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The Fate of the Spy Novel

The Cold War is a tough act to follow.

Michael Mandelbaum

The spy novel has its origins at the beginning of the last century. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, arguably the first and greatest of them, appeared in 1907, at a time when competition among the European powers was intense, leading ultimately to World War I. Spy stories take place in a particular setting: a world of dangerous international conflict. For that reason, the genre reached its zenith during the Cold War, which pitted two radically different and implacably hostile camps against each other in a life-and-death struggle that centered on Europe but spread around the world and lasted for four decades. While at least as much espionage is being conducted today as in 1907, a great deal of it takes place in cyberspace, where the skills of the novelist are less obviously relevant.

During the Cold War, David Cornwell, who adopted the pen name John le Carré, emerged as the master of the spy novel. He died last December, but even before his death, critics had anointed his successor: Mick Herron and his “Slough House” novels.

Like le Carré, Herron is English, studied at Oxford, and is a stylish writer whose literary strengths are vivid characters and compelling dialogue. Like le Carré’s early books, Herron’s novels concern Britain’s intelligence services, although they are different services: what le Carré called “the Circus” was meant to be MI6, which operates in foreign countries. Herron’s stories are set within its sister organization, MI5, which has responsibility for domestic dangers.

Like Le Carré’s three related books that center on the master spy George Smiley, the Slough House novels feature a cast of characters that continues, with occasional additions and deletions, through each of the seven novels that have thus far been published. Like the Smiley trilogy, the Slough House books have their own invented jargon: the rough equivalents of le Carré’s “lamplighters,” who engage in surveillance and wiretapping, are Herron’s “dogs.”

The authors also differ, however, in their approach to the spy novel, and those differences illustrate important changes in the genre over the six decades since le Carré first introduced Smiley. Those changes respond, first and foremost, to the transformation, or perhaps more accurately the demise, of the spy novel’s setting. Each author faced the problem of how to write such books in the absence of the most recent and literarily fertile version of their founding circumstance: the Cold War.

Le Carré solved the problem by finding other subjects—the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, and the conduct of multinational corporations—that he could use as the backdrop for his continuing preoccupation with the eternal and often problematic human sentiment of loyalty: where it comes from, who deserves it, and how people cope with the conflicts it inevitably raises.

Herron has taken a different approach. One of the minor themes of the Smiley novels is bureaucratic rivalry, specifically between MI6 and its American counterpart, the CIA, known in le Carré’s argot as “the cousins.” Herron makes such rivalry, within MI5 rather than with foreign intelligence services, the crux of his stories. Slough House is an annex of MI5 located at a remove from the main headquarters, Regent’s Park, in an unfashionable part of London and populated by agents who, through egregious mistakes or generally poor performance, have been deemed unsuitable for the organization. The annex is intended to be a kind of halfway house to the civilian world, with the boring, useless work that takes place there designed to encourage those exiled to it to leave the service entirely.

That is not, however, what happens. The plot of each of the seven books revolves around the efforts of denizens of Slough House, led by the head of the annex, a former field agent named Jackson Lamb, to baffle, evade, circumvent, and defeat Regent’s Park in the course of an operation in which both become involved. Although Putin’s Russia makes an appearance in Slough House, the most recent of the seven books, Herron’s principal subject is bureaucratic warfare between a downtrodden but spunky and resilient David and its parent body, a haughty but generally dysfunctional Goliath whose workings bear out the historian and poet Robert Conquest’s observation, which serves as the epigraph to Slough House, that “the simplest way to understand the behavior of an organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”


The world has changed in many ways in the nearly five decades since the Smiley trilogy was published, and Herron’s novels reflect some of those changes. The internet plays a prominent role in each of his seven books. Slough House has a resident technologist, Roddy Ho, a computer whiz who has apparently landed there because he is clueless about every aspect of life that involves human beings rather than machines.

Whereas female characters made only occasional appearances in le Carré’s accounts of the Circus—in the form of Smiley’s wife Ann, whose chief activity is making her husband the most famous literary cuckold since Clifford Chatterley, and Connie Sachs, the eccentric alcoholic with an encyclopedic familiarity with Soviet agents—women have leading roles in Herron’s books. Several members of the permanent cast of characters at Slough House are women, including the most sympathetic and competent of them. In addition, Slough House’s chief antagonist is Diana Taverner, the second-in-command at Regent’s Park, who devotes every bit of her considerable energy and guile to a campaign to succeed to the top spot, a goal she finally achieves in the sixth book of the series.

While le Carré’s and Herron’s protagonists both have ironically inappropriate last names—George Smiley seldom smiles, and of all the members of the animal kingdom Jackson Lamb least resembles his meek, innocent namesake—the two characters differ fundamentally from each other. Smiley is quiet, reserved, always neatly if inconspicuously dressed, with an intellectual bent and academic interests. Lamb has the vocabulary of an unusually foul-mouthed sailor, the appearance of an unmade bed, and the manner of the American insult comedian Don Rickles. Whereas Smiley is exquisitely polite in his dealings with others, Lamb’s social interactions usually provide the occasion for his trademark flatulence. He is the anti-Smiley. (Gary Oldman, who had the role of Smiley in a remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is to play Lamb in a television version of the Herron books—as clear a test of an actor’s range as can be imagined.)

The most important difference between the two novelists, finally, is that while in both cases their books are advertised, and thought of, as spy novels, they are in fact working in different genres. At the heart of the Smiley trilogy is a hero on a quest: an omnibus volume of the three books with him at their center was published under the title The Quest for Karla—Karla being the head of Soviet intelligence whom Smiley, like Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab with the great white whale Moby Dick, pursues and finally captures.

Herron, by contrast, has written black comedies. The outstanding feature of the Slough House books is that they are very funny. In tone they resemble not le Carré’s opus but rather the movies of the American filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, especially their own portrayal of the American intelligence services, Burn After Reading, with its wonderful comic performances by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand. To be sure, in form the Slough House novels are thrillers, usually with a terrorist conspiracy at their center, and are skillfully designed with twists, turns, and surprises. In this respect they resemble the splendid thrillers by the British former diplomat and cabinet minister George Walden. The quest to stop the terrorists in the Herron novels, however, is a version of what the great movie director Alfred Hitchcock called “the MacGuffin”—the aspect of the film that keeps the plot going but turns out to have little or no intrinsic importance.

Terrorism serves as the pretext for the brilliantly mordant humor that represents Herron’s great achievement. His Slough House novels are tales of bureaucratic warfare, and in that way illustrate the fate of the spy novel. Its major themes of loyalty and betrayal, and of existential threats evoking individual heroism and sacrifice to keep them at bay, have receded into the background. A French general, observing a British cavalry assault in the Crimean War immortalized by the poet Alfred Tennyson in “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” said: “It is magnificent, but it is not war.” Something similar is evident in the works of Mick Herron. They are compelling to read but they are not really spy novels. In them, deprived of the setting that gave rise to it and in which it made sense, the spy novel has, in its classic form, more or less disappeared.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).

Image: "Freepik," https://www.flaticon.com/


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