The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
John le Carré
This one isn’t just my favorite spy novel, it’s one of my favorite books period. Alec Leamas, a British agent mired in existential despair, is sent on one last mission in East Germany—he’s there to pretend that he wants to defect. Ultimately Leamas is subjected to double and triple crosses, which are compelling to witness, but the character I was most fascinated by isn’t him—it’s Liz Gold, his love interest. The romance between them is crucial to the plot, but I’ve never been able to understand what she sees in him. Leamas is thirty years her senior and initially presents himself as a surly, unemployable wreck (it’s part of his cover). It’s directly because of how baffled I was by Liz, that I focused so much of my attention on my own protagonist’s emotional life. I wanted there to be clear psychological and emotional motivations for the relationships that she and the rest of the women in my book choose to forge.
The Quiet American
British reporter Thomas Fowler’s sees Alden Pyle, the newly arrived undercover CIA operative, as dangerously naïve: his inexperience and zeal for theory-over-practice American foreign policy results in the deaths of innocent Vietnamese civilians. As I read this novel, I found its cautions about American interventionism still as relevant today as they were when the book was first published. I was interested in exploring the same theme, but through the lens of an American character who is nowhere near as confident as Pyle that what she’s doing is right.
The unnamed hero of this novel is a gentleman and an aspiring assassin who, after being caught while attempting to shoot an unnamed dictator (Household later acknowledged that this character is Hitler), is tortured by the dictator’s guards and thrown off a cliff. He miraculously survives and makes it to London where he’s pursued by the dictator’s agents. Rogue Male gave me the idea to task a female character with an assassination, and as I read I wondered about the ways in which she might approach such an assignment differently than Household’s protagonist does.
Harriet the Spy
Plucky Harriet wants to be a writer when she grows up, so she keeps track of the comings and goings of her neighbors and records every brutally honest thought she has about her friends and classmates in her notebook. She loses the book, and when her friends find it and learn what she’s written about them, they shun her. Of course, this one isn’t strictly a spy novel, but it’s the book on the list that inspired me most. I read this one many times as a kid, and it’s one of the books that made me want to be a writer.
Before I started writing my book, I wasn’t well acquainted with the spy genre, so I knew that I’d have to begin by reading as many spy novels as I could. I started with classics. It will surprise no one for me to say that this pool of authors is overwhelmingly male and white—I didn’t see myself and the way I navigate the world reflected back to me by any of their protagonists. But that didn’t prevent me from finding these novels instructive. By identifying what I felt was missing from these stories I wound up identifying how I wanted to tell my own.
Featured image: Cover detail from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh