In Espionage and Exile, Phyllis Lassner argues for a connection between twentieth century fictions about spies and the real-world plight of European exiles and refugees from the 1930s up through the Cold War. Understood "as a political condition and state of being and identity," "exile" also describes the state of many of the protagonists of espionage fiction (3). Lassner writes that the six British writers and filmmakers whose work she examines all tie "the exiled condition that defines the spy's place in the fictional secret world to that of the stateless refugee in twentieth-century history" (218). In doing so, they use genres associated with light entertainment to make the kind of "critical intervention" into politics and ethics that is usually viewed as the prerogative of weightier forms.
Lassner is especially interested in the significant role played in these fictions by Jewish characters and other victims of Nazi persecution, a feature common to the works she examines and, she claims, one that distinguishes them from the "canonical modernists" who ignored Nazi racism. Those writers and filmmakers discussed in Espionage and Exile who were working in the 1930s and during World War II all use Jewish characters or other refugees from Nazism to build their case for British and North American resistance to Hitler. "Empathy for the persecuted forms a literary, political and ethical bond among the writers studied in this book," writes Lassner, empathy that drove their effort to goad their fellow Anglophones into involvement in the anti-Nazi cause (4).
The book's Introduction is followed by chapters on Eric Ambler; Pamela Frankau, Helen MacInnes, and Ann Bridge; the actor Leslie Howard; and John le Carré. In the chapter on Ambler, Lassner observes that the protagonists of his 1930s thrillers are men who stumble by accident into the drama of European politics: men without strong political or national loyalties who "reside in epistemological, political and existential exile" but eventually find that neutrality is not an option (25). In an absorbing reading of Ambler's 1939 novel The Mask of Dimitrios, Lassner points out that by making his accidental spy a British writer who travels around the violence-wracked Continent simply to gather colorful detail for his books, Ambler is criticizing writers who—unlike himself—are willing to use "stories of Fascist economic manipulation to revise the novel of escapist intrigue while wanting to escape its political implications" (53). Thus he also implicitly criticizes Britain's own attempts at neutrality and appeasement throughout the 1930s.
Unlike women writers of detective fiction, women writers of spy novels have garnered almost no scholarly attention to date; Lassner's chapter on Frankau, MacInnes, and Bridge addresses that critical lacuna. As Lassner shows, political disruption provides a marvelous pretext for mid-century women writers to let their heroines break out of conventional bourgeois gender roles and behave in "un-feminine" ways without being punished for it (70). In fact, political extremity licenses female heroism, and in the novels Lassner analyzes, the female characters are indeed heroines—not just sidekicks, victims, or incidental love interests as they typically are in thrillers by men. As these middle-class Englishwomen shed the security and privilege of their position by engaging with the political conflicts on the Continent, their behavior becomes a critique of the "privileged isolationism" of England itself (82). In addition, all three of these writers—sharply aware that Jews were among the primary victims of those conflicts—used their mass-market, popular fiction to dramatize the plight of European Jewry at a time when national governments and mainstream media were still ignoring it.
The chapter on Howard was my favorite section of the book, both because of the tightness of Lassner's argument and because so much of the information Lassner provides about Howard was new to me. Before being killed in 1943 when the Luftwaffe shot down his civilian plane, Howard, who was of Hungarian Jewish descent, wrote, produced, and/or directed both antifascist films like "Pimpernel" Smith (1941) and 49...