and began outlining new stories. After a few years of uneasy détente, Vladimir Putin inexorably steered Russia back onto the road of despotism, making it fertile ground once again as an evil empire. Add to that the tragedy of 9/11 and the rise of international terrorism, and there are now more than enough evildoers to fuel the genre.
The spy story can claim ancient lineage, but what we recognize as the modern form appeared near-fledged in 1915 with John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. Somerset Maugham, a former intelligence agent, wrote Ashedon, or the British Agent, in 1928, a book that established many spy conventions that remain in place today. Eric Ambler, yet another Englishman, contributed The Mask of Demetrios and other important work in the 1930s. Graham Greene added post-WWII atmosphere in Vienna with The Third Man in 1950, and when you hit Ian Fleming's 1953 Casino Royale and the introduction of James Bond, the genre begins to flourish. Len Deighton and the mighty John le Carré came out with The Ipcress File in 1962 and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963, respectively, and the spy thriller was now firmly established in the reading public's consciousness. The true golden age of spy fiction followed with terrific work from Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, W.E.B. Griffith, and many others.
The spy thriller writer's first task is, quite often, to imagine an original situation where the fate of the entire world is at stake. He or she must make that situation believable, then create distinctive, memorable characters who have the strength, smarts, and derring-do to destroy the evildoers responsible and save the world. The writer can choose a historical, political, or geographical premise that's already been established in the genre, or come up with an original threat.
A look at recent and forthcoming books from those writers working the spy/political thriller field shows that there's no shortage of ideas. All of them solve the problems of plot and story in their own unique ways, creating a genre that is increasingly popular and grows with each publishing season.
Consider the Nazi menace as a setting for both the spy and political thriller. Once a considerable slice of the genre was devoted to these evildoers, but time took its toll as Nazis aged out as a possible threat and were reduced to cabals of not particularly believable doddering old men, all trying to put the Reich back together for one more stab at world domination. One way around this dead end was to make use of the time period as a historical setting. A surprising number of authors are offering new novels set in the period immediately before WWII.
One who has consistently worked this period is Philip Kerr, with his brilliant series of novels featuring German PI Bernie Gunther. The seventh in the series, Field Gray (Putnam, Apr.), begins in 1954 and tells the story of Bernie's war years as he is being interrogated by one spy agency after another. Kerr's use of the interrogation scenario neatly solves many structural problems and showcases Bernie's ability to tell his fascinating story.
Rebecca Cantrell has her own series set in pre-WWII-era Germany, featuring journalist/spy Hannah Vogel, who in A Game of Lies (Forge, July) is posing as a travel writer covering the 1936 Olympics. Vogel has been collecting German secrets from her lover, SS officer Lars Lang, and must get her information out of Germany before the Olympics end.
William Dietrich takes a break from his excellent Ethan Gage series to pen a stand-alone set in Germany, also shortly before WWII. Blood of the Reich (Harper, June) has Heinrich Himmler sending an expedition to Tibet in search of a mysterious energy source. Dietrich successfully uses the classic Nazi theme by updating it with present-day action and an emphasis on characterization. "In a crowded field, an author stands out with setting, style, and characterization as much as plot," Dietrich says.
In Jacqueline Winspear's A Lesson in Secrets (Harper, Mar.), the eighth entry in her interwar Maisie Dobbs series, her detective heroine enters the spy arena. Maisie goes underground, taking a teaching post at a British college that may have ties to the Nazi Party. Winspear says, about her working method, "I seem to gather a few ideas which form a ‘kindling' for the fire of a story, and then one day another little piece of the puzzle falls into place and the spark hits that kindling and away I go."
Shifting between post-9/11 New York and 1939 Europe in The Quest for Anna Klein (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June), Thomas Cook spins the tale of Thomas Danforth, who accompanies the mysterious Anna Klein to Europe, where she intends to organize Spanish Loyalists interned in France into an anti-Nazi fighting force. Anna is captured by the Gestapo and disappears. Danforth then spends years attempting to ferret out the truth about who Anna was and who she was working for.
A few centuries earlier, John Shakespeare, the playwright's older brother, serves Elizabeth I's spymaster, Sir Robert Cecil, in Rory Clements's Revenger: A Novel of Tudor Intrigue (Bantam, July).
A fair number of early espionage writers were either spies themselves or employed in some area of the spy trade, like Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and of course John le Carré. Debut author Matthew Dunn is a former MI6 operative who recruited and ran agents, participated in special operations, and acted in deep-cover roles throughout the world. In his Spycatcher (Morrow, Aug.), his MI6 agent, Will Cochrane, is on the trail of an Iranian terrorist mastermind who's directing a massive attack on the West.
Stella Rimington, the former director general of Britain's MI5, also has the advantages of personal experience (see p. 24). Her sixth Liz Carlyle thriller, Rip Tide (Bloomsbury, Sept.), goes to the headlines for her plot: a pirate attack off the coast of Somalia turns up a British-born Pakistani among the pirates. Of course, piracy is just the tip of the plot as Liz's investigation reveals international connections and a possible terrorist attack at home.
While Charles Cumming never actually entered the ranks of MI6, he was recruited to do so and that experience informed his first book, A Spy by Nature. His latest, The Trinity Six (St. Martin's, Mar.), tells the story of Edward Crane, who joined Maclean, Burgess, Blunt, Philby, and Cairncross as the hypothetical sixth member of the Cambridge spy ring.
In a lighter vein, a wine merchant and his Pimlico terrier get mixed up with Russian spies in present-day London in Alexander McCall Smith's The Dog Who Came In from the Cold (Pantheon, June), Smith's second Corduroy Mansions novel.
If you can't be an actual spy, perhaps the next best thing is to be a journalist who covers the world of international intrigue. Veteran journalist David Ignatius has written many excellent spy novels. His latest, Bloodmoney (Norton, June), features young CIA officer Sophie Marx, who must figure out who is killing the members of a new CIA unit in Pakistan (see Why I Write, p. 26).
Another journalist, Keith Thomson, who writes on intelligence for the Huffington Post, has one of the most original spies in the business. In Twice a Spy (Doubleday, Mar.), Drummond Clark, after a career as a CIA agent, has developed Alzheimer's, and with his son Charlie must defuse a nuclear incident. Drummond's usual state can best be described as confused, but when danger threatens, he rises to the occasion. "As I report on actual national security issues," says Clark, "it hasn't been as hard finding world-threatening plots as deciding which of them to use. More difficult to me has been writing a year or two ahead of head-spinningly, rapidly changing technology."
In the end, perhaps the writers most knowledgeable about the business, at least from the outside, are the ones who have been working in the genre for years. Most of them have built up valuable contacts in the field, men and women who are happy to advise, correct, and act as sounding boards when needed.
Brad Thor is a name synonymous with the spy/political thriller. His counterterrorism operative, Scot Harvath, returns in Full Black (Atria, July). Thor points to, among other sources for his ideas, a group of military and intelligence people he speaks with on a regular basis. "I decided to ask them what their greatest fear is," he says. "They told me, and I said, ‘That will make for the most terrifying book I've ever written.' And so Full Black was born."
The hardworking Eric Van Lustbader weighs in with two spring entries, Blood Trust (Forge, May) and The Bourne Dominion (Grand Central, July), which continue two extremely popular franchises. In Blood Trust, National Security Adviser Jack McClure uses his dyslexia to provide insights and connections. In the new Bourne book, the rogue secret agent goes head-to-head with his old friend, Gen. Boris Karpov; the fate of America hangs in the balance.
Jeffery Deaver, the author of 27 novels, was chosen to write the new James Bond, Carte Blanche (Simon & Schuster, June), certainly one of the most anticipated thrillers of the year. Deaver's Bond is set in the present and some of the action takes place in Dubai. Prepublication details of this embargoed title are sketchy, but 007 is said to have updated his auto-of-choice, now driving a Bentley Continental GT.
The political thriller is a novel of political struggle between several opposite groups. The spy novel is also a political thriller because the spies' overlords, their governments, are the ultimate parties in conflict. Dale Brown's A Time for Patriots (Morrow, May) is a good example of the political thriller. Armed citizens are rebelling against the American government and another citizen organization, the Civil Air Patrol, of which Dale is a member in real life, must train loyal Americans to hunt down these homegrown terrorists. Brown is another veteran thriller writer to whom ideas come easily. "The cool part is when I'm watching the news or reading up on some new military technology and the ‘what ifs' automatically start building and the story starts putting itself together."
Mideast Arab terrorism in the post-9/11 world continues to supply a significant portion of the evil in today's world, in thrillers as well as real life. In December 2010, Tom Clancy and Grant Blackwood's Dead or Alive (Putnam) gathered together what have become all the now-standard terrorist thriller tropes and put them in the service of Clancy's hero, Jack Ryan, former CIA agent and former U.S. president. The result is a familiar plot and characters, but when combined with the full weight of Clancy's technical and military resources, it becomes an 880-page encyclopedic novel that all other terrorist thriller writers will have to take into consideration if they intend to work that same piece of real estate. Jeffrey Stephens does so in Targets of Opportunity (Gallery, Aug.), in which regular series hero Jordan Sandor goes up against Arab-inspired terrorism. Stephens also involves the North Koreans in a major way, adding a new emphasis and making the book fresh and original.
And if Jack Ryan can't save us, perhaps Christopher Farnsworth's centuries-old superhero covert agent, Nathaniel Cade, can. Cade, a vampire, tackles an ancient evil that threatens the presidency and the United States in The President's Vampire (Putnam, Apr.).
Our last and perhaps most intriguing agent is clever, resourceful, beautiful, and smells really good. Maxine Kenneth's debut, Paris to Die For (Grand Central, July), tells the story of Jacqueline Bouvier's first CIA assignment in 1951 Paris, aiding in the defection of a high-ranking Russian. When things go wrong, as they invariably do in these stories, Jackie must think fast, using her high-level equestrian skills and her Chanel No. 5 atomizer to best her adversaries in time to keep a date with a handsome young congressman from Massachusetts.
Allen Appel writes thrillers and historical mysteries, and blogs under the name "The Thriller Guy."