This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I—which brings with it a host of arguments among academics, journalists, and historians over the lasting legacy of the "War to End All Wars." But what's inarguable is that World War I profoundly changed literature. It was during the conflict's buildup and aftermath that detective fiction was fused with alarmist invasion literature to create a genre that remains popular today: the classic British spy novel.
In the popular imagination, spy stories are often associated with fast cars, cool gadgets, and high-class liquors dressed up in fancy glasses; fictional heroes like Ian Fleming’s James Bond and the anonymous secret agent of Len Deighton’s many thrillers are always off to some far-flung corner of the globe to foil their adversaries. Sometimes, these novels’ antagonists are the evil counterparts to the charismatic spies they hunt, but more often than not, they have big, bad plans for the world. The Soviet Union predominates as the main source of trouble.
Authors like Fleming and John le Carré have become synonymous with this fast-paced genre, while Graham Greene waits in the wings as a more literary-minded third. All three of these top spy fiction writers were born in England (Greene in 1904, Fleming in 1908, and le Carré in 1931), all were members of the British intelligence community (Fleming and Greene during World War II and le Carré during peacetime), and all saw their greatest fame as novelists during the Cold War—a period in the British spy novel, which consistently pitted the daring, heroic agents of MI6, SAS, and SBS against foreign and domestic threats, captured the world’s attention, even while the once mighty British Empire was reduced to a second-tier power on the world stage.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, a feeling of dread was pervasive in British culture: The British army’s initially shoddy performance during the Second Boer War (which lasted from 1899 to 1902) invited a whole host of theories as to why the British fighting man had so much difficulty in subduing South African irregular troops. One of the more popular explanations was that too much industrialization and urbanization were sapping British virility. John Frederick Maurice, a former Army officer who became a writer specializing in military issues and one of the era’s great alarmists, wrote that somewhere around 60 percent of all men presenting themselves for national service were physically unfit for duty. On the one hand, this could be called compensation. On the other, it was proper and fitting that the postwar spy narrative belonged to the Brits. After all, its origins lay in England’s angst-ridden buildup to World War I: Without the mostly manufactured anxieties of the pre-World War I popular press in Great Britain, the post-World War II generation would have lacked the right language and genre for the proper expression of British decline.
Maurice’s declarations caught the attention of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration (who found his findings to be inflated) as well as the pamphleteer Elliott Mills, whose The Decline and Fall of the British Empire is excerpted in Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys, the seminal text of what would become the widely influential Scout Movement. Besides the government and the Scouts, writers—especially pulp and thriller authors—also picked up on the widespread fear of British political and cultural decline.
The first text to elaborate on a hypothetical British collapse was George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer. Published in 1871, Chesney’s novella deals with the successful invasion of Britain from a fictitious country that looks and acts a lot like the then-recently unified Germany. A former captain in the Royal Engineers, Chesney explicitly wrote it as an argument for increased military spending, especially in regards to technological innovation. It would go on to have a profound influence on both the spy and science fiction genres. (H.G. Wells’s popular War of the Worlds borrows a great deal from The Battle of Dorking.)
While he might have been the first, Chesney was far from the last British writer to use fiction as a platform for alarmist fantasies. The extremely popular turn-of-the-century author William Le Quex, who also lived an adventurous life as a diplomat and world traveler, followed in Chesney’s footsteps by writing two invasion novels of his own: The Great War in England in 1897, which singled out Russia and France as the two gravest dangers to British power, and The Invasion of 1910, which once again had a thinly veiled Germany as the culprit behind an invasion campaign that ultimately occupies half of London.
Originally serialized in the Daily Mail in 1906, The Invasion of 1910 is a succinct example of what Kestner has called “Germanophobia,” or the popularized expression of anti-German sentiment in British fiction. An early spy narrative, a large chunk of the shock in The Invasion of 1910 comes from Le Quex’s warning that
Germans who, having served in the army, had come over to England and obtained employment as waiters, clerks, bakers, hairdressers, and private servants, and being bound by their oath to the Fatherland, had served their country as spies.
Oddly shaped lapels or coat buttons identified these Teutonic spies to one another, and according to Le Quex, it was the duty of every patriotic British lion to be on the lookout for these telltale signifiers.
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?”