One of the most popular forms of fiction over the last hundred years, the British spy novel emerged during the international tensions of the years preceding the First World War. Scandals like the Dreyfus Affair in France highlighted the activities of spies and the intelligence services that employed them, while armaments rivalries such as the Anglo‐German naval race fuelled a volatile mood of jingoism and xenophobia receptive to novels of espionage, intrigue, and violence, in which secret agent heroes battled against the evil machinations of villainous spies.
Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903), a suspenseful tale of two amateur British agents foiling a German invasion plot, is often described as the first spy novel, and has become a classic. But the first spy writer to spring to public fame was William Tufnell Le Queux (1864–1927), whose highly successful The Great War in England in 1897 (1893) heralded a cascade of best‐sellers over the next three decades, all of which employ a series of heroic male agents cut from sturdy patriotic cloth who save the nation from the plots of foreign spies. Setting an enduring trend in spy fiction, Le Queux—who fantasized about being a spy himself—deliberately blurred the line between fact and fiction to make spurious claims of authenticity and realism, and his fiction was often thinly disguised propaganda for strengthened national security. Le Queux's great Edwardian rival was E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866–1946), who wrote a succession of novels featuring glamorous seductresses and society high life that continued until the Second World War; amongst the best known are The Kingdom of the Blind (1916) and The Great Impersonation (1920). The year 1920 also saw the creation by Sapper of the unabashed xenophobe and anti‐Semite Bulldog Drummond, a muscular agent who over the next two decades robustly thwarted the plots of the communist arch‐villain Carl Peterson and assorted foreigners in such titles as The Black Gang (1922), The Final Count (1926), and The Return of Bulldog Drummond (1932).
Yet from this inaugural period the writer who has best endured is J. Buchan, whose secret agent hero Richard Hannay first appeared in The Thirty‐Nine Steps (1915), a novel its author described as ‘a romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’, which defines much other spy fiction as well. There followed such classics as Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), and The Three Hostages (1924). Hannay and his adventures set their stamp on the imagination of a generation and beyond. Recurrent criticism of the hearty clubland ethos of Buchan's fiction provides exasperated testimony of how popular his novels have remained to this day.
The sombre inter‐war climate saw the emergence of a new generation of spy writers who broke sharply with the patriotic orthodoxies of their predecessors. Some, such as Compton Mackenzie and Maugham, had worked for British wartime intelligence and painted a far less glamorized and more realistic picture of the secret agent's life, such as in Maugham's influential collection of short stories Ashenden (1928). Mackenzie, prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for indiscretions in his third volume of wartime memoirs, Greek Memories (1932), took his revenge in his classic parody of the bureaucratic absurdities of the Secret Service, Water on the Brain (1933).