BOOK REVIEW / Too much cloak, not enough dagger

Andrew Lownie find fault with an espionage anthology; The Oxford Book of Spy Stories, edited by Michael Cox, OUP pounds 17.99

I n one of the stories in The Oxford Book of Spy Stories, the interrogator describes espionage as a "game invented by the English during the Napoleonic Wars... they have learned to play it with gentle but consummate skill." Just as our Intelligence Services are among the best in the world, so too are our spy writers, which may explain the popularity of spy anthologies in this country. There have been some two dozen over the last 50 years with editors of the distinction of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. Now Michael Cox, who has produced some excellent anthologies of detective and ghost stories, does his bit with these 28 stories published over the last 100 years.

He has a difficult task. Like one of Henry VIII's wives, one's responsibility is known, the problem is how to make it seem different. How does one breathe new life into an old form? He has compounded his difficulties by electing to include only short stories rather than brief extracts from spy novels.

A fiction anthology should not merely be a random collection of stories. It needs to have a point of view, and the basis on which the selection has been made needs to be made clear. This is not readily apparent from Cox's introduction, which gives a lucid account of the origins and growth of spy fiction but only addresses his selection in passing.

He claims his choice constitutes the best spy stories, but, as Mandy Rice-Davies remarked on another occasion, "He would wouldn't he?" No, what he has done is provide a little of everything. There are much-anthologised stories such as Valentine Williams' "The Pigeon Man" and Ambrose Bierce's "Parker Adderson, Philosopher"; there is an example of the cross-fertilisation of the genre with Robert Sheckley's futuristic "Citizen in Space", and there are stories from writers not usually associated with the genre, like Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, WE Johns and John Galsworthy.

The usual suspects are also here - William Le Queux, AEW Mason, Edgar Wallace, Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, Ted Allbeury - though not always with their best-known, or indeed their best, work. Personally, I would have chosen John Buchan's more overtly espionage tales "The Loathly Opposite" or "Dr Lartius" rather than the unremarkable Jacobite story "The Lit Chamber".

That said, his eschewing of the well-known for the less familiar often works. One of Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories had to be included, not least to mark the transition from the romantic to the realist tradition of spy fiction, the move from the spy as patriot to spy as disillusioned romantic. Rather than the more obvious "The Traitor" or "Mr Harrington Waiting", Cox has chosen the far superior "Giulia Lazzari".

There will be questionable inclusions or omissions in any anthology, and that is emphatically the case here. Given this is an Oxford book, perhaps Cox should have included more literary writers working in the genre such as O Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Mark Twain and Charles Kingsley. The balance too seems strange. Over half the stories come from between the wars, with only one tale, "Risico" - possibly Ian Fleming's most self- indulgent tale - marking the Cold War's three most important decades. Also, just one woman is represented - Baroness Orczy - and only four foreigners.

John Le Carre's importance is noted in the introduction but not reflected in the text. Perhaps copyright clearance was too high, but surely one of the stories from The Secret Pilgrim should be here? Other omissions to my mind include Sapper, Peter O'Donnell (why not a Modesty Blaise tale from Pieces of Modesty?) and an example drawn from the rich vein of comic spy writing; Cyril Connolly's "Bond Strikes Camp" comes to mind. Spying may be a serious business but spy fiction is not.

All the same, this is a stimulating collection with some gems, such as AD Divine's "Flood on the Goodwins" and Len Deighton's "Paper Casualty". Cox shows himself again to be a diligent and imaginative anthologist. But the fact remains that just too few spy short stories are being written or published. If the task of the future spy anthologist is to be made easier, magazine editors need to give thought to encouraging the genre. For, as a 1994 Edward Hoch tale - loosely based on the Aldrich Ames case - shows here, they continue, even with the end of the Cold War, both to reflect and shape contemporary history.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent