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More Spies

Can’t get enough spy fiction? This week, Brook and Sarah revisit the sub genre and discuss characters other than those created by Ian Flemming and John le Carré.

Discussed in order

Ian Flemming
John le Carré
Christopher Marlowe
Kit Marlowe Series (2011-2020) MJ Trow
The Rose Code (2021) Kate Quinn
The Alice Network (2017) Kate Quinn
Foul Lady Fortune (2022) Chloe Gong
The Librarian Spy: A Novel of World War II (2022) Madeline Martin
The Book Spy (2023) Alan Hlad
Terminal List (2018) Jack Carr
Truly Deadly (2016) Rob Aspinall
Alex Rider series (2000-2020) Anthony Horowitz
Austin Powers (1997) New Line Cinema
Phineas and Ferb (2007-2015) Disney

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com


This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah! It’s our favorite time of the week again.
SarahI know. This is honestly, my favorite day and my favorite hour of the week is the hour that you and I are together talking about mystery.
BrookI know it’s so much fun and today we have a super fun topic. Do you want to introduce everyone to our topic today, Sarah?
SarahAbsolutely. So last year, towards the end of our first set of episodes, we spoke about spy fiction and most of the episode we talked about Ian Fleming and John le Carré and the characters that they created. They are, of course, masters of the spy fiction genre. But today we wanted to talk about some other spies and I have to say Brook I had so much fun with this. So I have a ah long list of other spies and other spy fiction authors and it was hard to choose who to talk about but I will start with Christopher or “Kit” Marlowe.
SarahSo, we mentioned him actually in the introduction of our first spy episode because he was an Elizabethan playwright and was known to be part of a spy network maintained by Francis Walsingham. There’s actually a series of novels about him written by MJ Trow that fits into several categories. He’s an example of an author as a sleuth a celebrity sleuth as well as historical fiction and spy fiction and I think he’s fascinating for several reasons in part because there’s a lot of mystery around his death. And whether it was the result of you know some of the real spy work that he was doing.   We also talked a little bit about spy fiction with a focus on women. And I mentioned Kate Quinn, who authored The Rose Code and The Alice Network and you know I did a quick search on Google and typed in women, you know women’s spy fiction and there are so many examples, largely historical mysteries. It’s a pretty strong signal that these are going to be women’s spy fiction novels because of the cover. So, it’s often a woman, from behind, maybe looking off to the side or looking you know we can’t see her face. It’s a pretty strong signal that that this will be something about a woman spy, typically in the in the Second World War. But I did recently read and really enjoyed Foul Lady Fortune by Chloe Gong which is a historical mystery, features a woman who is very much engaging in spy espionage activities. There’s also a supernatural element to these books and this is the first of I believe she’s planned two books in this series and she’s written another series that there’s some characters I think this is a spinoff from her earlier series and I haven’t read any of those other books but in the author’s note she does say “I encourage you to read the other books first before you read this one if you don’t want any spoilers”. But I will be reading in the wrong order because I will definitely be reading those others but it was it was excellent.
BrookYou know when we were talking about this episode, I said to “you know I just don’t really read very much spy fiction. That’s kind of your thing you know you’ve really dabbled in a lot of it.” But then when you started naming off authors I was like, “Oh yeah, okay” because I think and this is I think a common situation that you automatically gravitate towards in your mind if you think about spies the you know the Jack Ryans and the le Carré characters and Ian Fleming stories and I really had to dial it back and go “no I really do I love all the Bletchley circle tales about you know the everyday people that became spies. I love the literary spy fiction that we see.” You know there’s The Librarian Spy and The Book Spy. And I got to thinking like sometimes I think we mis-categorize those and we just think of them as maybe thrillers I don’t know, but they really are spy fiction. And then I was thinking about it a little further and I wonder if we could kind of consider those versus the more action spy books as “cozy” spy novels.
SarahYeah, I think that’s a really a really good question and I was kind of thinking about them about this sort of subgenre being on a spectrum. And I will refer to le Carré and Ian Fleming as kind of either end of that spectrum right? So le Carré I think is more of like you say that cozy spy mysteries and then Ian Fleming is the more action spy in the subgenre. And like with mystery generally, there’s a lot of variation between those two points. Like Jack Ryan I would position closer to Bond or Bourne in terms of being much more action oriented. It’s a really great observation.
BrookI also liked the in your entry you talked about the way that there are various subgenres within the subgenre. You know, you get the action adventure like we just said, there’s usually political elements. Many of these are historical. So if you’re into historicals, you can grab one of those and even sci-fi.
SarahAbsolutely. And I’ve been thinking a little bit about what makes the genre so appealing. I wonder if it has something to do with how a lot of the stories and particularly I think you know we’re thinking about those cozier spy mysteries. But even to some extent I think maybe some of the action ones. How a lot of the narrative mirrors reality. And so what I mean is that there are people whose job it is to gather intelligence and obviously there are police detectives and it’s their job to solve to solve crimes. But and with books in both detective and in spy fiction I think some of them can feel a lot more plausible than some of those others that I still love but others that that fit under the mystery umbrella. A lot of the women spy fiction is either based on actual characters or people who’ve been inspired by actual women who worked during the Second World War and worked at Bletchley or you know were used in the resistance or you know because they were not perceived to be threats.
BrookI think you’re right. It makes it so accessible. I can’t really put myself in the shoes of James Bond or that lifestyle. But I can definitely imagine what it would be like to. Just be this normal gal who happened to be good at crosswords and have a knock—by the way I’m not good at crosswords—but I can I can use my imagination. But have that knock that knock at the door and be like “hey we need your level of expertise. You have this special skill.” It’s so appealing to hear that person’s story.   And I think that you know in our earlier episode we discussed that spies ask big questions. You know they say, “What am I here for? Who am I?” there are some. Deep human condition questions that happen in spy fiction. And I think that we get that a lot in these um women as spies because they are taken out of a very normal everyday lifestyle and they’re put into this exciting world even though maybe they’re sitting at a desk. They’re literally changing the course of history and then they go back to their everyday life washing dishes raising children and are to never speak of that time in their life again and so. Um I think it opens up a lot of questions about you know is that fair, women’s rights, women’s roles, and not just women certainly there were men that worked at Bletchley as well. But a lot of these stories I think ask those questions about um women in the war and the role that they played. When they don’t get to wear the medals on their chest.
SarahYeah that’s that’s that’s really interesting, Brook. And I think part of that is because of the secrets around the work that they were doing right and now enough time has elapsed that those secrets are are coming out. is a really interesting point because those secrets have been kept for so long but we think about you know more modern day spy fiction or some of those stories that are set more modern day and it doesn’t seem to be a secret whatever it is that that they’re um that they’re about right? I’m thinking about um Jack Carr’s series that I think is now an Amazon series. Where ah and the first book is called Terminal List. And so I so I started listening to it and um I haven’t finished it but in the first part of the book it’s actually ah, an author’s note from him. He talks about the writing process and kind of how he got the books and eventually how he got the show produced but what I found was really fascinating was he talks about the vetting process when he writes his book his books because he was actually I believe he was a navy seal. That lends some authenticity to the stories and we’ve talked about that in the past about you know that having someone writing about about what they know, but in his author’s note he talks about how everything that he writes has to be vetted by this you know special government office in the US that ensures that he has not shared anything that would compromise actual people who are in the field which is which is fascinating.
BrookWow, yeah, interesting. Yeah and so that phenomenon continues where you need these people who worked in this um you know MI6 and MI5 they were to remain silent about their work which makes perfect sense. And so in a sense it’s continuing he has to be monitored to make sure he doesn’t reveal something. That’s fascinating, Sarah.
SarahI really enjoyed that part. So if even if you are not you know going to listen to or read the rest of the book. I recommend that first author’s note section just to learn a little bit more about about that. I mentioned Foul Lady Fortune and there’s the supernatural element in that. I read another book that had a supernatural element and it had a woman as spy theme as well but it was set in modern day and it was YA spy fiction.
SarahSo I’m talking about Truly Deadly by Rob Aspinall. And this is like I said a young woman is the main character and the premise is that she has had a heart transplant and the donor heart comes from a man who was a spy or certainly someone who was working in a um spy-like capacity and it’s not entirely clear who he is part of the book that I read was trying to figure out you know, not only like how does how does having this heart impact her and she all of a sudden has these spy fighting abilities and you know she can drive cars in in high speed chases. Skills that she didn’t have as a regular teenage girl. And part of the book is trying to figure out like who is this who is this guy and I think it’s the first of a series and I’ll definitely check out some of the others because I liked this character and the premise, right? It’s obviously not based in reality. But it was kind of fun.
BrookI love that. We see that need, even in detection fiction, to have a reason why this person is suddenly able to as an amateur sleuth say solve a crime. And when you have paranormal reasons come in it’s sometimes really fun. I’ve never seen that it’s a donor organ that suddenly gives them all these skills but it’s genius. I love that idea and it almost seems plausible. You never know when you get someone else’s DNA what it could do for you. I love that.
SarahYeah, no I thought it was I thought it was really clever.
SarahSo just continuing on the YA theme. Anthony Horowitz has written a series about a young spy named Alex Rider and so much like the women that we were talking about before you know being used as spies because they were underestimated, the premise is very similar with this series right? He’s I think 14 when the series starts and he’s able to go into situations that adults wouldn’t necessarily be able to go into. And this series is a little bond like because he does get some gadgets as he goes off on his various adventures. But it’s quite fun and there is a television version that is on Amazon Prime by the same name Alex Rider and it’s lots of fun to watch.
BrookYeah, that sounds great anything that Horowitz does I’m pretty much guaranteed that it’s going to be great and um I do I have not read or watched it yet. But I imagine that it’s sort of like a young Bond That’s how the picture that I have in my mind is maybe like. You know who he was when he was a teen. But I love that. And I also love the idea of bringing in the next generation I think that’s something that YA fiction does so well and is so important. Whether we’re talking about spy thrillers or you know, just an actual whodunit I love the idea that we’re bringing in the next generation and keeping it current for them so that they can find something in the genre to um to hold on to and to to carry it into the future.
SarahExactly and you know I know there’s a lot of adult readers, including me, of YA fiction so you know it satisfies a lot of people I think to have to have those.
BrookYeah, absolutely and it’s it’s another layer of what we were saying because any of those “amateur doing something fantastic” are such an accessible thing for a reader because we would love to have seen ourselves as a kid get maybe chosen for this mission or trained for this mission. So I think that’s something that makes YA fiction so much fun. It’s fun to harken back to feel like what would have that been like to be a young person and live out some of those fantasies.
BrookSo, you know something is a big deal and hugely popular when it gets parodied. So, I think that we need to not forget to mention um the spies such as Austin Powers which is 100 percent a James Bond Parody I think, all that 1960s flair. Yeah, those movies are great and when you can poke fun at a genre like we’ve discussed before in different ways, it’s it’s just great fun.
BrookAnd then another spy parody is Perry the platypus who is on Phineas and Ferb this is a Disney cartoon series that was popular when my teenage daughter was younger. We were huge Phineas and Ferb fans in this household. It’s actually a great show with a through storyline that’s very heartwarming. But they’re pet platypus named Perry is actually a secret operative. And it’s just like a hilarious little part of the um of the family life cartoon. So, I encourage you to check it out in ah as another spy parody.
SarahI have never heard of that, Brook and I’m going to have to see if we can if we can find it because you know I have a ah young person in my household and I love exposing him to mystery and I think he would he would probably enjoy that.
BrookYeah, you’re going to get a big kick out of it when you see the way that the each episode is constructed and what Perry’s doing behind the scenes. It’s it’s adorable.
SarahCool. Thanks thanks for that.
BrookThank you for all these great suggestions. You’re definitely ah the member of our team that is more versed in spy thrillers and Spy Fiction. So thank you so much for getting us going on this conversation today.
SarahWell thank you, Brook and I have to admit that until I did our until we did our first spy episode last year I hadn’t read that much spy fiction. But I’ve been finding myself choosing books in the in the subgenre. Um more and more frequently. It’s it’s really something that I’ve I’ve come to love over the last year
BrookThat’s great I think that that’s something that the podcast has done for both of us is that we’re finding new little niches that we that we love and and new bits of information to research and it’s just it’s just fantastic for me too.
BrookAnd we hope that you all enjoyed our episode today as well and thank you for joining us on Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.