The Headline Book of Spy Fiction

Edited by Alan Williams
Published by Headline Book Publishing 1992

Last week I took a brief look at Eric Ambler’s To Catch a Spy, which was an anthology of short spy stories. If you recall, I mentioned that Ambler closed out his introduction with the following:

‘There are surprisingly few good short spy stories. If I could have my unfettered way, a spy anthology would include The Riddle of the Sands, The Thirty-Nine Steps, all of Ashenden, all of The Three Couriers, plus Graham Green’s The Ministry of Fear, plus Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, plus… but it is getting to be a rather heavy book. Better not wait for it. Please begin now with the hors d’oeuvres.’

Here we are looking at another compilation – The Headline Book of Spy Fiction. Rather than short stories, Alan Williams has wisely chosen to take short extracts from spy fiction. This means he can group together like-minded passages to create a feel for a particular espionage trope. But before I go any further, I though it was worth posting his ‘author’s note’.


‘Faced with the exhilarating task of making my choice for this Book of Spy Fiction, and given a totally free hand – unburdened by the exigencies of expense and space – I would have started with John Buchan’s Greenmantle – page one right through to the end; all of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories; the whole of Ian Fleming’s first and greatest of the Bond books, Casino Royale; great chunks of Ambler’s Mask of Dimitrios; most of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana; the entire text of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold… and… and… But it would have been a very long and expensive book – or series of books…
Better keep to a few select
hors d’oeuvres.’

I am sure I do not need to point out the similarities in Ambler’s introductions and William’s note. Is it plagiarism? No, I don’t think so. They are both drinking from the same well – that is looking at spy stories from the past, and being asked to select their favourites. But there the similarity ends. Ambler is limited by the small pool of short stories he can draw from, whereas, Williams is able to chop and change to suit each sections theme.

The book is broken up into eleven sections: Some Introductions to the Trade / Hiccups and Disadvantages of the Trade / More Serious Tradecraft / Hard Grafting in the Trade / A Touch of Patriotic Zeal /…And Some Scoundrels / Pitfalls, Horrors and General Nastiness / Tricks and Gadgets of the Trade / Car Chases, Then and Now / Some Vintages of the Genre /Premature Demises of Kim Philby. As I have suggested, each section takes appropriately themed excerpts from spy-lit favourites and groups them together.

Some of the authors included are: Graham Greene, John Buchan, Ian Fleming, ‘Sapper’, John LeCarré, Gerald Seymour, Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Desmond Bagley, Joseph Conrad, Erskine Childers. As you can see, they are the giants of espionage fiction.

Excerpts are taken from: Bulldog Drummond, Casino Royale, Billion Dollar Brain, The Honorable Schoolboy, The Ministry of Fear, Rogue Male, Our Man In Havana, Harry’s Game, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Funeral In Berlin, and a whole swag more.

Not that you should judge a book by its cover, but it is truly a pity that this anthology should have such an ugly cover. It reflects nothing of what is inside, which is a thoughtfully selected and edited collection of spy stories (or passages) that when combined paint a very colourful picture of spy fiction. I recommend this book very highly. It’s the type of book that you could and should take on holiday. Of course you’re also going to pick up the latest bit of airport fiction (or grab that novel off the pile that you have been promising yourself that you’d read for months). But there’s no room in your suitcase for all your Fleming, LeCarré, Deighton, Buchan, Somerset Maugham, and all the others. This book is the perfect solution. It contains bite sized morsels of all your favourites. Tuck this into the suitcase, and when that latest bestseller that everyone is talking about turns out to be a turkey you can be safe in the knowledge that you have reliable ‘backup’.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit more than Eric Ambler’s anthology, To Catch a Spy, quite simply because Williams hasn’t boxed himself into a corner by having to chose only ‘short stories’. The excerpt technique works well, and makes fascinating reading when juxtaposed against stories of a similar theme (but maybe not style). Highly recommended.

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