James Bond ruined the spy story

Harsh? Perhaps. But true, I feel. I watched an episode of Undercovers, a new 'spy' telly programme, the other day. It was awful. You had two leads too good looking to ignore talking their way into bank vaults (in five minutes) and Spanish society weddings (because, of course, that's not the sort of environment where everyone knows most other people and a pair of Americans won't stand out like sore thumbs), and culminated in a car exploding in Moscow. The police in Moscow aren't hot on things exploding, oh no, it's not as though they're on the alert for terrorists there or anything...

What does this have to do with things vintage? Well, I'm laying the blame at the feet of Ian Fleming, so the rot sets in in the 1950s. I love the Bond novels. They're generally much darker and more violent than many of the films. The films came later, and got lighter, especially once Sean Connery gave way to Roger Moore. Gadgets became more prominent, there were more girls, the locations became more exotic and the baddies more outrageous. Also in the 1960s you see more action-heavy novels from people like Len Deighton coming out, and these were made into films too starring people such as Michael Caine. On telly, you had Mission: Impossible and The Man from UNCLE.

With the Cold War at its peak, spying was as part of the age as terrorism is to ours - even if we don't experience it directly, it's there in the news, in dramas on telly and so on. Somehow over the year, especially since the Cold War ended and espionage featured in the news less, the suspense element has become less important, and sex, glamour and conspicuous explosions have become central. Most of the spy stories I really enjoy are from the 1960s or earlier, more subtle tales of detection and intrigue. The big exception for me are John le Carré's Smiley novels, stories about a middle-aged spy with an unfaithful wife, wearing shabby suits and relying on little more than files, a good memory and an innate gift for shadowy dealings. He doesn't blow things up. He doesn't even shoot. He is the antithesis of James Bond, the perfect spy. Sadly, James Bond's influence is all-pervading, and John le Carré's characters may be the last fictional spies who actually do any spying.


  1. Is there anything as tense in the Bond books as Peter Guillam stea... er, *borrowing* certain files from the Circus?

  2. Not really. I need to read through them again, but there's nothing that really compares to the slow burn of le Carré's novels. I think that's why I love his books, there's so much tension drawn out over such a long time. I wish modern spy fiction (print, film, TV) had more tension and less flash-bangery.


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