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
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The Independent Culture
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.