What is it About Spy Novels?

Next week at SleuthFest in Orlando, Florida (where all the cool kids will be), I’ll be moderating a panel with Jeffery Deaver, Jamie Freveletti, Keith Thomson and Mike Cooper entitled “I Spy With My Little Eye.”  The point of the panel will be to explore the present and future status of spy novels.
True to my essential, DNA-based laziness, I thought I would reach out to my Killzone family for help in structuring the session.  If you were in the audience and able to explore any angle of the espionage/spy/international intrigue novel, what would you want to know?
If you had the opportunity to launch a rant, what would the topic be?  What thrills you and disappoints you?
What would you like to see more of or less of in the genre?
There are no guarantees (panels are by nature dynamic and unpredictable), but I’ll try to get as many of your points out there as I can, and I’ll report back on the answers week after next.  Can’t wait to hear what you have on your mind.

18 thoughts on “What is it About Spy Novels?

  1. Well, it is rare that I am called a cool kid, but I will be there next weekend and look forward to the panel.

    From someone who only writes what she knows or what I have experienced firsthand, I’d love to know all the cool things that spy novelists get to do in the name of research. Like your shooting practice of a few weeks ago, I would imagine that they have done some very interesting things for research.

    And, have they found out things about the real world of spying that the public thinks of as only fiction and movies?

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain


  2. Cyber-espionage is the newest, most data-threatening source of spying in the real world, and yet we seem to see few spy novels set in that milieu. Why is that, and is that changing?

  3. To build on Kathryn’s comment,

    What’s next?

    With the demise of the Soviet Union and Cold War, what are the next enemies? Do thrillers keep the scope huge (Tom Clancy, Larry Bond) or go smaller (Bourne, Threat Warning).

    I loved loved your second book about the domestic terrorists and would be all over thrillers with that type of theme.

    Have fun! Terri

  4. Oh! Oh! I’ll be at Sleuthfest. So I’m a cool kid?!! YAY!!

    Believe it or not, Heather Graham asked me to help sing back-up at The House of Blues party she’s having Saturday night. It should be great fun. Please . . . do NOT bring ripe tomatoes!! Just come and dance. (I’ll dance with anyone who wants to!!)

    As for what thrills me in spy novels? The cyber-spy stories. I’m a huge Matrix fan and even the older ones like, Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson, or the Bourne Identity series. Very cool. I’m tired of the 007-type spy stories. Guns, Boobs and groovy guys in tuxes elicits yawns from this viewer/reader. I’m just sayin’.

  5. I know a few are, but do most of the spy novel writers come from a vocation that lent them info on the subject? Who are the writers behind the books?

    Spy novel writing is one of those things that seem like the brass ring–but seem unattainable if you have a dull job and no inside info. I’m not afraid of research (otherwise why would I write historicals) but research for spy novels has its own unique set of complexities, or so it would seem to me.

    This doesn’t speak to “present and future” of spy novels–but does the subject of spies in American history come up, especially pre-20th century? Anybody have any books they can recommend for that time period?

  6. Oh, here’s another question: Can you give a list of “must-reads” for anyone who wants to become familiar with the spy genre? I’m thinking of a list specifically for writers–writers need to know what has already been written in the genre in order to create something fresh and original.

  7. I have the same question as Terri Lynn — with no great adversary like the USSR, what’s the future of the spy novel? Does it even have a future? China just doesn’t seem to be a good replacement for the Soviet Union, nor do somewhat inchoate terrorist groups.

    Do spy novelists go back in time and take on the old KGB and Nazis again?

  8. I think there are plenty of enemies and potential enemies around to deal with. North Korea, Iran, China, Venezuela, Syria, Egypt, Drug Cartels, any or all of these could become the basis for international intrigue. What I am most curious about is what are each author’s preferences about their spy characters.

    James Bond fantasy spy types.

    Jason Bourne kind of realistic types.

    Do they suffer like men, or have near super powers? What do readers prefer, and why.

  9. One more: what are the “must have’s” in a spy novel? Each genre has its literary conventions, without which readers might be disappointed. What are the genre-specific requirements that are special to spy novels?

    And I promise that’s the last one!

  10. I enjoy the Oregon Files series Clive Clussler/Jack DuBrul – I like the team dynamic and the group. I like that they have some women on the Oregon and they hold their own, but in a not crazy unrealistic way. They’ve managed to find a variety of enemies, foreign, domestic, big business, governments etc. So I think there is room for continued interesting stories with bad guys everywhere.

    However, when I look around at the changes we are seeing here – The Guantanamo legislation that was passed over Christmas/New Years (even an American citizen can be taken and detained there basically on suspicion with no evidence, no trial, and no recourse, for however long) and congress just passing the ok for the use of some 30,000 drones to monitor “we the people” on our own soil, we are also hearing during these current elections about how hard it is to track where the money is coming from for candidates… Cyber crimes were mentioned – those are international… All of this stuff makes you wonder how anyone could get by with anything – that isn’t in direct control of the methods being employed.

    I see a future of stories where people have to fight the terrorism of their own government, and fight for their names, their lives, their jobs, basic human stuff… but many of the stories may come from inside threats rather than outside threats. I think you’ll see more stories of outside interests gaining inside options and running “behind the scenes” to manipulate things in less overt & more covert ways. I see the growth of greater secrets and conspiracies and more enemies that are secret combinations inside of our own nation… We may have help or we may cause our own downfall, but I think the interests of the average Jane and Joe are going to come to odds against more inside national threats, maybe even more than outside other country threats. All we have to do is look around, there is soooo much fodder for fiction.

    I just looked this over and I either look like a conspiracy nut or a wildly speculating author. (Please vote #2 :D)

    PS Wish I was one of the cool kids…but I’ll be happy to see your write ups and thoughts later.

  11. Why don’t we see female protagonists in spy novels? Id on’t mean the sex object or the hard ass bitch boss back at headquarters, but the actual portagonist. Why are there no female Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan or even Gabriel Allon types? Are they not being written? Or are they rejected by agents/editors/publishers in much the same way movie studios clearly reject women in lead action/adventure roles? There are certainly many women working in intelligence, and not just as the Boss Man’s coffee fetcher. Oh, yeah, and not like the bimbo killers in the Athena Project, either. I’ve wondered this for quite some time. Perhaps I’ve just missed that section in the bookstore. There are plenty of detective and cop series with female protagonists but not spy novels. This is my burning question.

  12. I wouldn’t discount “old” enemies as sources of material. New threat sources may emerge, but the old ones don’t go away.

  13. I like Catfriend’s questions about women in the arena of Spy Novels.

    Is this an area for future writers to explore? Or is it all a “Boy’s Club” – No girls allowed sort of thing – you know, treehouse sign and all.

    I can imagine a seriously Kick-Ass Chick taking over the #1 Kindle spot, but really, would the guys just laugh? That’s a good question for your panel, John.

    I liked how Steven James tackled the spy-worldwide threat aspect of the thriller in “The Queen”, his 5th installment of the Patric Bowers Files. The creeps were the ones to watch in his techno-thriller. Very bad men.

  14. I’ve just re-read Tinker Tailor, and realized all over again how good it is. But Charles McCarry is right up there with Le Carre. My head is still in the cold war and SEA. Do the various historical periods go in and out of vogue? For instance, are stories about spying during the Vietnam war dead right now? Enjoy the panel. Looking forward to your report.

  15. Like others here, I’d like to know about villains and what the good guys could fight against that maybe hasn’t been done to death before. Cybervillains? Bioterrorism? Economic disaster? What’s new and yet different out there?

  16. I am attempting to write my first spy novel.

    In my mind the future “bad guys” of the genre are internal rather than international.

    They have used their deep pockets to manipulate the government(s) into doing their own bidding at the expense of the public.

    One has to be careful to walk the line between what readers will believe and what people will laugh off as conspiracy nonsense. If done properly it can be much scarier than a vague external threat in my opinion. Most Americans don’t truly believe that a foreign power could ever gain a foothold here.

    Ludlum was great at making it all seem possible.

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