Classic Espionage Thriller Novels

Early 20th Century Masterpices Defined the Genre

Arguably the first modern espionage thriller was ‘Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers, dating back to 1903. Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ was published in 1905. Then there was ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ by John Buchan – another classic dating from 1915, made into a film released in1935 starring Robert Donat – directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. Buchan’s and Childers’s tales share some common features.

‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ by G.K Chesterton was published in 1908 and is a story about espionage and secret agents. However, it doesn’t fit the mold of the espionage novels in our sense,being most often described as a metaphysical thriller.

I still have a copy of Childers’s book on my bookshelf – as a sailor it’s a fascinating read for me, with a quite accurate portrayal of the ‘sport’ in those days. Of course,I’m a lot younger, but as a boy I sailed on yachts of ‘Dulcibella’s type many times, with coal stoves, oil lamps and decks which leaked copiously. The tale is basically a comment on Great Britain’s woeful military status at the turn of the century, being unprepared to counter a potential German invasion. It was quite propitious, but whether it was an influence on John Buchan, I don’t know. It was certainly an influence on later espionage thriller novels.

The real life follow-on from Riddle of the Sands could be itself the subject of a thriller novel. Although he was born in London and had fought in the Boer War and the First World War (awarded the DSC), his views moved towards favouring a Free Ireland and Childers became an active Irish nationalist. He was himself a sailor and smuggled guns on his yacht ‘Asgard’. The 28 ton yacht, which he had built reportedly for £1,000, is 51 feet long and now a national treasure in Ireland. All sides suspected him of being a double/treble agent, so none trusted him fully, the three sides being the two warring parties in the Irish Civil War, and Great Britain. He was caught and tried by the Irish Provisional Government itself, and executed by firing squad in 1922 for carrying a pistol. There are too many twists to this true story to go into here; suffice it to say that it’s as good a tale as any piece of espionage fiction. I must quote his last words to the firing squad:

‘Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.’

Now, to John Buchan. The plot of ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ is one that has become a classic construct for espionage thriller authors and screenplay writers alike – the ‘man on the run’. As with Riddle of the Sands, it was focused on the potential for a German invasion of the United Kingdom,and operations of German spies in Britain. The title is itself a linkage throughout the story, and a key to the puzzle that exercises Richard Hannay (the main character), and, of course, the reader.

It is said that Buchan described the novel as a ‘shocker’. We don’t use that term today for the espionage or action genres, though I suppose it may be loosely used for horror stories. What he meant by ‘shocker’, so Wikipaedia says, relates to the content being barely believable to its readers. Suspending disbelief, or building credibility are key tools in the author’s toolchest.

The ability to suspend disbelief is essential in some of the thriller novel sub-genres – e.g the supernatural thriller – if the thrills are to be credible and the reader is a sceptic. On the other hand, building credibility can be done by including copious details, such as might be found in the best of techno-thrillers, or by demonstrating detailed knowledge of police procedures as in the‘police-procedural’ sub-genre of crime/mystery/suspense thrillers.

Both Childers and Buchan included detail to build credibility, but Childers, given his background both as an amateur sailor, and as a professional in the Royal Navy was able to excel.

There’s one more interesting aspect, and that is that Hannay, of ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’, progresses through a series of three further adventures in later books –perhaps the first example of the thriller novel ‘franchise’ now so popular with authors and readers alike. Oh,and let’s not forget film-makers.

The original 1935 ‘Thirty Nine Steps’ (by Hitchcock) film is available to watch completely, free, though key plot detail is at some variance with the book.