A month or so ago, I came across a piece in one of the national UK newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, detailing the ‘twenty greatest spy novels of all time’.
The books dated from Rudyard Kipling’s KIM from 1901 and Eskine Childers’ RIDDLE OF THE SANDS (1903) up to SLOW HORSES by Mick Herron, published in 2010.
|Monument to Yulian Semyonov in Yalta|
In between are the likes of Joseph Conrad, Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Graham Green, John Le Carré, Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton, among others. There’s the odd more unusual choice, such as Russian author Yulian Semyonov’s SEVENTEEN MOMENTS OF SPRING from 1969, apparently written at the urging of the chief of the KGB as a propaganda exercise that became greater than the sum of its parts. Fascinating to see the Cold War from the other side of the curtain.
But, only one female author’s work makes the cut – Helen MacInnes’ ASSIGNMENT IN BRITTANY from 1942. Interesting that in the short paragraph describing each entry on this list, more lineage is given to Ms MacInnes’ husband, (an Oxford classicist and MI6 agent) than to Ms MacInnes’ own background.
|Helen MacInnes and her 1968 novel, THE SALZBURG CONNECTION|
Is it truly the case that women don’t, won’t, or can’t write in this genre? Or that the quality of what they do is not up to the standard of the men? I do hope not. But, if not, why isn’t their work more highly regarded?
Some of the first espionage thrillers I remember reading were those by Evelyn Anthony. She started writing mainly historical novels in 1949, but later switched to spy thrillers, including those featuring the female head of British Intelligence, Davina Graham.
More latterly, Gayle Lynds has enjoyed enormous success in the espionage genre, after her first novel, MASQUERADE, was apparently accepted then rejected by the female president of a New York publishing house as it “couldn’t possibly have been written by a woman”.
Libby Fischer Hellmann writes in the crime thriller field, but has branched out in more recent years with standalones such as THE INCIDENTAL SPY, set during the early years of the Manhattan Project.
And when the Robert Ludlum estate were looking for a writer to continue his work, the job went to Jamie Freveletti.
I don’t claim to be enormously widely read in this genre, but surely that can’t be it? Can it?
Any suggestions welcome!
And another point I noted from the ‘twenty greatest’ list – only one book featured a female protagonist. Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise is the only woman given centre stage, with others relegated to the usual love interest/damsel in distress/femme fatale role. Indeed, in John Buchan’s original novel, THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, the character of Pamela/Victoria/Miss Fisher (depending on which of the movie adaptations you’ve watched) is missing altogether.
|Peter O'Donnell's MODESTY BLAISE.|
I can only hope the novels are better than the dire 1966 movie of the same name ...
Reading the jacket copy synopsis for many books being published today, I would have said there were far more female protags about – I do wonder why they all seem to have to be beautiful, however. Do all male protags have to be mind-bendingly handsome?
OK, I’ve had my rant. Time for you to have your say.
This week’s Word of the Week is goya, an Urdu word meaning ‘as if’ and often used to describe the suspension of disbelief or transportation that comes through good storytelling.