American pop culture fascinated with espionage


When Hollywood’s demographic police ruled Pierce Brosnan was too old to play James Bond anymore and summarily booted him from the films, Brosnan had his producing partners go right to work looking for another spy role. He was hungry for another espionage project, and he was certain audiences were, too.

“We live in a landscape of subterfuge and dissembling,” Brosnan says. “The Ukraine. NSA surveillance. Wikileaks. And fertile ground it has been for me.”

Brosnan’s film The November Man, about a bitter ex-spy forced back into the business by the murder of his wife, has pulled in a tidy $23 million in box office receipts in its first three weeks in theaters, and a sequel is already in the works.

The November Man — based on a series of novels by Bill Granger from the 1980s to which Brosnan bought the rights — is the most prominent example of what might be called popular culture’s Golden Age of the Spy. As disclosures about the shadowy side of intelligence work during the war on terrorism — domestic spying, black prisons, drone assassinations — grab the headlines, the worlds of film, television and publishing are snatching them up.

Scarcely a week goes by without a new spy novel, with secret agents ranging from a party-boy lawyer drawn into the anti-Hitler underground (Alan Furst’s Midnight in Europe) to senile CIA officers who can no longer tell their real lives from their cover stories (Fred Rustmann’s two Once a Spy books).

Some of the authors, like Charles McCarry, whose Cold War tales of a weary, damaged CIA officer have led some critics to label him the greatest American spy novelist, are publishing again after long absences. Others, like historical novelist Robert Harris, whose An Officer and a Spy offers a fictional account of the infamous Dreyfus scandal in 19th-century France, have been seduced away from their original genres by the possibilities of the espionage novel.

Even teenagers have their own spies. Forget vampires: Among the hottest recent young adult titles are Y.S. Lee’s A Spy in the House, about the undercover adventures of an all-female investigative unit called the The Agency in 1850s London, and Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage, set in roughly the same time period at a finishing school for girl spooks.

Spy mania is even more obvious in television, where half a dozen major series are winning prizes and viewers with their twisting tales of moles and mole-hunters. Showtime’s Homeland, in which a half-mad CIA officer pursues a heroic American soldier who may be an al-Qaida sleeper agent, has been one TV’s most acclaimed shows over the past three seasons, winning 30 major awards.

Homeland has one big fan in the White House — President Barack Obama has confessed it’s one of his favorite shows — and a bunch of others in nearby Langley, Virginia, where CIA headquarters is located. “You hear a lot of CIA people talking about watching Homeland,” says Joe Weisberg, a former agency officer who regularly lunches with his old spy buddies.

Weisberg produces his own highly praised spy show, FX’s The Americans, about a pair of Soviet moles posing as a 2.5-kids-and-a-picket-fence suburban couple during the early years of the Reagan administration. He nonetheless expresses awe at Homeland. “That show has levels of realism that no Tom Clancy book or movie ever did,” he says. “I see the characters walking into the show’s CIA headquarters, and I think, ‘My God, that’s really it, that’s where I used to work.’”

Novelist McCarry — who spent three decades as a CIA operative in Europe and Asia before taking up writing in retirement — isn’t surprised that intelligence agents would watch Homeland. “Spies love thrillers because they’re an antidote to the tedium of the life they actually lead,” he observes.

Another spy show with apparent impact among officialdom is TNT’s Legends, which chronicles the deep-cover operations of an FBI counterterrorism agent. A recent episode in which a terrorist, under torture, confesses that he’s selling chemical weapons to Venezuela, drew a furious response from the country’s information minister, who called it “lies and manipulations ... imperialist.”

Spy stories have been around literally since the dawn of American culture. The first major American novel was James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy, published in 1821. (It dealt with espionage during the Revolutionary War, which is also the subject of one of the newest espionage stories, the AMC television series Turn, a tale of George Washington’s spy corps.)

“John LeCarre and McCarry have been turning out novels for years,” says Otto Penzler, who publishes two imprints — The Mysterious Press and MysteriousPress.com — that specialize in mysteries and espionage. “So have Daniel Silva and Nelson DeMille. Spies have never gone away, at least in literature.”

But even Penzler concedes that spies are acquiring a special fascination as their activities continue to touch everyday life.

“As the world has shrunk, we’ve learned that anybody is vulnerable to attack now,” he says. “Americans used to rely on the Atlantic and the Pacific to keep us protected. We could be at war and still not be personally involved. The World Trade Center attack certainly made the idea of international terrorism something close to home. And that makes spies especially relevant.”

Some works, like genre veteran LeCarre’s novel A Delicate Truth, about the dangers of turning intelligence work over to private companies, confront the issues raised by the war on terror in contemporary settings. Others, like WGN America’s television series Manhattan — set in the midst of America’s World War II race with Hitler to build an atomic bomb — plumb history for lessons about the delicate balance between security and civil liberties.

Some are wildly speculative. Veteran genre novelist Robert Littell’s Young Philby reimagines the greatest espionage fiasco of the Cold War — the penetration of British and American intelligence by Soviet mole Kim Philby — as a triumph of the Western powers, in which Philby is actually a triple agent spilling Russian secrets to the West.

Others are stunningly realistic. Jason Matthews, a three-decade veteran of the CIA, last year published Red Sparrow, a novel about a CIA officer matching wits, among other things, with a Soviet honey-trap specialist. Mused the New York Times on the book’s authenticity: “Lord knows how he got the manuscript of Red Sparrow past the redacting committee at Langley.”

Not that everyone’s sold on the benefits of authenticity.

“Usually, reality doesn’t convince,” says McCarry, whose books have included fictionalized accounts of some great intelligence disasters and anticipated others. (As early as 1979, he predicted a wave of suicide bombers in the Middle East, and in 1991 he wrote of “enhanced debriefing” a decade before American spymasters began publicly discussing their use of “enhanced interrogation.”) “When I have included an incident from life in a novel, that passage has been the one that readers and reviewers reject as improbable.”

In the past, the themes of spy stories has varied with the political tenor of the times. In the 1950s and early 1960s, any fictional spy working for America or its allies was likely portrayed as unambiguously heroic, even when engaged in activities that might raise a civil libertarian’s eyebrows, like those of Herbert Philbrick, the courageous FBI infiltrator in the U.S. Communist Party in television’s I Led Three Lives. Cold War movie spies like James Bond and Matt Helm were downright glamorous, up to their steely eyeballs in luscious babes and hot little sports cars when they weren’t killing Soviet agents.

But as the disillusion of Vietnam and the disclosure of CIA-Mafia assassination plots, secret agents turned into the cynical burnouts in LeCarre’s novels like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, often inept and morally indistinguishable from their communist counterparts.

These days, the headlines from the world of espionage are so divergent, and the public reaction so polarized (polls show one-third of the American public thinks Edward Snowden is a hero for leaking word of U.S. electronic spying, another third thinks he’s a traitor, and the rest aren’t sure) that a screenwriter or novelist can pretty much go in any direction he wants.

“In the early years of the war in Afghanistan, you had all these horrendous stories of tortures inflicted by intelligence officers trying to get information,” says The Americans’ Weisberg. “Then you had them disabling nuclear centrifuges in Iran and getting bin Laden. There have been big success stories and terrible horrors, and you’ve got your choice about which way you want to go.”

Weisberg has made perhaps the oddest choice of all. The Soviet moles of The Americans, winningly played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, remain enormously sympathetic even when they’re stealing the secrets to the Stealth bomber or kidnapping escaped Soviet dissidents.

“That’s one of the things I wanted to see if I could do, and how viewers would react,” said Weisberg. “One of the interesting things about The Americans is that, in a way, all the spies are good guys. FBI, KGB, CIA, we’re kind of in sympathy with all of them. They’re all serving their countries.”

Weisberg is not the only one mining the past for spy stories. WGN America’s tense drama Manhattan takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the dusty high-desert town where allied nuclear physicists gathered under tight security to put together the first atomic bomb.

The show’s first seven episodes have concentrated on the tension between the sort of free-wheeling exchanges of information scientists were used to and the tight-lipped demands of wartime security. The scientists’ bridling at monitoring of their phones and mail has obvious resonance with disclosures of NSA electronic surveillance during the war on terror.

But as heavy-handed as the security men at Los Alamos were, they were not mistaken: The nuclear labs there were laced with Soviet spies, stealing secrets and passing them to the country that would soon be embroiled in a half-century nuclear standoff with the United States.

“There are some spies on Manhattan’s horizons, for sure,” confirms Sam Shaw, the show’s executive producer. “There were people in Los Alamos whose careers were unfairly destroyed because of the suspicion that there were spies. But there were other people who really were spying, and some who were spying and were never caught....

“The birth of the bomb wasn’t just the birth of a different kind of military might. It was also the birth of military secrecy in its modern form. It’s an origin story that speaks to Wikileaks and Snowden and [the NSA spying operation] Prism. The show may seem like a period piece, but it’s really very modern.”