I have to admit that I’ve never really been into spy fiction very much. When I was at school in the seventies, the BBC started serialising John Le Carre’s George Smiley novels with Alec Guinness, with great success, but whilst everyone else started reading the novels, I stuck stubbornly to crime fiction (and probably Agatha Christie at that). Nevertheless, a year or so ago I decided to give Henry Porter’s Brandenburg a try. Porter is a regular column writer in The Observer, and I enjoy his writing there. His pieces are thoughtful and carefully put together. Besides, I had read a good review of the book. Around the same time William Boyd (one of my favourite authors) also ventured into spy fiction with his novel Restless. So I suddenly found myself reading a couple of spy novels, never having read any before, and I enjoyed them immensely. A Spy’s Life is the third of Porter’s novels I have read. At one level it is entirely predictable – it is fast-paced, centering around the quest of a morally virtuous (well, realtively so) individual, pitching himself against organised crime, the establishment and rogue states, who are often in league with each other, in order to expose some terrible criminal conspiracy on an international scale. The individual, who has some present or former link to espionage, escapes death by a whisker on a number of occasions (usually as a result of being double-, triple-, or quadruple-crossed), finally to triumph. Or rather it is decency, political and personal honesty and a slightly left-of-centre sense of collective responsibility that triumphs over the cynical and ruthless double-standards of those in power and their attempts to maintain the status quo, no matter how morally bankrupt it may be. Nevertheless, these are also clever, complex plots that never fail to surprise with their twists and turns.
So these are all novels that are simultaneously pessimistic (we are all living in a rotten, corrupt society and governed by a conniving, cynical and morally bankrupt political establishment that will stop at nothing to keep power) and also optimistic (in spite of the darkest machinations of that establishment, basic decency and humanity will always win out). But this is, perhaps, oversimplifying things. Porter writes with a political awareness and a clear understanding of (or at least a clear position on) complex world politics that is woven throughout the pages of his novels. Reading his spy novels, you can never lose sight of the fact that he is not only writing popular fiction – he is also a very astute political journalist operating on the world stage.