Who hasn’t fantasized about leading a double life? Who hasn’t thought how cool it would be if the normal person we are was just the façade that we presented to the world, but underneath it all we had secret skills and a special purpose? This is what makes the idea of a spy so alluring, and why we are fascinated with the masters of espionage.
But who are the best spies that literature has brought to life on the page, and in most cases the screen as well? What is it about them that appeals, and what do they have to teach us?
Alec Leamas, first appearance: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carre (1963)
The author said that he was inspired to create Leamas when he saw a tired man in a raincoat walk into a bar at a London airport, haul out a handful of foreign change, and order a large Scotch. He is the mystery man that many of us wonder about in this empty commuter moments – does he have a secret life more interesting than our own?
Le Carre put his protagonist in Cold War East Germany. A British agent, he is undercover as a faux defector with the task of sowing disinformation about a powerful East German Officer. Leamas is not a morally superior creature, and Le Carre takes a hard look at how western espionage methods are morally inconsistent with western ideals of democracy.
Leamas is a pragmatist rather than an idealist, which makes him relatable, and he eventually sacrifices. While we all like to think that we would make these kinds of sacrifices when faced with the same situation, most people go with the status quo. Leamas offers us a glimpse at just how difficult that decision can be.
Dominika Egorova, first appearance: Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews (2013)
One of the newer books on the list, this is our obligatory female spy. While we see many female spies in supporting roles in books and films, too few have their own world’s and even Dominika must share hers with Nate Nash, an American CIA agent.
Dominika is a former Russian ballerina. Her career lost due to an injury, she is forced into espionage training by the Russian government. Unlike many spies, Dominika does not work for high patriotic and humanitarian ideals. She is ambitious and concerned with self-preservation, which is hardly surprising considering her brutal treatment by the regime. She does not work for the greater good of mother Russia, she uses the opportunities that spying offers her to work for herself. This is what makes Dominika appealing, what is the point of having spy superpowers if they can only help other people?
Matthews gives Dominika the unique ability to discern the nature of other people by seeing their emotions in colour. I personally think this detracts from her character a little. The male spies on our list don’t need special powers to succeed, and Dominika doesn’t need them either.
Jason Bourne, first appearance: The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum (1980)
Jason Bourne wakes up on a fishing boat with no memory of who he is. He has amnesia and cannot even remember his own name, but he does have useful plot moving flashbacks. While investigating who he is, he finds that he has a bank account in Zurich full of foreign currency and dozens of passports, all bearing his photo. As events ensue, he also discovers that he has special abilities when it comes to fighting and noticing the important things. Wouldn’t it be cool to discover that we too are a sleeper agent?
Bourne is an endearing character because he has the advantage of the skills gained from living his life as a brutal spy, but while he worries about the things that he has done in the past, without his memory, his conscious is relatively clear. He is able to use his hard-earned skills to protect the people he cares about and get back at the agency that did this to him with little moral ambiguity.
Bourne is a warning against spies following orders without question, and having to live the consequences of actions that we may have been told were for ‘the greater good’.
Li Huasheng, first appearance: Night Heron, Adam Brookes (2014)
Since not all spies can be British, American or Russian, our next hero, code name Peanut, hails from China, though he still works for the British. However, like our female protagonist, our Chinese protagonist must share his show with a British journalist who gets sucked into the world of espionage.
Peanut spends 20 years in a Chinese dissident camp for selling military secrets, a career he resumes when he escapes. Peanut now wants to sell a software key that would give the west access to China’s national security secrets, including its new nuclear missiles.
Peanut’s character allows us to take a look at the morals and motivations of spies through an unfamiliar cultural lens, offering a unique new perspective.
James Bond, first appearance: Casino Royale, Ian Fleming (1953)
It really is no surprise that Bond is on our list. It is a true criticism that Bond glamorizes the life of espionage, and that no one with that much pride and charisma, and that unable to resist any woman, could possibly make a good undercover agent. Nevertheless, we love him!
Fleming said that Bond was a composite of a number of commandos that he served with in the British Naval Intelligence Division in World War II. He is an allrounder, good at everything, but not the best at anything (perhaps with the exception of seducing women). He is a boxer, he knows judo, he can ski and he can swim. He has all the skills he needs to manage any situation, but he is not so good at everything that the drama is lost (there is a reason Superman needs Kryptonite, imagine how boring he would be otherwise!).
As to Bond’s role in Casino Royale, this is pretty well known thanks to the excellent Daniel Craig reboot. This is my favourite Bond book, as unlike in later stories where bond seems to have minimal personally investment in his missions, in Casino Royale we see that no one can live free of connections, and that the life of a spy can put the things we care about at risk.
George Smiley, first appearance: Call for the Dead, John le Carre (1961)
Le Carre created George Smiley, a career British spy, as an intentional foil to James Bond, who he thought was too perfect. Smiley is short, overweight, balding and bespectacled. He certainly does not always get the girl or command respect. But the way he flies under the radar is one of his skills. He is cunning, has an eidetic memory and is ruthless when needed. He uses people’s tendency to underestimate him to achieve his goals. For anyone who considers themselves Joe Normal, George Smiley is who they want to be.
In his first appearance Smiley is an analyst rather than a field agent, but disgusted by the treatment of an agent whose death was treated as a suicide, he launches an independent investigation to discover that he was in fact killed by an East German spy. In this way, he is a self-made man, and a self-made spy. To me Smiley seems closer to reality that most other spies of fiction.