The Enduring Popularity Of Spy Thrillers

My below article was published on 1st September 2014 in “The Murder Room Blog” (www.themurderroom.com).


The best fictional characters in thrillers, crime, and horror are those that are dislocated from the majority of humanity because they have traits, skills, and a mindset that put them at odds with obedient conformity. These characters can be ultimately good, yet unhinged – think Dirty Harry pointing a Magnum .44 at your face, and Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher beating a gang of local town bad guys to a pulp after he’s predetermined their weaknesses. And they can also be bad, yet brilliantly charming – the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt, and serial killer Hannibal Lecter are notable examples. These protagonists and antagonists prowl through the dark recesses in the pages in our best books, moving through populations of decent people and ne’er-do-wells who’ve no inkling as to the lethal capabilities of the stranger in their midst.

But, these dislocated strangers don’t exist in true life and can’t. A real Dirty Harry would have been suspended from the San Francisco Police Department within minutes of his first case. A Jack Reacher-wannabe would likely end up begging on the streets or in prison, with no crime to solve. Vampires don’t exist, and thus their penetrative analogical raison d’être has become passé in the minds of many young ladies who’ve turned to the more credible possibility of a 50 Shades of Grey personality. And most serial killers turn out to be rather disappointing rednecks who don’t know what Chianti is but do look perfect for drinking Bourbon straight from the bottle while playing an extra in the movie Deliverance.

There is only one person that is real and at the same time charms, fascinates, and terrifies us on the fictional page. That person is a spy. Like Lestat, he is a creature that sucks out enough of a victim’s secret soul to satiate the spy’s needs but doesn’t kill him unless necessary; a loner, like Harry and Reacher, who operates in an environment where laws don’t apply unless he gets caught; a sociopathic or rather other-creature man who knows his wine and art and has brilliant perception that would make junior FBI agents like Clarice Starling wobbly in the throat, heart, and knees.

Spies are Machiavellians. We steal and deploy multiple personalities because we want you to think we are you, or endearing, or otherwise personas of what you want. We serve good and bad depending on one’s outlook. We are always alone and look at the world from the altitude of a satellite. In fiction, you want to know who we are yet you are fully cognisant that our lives are ones you wish to know only on paper. You like Jason Bourne but wouldn’t invite him for dinner, I suspect. After all, he might inadvertently trigger a Treadstone assassination team to come to your house. Less importantly, what would you say to him while serving him a hearty bowl of chicken chasseur? Maybe you’d ask James Bond to pop over and mix some martinis to lighten the mood, though you’d probably need to lock up your loved ones in case he whisks them away in his Aston Martin.

We love reading about spies because they are, in essence, the living persona of all that is possible. They are sometimes our guardians, and other times our worst enemies. That dichotomy, coupled with our desire to know who spies really are beneath the layer upon layer of their misdirection, makes them fascinating in real life and enduring on the fictional page.

Matthew Dunn is author of the Spycatcher novels. His latest, Slingshot, is published by Orion and is out now in hardback and ebook, and future novella Counterspy (26 August 2014) and novel Dark Spies (7 October 2014) will be published by HarperCollins.

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