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A maze of danger and deception in newly reissued spy novels
Questions of identity, uncertainty and deception drive the plots of these classic spy novels, recently reissued in new editions. Seattle Public Library librarian David Wright recommends espionage novels by Helen MacInnes, Len Deighton, John le Carré and Charles McCarry.
Special to The Seattle Times
Aren’t we all spies? Consider the covert identities we assume each day as we step into a world filled with deception and uncertainty, seeking something to believe in; someone we can trust. The best spy fiction reflects this, offering lessons to help us navigate our daily maze. Here’s a roundup of classic spy stories now available in new editions.
Unaccountably obscure after decades atop the best-seller lists, Helen MacInnes is finally back in print. Written with an old-fashioned idealism that many contemporary authors of historical espionage strive to recapture, her 1941 debut “Above Suspicion” (Titan, $9.95) epitomizes that mix of sudden danger and breathtaking scenery that made her the undisputed queen of espionage. Agreeing to tack a bit of spying onto their regular vacation on the continent, tweedy Brits Frances and Richard Myles find the political landscape of Europe writhing beneath their running feet, as the menacing tread of jackbooted Gestapo thugs closes in behind them. Lesson: Life is a journey, not a destination.
Readers new to Len Deighton’s early work are likely to wonder two things: what the hell is going on here, and why is it all so funny? In Deighton’s 1962 novel “The Ipcress File” (Sterling, $11.95), a working-class spy who may or may not be named Harry tumbles down the rabbit hole investigating defecting biochemists, neutron-bomb tests and mind control. “Harry” finds himself just as puzzled by departmental expense chits, arcane filing systems, contrived acronyms and where, in all of London, can be found a decent cup of coffee?
This jaunty juxtaposition of global and office politics, of cunning plots and fatuous policy, was the perfect foil for the superheroic hijinx of James Bond. “The Ipcress File” ushered in a new age of Cold War thrillers while it depicted a ridiculous administrative circus that anyone who has ever worked in a bureaucracy will find uncannily accurate. Lesson: Don’t take yourself too seriously, or anyone else for that matter.
John le Carré, author of “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” and the George Smiley trilogy, takes a characteristically bleak view of bureaucracy in one of his early novels, 1965’s “The Looking Glass War” (Penguin, $16), an antiheroic tragicomedy of petty interdepartmental squabbles. The director of an antiquated, vestigial military intelligence department, puffed up by the memory of glory days fighting the Nazis, sends an ill-equipped agent on a fool’s errand behind the Iron Curtain rather than involve his rivals in the newly ascendant Cold War secret service. The tradecraft may be dated, but the theme of idealistic workers sacrificed to the reckless schemes of prestige-hungry chief executives is timeless. Lesson: Trust, but verify.
Often called the American le Carré, Charles McCarry’s abiding fascination with the slippery nature of identity can be traced back to his Rashomon-like 1973 debut, “The Miernik Dossier” (Overlook, $24.95). Sifting through documentary evidence from a variety of rival agencies and individuals, we’re invited to fathom the murky depths of an obtuse Polish operative named Tadeusz Miernik. Is he a bumbling clown teetering on the brink of destruction, or a (truly) brilliant double agent? Might he be both? Pawn, patsy or puppet master, Miernik is an irresistibly enigmatic onion to peel. Lesson: First impressions are often wrong, as are second and third ones.
David Wright is a reader services librarian with the Seattle Public Library, and he loves spy fiction. Get a personalized reading list from David and his fellow librarians at Your Next Five Books www.spl.org/yournext5