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Lavie Tidhar on Spy Novels

I’m an unashamed fan of spy novels, though if I had to make a stand, my heart belongs to the Cold War. One suspects that, if the Cold War didn’t exist, a novelist would have had to invent it. It lends itself perfectly to the murky, grey world of spies in a way no other period does.

Here are three novels that, in one way or the other, helped shape some of my own fiction:

Warsaw DocumentThe Warsaw Document by Adam Hall

I am huge fan of the Quiller novels by Adam Hall (working name of Elleston Trevor) and The Warsaw Document is perhaps my favourite, existing for many years as a beat-up paperback in my collection. Quiller is a reluctant agent working for the Bureau, the most secretive branch of British Intelligence. He has to be coaxed into going on missions, sent near-blind into situations he needs to unravel as he goes along. Hall starts chapters in the middle of the action, then jumping back to the earlier situation, and he uses run-on sentences to evoke a sense of on-going action, a fluidity of movement that makes it hard to let go. I love how The Warsaw Document starts with a tense close-contact fight that stops when “somebody turned on the light”. Quiller is in training – but is soon sent out into a classic Cold War scenario, a Soviet Warsaw in the midst of winter.

“The deadline was close and I knew now what London had sent me out here to do: define, infiltrate and destroy. And I couldn't do it just by standing in the way of the programme Moscow was running. I'd have to get inside and blow it up from there.”

I think it’s the chill that does it for me, the cold of winter. Occasionally Quiller goes south, into warmer climes, but I think it’s the winter of the Cold War that really sinks deep into the heart. I paid homage to Adam Hall, and Quiller, in my early novella An Occupation of Angels (2005), which is dedicated to both the author and his creation.

 Smileys PeopleSmiley’s People by John Le Carré

This is, obviously, cheating. It’s not like you can fail to include John Le Carré in any such list. Of his work, the Quest for Karla trilogy – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People stand head and shoulders above any other spy novel (though A Perfect Spy is perhaps his most brilliant stand-alone novel of the genre).

Smiley’s People is the unforgettable conclusion to the Karla trilogy, and its sense of world-weary resignation as Smiley and Karla finally reach their own personal endgame remains the defining moment of the Cold War in fiction, for me. When Karla drops the lighter in the snow at Smiley’s feet, in a tacit acknowledgement of defeat, it’s impossible not to be moved. But Le Carré creates a whole world of spies, their language and institutions, that is simply marvellous in and of itself.

The trilogy – and specifically the first volume, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – inspired in part my own The Violent Century, in the form of the patient interview in which long-buried secrets must come into the light.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

I’ve not re-read this in years, so I wonder what I would make of it now, but the premise – the amnesiac spy trying to discover who he really is – is nothing short of brilliant and, moreover, the novel first got me interested in the figure of Carlos the Jackal, the real-life (but often fictionalised) international assassin. I have a weakness for assassination stories – my novel The Bookman was partly inspired by 1970s assassin stories, (though much transmuted!) – and “Carlos”, again, seems the sort of figure that, had he not existed (he is currently serving a lifetime in a French prison) a novelist would just have to invent.

(Bonus question from the editor: what are you reading at the moment?)

I’ve recently caught up with Len Deighton’s spy novels, which for some reason I never read before. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them. And I’ve become very interested in a real-life Israeli spy/assassin – I’m hoping I might be able to do something with his story at some point!


Lavie Tidhar is the author of, amongst other things, The Violent Century, Osama, The Bookman Histories, Hebrewpunk, An Occupation of Angels and numerous short stories and novellas. He's won the World Fantasy Award (and others) been nominated for The Kitschies (and others), edited The Apex Book of World SF (1, 2 and 3) and can be found on Twitter as @lavietidhar.

Lavie is one of the featured guests of the upcoming "Secret Histories" night at Blackwell's Charing Cross. Tickets are available here.