Washington has replaced London as the spy-fiction capital of the world.
For decades, British authors dominated, having invented the genre with such early classics as John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, and Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire. Starting in 1963 with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, David Cornwell,a former British intelligence agent who wrote as John le Carré, established himself as the world’s best—and best-selling—spy novelist. Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, and Frederick Forsyth also did fine work.
But now American authors have come to the fore—and some of the most talented are Washingtonians.
Before World War II, the United States didn’t have many spy novels because we didn’t have many spies. That changed with military intelligence operations during World War II and the founding of the CIA in 1947. Soon we were knee-deep in espionage.
E. Howard Hunt, the longtime CIA agent who later became ensnared in Watergate, began publishing fast-paced tales in the 1940s, and Donald Hamilton’s popular series about Matt Helm, an assassin with a secret US agency, started in 1960. A turning point toward sophistication and quality came in 1973 when Charles McCarry published his first novel, The Miernik Dossier, and Robert Littell published his debut, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter.
McCarry served for ten years as a CIA undercover operative, and his Paul Christopher novels—particularly his 1974 masterpiece, The Tears of Autumn—combine an insider’s understanding of tradecraft with a stylistic elegance rarely seen in popular fiction. Unlike many novels that followed, McCarry’s books are pro-CIA: Paul Christopher is a patriot and a hero, a cloak-and-dagger Lancelot.
Littell’s early novels tended toward satire of the CIA, but in 2002 his long, ultra-realistic The Company fictionalized the CIA’s successes and failures during the Cold War.
Both writers offered their fictional versions of JFK’s assassination—McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn and Littell’s The Sisters—though they reached very different conclusions. The two men’s work drew on longtime Washington connections. McCarry lived here for years (he was once a writer for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and was editor at large for National Geographic), and Littell has been a frequent visitor, both as a Newsweek correspondent—he once interviewed Henry Kissinger in the White House basement—and later as a novelist researching the intelligence community.
McCarry and Littell paved the way for younger writers. James Grady, born in 1949 in Montana, had only a smattering of Washington experience when at age 24 he wrote a novel about the CIA. That 1974 book, Six Days of the Condor, reflecting the anger and cynicism of the Watergate era, became a popular movie, Three Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford. Grady has long made Washington his home and has published many more accomplished thrillers, though none have soared as high as Condor.
In the 1990s, spy-fiction writers faced a new reality: The Soviet Union had collapsed, and the Cold War was over. In fictional terms, the Red Menace was kaput. Not to worry—Osama bin Laden and jihadist terrorism were surfacing, even before the September 11 attacks, and Middle East terrorists soon replaced Soviet spies as the bad guys.
“I remember when the Berlin Wall fell,” Jim Grady once told The Washingtonian. “I read three op-ed pieces in one week wondering who thriller writers were going to use as villains now. I don’t think the problem is finding the villains; it’s finding the heroes.”
One of this decade’s most popular spy heroes was created by Daniel Silva, who grew up in California, studied journalism at Fresno State, and in 1984 went to work for UPI, but he always saw journalism as a steppingstone to fiction. On assignment in the Persian Gulf, he met NBC correspondent Jamie Gangel. They married, and Silva became a Washington-based writer and producer for CNN.
By 1994, he was writing An Unlikely Spy, about a British counterspy’s search for a German agent during World War II. The novel became a bestseller, and Silva followed it with two more about a CIA agent named Michael Osbourne.
Despite the success of the Osbourne novels, Silva wanted to develop a new character. One day, after reading two newspaper stories about Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, he was seized by the idea of writing about a retired agent who was called back to duty after a string of operational failures. That led to The Kill Artist (2000), which introduced Gabriel Allon, art restorer and undercover assassin.
Silva didn’t see that novel as the start of a series until he signed with a new publisher: “They said, ‘We want you to turn Gabriel Allon into a continuing character.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I didn’t think the world was ready for a Jewish superhero.”
The publisher was right—and a superhero was born. The Rembrandt Affair, the tenth of the increasingly popular Allon thrillers, appeared this summer and, like all the others, blends action, suspense, and an understanding of Middle East politics and history.
Silva lives in Northwest DC and says he can go for days without speaking to anyone except his wife and children—and he often must to maintain his book-a-year publishing schedule.