The Art of Indirection in British Espionage Fiction

Title:                   The Art of Indirection in British Espionage Fiction

Author:                Robert Lance Snyder

Snyder, Robert Lance (2011).The Art of Indirection in British Espionage Fiction: A Critical Study of Six Novelists. Jefferson, NC : McFarland & Co.

LCCN:    2011016259

PR830.S65 S69 2011


  • “In contrast to the classical detective story, the spy novel tends to be considered a suspect, less literary genre. While previous studies have focused on its historical, thematic and ideological dimensions, this critical work seeks to distinguish British espionage fiction based on its unique narrative form, which is typically elliptical, oblique and recursive”—Provided by publisher.


  • Introduction: Reconnoitering a Disreputable Genre — Eric Ambler’s revisionist thrillers — Graham Greene’s world of loyalty and betrayal — Len Deighton’s cold war triptych — John Le Carre’s post-Cold War labyrinths — Stella Rimington’s feminist espionage fiction — Charles Cumming’s contemporary vision.


Date Posted:      October 22, 2016

Review by Robert W. Hill[1] on June 5, 2011

It would be easy to puff the new book by Rob Snyder and call it a “must read” for readers who “just love” spy novels, but that would be facile and silly. The Art of Indirection is, however, a “must read” for people who want to think—with joy—about how good novels, in many genres, tell good stories but also tell about themselves as works of art.

The brief introductory history of detective vs. spy stories is informative, yes, but the crux of Snyder’s study is found in his learnedly pursued idea that detective stories are linear, rationalized, clue-driven plots that seek and find resolution (Whodunit? S/he done it!); while the best espionage narratives are recursive as life, coded and cross-coded like existential mystery, unsatisfying as when all the good guys and the bad guys die, or when they all live. While detective stories lead us to satisfaction in what we think are our orderly minds, these finest spy stories probe the truly endless motivations of individuals and their all-encompassing institutions.

Reading this body of perhaps “indeterminate” plottings, Snyder reminds us that literature at its best never gives us simple, quotable answers (although we often try to use it thus, as with “I took the one less travelled by” or “Good fences make good neighbors,” and miss the real “world” of a poem). What it does is prepare us to meet more thoughtfully and affectively the infinitely complex world we inhabit: “If nothing else, modern British espionage fiction hones our ability to decipher and question all those forces that conspire to shape our lives” (p. 11).

Great poems are about poetry; great movies, about movies; great literary analyses, about how literary analysis works to our human advantage. Very nice work here, Rob!

[1] Hill, Robert W. (posted June 5, 2011). “Espionage Fiction NOT Just Another Detective Story,” on Amazon. Downloaded October 22, 2016. Hill awards the book 5 stars.