Thursday, August 12, 2010

With Every Move He Makes, Another Chance He Takes*

One of the real appeals of crime fiction (or for that matter, of just about any genre) is the chance for escape from our daily lives. Of course it’s important that a story be believable and make sense, and that the characters ring true. At the same time, though, we also want books that take us out of our own realities. That may be one reason why spies and secret agents are such popular characters in crime fiction. The reality of a secret agent or spy’s life is probably quite often dull, depressing, even lonely. But the image we have of spies and agents is that they live an exciting, adventurous life. There’s really a certain cachet associated with the secret agent’s life. So it’s little wonder that so many people are fascinated by those characters.

Although Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories mostly deal with more personal mysteries, there’s more than one adventure in which Holmes gets mixed up with an agent. In His Last Bow (the final Sherlock Holmes adventure), for instance, it’s just before World War I. Van Bork is a German spy who’s been collecting vital British intelligence for the past four years. He’s about to leave England to return to Germany with his information; in fact, he’s already sent his family on ahead of him. Van Bork himself, though, is waiting for one more “business transaction.” Holmes and Watson are aware of Van Bork’s activities, and find an innovative way to catch Van Bork just before he’s able to escape England.

Agatha Christie also wrote more than one spy/secret agent adventure. In fact, two of her sleuths, Thomas “Tommy” and Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford take on several counter-espionage jobs that put them in contact with all sorts of spies and secret agents. The Beresfords’ first adventure, The Secret Adversary, tells the story of how they meet, form Young Adventurers, Ltd., and declare themselves willing to take on any adventure. Soon enough, they’re drawn into their first case of international espionage when Tuppence is hired by a Mr. Whittington. When she gives her name as Jane Finn, Whittington immediately withdraws his offer and instead, offers her fifty pounds not to tell anyone what she knows. The Beresfords are now sure that there’s more to Mr. Whittington – and to Jane Finn – than it seems, so they begin to investigate. As they’re asking questions, they meet Mr. Carter, with British Intelligence. He tells them that there was a real Jane Finn, who disappeared while she was aboard the Lusitania. With her apparently went a treaty that is now of crucial importance. Now, the Beresfords’ search for Jane Finn gets them involved with international espionage – and a deadly enemy, Mr. Brown. Tommy and Tuppence continue their involvement with spies in N or M?, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, and Postern of Fate.

Hercule Poirot, too, has his share of dealings with the world of secret agents and spies. For instance, in Cat Among the Pigeons, he works with Colonel Pikeway of British Intelligence as he solves the murder of Grace Springer, games mistress at the exclusive Meadowbank school for girls. It turns out that her death is connected with theft, international espionage and a revolution in the Middle East country of Ramat. And in The Clocks, Poirot works with Colin Lamb, a special agent for British Intelligence. Lamb is on the trail of a spy ring that he thinks is centered in the quiet town of Crowdean. He’s following a fellow agent’s clue when he comes upon a young woman who runs out of a house screaming that there’s a dead man in the living room. Lamb does his best to calm the woman and goes into the house to see for himself what’s going on. With that decision, he gets drawn into a murder investigation. Lamb takes the problem to his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot, and together, they find out who murdered the man and why. In the process of talking with the neighbors and finding out about what’s going on in the neighborhood, Lamb also solves his own spy mystery.

Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn sometimes gets involved in cases involving espionage, too. For instance, in Died in the Wool, Flossie Rubick, MP for a part of South Island, New Zealand, goes to her husband Arthur’s wool shed to practice a speech, and doesn’t return. She’s found three weeks later, dead inside a bale of hay. Alleyn is called in a year later when it’s suspected that her death might be related to an ongoing investigation of international espionage. When Alleyn arrives at Mount Moon, the sheep station where Flossie Rubick was murdered, he finds that the members of Flossie Rubick’s household are all hiding secrets that they didn’t really want her to discover. Among those secrets is a hidden life as an agent. As it turns out, Flossie Rubick had discovered this secret and paid for her discovery with her life.

Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax isn’t what you’d call your classic secret agent. She’s a New Jersey widow who doesn’t want to live out the rest of her life focusing only on her garden and local ladies’ meetings. With not much else to occupy her, she gets interested in an advertisement for agents that the CIA has placed. In The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, she applies for a job as an agent and, in a very funny case of mistaken identity, she’s hired. For her first mission, Mrs. Pollifax is sent to Mexico on what’s supposed to be a simple delivery. Instead, she’s caught in an international crossfire, so to speak, and ends up in an Albanian prison. She manages to escape, and uses her resourcefulness to finish her mission. Mrs. Pollifax’s other adventures take her all over the world and into all sorts of international “danger zones.”

DCI Alan Banks has his own encounter with espionage in Peter Robinson’s All the Colors of Darkness. DI Annie Cabot is called in when the body of Mark Hardcastle is found hanged in woods near Eastvale. At first it looks as though Hardcastle, who designed sets and costumes for the Eastvale Amateur Dramatic Society, an amateur theatrical troupe, has committed suicide. Then, the bludgeoned body of his lover, Laurence Silbert, is found in Silbert’s own home. Banks returns early from a holiday he’s taking in order to help with the investigation. As Banks begins to look into Silbert’s past, he finds out that Silbert was actually a secret agent and member of MI6, particularly appreciated because of his gift for languages. Now, Banks begins to believe that Silbert’s and Hardcastle’s deaths are not the murder/suicide case that everyone thinks they are. So Banks starts to investigate the complicated web of espionage and intrigue that led in the end to Silbert’s and Hardcastle’s deaths. Almost at the cost of his life, Banks finds out what happened to the two men and why.

Espionage also plays a role in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland. Patrick Davidson, the apothecary’s apprentice, is found poisoned to death in the classroom of undermaster Alexander Seaton. Seaton’s friend, Charles Thom, is arrested for the crime, as he was Davidson’s rival for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. Thom claims that he’s innocent, and begs Seaton to clear his name, which Seaton agrees to do. As he searches for the truth about Davidson’s death, Seaton and some of the town’s leaders discover some particularly detailed drawings of the local area among Davidson’s things. This discovery leads to the very real possibility that Davidson was a spy for the Spanish, who have every reason to want to invade Scotland and impose their rule – and Catholicism – on the area. Seaton follows this and a series of other leads, and eventually finds out the truth behind Davidson’s death.

You’ll notice that I haven’t even mentioned the many fine spy thrillers, from Jospeh Conrad, Robert Ludlum, Vince Flynn and lots of others. That’s mostly because there are just too many of them. Those stories, when they’re well-written, can be absorbing. For those who enjoy fast-paced thrillers, they can be truly exciting. Spies and secret agents don’t really lead the glamour-filled lives we imagine for them, and if you read the stories I mention here, you’ll notice that they don’t glorify the espionage life. Still, they can make intriguing characters and very exciting stories. What’s your view? If you like stories that feature espionage, which “secret agent” crime fiction novels have you enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Rivers' Secret Agent Man.


  1. Have you read Agatha Christie's Parker Pyne "mysteries"? Theres a short story I think is called "The Case Of The City Clerk" or something along those lines that deals with what you're writing about. You should read it:)

  2. Alexandra - Thanks for your reminder about Mr. Parker Pyne : ). I haven't read those stories in quite a long time, but you're right about The Case of the City Clerk It's time to pull that out again, as I haven't read it in to-o-o long!

  3. I write a series where one of the characters works in the code breaking unit of MI5 (a normally boring desk job) and she gets pulled in to a case and undercover work that puts both her and her family at risk. I love writing that sort of excitement.

  4. Clarissa - Oh, yes of course! You're absolutely right! Folks, do please check out The Sholes Key here. It's a corker of a secret-agent story : ).

  5. I read/listened to John le Carre's The Looking Glass War a few weeks ago and the way he makes the mundane seem so thrilling is brilliant. There is another series written by Manning Coles that features Tommy Hambledon, a British secret agent in WW1, who suffers from amnesia when washed up on the German coast. Years later he recovers his memory as to who he really is and spoilers. ;o)

  6. Norman - Oh, I agree completely about John Le Carre. He's quite skilled at making the everyday completely engrossing. I think that's one reason I like his work; one just can't stop turning pages, even if a character is simply buying a newspaper. I'd heard of the Coles series, but hadn't tried it yet. I'm going to have to do that, as it sounds terrific. What a premise!

  7. One book that comes to mind is DELIVER US FROM EVIL by David Baldacci. Shaw would be considered a secret agent thought I'm not sure what agencies he works for. Another intriguing post. This time after I pondered awhile, I remembered a book. :)

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - Thanks very much for the reminder of David Baldacci. He does, indeed, do some very good secret agent stuff, doesn't he? I love that contribution : ).

  9. Spies and agents are not my taste at all, but of course there is an exception: Mrs Pollifax. If all spies were like her, I can assure you I would read some more :D

  10. Dorte - Isn't Mrs. Pollifax a wonderful character?! I really enjoy her, too, and I can completely understand why your view of spies and secret agents in novels would be quite different if more of them were like her : ).