It is not certain how the situation in Ukraine will pan out, but it is certain, given the western response to Russian actions and the heated rhetoric, that a new Cold War is set to begin. Or rather, the old one is set to resume after a hiatus — but millennials and further generations may hardly be very familiar with it, notwithstanding the Bond films.There are two major reasons for this.First, though certain features of the Cold War — espionage, proxy wars, influence operations — continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the focus since the late 1990s was on Islamist terror, more so after 9/11. It is only in the last decade or so that the pendulum has swung back to contests between countries and their covert agencies.
And then, given the technical advances in the last two-three decades, imagining a world without the Internet, mobile phones, and the like may be daunting for present generations. Also much of the stock elements of traditional espionage — dead drops, telephone bugs, cover stories — may seem dated. But with recent revelations of how technology can be compromised, older measures may yet come back.On the other hand, moles, honey traps, as well as disinformation and psychological war, never went out of fashion.The “original” Cold War, the hidden fight between the CIA and the allied agencies, as well as Israel’s Mossad (mostly actuated by self-interest), and the KGB, and its friends, as it played about in various global hotspots, and saw bids to steal each other’s information, detect traitors, induce defections, and so on, was well documented in contemporary fiction.
Authors such as Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins, Desmond Bagley, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, to mention a few, were hugely popular in their day — and still are, while more cerebral, and “realistic” ones, like Graham Greene, John le Carre, Len Deighton and Anthony Price, have their own adherents.The genre has an alcohol-based classification by the irrepressible TV Tropes, and due to the James Bond films (but definitely not the books), we know the “Martini Flavoured” version the best.Full of glamorous parties, fast cars, hot women, high-risk casino games, cool gadgets, brutal fights (both guns and fists) and big explosions (all adjectives interchangeable), it plays for high stakes, like the safety of the entire world, and there are clear-cut “good” and “bad” sides.Given that these attributes lend themselves more to visual representation, the number of written works are not that many, but Adam Hall’s Quiller series, the Nick Carter-Killmaster series, and the novelisation of “Our Man Flint” could qualify.
The genre is better served by the “Stale Beer Flavoured” variant, which is “more realistic” in that it does not romanticise the profession, with the protagonist likely to be a middle-aged bureaucrat, rather than a dashing field agent, and usually facing stress from the work.Then it is much more morally ambiguous, can affect bystanders and usually has smaller operations fired for incremental gain, which may or may not affect the overall situation much. Almost all of the oeuvre of the genre’s most famous writers — Le Carre, Deighton, et al, is this.The “Dirty Martini” variant is “Stale Beer” in a martini glass, with the plot the same but set in glamorous locations, “Bathtub Gin Flavoured” features civilians, drawn knowingly or unknowingly, into the clandestine operations, though they may not even have the necessary skill set, while the “Layered Drink Flavoured”, as seen in most works of Le Carre or Price, features plots so intricate and complex that it needs close reading, or re-reading, to understand what is going on.
There are a few more, and then, more than one or all of these variants may also co-exist within a work.Let us take some half-a-dozen books that offer the best introduction to the genre, while keeping out, as far as possible, those which have the tradecraft right but have a bit too blatant expression of the author’s politics, ruling out some of Clancy, and William F. Buckley.An overarching narrative that incorporates major touchpoints of the Cold War, spanning the Berlin crisis, Hungarian Revolution, Bay of Pigs invasion, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, down to the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, is American journalist-turned-writer Robert Littell’s “The Company: A Novel of the CIA” (2002).As the name holds out, the primary point of view is that of a group of CIA officials down the ages, but there are several real-life characters featured, including almost all American Presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, Soviet leaders such as Yuri Andropov, as well as Fidel Castro, and a clutch of intelligence fraternity notables, namely, Kim Philby, James Angleton, Richard Helms, and Vladimir Kryuchkov.Forsyth saw most of his works being filmed – “The Day of the Jackal”, “The Odessa File”, “The Fourth Protocol”, among others. His “The Devil’s Alternative” (1979) — set amid a period of enforced detente and having a prominent Ukrainian sub-text — shows the complex choices that confront top statesmen, and how intelligence agents can chip in and, more importantly, help the leaders to keep their “hands clean”, but it is his “The Deceiver” (1991) that shows the Cold War in a new light — and the complacency of the West at its end.
A TV series transformed into a book, where a bridge narrative — of a brilliant but maverick operative being forced out and his subordinate trying to contest the decision — connects four operational episodes, detailing some prominent operations he undertook.The stories go to show how spies can have multiple allegiances (and frailties), how pretty less can be taken at face value in their world and how covert operations can be launched — and countered.A testament to the “cynically exploitative and utterly ruthless” actions (as per a reviewer) that governments — including those of the democracies — and their spy agencies are capable of can be seen in American-turned British citizen Edward Wilson’s Catesby series.Seven at the last count — with the penultimate two more domestic in nature and the last a flashback, they begin with “The Envoy” (2008), set in Britain in the 1950s, where the CIA is plotting to sabotage USSR-UK relations.The titular hero (William Catesby) only comes onstage in the end in this but is more prominent in the next three.
“The Darkling Spy” (2011), set primarily in West Germany of the 1950s, wraps up some plot points of the first, while “The Midnight Swimmer” (2012) deals with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and features a memorable cameo by Che Guevara.Then “The Whitehall Mandarin”, about the race between the USSR, the UK, and China to manufacture the hydrogen bomb, spans Europe and the US to end in the humid and lethal jungles of Southeast Asia as the Vietnam War ratchets up.Dan Fesperman’s “The Double Game” (2012) is both a radically different espionage story, and a paean to the espionage novel, listing an exhaustive number of fictional works on the Cold War and earlier, which also are a key plot driver.It is the story of a rather disillusioned PR executive, whose one action in highlighting an indiscretion by a leading spy fiction novelist during an interview as a cub reporter led to notoriety — and then, choked his career.All changes when a mysterious package sends him back to Cold War hotspots (Vienna, Prague and Budapest), as he learns that secrets from years in the past can still be lethal in the present.A rare look from the other side is Soviet-Russian journalist Yulian Semyonov’s “Tass Is Authorised to Announce” (1977), one of the just two available in English of this prolific writer, and showing how Soviet agents foil a dastardly CIA regime-change operation in sub-Saharan Africa.Let’s see what the new Cold War brings in its wake.