The problem with post-Cold War espionage thrillers

It has been a long-standing grouse with me that, in the past 16 years since 2001, I haven’t come across a really superlative work in espionage fiction. Every once in a while I am driven to return and delight in the wonders of Cold War fiction: of ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ or ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’ (which transcends the genre, between us), or the underrated transitionals which mark the shift in world affairs from Second World War dynamics to the Cold War, like ‘A Small Town in Germany’.

I return to ‘The Looking Glass War’, or the prophetic ‘Smiley’s People’, the bleak nostalgia of ‘The Secret Pilgrim’. Le Carre apart, I find renewed joy in Deighton’s ‘The Ipcress File’ or the Hook, Line, Sinker series, the far-fetched guilty pleasure of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’. Even a Helen McInnes, or a Frederick Forsyth phoning it in with ‘The Fourth Protocol’ does not disappoint.

There is such variety in these works, from the pure literature of le Carre, or McEwan’s mighty effort with ‘The Innocent’, to the hammer-smashing thriller rides of Deighton and Condon. Something about the Cold War brings out the best in what would have been, under different circumstances, not very engaging authors. In which other period could we find, I ask, a work like ‘Death of a Thin-Skinned Animal’?

The transitionals and early Cold War works then take me to WWII, and Greene, and by meandering paths, through Buchan (always, always Buchan) to Childers and the prophecy of the end time. Sometimes, even, Conrad. And there I rest and marvel at this vast and complex body of work. There is no other period which can compare with such subtle explorations of the human condition, with such adventures, with such characters and systems, as Cold War thrillers.

And then we cross 2001 into a barrenness so profound that I wonder how so many authors, some at the peak of their craft, could get it so wrong. The 1990s finds some of them still clinging to the Soviet era with fondness, as to a friend who has to depart, mourned by all.

Some made a mighty effort to move with the times, confident that human nature would not disappoint, and a new conflict would replace the old, and soon. Forsyth makes his Sam McCready a wry witness to a civilian who confidently remarks, with the fall of the Wall, that everything would be all right in the world. Less than nine months later, in August 1990, as Forsyth tells us, Saddam Hussein took Kuwait.

The inference was the Cold War would be replaced by simmering conflicts around the world, including the Middle-East. Forsyth himself took this on with ‘The Fist of God’, about a half-British SAS officer undercover as an Iraqi during Desert Shield and Storm. Entertaining, but something was missing.

Gerald Seymour, whose best work as far as I am concerned is ‘The Glory Boys’, in which he shows a remarkable understanding of the Arab mind, went off on a different tangent, albeit a welcome one. In 2010, he revisited the Bosnian War in ‘The Dealer and the Dead’, about a Croatian village which takes out a contract against a British arms dealer who betrayed them in that terrible conflict. The Bosnian War, too, did not get the attention it deserved from other, better authors. Le Carre, meanwhile, was in the Caucasus, but not, as the epigraph in ‘Our Game’ says, “writing fairy tales” as Chekhov once wished. Instead, our Cornwell wrote about a British spy and a former Treasury bureaucrat involved with the Ossetians. There is much talk of righting historical wrongs, and of how small nations get pulverised by the mighty. Already we see ominous signs of what is to come, a sort of piecemeal effort at examining a broken world.

Since 2001, there has not been a single work which can match the scale or depth of the greatest of Cold War fiction. The divide can be gauged from the fact that my favourite Tintin, ‘The Calculus Affair’, too acquires literary greatness because it is essentially a Cold War thriller. Le Carre has since churned out passable works, and some very average efforts, with only ‘The Constant Gardener’ approaching anywhere near the greatness of his Cold War masterpieces. The others, and even counting those who were just stepping up their game when the Wall fell, have not produced anything worthy of going toe-to-toe with the books mentioned above.

Where does the problem lie? There are several explanations. First, the Cold War, though a long-running ideological conflict, was essentially between versions of the West. There were systems battling systems, men in suits battling other men, weapons and armies facing each other, ideas grappling each other, but all within a context that each side could, when it came to basics, understand. Therefore we could have situations where a George Smiley could sit and talk to Karla (in a Delhi prison, by the way) about how they were not much different from each other. And indeed they weren’t, these men of the shadows. The Soviets were purportedly defending an ideology which owed itself to a German who lived in London. The Russian Revolution owed its genesis to ideas from long-dead Frenchmen and Englishmen and Germans. Their worldviews, their histories, even the nature of their doubts or self-doubt were practically identical. For authors of the West, therefore, the Cold War was an immense pool of ideas, familiar if frightening, in which they could immerse at leisure confident in its essential elements.

The War on Terror, or whatever you may choose to call it, affords no such familiarity. Occasional efforts are made by writers, or screenwriters, to deal with the epistemology of it. The wonderful Judi Dench, whose ‘M’ in the second-best Daniel Craig Bond movie ‘Casino Royale’ says “Christ, I miss the Cold War” then says in the best Craig Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’, this: “I am frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations, they are individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag?”

It is a measure of how barren literature has been since 2001 that the most incisive commentary on the situation comes from a movie, not a book. This unfamiliarity with the nature of the post-Cold War world, therefore, is not just the shortcoming of world leaders and their advisors. It exists, and has been compounded, in the realm of ideas as well.

I say compounded, because the only decent efforts have been in non-fiction (which was inevitable), or in a handful of literary works, such as those dealing with the immigrant experience in the West. But there is more to the world of today than merely exploring the process by which descendants of immigrants in the West radicalize.

To write a thriller, or espionage thriller, for our times, needs an understanding of Islam, a reading of it and more, a critical reading of scripture, of history, of doctrines and traditions. Of the interplay of ethnicities, such as in South Asia (if one set a thriller here). One can, of course, cheat and base it on the Palestinian movement, but that was long ago subsumed by events in the neighbourhood. How does one create suspense, or characters, based on or around societies and beliefs without exploring them first? And this needs a lot of reading and a lot of contemplation.

More (for these two activities are easy), it needs the willingness to step into fundamentally different shoes, to internalise attitudes to life (and death) which are fundamentally alien. Consider the Saarbrucken scholars, those quiet gentlemen and women who for decades have been studying across languages and histories to explain the genesis of Islam. Consider the effort it needs to see the world simultaneously from so many different points of view. And then imagine the possibilities of a thriller which truly explores the Islamic world. Which takes an honest look at what it means to be a Muslim, either in a Muslim society, or in the West. And which takes a look at the complexities of Islamic society.

Instead, what we have had are le Carre rehashing Cold War anarchism (literally, through his characters) in ‘Absolute Friends’, Forsyth doing a Sandy Arbuthnot with his SAS man from ‘Fist of God’ in ‘The Afghan’, for which I shall never forgive him, because Arbuthnot is among the greatest espionage fiction characters ever created.

At the shallow end of the talent pool, as I discovered while wildly casting about for any spark of inspiration among these authors, I found ‘The Infidel’ by Bob Shepherd, a former SAS man himself, by the way. In a sign of the times, while then bureaucrat Childers foretold World War I, and SOE men like Ian Fleming created assassins and former SIS men like le Carre created George Smiley, today we have retired special forces veterans trying to create fiction engaging with Muslim societies.

The Infidel at least has the grace to be set in Afghanistan, about two soldiers reaching a remote region of poppy growers and there acquiring immense power. An interesting premise, and one begins to appreciate an author who steps out of European comfort zones, till one remembers a story titled ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ by one Kipling, Rudyard. At least somebody has been reading the classics.

Therefore here I am, still awaiting somebody who writes a story worth lining up with the greats. Meanwhile, I read non-fiction, and the Saarbrucken researchers, and even Tom Holland’s ‘in the Shadow of the Sword’, a valiant attempt at early Islamic history by somebody whose better works are about ancient history (with ‘Rubicon’ being highly recommended).

There is somebody, however, of who I have nursed hopes for about a decade, and he has come close, really close.

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