I have had a very busy few days, coming to the Easter break, lots of meetings, the kids home from school and doing reading for my book club. This week’s book is John Le Carre’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – an absolute classic and the very first spy novel I ever read. I loved it so much that I read all the rest of Le Carre (no mean feat) http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Spy-Who-Came-Cold/dp/0340937572. After all my years of reading literary fiction and in the past twenty years, mostly literary fiction written by women, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a whole new genre to embrace. But when I finished with the LeCarre books, I was bereft and starving for more spycraft so I tried Len Deighton and some other so-called spy novelists, only to find they were no good (to me anyway). Turns out it wasn’t really spy fiction I liked- it was Le Carre’s fiction. And I do like it still, despite such work being the antithesis of what I usually read, teach and research (or maybe because of that). Most such fiction (and the films that are based upon these books) ignores the female part of the human race, or relegates us to very, very small parts (usually as one dimensional betrayers, prostitutes, unwitting accomplices or innocent, though beautiful, victims.) I call this the “Lethal Weapon Syndrome” derived from the film of that name starring the once desirable Mel Gibson. This syndrome occurs in much male fiction and film in which the central characters are two men – one a family man, wishing to flee his responsibilities and seek freedom, and the other a wild man who has no such ties as his wife, daughter, girlfriend or mother is dead or gone (usually brutally murdered but sometimes just disappeared) and is torn between the freedom this allows him and a death wish (usually signified by heavy solitary drinking). This format can be found in tales from Moby Dick and Huck Finn (Ishmael and Huck are the man fleeing civilisation and seeking freedom, Jim and Ahab the men with a death wish- one chasing a white whale and one travelling south to escape slavery) Gatsby and On The Road (Nick Carraway in Gatsby and Sal Paradise in On the Road want rid of their family ties, Jay Gatsby and Dean Moriarty are obsessives and self-destructive) and of course in good-cop bad cop films like 48 hours, Midnight Run and Gibson’s Lethal Weapon. What such stories do of course is set women up in an impossible and contradictory position: they are both the ball and chain – the domestic handcuff keeping these men from freedom, but are also the angels that will rescue them from self-destruction. And this formula is used everywhere in storytelling, from film to television to fiction. Any three dimensional females in brilliant and multi-Oscar nominated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? No, not really. Though the George Smiley’s relationship with his wife, Anne, is at the heart of much of the tension – she is, like many female characters, the “absent” heart of the story, present only as an absence, a lack, a loss. Which is probably why, with the exception of LeCarre, I have spent the last twenty years reading literary fiction writing by women.
Can anyone recommend a female spy fiction writer? Or is that like asking a cat to bark?