This call to surveillance was borrowed from detective fiction, which, along with invasion literature, is the other parent of spy fiction. Before and during World War I, the greatest and most influential detective fiction came from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and after returning in 1903’s “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Sherlock Holmes quickly took on the mantle of Great Britain’s greatest spy.
In tales like 1912’s “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” and 1917’s “His Last Bow,” Holmes and Dr. Watson are called upon to solve cases of international consequence. In the former story, the blueprints to a revolutionary new submarine design have been stolen from the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. In the latter, Holmes goes undercover as an Irish-American radical in order to stop the German spy Von Bork from returning to Berlin with intelligence documents he gathered while living in disguise in Great Britain on the eve of World War I. “His Last Bow,” which proved to be Holmes’s last case before retiring to the Sussex Downs in order to tend to and write about bees, is the most straightforward spy story in the entire canon, and in many ways it sets the template for the later spy narratives of the 1950s.
It is “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” however, that holds the key to understanding the larger elements at play during the inception of spy fiction. “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” was written during a time when the nascent German Navy was trying to match the size, scope, and power of Britain’s Royal Navy. Conversely, while the German Navy was arming at an impressive rate, Admiral John “Jackie” Fisher was waging a one-man war for a much-needed series of naval reforms. Fisher publicly highlighted the need for bigger and better-equipped British ships. Before long, Fisher’s brainchild—the HMS Dreadnought, the first of what came to be popularly known as a “dreadnought” battleship—was on the high seas. In order to counteract these battleships, the Germans focused their energies on building U-boats, the highly effective submarines that became the scourge of the Atlantic during the Great War. This naval arms race between the two greatest sea powers in Europe formed the primary background for Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, often called “the first modern spy novel.”
The Riddle of the Sands deals with two men: Carruthers, a bored white-collar worker from the Foreign Office, and Davies, the captain of the sailing boat Dulcibella and an ardent believer in British naval supremacy. At first, Carruthers believes that his holiday with Davies in the Baltic Sea is just that—a holiday. As the novel progresses, though, Carruthers comes to learn that Davies is sailing near the East Frisian Islands because he suspects that the German Navy is building submarine pens in preparation for a planned invasion of the British mainland. From here, The Riddle of the Sands turns from a pseudo-comedy about two men in a boat into an international intrigue full of political agitation and nationalistic fervor.
While The Guardian has called The Riddle of the Sands an “exceptional novel” that was “so prescient in its identification of the British coast’s defensive weaknesses that it influenced the siting of new naval bases,” the truth is that Childers’s book is mostly a collection of pro-navy speeches by Davies and a meticulous description of the East Frisian Islands. The Riddle of the Sands is hardly as exhilarating as Moonraker or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but the novel does deftly outline the era’s paranoia.
Eleven years after the publication of The Riddle of the Sands, World War I would engulf the entire continent of Europe (barring Scandinavia), and its impact could be felt as far away as East Asia. World War I not only turned spy fiction into a distinct genre (instead of just internationally-minded detective fiction), but it also helped to modernize the world’s intelligence agencies.
It’s no wonder, then, that after the war (and especially after World War II), the British spy transformed from a gentleman agent (a sort of amateur spy akin to Doyle’s “consulting detective”) into a daring professional. The boyish adventurer Carruthers and John Buchan’s everyman tough guy Richard Hannay (of The Thirty-Nine Steps fame) are pushed aside in favor of the amoral bureaucrats of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the pulp cynicism of Alistair MacLean’s bestsellers.
Even more pronounced, though, is the effect that World War I had on the attitudes of spy-fiction protagonists. While Childers’s arch-patriot Davies is fond of boasting that if someone is with Germany, then “he’s a traitor to us, and we as Englishmen have a right to expose him,” Greene’s Our Man in Havana effectively shoots down patriotism and thus condemns the nationalism that led to the Great War: “I don't care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations ... I don't think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren't there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?”