Previously, spy fictions have been regarded within the confines of the genre, as sets of conventions that somehow play into reader expectations. Allan Hepburn’s Intrigue: Espionage and Culture (Yale University Press) instead invokes fictional espionage narratives as sites of reader entanglement. We have seen it before: The mole will be found out, someone will betray the one they supposedly loved. But Hepburn, by casting a large net about the genre, depicts this exchange as meaning much more. He upends these traditional lines of inquiry by interrogating the literary and cultural contexts of espionage fictions ranging from 1900 to 2000, using ideological and psychoanalytical foundations to illustrate his claims: “[S]py fiction exaggerates the representation of danger that ends in death. Neither technology nor backup teams can save the spy. Death is the outcome of exposure to danger, the spy’s willingness to risk violent encounters ” (17). Example texts span books, many of them credited to author John le Carré, to movies, such as The Third Man, a Graham Greene adaption directed by Carol Reed. The film’s antagonist, Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles), graces Intrigue’s slick, symbolic cover, posed by the dark mouth that leads to the sewers of Vienna, where he will ultimately meet his doom, consumed by the darkness he inhabits daily as an antibiotics trafficker.
Erecting this new view of the underpinnings of the fictional espionage genre, Hepburn’s critical essay collection lives up to the fanfare, which crowns the text as “masterful,” “nuanced,” and “an indispensable reference for any future study of spy fiction.”
Hepburn is a James McGill Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature at McGill University in Montreal, where he specializes in modernism and other literatures. It is significant that he discusses modernist literature, given the position of espionage fiction with regard to English studies—WWII post-war conditions perpetuated a state of futurity and paranoia in many countries that were subject to air raids and other invasive, brutish tactics leading up to the Cold War.
Intrigue is a seminal book by an important voice working in the field. The book is divided into three parts, effectively distinguishing between “aesthetics,” “representations of spies’ bodies in British and Irish novels,” and “the cross-fertilization of American romance with spy narratives” (Hepburn xv-xvii). We are allowed to stray thematically according to our vested interests in the genre yet still benefit from any part of the book as a stand-alone piece. Such as when Hepburn adorns a pseudo-structuralist reading in “Codes,” using mathematics to explain the performativity of main characters Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Pym in A Perfect Spy:
Bearing in mind the alterations in narrative pacing, let the coefficient for adventure indicate hazard. The frequency and intensity of adventures will be proportional also to global conflict. The perception of communist threat in 1963 will heighten the urgency with which spy missions are undertaken, as opposed to the communist threat in 1989. Traits of character will emerge during a secret operation conducted during wartime that might not have emerged in any other circumstances. The logarithm denotes external conditions that accelerate or decelerate the rate of adventure (72).
An interesting sojourn into narrative theory, this technique rises from what Hepburn observes as the importance of characters mobilizing, not through action, but via facts in the novels. Hepburn posits that “[n]arrative concatenates facts logically. Facts and intelligence have more inherent value … than elaboration and point of view” (64). He continues, musing that this is “the latent wish of all spy novels: to be as logical and precise as an equation” (73). We use the machinery of narrative to exchange ideological references with a text. In espionage narratives, this experience leads us to confront perspectives we didn’t know we harbored prior to our interpellation as social subjects, an idea put forth in the theories of Louis Althusser. Reader interpellation is recognized earlier in the book in “Thrills”:
At the moment when the reader is most thrilled, he is interpellated. He becomes the subject of ideology, even a convert to the predominately restrictive and conservative ideology of espionage narratives. Thrilled, the reader abandons his body. He grips the arm of his chair. He clinches his fingers into balls. He hides his eyes. He recoils … [He] forgets that he witnesses a representation instead of an event” (47).
Intrigue, too, offers many creative readings that verge on lyric essay. Rather than using only inflectionless critical methods, the text mixes research with espionage narratives in a way that hints at larger themes and other interrogative moods. For example, in the chapter “Leaks,” the essay is segmented by italicized section headers and explores the queer agent’s role in shaping contemporary spy fiction, namely The Untouchable. In the essay, it is Hepburn’s purposeful digressions that drive the essay home. “Leaks” is tonally distinctive from the essays collected around it, and is packed into small sections that work similarly like flash nonfiction:
Urinal: The public men’s room in The Untouchable, even though it functions as a place for casual sex, recalls how often spies congregate around toilets. The revelation scene in The Ministry of Fear takes place in a train station washroom. Whenever Tom Farrell, the U.S. naval hero and Russian infiltrator played by Kevin Costner in No Way Out, needs to think, he heads for the toilets, though only to wash his face or scheme, never to urinate. American agents and Arab fundamentalists have a spectacular shoot-’em-up in the toilets in True Lies. Scenes in loos suggest masculine vulnerability (Hepburn 191).
In essence, the collection agitates the literary academic tradition and is sure to find an audience with those unfamiliar with the genre. There is an expert regard for many writing styles at the heart of the book that is sure to keep even casual readers invested from chapter to chapter. Subjects within essays are usually bolded so the wealth of information can be easily re-accessed. The profundity of knowledge imparted between covers is matched by the different approaches Hepburn undertakes, making his theories all the more impactful and affective. Actionable, even, as we return to some of the popular references in book.
These theories are useful for establishing a base of aesthetic properties in fictional espionage narratives, and in understanding other concepts with which Hepburn is concerned, but the more interesting parts of the book lie in Hepburn’s theories of ghosting bodies (“Ghosts”). These spectral bodies, Hepburn concludes, are cast as metaphorical manifestations—for death imbued in allegiance owed to a state or governmental agency—and they serve to further implicate the reader as uncredited bit player in the text. Similarly, “Walls,” an essential essay for reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as allegory, includes a section on the reader as double agent, in which Hepburn argues that “[t]he novel deliberately thwarts interpretation” (183). Here, at the end, facing the wall and Leamas’ inability to pass it, we are offered this ultimatum in our role as double agent: Either we “hol[e] up behind the wall of predetermined reading conventions … or [we] learn to crack the code of allegory” (185). Near the conclusion of “Walls,” Hepburn implores us to reconsider ideology, for it is never what it seems: “You have to interpret but you will never be right” (185). We sense this ensnarement in spy fictions, yet we forge on, slaked by our perceived extrapolation of ideologies rooted deep within the texts, their idiosyncratic manifestations as characters.
Jason Teal is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Northern Michigan University. His work appears in Mid-American Review, Quarter After Eight, Eleven Eleven, and Entropy, among other places. He is an associate editor for Passages North and a founding editor of Heavy Feather Review. He lives in Marquette, Michigan.