No More ‘Evil Soviet’ Spies : Glasnost Playing Havoc With British Novelists
As glasnost and perestroika unfold in Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, British spy novelists are looking beyond the “Evil Empire” rhetoric to a more complicated approach that blurs enemy lines.
“What we’ve lost is the natural assumption that if you say Russians, you’re talking about a certain character,” says Gavin Lyall, creator of the popular cloak-and-dagger character Harry Maxim.
“You can’t be as simplistic anymore; you move in a direction of possibly more subtlety,” said Lyall, 57.
Anthony Sampson remarked in The Independent newspaper recently that “those beloved villains (the Soviets) are losing their villainy.”
“They’ve all been undermined by that exasperatingly soft-spoken Gorbachev, as he insists on retreating from every filmic battleground from Afghanistan to Angola.”
Sunday Times TV critic Patrick Stoddart commented: “If we are no longer to be scared of Reds under the bed, what on Earth are we going to read before we turn out the light?”
The drawing power of Cold War drama remains strong, however, as shown by “Game, Set and Match,” a 13-part television adaptation of spy novelist Len Deighton’s trilogy. Aired in Britain last fall and now airing in America, it has won critical acclaim and high ratings.
The Deighton trilogy, about a British intelligence agent whose wife turns out to be a Soviet plant, was written before glasnost became a household word. But in interviews on the TV set, co-director Patrick Lau insisted the work was glasnost -inspired in that “the enemy is no longer drawn in broad-stroke cartoon characters.”
Richard Cohen, publishing director of Century-Hutchinson books and former editor of famed spy novelist John Le Carre, said: “Writers are having to be a bit more sophisticated. Certain simplistic political maneuverings as the background to thrillers can’t be used now.”
He said glasnost is “wiping the slate clean,” leaving open the question of “where to locate the enemy.”
Rupert Allason, a Conservative Party lawmaker and espionage historian, suggests Middle Eastern countries, whose secret services “have a deep grounding and are every bit as challenging as the KGB was 10 to 20 years ago.”
Lyall’s recently published “Uncle Target” is set largely in Jordan, while his next book will take readers to Morocco and Bermuda.
Ted Allbeury, 70, a former British intelligence officer who now writes spy novels, said the thaw accompanying Moscow’s openness offers richer fodder.
“It opens one more door,” he said in an interview, “if you can imagine the war that must be going on . . . between the old KGB operators and the brighter people they’re using more.”
Allason, who writes under the pseudonym Nigel West, told BBC radio last month: “It’s very difficult in this period to try and go back to the sinister figure of running spies all around the world.
“The fact is, the newspapers show us every day that they have failed, and the KGB defections have in effect put Karla (Le Carre’s fictional Soviet spymaster) out of business.”
Not that the Soviet Union as a topic of interest is likely to go away. “The basic structure is as old as story telling,” said Richard Cohen. “It does have a certain form to it.”
John Gardner, who writes James Bond novels by arrangement with the estate of Bond creator Ian Fleming, doesn’t see glasnost and perestroika putting Western intelligence out of business.
“People say we must find a new evil, and my response to that is the old one ain’t gone away, it’s very much still there,” he said in an interview.
“Just because we have Gorbachev saying wonderful things doesn’t mean we relax any vigilance,” Gardner said in an interview.
Former British spy Anthony Cavendish worries that new British official secrets legislation, which imposes a lifetime ban on secret agents describing their work, will dry up the source material that helps spy novelists give their work authenticity. Cavendish’s memoir, “Inside Intelligence,” is already banned in Britain.