Spy fiction, literature concerning the forms of espionage, was a sub-genre derived from the novel during the nineteenth century, which then evolved into a discrete genre before the First World War (1914–18), when governments established modern intelligence agencies in the early twentieth century. As a genre, spy fiction is thematically related to the novel of adventure (The Prisoner of Zenda, 1894, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905), the thriller (such as the works of Edgar Wallace) and the politico–military thriller (The Schirmer Inheritance, 1953, The Quiet American, 1955).
In nineteenth-century France, the Dreyfus Affair (1894–99) contributed much to public interest in espionage. For some twelve years (ca. 1894–1906), the Affair, which involved elements of international espionage, treason, and anti-Semitism, dominated French politics. The details were reported by the world press: an Imperial German penetration agent betraying to Germany the secrets of the General Staff of the French Army; the French counter-intelligence riposte of sending a charwoman to rifle the trash in the German Embassy in Paris, were news that inspired successful spy fiction.
Pre-First World War
Early examples of the espionage novel are the American stories of The Spy (1821) and The Bravo (1831), by James Fenimore Cooper. The Bravo attacks European anti-republicanism, by depicting Venice as a city-state where a ruthless oligarchy wears the mask of the "serene republic". Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling concerns the Anglo–Russian Great Game of imperial and geopolitical rivalry and strategic warfare for supremacy in Central Asia, usually in Afghanistan. In Continental Europe, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Orczy chronicled an English aristocrat's derring-do in rescuing French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror of the populist French Revolution (1789–99).
In Britain, the term "spy novel" was defined by The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers. It described amateur spies discovering a German plan to invade Britain, thus being an early example of the invasion literature sub-genre. William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim became the most widely read and most successful British writers of spy fiction, especially of invasion literature. Despite having been their genre's first and second writers, their prosaic style and formulaic stories, produced voluminously from 1900 to 1914, proved of low literary merit.
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