Spy Fiction

    Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

    There's a man who leads a life of danger
    To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
    With every move he makes another chance he takes

    Odds are he won't live to see tomorrow
    Johnny Rivers, "Secret Agent Man"

    Related to the Action Series, although not necessarily a series, it's any work in which the main character or characters are spies, secret agents, double agents, or some other form of espionage professional. Spy Fiction tends to come in two flavors: "Martini" and "Stale Beer".

    Martini Flavored (shaken, not stirred) Spy Fiction is what you might call the Tuxedo Approach. This involves glamorous parties, fast cars, hot women, cool gadgets and big explosions (swap those adjectives around as you wish). Spying is fraught with danger and the stakes are massive. A Death Trap is par for the course. The main example here is of course James Bond (the movies in particular). This is the Hotter and Sexier spy game, with Spy Catsuits and Sex Face Turns by the dozen. The Tuxedo Approach as a whole is more glamorized and idealistic with clearly defined "good guys" and "bad guys", they often have a bit of an "action movie" feel.

    Stale Beer Flavored Spy Fiction could also be called the Trenchcoat Approach. "More realistic," pre-dating the other approach but seeing a resurgence as a Deconstruction of it, this is the more gritty style of espionage. It involves dead-drops, brush-pasts, blackmail and morally iffy things. Spying is stressful and you may end up an alcoholic or worse. This is the approach taken by Len Deighton and the Bourne series (the books and films alike), John Le Carre, and by Callan, the classic counterpoint to James Bond. This is the Darker and Edgier spy game. Ironically, the original James Bond novels are like this and both Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig played the character this way. The Stale Beer approach as a whole is more gritty and morally ambiguous, spying reflects power politics between whichever nations or organizations are involved and other nations and people are caught in the crossfire.

    In other words, the Tuxedo Approach would have a Soviet defector be a gorgeous, aloof Slavic beauty with whom the hero will probably elope at some point; the Stale Beer Approach would have a Soviet defector be a shaken, morally gray individual looking probably more for personal profit than for any virtues of right or wrong.

    Either of these may involve a Cloak and Dagger agency, Spy Couple, or any of the full gamut of Espionage Tropes.

    See Spy Literature for an index of Literature in the Spy Fiction category.

    Examples of Spy Fiction include:

    A note: the examples do not have to fit EXCLUSIVELY into their category, but they must fit most of the category's criteria. - Something that is "Martini with hints of stale beer" will fit into Martini, but something that is "Martini with strong elements of Stale Beer" will fit into Dirty Martini. Of course, as always, this is a wiki, feel free to correct/edit.


    Stale Beer

    • James Bond—Ironically the novels are more Stale Beer, while the movies tend to glamorize or parody the novels. Timothy Dalton read the novels and took his character in this direction.
      • The first two Sean Connery Bond films, Dr. No and From Russia with Love could probably also be considered Stale Beer. They are quite gritty (Bond is not above executing enemy agents and roughing up women to get information) and more down to earth than the later films. Casino Royale was a return to Stale Beer in full for the series, which shows just how cyclical tropes can get.
    • 24—Stale Beer
    • Atomsk—Stale Beer
    • Brotherhood Of The Rose—Stale Beer
    • The Bourne series (and anything else by Robert Ludlum) -- Stale Beer.
    • Callan—Extremely bitter Stale Beer.
    • Danger Man aka Secret Agent—Mostly Stale Beer, at the insistence of star and co-producer Patrick McGoohan; he found the Martini style both unrealistic and ethically questionable.
    • The Debt—Focuses on the mental challenges of operating undercover, and the emotional scars left by making the morally ambiguous decisions spy work demands.
    • From Eroica with Love—Stale Beer with occasional Martini flavoring. Specifically, the spy character enjoys stale beer while the thief he's after drinks his martinis from diamond glasses.
    • Hopscotch—Stale Beer, the writer wanted to take a James Bond story and take out all the sex, gadgets and over the top action.
    • Hanna—Stale Beer in the way of The Bourne Series, but with a teenage girl as the protagonist. (Hey, if she's old enough to fight, she's old enough to have a beer.)
    • The Ipcress File—Probably the Ur Example for Stale Beer, but it's significantly less stale than the beer served by Le Carre. Later works by Deighton (e.g. Funeral in Berlin) occasionally aren't so much Stale Beer as rather What Gets Wrung Out Of The Bar Mat.
    • Mr Palfrey of Westminster—Stale Beer. Not as stale as Callan, but no Martini.
    • The Sandbaggers—extremely Stale Beer (characters often comment, "this isn't James Bond.")
    • The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad—Stale Beer
    • The works of Tom Clancy tend more towards Stale Beer; it's even taught in his version of the CIA.
      • It tends to get considerably less stale as time goes on. Later works are a nice fresh American Lager. Or maybe a Bourbon?
    • The Quest for Karla—Stale Beer to the max, along with most other John Le Carre works and particularly the trend setter for this: The spy who came in from the cold.
    • Declare by Tim Powers is Stale Beer spy fiction—with a secret occult war.
    • Charles Stross's The Atrocity Archives and related books involve spies as they exist in the real world. Most of your time is spent doing paperwork and what jobs you have are generally very boring and mundane. Kind of stale beer, but more "generic bar beer".
      • Except for the bit with the Eldritch Abominations—that doesn't generally happen to real-world spies. Ergo, generic bar beer spiked with a liberal helping of LSD.
      • Subverted in the second book, The Jennifer Morgue, where the main character starts exhibiting all of the Bond martini tropes because the Big Bad is employing an Evil Plan which involves using a spell to make our hero a Bond hero right up until the moment where the plans would usually be foiled.
    • The Quiller novels by Adam Hall.
    • Everything by Anthony Price—Stale Beer
    • Spy Game—Scotch, and never less than 12 years old.
    • Intelligence
    • The Agency
    • The Splinter Cell series of video games are stale beer spy fiction, and the games seem to be getting darker and grittier as time goes on. Sure enough, it's Tom Clancy.
    • Spy of Darkness
    • The Company (2007 mini-series)
    • Ronin—The film was largely responsible for making Stale Beer popular again (and possibly revitalizing Spy Fiction in general at the time). No heroes, no flashy technology (there is some high-technology monitoring involved, mostly during a car ambush, but that's it) the two main protagonists are easily approaching retirement age, tons of moral ambiguity.
    • Three Days of the Condor—after a decade and a half of James Bond movies, this one stands out for being fully set in the real world.

    Dirty Martini (A Mixture)

    • Alex Rider purposefully invokes many of the unrealistic, martini-flavored elements of typical Bond films (car chases, huge explosions, hero gets a hot girl, etc) but takes great care not to gloss over the gritty realism of being a spy - the death, the danger, and the fact that The Hero's whole life is essentially a Trauma Conga Line the moment he accepts the position as a spy.
    • Team Fortress 2—The Spy looks Martini (parodied), but really Stale Beer. However, he does wear a snappy business suit.
    • Burn Notice—Michael Westen's fashion sense and the Miami setting suggest the former, but the work he gets is more or less stale beer (Westen emphasizes the boredom a lot in his voiceover narration) with a few flashy scenes/explosions per episode. A good description might be "Stale Beer in a Martini Glass." On the other hand, the work Michael was doing before he was burned was distinctly Stale Beer, and (patriot that he is), he wants to go back to that life.
    • Firefox—Stale Beer until the plane takes off, when it becomes Martini very quickly.
    • Nick Fury—Started out as Stale Beer but rapidly became some kind of radioactive psychic cocktail after he became immortal and clones of Hitler started taking over the world.
    • The Prisoner—Martini flavor, but gives a hangover worse then any flavor of beer (stale or otherwise), or (for that matter) any alcoholic beverage period (red wine and tequila included). Also, occasionally it feels like someone dropped a tab of LSD into the glass.
    • Spooks—Martini, but with major Stale Beer elements.
    • NCIS varies in its depiction of spying. Sometimes it's the martini approach - Ziva described it as "It's not all fast cars and sex...Well, there was a lot of sex." One of her flashbacks is shooting someone from the back of a motorbike. Later, the series seems to favor the stale-beer approach a lot more, with plenty of extremely boring stakeouts featuring.
    • Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax books defy both conventions with their lead character—a little old lady from suburban New Jersey who volunteered at the CIA in order to get some excitement into her life in between meetings of her garden club.
    • My Own Worst Enemy—Swings between Martini and Stale Beer every episode. For example, the missions JANUS performs (protecting a foreign political candidate from assassination, thwarting a bomb plot, interrogating targets, retrieving a government employee from enemy hands) fall under Stale Beer, their workplace and its equipment are clearly Martini; in addition to all of Edward's stuff.
    • The Thin Man (book and movies) -- Nora is from a Martini background, but happily follows Nick into the private eye's Stale Beer life.
    • Alpha Protocol has a lot of Martini elements, but with just enough Stale Beer to make it a mixture.
    • An episode of Deep Space Nine has Dr. Julian Bashir in an obvious James Bond parody holoprogram, making it VERY Martini. On the other hand, actual spy organizations (e.g. Section 31 and the Obsidian Order) in the show are Stale Beer. One of these Stale Beer spies is trapped in the program with Bashir, who treats it like the real thing.

    Garak: Kiss the girl, get the key. They never taught us that in the Obsidian Order.

    • James Bond yet again. If you think he shouldn't be in all three categories, just remember that he's been going on for 50 years. Many films have elements of Dirty Martini, particularly pre-Goldfinger when he was still an Unbuilt Trope to some degree. On Her Majesty's Secret Service has no gadgets and a believable (while simultaneously bonkers) plot, and the Bond girl dies. And the first two Moore films had scenes where he uses woman in ways tantamount to abuse.
    • Necroscope, the early works smell very much of stale beer, but get steadily classier as the series progresses.
    • Covert Affairs—Dirty Martini. It looks like regular Martini, but a lot of emphasis is placed on how hard the job is and the stresses it places one the agents personal life.
      • Covert Affairs despite the fancy nightclubs and pretty girls gets kudos for presenting espionage as largely salesmanship and though it has the traditional car chases and gunfights the plots are largely based on negotiating the hiring of assets.
    • Zero Zero Nine One: Technicolor Ninja cyborg spy girls with miniskirts and machinegun breasts, traveling the world and looking great doing it... while taking part in stories about betrayal, tragedy, and moral ambiguity, with happy endings virtually nowhere to be found.
    • Sleeper - Black Martini. Takes all the tropes of Martini (flying cars, cool gadgets, alien technology, superpowers) and runs them through a blender full of Chambord.
    • The Bionic Woman comes closer to stale beer than martini as Jamie Sommers eschews glamour for working in her non-spy hours as a schoolteacher and living in a loft above a farmhouse. But when she is sent on missions the stakes are often of the "save the world" level, and she does get to put on fancy clothes when the mission calls for it.
    • Played with on Las Vegas, in that ex-CIA agent Ed seems to have had a Stale Beer-flavored first career, but his life after espionage is Martini-flavored once he retires from spy-craft and puts his surveillance skills to alternative uses, busting cheats and thieves for the Montecito.
    • Burn After Reading - Every character seems to think they're in a different type of spy movie. They are all wrong; they are in fact in a really, really dark Farce.
    • Mr. and Mrs. Smith - Features a dueling between the types; John is Stale Beer, Jane is Martini.
    • RED (film). Beer, Beer, Martini, Beer, Beer, Martini, Martini ... Frank, Sarah and Marvin are definitely beer. Cooper, the Fed after them, is so martini his eyes should be pimento stuffed olives. Victoria and Ivan are the champagne.

    Parodies (Typically Martini Parodies)

    Need Classification

    • Aubrey-Maturin—Laudanum
      • The Aubrey-Maturin series is of the stale beer variety. Stephen's espionage is viewed distastefully by his best friend. He often longs to tell the women he cares about that he's a daring spy but knows he cannot though she eventually learns anyway. The hardships of his life as a spy are discussed in detail (horrible torture, escaping the enemy by hiding in cold marshes, etc.) and over the years drive him to addiction to substances such as as Laudanum (opium) and coca leaves. Also notable is that for all the mess he made of the American intelligence system in Halifax through running the streets of Boston and killing spies in the dark, his most brilliant coups are brought off through paperwork. He has a habit of using planted false intelligence to get large numbers of french spies killed by their own organizations, and brought off several coups through propaganda. A good example of the latter is the Mauritius Campaign. There are also many beautiful women in his espionage line but he resists their advances, subverting the Martini line.
    • Dune: Starts out at a dirty martini level with power politics amid luxury but a horrific planet. Evolves into a story about cosmic warfare.
    • Dominic Flandry: James Bond in space at first glance, but has a hero who becomes more and more weary. Focus on Worldbuilding.
    • It Takes a Thief -Whatever's in the fridge.
    • I Spy—distinctly Dirty Martini: the general set-up of the show emphasizes the glamour, but the actual spies they interact with are generally grubby, mercenary, greedy, unpatriotic, etc.
    • Metal Gear -- friggin' Absinthe.
      • To elaborate - the first Metal Gear Solid is pure Stale Beer, with a few fantastic elements. The second amped up the fantastic elements to Magic Realism levels, while pushing the Stale Beer elements to breaking point. The third was far more straightforward, deliberately using Martini tropes in the style of Stale Beer. The fourth (final?) game is much more solidly Stale Beer than the others, and it rejects most of the fantastical elements in favor of amping up the science-fiction elements, becoming more of a techno-thriller (albeit a very mind-screwy one).
    • The Saint
    • The Matt Helm series varies depending on medium. The original books were Stale Beer with Helm being a ruthless Career Killer working for an intelligence agency that seemed to specialize in the morally dubious. The movies with Dean Martin are a martini-flavored parody of James Bond. The little seen television show made Helm a Private Detective.
    • XXX: Four Loko. Or a Jägerbomb. The opening scene contains a Take That at the "Martini" style, with a James Bond Expy getting killed at a Rammstein concert due to how he stuck out in the crowd.
    • Casanova is Martini and Absinthe. Psychic duels, paratime shenanigans, hidden ultra-advanced civilizations and helicasinos for the win.
    • Agent
    • The Man Who Was Thursday, which is somewhere in between a spy novel and a metaphysical tract. Considered by some the first spy novel.
    • Syphon Filter
    • Vorkosigan Saga:Not completely about espionage but has plenty in it. Absolutely adores aristocratic food, clothing, and parties.