“The name is Bond, James Bond.” This iconic catchphrase come to us through the James Bond films, which, since the early 1960s, have been the gold standard for all espionage thrillers. Bond, ever the cool man of daring, is widely seen as a masculine idol: a manly man who always gets the girl while at the same time thwarting Great Britain’s enemies. He is essentially the pulp hero turned government agent, and as a result, he has become, like Sherlock Holmes before him, the unattainable apex of what a secret agent is supposed to be.
The truth is that spying, in the words of author and journalist Kevin D. Williamson, “is among the world’s most boring occupations.” Sure, real-life spies have been known to get themselves into dangerous situations on occasion, but like lawyers who spend most of their time out of the drama of the court room, spies spend more hours researching and acclimating themselves to all the ins and outs of their assigned nations or individuals rather than drinking or gambling in fancy casinos.
Well, isn’t it an old adage that the truth should never get in the way of a good story? The realities of espionage have never deterred fiction writers, even those who were writing spy thrillers at the very moment when modern espionage was being born. These authors, who wrote years before James Bond’s first appearance in 1953’s Casino Royale, not only created the spy fiction genre that we know today, but like their detective fiction counterparts, they essentially built from scratch the model of the gentleman agent: the dashing G man with a gun, a license to kill and an ability to defeat all adversaries while still getting the girl.
1. Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)
As the Edwardian era’s greatest champion of the British Empire, it makes sense that Kipling would write arguably the English language’s first true spy novel. Set in India not long after Britain’s success in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (the war in which Doctor Watson fought), Kim is a vivid portrayal of British Indian life amidst the intrigues of the so-called “Great Game,” which pitted British interests against those of Russia in Central Asia. With a colorful cast of characters, Kim excels not only because of Kipling’s incredible gift for adventure writing, but also as an exploration through the inner workings of British colonial rule in Asia.
2. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)
Although Childers would eventually turn Irish nationalist (and a radical one at that), he was still an ardent supporter of the British Empire when he sat down to write his one and only novel. Centered around two stereotypical Englishmen (Davies and Carruthers), The Riddle of the Sands is about a yachting trip in the Baltic Sea that quickly turns into a hunt for German submarine pens near the East Frisian Islands. Although Ian Fleming himself wrote a rather scathing review of the novel for The Spectator, Childers’s novel undoubtedly bridged the gap between invasion literature and detective fiction, thus leaving a lasting legacy ripe for imitation.
3. The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)
The Scottish Buchan lived a life as eventful as any fictional secret agent. An Oxford-trained scholar of classics, a British administrator in the South African colony, an editor of The Spectator magazine, a war correspondent for The Times and eventually Governor General of Canada, Buchan was also a well respected writer of adventure novels. His most popular novel, The 39 Steps, was widely consumed in the trenches of France, and before long the novel’s protagonist, the plucky Richard Hannay, became a fixture in many of Buchan’s subsequent thrillers.
4. Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham (1928)
Like the later Fleming, Maugham was a fiction writer with applicable past experiences. When World War I broke out in 1914, Maugham was a somewhat successful novelist, short story writer and travel writer. Although he was too old to enlist in the British Expeditionary Force, Maugham first served as an ambulance driver before working as a member of British Intelligence. In Ashenden, Maugham’s experiences are on full display in a series of short stories that involve the playwright-cum-spy Ashenden as he travels on assignments throughout Central Europe.
5. The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)
Also released as A Coffin for Dimitrios, Ambler’s fifth novel is often considered the greatest spy novel ever written. James Bond is a fan, and 007 can be seen reading this novel in From Russia, with Love. After finding the body of a Greek criminal in an Istanbul morgue, the English crime fiction writer Charles Latimer begins trying to piece together the pieces of the puzzle that is Dimitrios, a chameleon-like criminal and assassin who is guilty of everything from drug running to political terrorism. What Latimer ultimately finds is haunting and says much about the Europe that existed on the eve of World War II.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
KEEP READING: More on Books