The classic spy thriller is dead and buried. Alive and well all through the Cold War, once the Berlin Wall fell, the shovels came out and the spy thriller was given an indecent burial. There are a couple of reasons for this to have happened. Spy thrillers were premised on an identifiable rival enemy with cities, armies, and heavy-handed autocratic governments, which violated all rules of fair play. Then the game changed. Change the game; you change the players, the field, the referees, and the way your score goals.
The current enemies are scattered, living in mountain caves or London, Berlin, Rome suburbs – not the place for spies to blend in and rout the forces of evil. A new class of spy thriller can indeed rise from the ashes. Though I would predict the weight and influence of the new class of spy thrillers will draw fewer readers. And that is a pity because the spy is an archtype hero from the days of Conrad and he brought us a foreign world. Travel, in the past, was a luxury few could afford. With globalization, cheap airfares, and general leveling of all cities to one faces global city, the new world is less exotic than Conrad’s world. And the crutch of high-tech overwhelms the morality and skill of the spy. The spy, in the new, flat world, is another computer technician. One with a gun.
It is good to start at the beginning and ask why anyone bothers to read a novel? I suspect the answer has stayed relative constant over time. Readers buy books as another way to understand their changing worry, to confront their fears and anxieties, and to explore interior emotional, moral and intellectual worlds not otherwise available except through a book.
Raymond Chandler’s private eye novels were published during this period of spy thriller dominance. There were other writers such as Jim Thompson as well. In the post-spy thriller world the literature is both more insular and international. Spy novels always had a “foreign otherness” as the enemy whether the setting was in foreign culture or not. Looking at the best sellers most of the “foreign otherness” has been eliminated from novels that hit the bestseller list. John Grisham, Michael Connelly, Jim Patterson, etc.
Literature has always been about bringing truth to the surface; making truth unavoidable even when the truths are uncomfortable, politically incorrect or violates conventional wisdom. In John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold we witness the moral ambiguity of those engaged into the hand-to-hand ideological combat. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, we find the clash between youth idealism and the pragmatic realism of experience.
The battleground has shifted from spies and the world of espionage to crime and the world of people caught in the vice of crime and those responsible for rescuing crime victims. The guiding force is still a search for truth. There is an added element with globalization: readers become enthralled with how other cultures deal with crime, and how crime is woven into the social, economic and political web of foreign locations. Writers such as Fred Vargas, Arnaldur Indridason, Qiu Xiaolong, Henning Mankell, Donna Leon, and Hakan Nesser are reinventing crime literature by drawing readers into worlds different from their own, worlds where police, criminals, and citizens have attitudes, expectations and obstacles that are fresh, unusual and revealing. Rather than spies, the new world of literature is riding on the shoulders of those who explore the underbelly of the criminal world: at home and abroad.