Of Novels, Intelligence and Policymaking

In the Service of Empire: Imperialism and the British Spy Thriller 1901–1914

Dr. Christopher R. Moran and Dr. Robert Johnson

In the decade before the First World War, the British spy thriller was a cultural phenomenon drawing large and expectant readerships across all classes and catapulting its authors to prominence as spokesmen for then widely prevalent concerns about imperial strength, national power, and foreign espionage. Three hundred is a conservative estimate of the number of spy novels that went into print between 1901 and 1914. This article reflects upon some of the seminal publications from the period, including Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), the tale of a streetwise orphan who trains as a spy and becomes embroiled in the intelligence duel on India’s North-West Frontier; Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the story of two gentleman yachtsmen who, cruising in the North Sea, stumble upon a secret German plot to invade England; and William le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser (1909), a dire prophecy of German espionage in advance of an invasion.

In recent years, intelligence historians have become increasingly interested in spy fiction. A sure sign of this was a special issue of the journal, Intelligence and National Security, published in 2008, devoted entirely to “Spying in Film and Fiction.” Another indicator was the appearance in June 2009 of a supplemental edition of Studies in Intelligence in which practicing intelligence officers considered contemporary fiction in literature, film, and television.

Historiography on the subject has tended to hinge on the issue of realism or, put another way, the symbiosis between real spies and fictional spies. In keeping with the growing influence of “new literary historicism,” which seeks to demonstrate how both canonical literature and, perhaps even more so, “low” or “popular” works can be quarried for historical meaning, scholars like Allan Hepburn have scrutinized Kim and The Riddle to see whether they reconstitute the “intelligence cycle” with accuracy or even disclose tradecraft.

In The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage, Fred Hitz, a former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, suggested that there is a clear overlap between “real” intelligence, and the fiction of Kipling and Childers. In a recent article for the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, Adam Svendsen proposed that the works of many spy novelists offer a near perfect window onto intelligence processes. In a field notorious for its lack of declassified material, Svendsen continues, intelligence history would be greatly enriched if scholars invested a little more time thumbing through fictitious renderings of the sub rosa world. The fact that many authors were themselves veterans of intelligence is frequently highlighted to add credibility to this sort of approach.

We are not, however, of the opinion that the spy thriller is mimetic of real-life spying. While generally true-to-life when it comes to the “period details” of intelligence (disguises, sketch-books, etc.), spy novels are affected by commercial concerns such as the need for dramatic impact. As the best-selling spy writer Graham Greene concedes: “A novel based on life in Secret Service must necessarily contain a large element of fantasy.” As outsiders, moreover, how can we hope to distinguish, with any certainty, the authentic intrigue narratives from the apocryphal yarns dressed up as “real”? The words of Allen Dulles, former director of the CIA, seem apposite: “The operations of an intelligence service and the plots of most spy stories part company, never to meet again.”

Rather than appraising fin de siècle spy novels as documentation for the scholar of intelligence (and then immediately finding them wanting), we will consider the historical context within which they were produced and received. What interests us about these texts is that they reflected real geopolitical anxieties that existed at the time. Set against the backdrop of the “Great Game,” the protracted strategic conflict between Britain, France, and Tsarist Russia in Central Asia, Kim is dark meditation on Russian imperial expansion and intrigues toward India. Brewed within the atmosphere of national soul-searching at the end of the Boer War, The Riddle is a prophetic vision of the Great War, making graspable the growing capacity of Germany as an adversarial sea power. Spies of the Kaiser, meanwhile, ostensibly chronicled the discovery of foreign espionage networks at a time when minds were increasingly centered on the actual machinations of German intelligence. We contend in this article that early 20th century spy fiction was designed, above all else, to alert both the government and the people of England to the vulnerabilities of the British Empire.

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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this article are those of the author. Nothing in the article should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of an article’s factual statements and interpretations.

Posted: Jul 02, 2010 10:49 AM
Last Updated: Jul 02, 2010 10:49 AM