- Reviewed by
In The Spy Story, John G. Cawelti and Bruce Rosenberg present an explanation for the explosion in popularity of what they consider the third member of a popular fiction troika—detective fiction, westerns, and spy stories. They first explore the cultural and psychological significance of the genre, as well as briefly discuss the genre's history. The third chapter analyzes the narrative structure of spy novels. The core of their discussion lies in the chapters on John Buchan, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré. A final chapter traces connections between these Ur-writers and contemporary practitioners. Additionally, The Spy Story includes an extensive appendix, featuring a literary and historical bibliography of espionage and clandestinity, a list of the best spy novels and films, a catalogue of major spy writers and their heroes, and a selection of novels that contain espionage themes by major twentieth-century writers and celebrities.
The Spy Story is a thorough and professional exploration of the genre. Cawelti and Rosenberg set up a constant tension between the more conventional works of Buchan and Fleming and the more complex works of Ambler, Greene, and le Carré. This division is never analyzed; it is discussed as two (seemingly eternal) outlooks—the "mythic romance" of Buchan and Fleming and the "naturalistic novel" of Ambler, Greene, and le Carré. Whereas the first of these labels is acceptable (if one thinks of the sexual and racial stereotyping and high level of violence in earlier heroic romance), the second is barely adequate to describe the often complex mixture of adventure, social commentary and description, and exploration of individual psychology and responsibility found in the works of the last three authors. Cawelti and Rosenberg make no attempts to draw belle lettristic distinctions among works. In one way, this nonjudgmental stance is perfectly acceptable and admirable; in another, it would be useful to see some explanation of how these five writers signal that they are following or expanding the codes of signification for their genre.
After reading The Spy Story and gaining an appreciation for the solid groundwork laid by Cawelti and Rosenberg, I found two important questions left unanswered by their study. 1. Shouldn't some explanations of the popularity in the U.S. of what seems an almost entirely English form be included? Do the authors consider the U.K. and the U.S. parts of one trans-Atlantic culture? The implications of the decline and fall of the British empire explain the structure and thematic tensions of the novels discussed, but how does recent American social and political history relate to this literary form? 2. What are the major differences (structurally and thematically) between a spy story and a detective story? Although Cawelti and Rosenberg indicate there are differences, nowhere in the study do they offer a discussion of how the spies use the information they gather or how the characters create or interpret reality in a way that is clearly different from the actions of characters in detective fiction. The "motif and type index" included in the appendix has no features that help make this distinction clear.
The Spy Story is a sound, if somewhat repetitious and plodding work. Its promising thesis, however, makes one wish for more insights and interpretation than one finds. [End Page 331]