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.