So the cold war is long over, but somehow our love affair with super spies persists. Is it because we like to think there are people out there quietly keeping us safe from the nefarious villains?
The spies fall into three categories as far as I can see.
The urbane sophisticate
This spy will charm his way into the hearts of very villain’s entourage. Sean Connery is the Bond who does this the best. Yes he can fight. Yes, he has the latest toys to defeat the evil forces. He needs a sexy sidekick, an EVIL opponent, and he always wins after a fight to the death. The other thing that drives him? World threatening stakes.
He’s a cad, but women love him because of his charm – and good looks. Men love him for his outrageous abilities.
I think this field of action is dominated by the Bonds – Sean Connery being my favorite, with Pierce Brosnan coming a close second.
The brooding agent
This is the Daniel Craig Bond. He has personal demons that get in his way. He brings a little bitterness to the sophisticated spy. I think he reflects our cynicism about the spy business because he sees the futility of his job. There’s never an end, there will always be someone greedy or sociopathic enough to want to take over the world.
The fundamentals are there: fighting, endurance, toys and charm. If they weren’t, he wouldn’t be a Bond.
We see this style in the Robert Ludlum spies too. Jason Bourne has to fight for his identity. This time the enemy is the people who created him. Yes, there’s a world threat, but the real enemy is the fact that Jason doesn’t know who to trust or how to deal with what he has done.
The workman agent
I don’t think we have a Bond for this category. This is the John le Carre spy. The one who goes to work everyday to sort through information looking for threats. I suspect this is the most realistic type of spy. Yes he (or she) can shoot and fight, but they tend to go silently through the world.
While their compatriots carry a lot of flash and violence in their stories, making them more like action heroes, these spy stories thrive on tension. A look, a lie, a whispered conversation replace the chase scenes and high tech weapons.
I think we like this kind of spy because it brings the threat closer to us. Not everyone is going to be a super villain a la Goldfinger, but down deep, we know everyone has their price.
A story in each I recommend in book or movie form
The urban sophisticate – Any of the James Bond books because they are less action adventure than they are spy stories. But, I also recommend Clive Cussler for this. Flood Tide will introduce you to the world-shaking stakes and charm of the Dirk Pitt series.
The brooding – The Osterman Weekend, Ludlum. A good example of a reluctant recruit with his own problems
The workman – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. Le Carre in either the book or the movie. It’s slow paced, but an amazing example of tension and betrayal.
What are your favorites?