What is the perennial attraction of the spy genre? What is it that maintains our fascination for Cold War subterfuge and the mysterious sudden violence of the post-war Berlin of Checkpoint Charlie, Zoo Station and all the spies still lingering in the cold? Having recently re-read a handful of classics of the genre I have been asking myself what they say about political machinations, office politics and social dynamics today. Not to mention relishing these rich tapestries that capture a dark but resonant period of history.
It's easy to forget, and Len Deighton is kind enough to remind us in vivid detail, the oppressive physical immensity that the Wall that separated the East and West sectors of the City, as well as the overwhelming military might that the Red Army held beyond the iconic barrier.
The Berlin of the Cold War years, that shadowy and complex matrix of politics, ideology and history, was a particular manifestation of a few long decades between the end of the Second World War and the epoch defining fall on 9th November 1989. And yet somehow, throughout these decades, a murky kaleidoscope of images from different points in time and space emerged. We see Princes and Emperors, bohemians, romantics and a host of refugees from cancelled lands and purged landscapes. Such vistas and vignettes pepper the margins and spaces between the leaves of the best examples of the spy genre.
The flashbacks and reminiscences of these desperate characters that populate the books serve on one level to evoke the introspective and furtive imaginations that fuelled the survival instincts that enabled survival in the face of the oppressive constraints of the occupying powers. These occupying forces carved up the defeated though still proud City of Berlin into a patchwork of lethal traps and procedures. Only the cunning minds of sophisticated game players could survive and thrive in such an environment. It is not a surprise that the 1972 Chess World Championship between the reclusive American "Bobby" Fischer and reigning champion, Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, Iceland became an iconic landmark event of the Cold War era.
In addition to Berlin's home-grown local heroes, the fleeing migrants and displaced souls from now forgotten lands such as Prussia and Silesia were the brightest and best brilliant minds from Oxford, Cambridge and Moscow. Educated puppet masters tugged and sometimes wrenched hidden strings with anonymity to the same immutable logic of the Icelandic grandmasters.
On a different level, closer to home or at least away from the pressure cooker climate of the divided city, of checkpoints, tunnels and redundant bahnhof stations we can also enjoy the wry observations of the puppet masters' private lives. With Stoppardian precision they conduct their personal lives, these archetypes of the genre, with no less enthusiasm for subterfuge and deceit as they apply to theri day jobs. Affairs and passions criss-cross long term relationships with the same determination of the covert political operations. Even just three short decades later the social insight into the private lives of the spy-masters and their Grand Guignol as they ducked and dived between Friedrichstrasse and the Savoy.
In the UK today the BBC TV series Spooks has resurrected many of the tropes and metaphors that define the genre such as dead drops, moles and honey traps. However, this time round the dreary waiting in cold damp vehicles by Checkpoint Charlie has been replaced by relentlessly paced plotting with agent and counter-agent zapping between politicians and scientists with breathtaking dexterity. Speed chess indeed. The machinations of a Len Deighton trilogy are typically played out in one 60 minute episode and the genre appears to be as indestructible as Ian Flemings' famous undercover Commander Bond. Even John Le Carre has reaped the peace dividend by resurfacing with a slew of novels about such contemporary themes associated with the murkier goings on of the pharmaceuticals and arms industries. And finally we discover the full Bond series of novels have been released as eBooks for the digital generation.
Stephen blogs regularly about writing-related matters in this fast moving digital landscape on the key issues that matter to writers and and those interested in writing. Screen writing is a particular focus with regular tips and advice on story, character and plot matters. e-books and e-book readers are changing the way we consume and collect books and there is much to say about how this is changing our world. Thoughtful, comprehensive and always provocative and stimulating.
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