From Rudyard Kipling to Ian Fleming, the great spy writers have kept us on the edge of our seats for over a hundred years. Author Declan Burke joined Sean Rocks on Arena to pay homage to the trailblazers and best-loved figures in this genre. 

The spy novel is a product of the 20th century and was born out of the tensions leading up to World War 1.

"Maybe all the growth in nationalist sentiment, the empire building, the so-called scramble for Africa and so forth has all created situations in which intelligence, in which secrets of the other side become ever more vital… (Rudyard Kipling's) Kim is regarded as the first spy novel. It coined the phrase ‘The Great Game’ which then became known as a reference to the spy war between the Americans and the Russians and the UK and the Russians.  It’s set in India, and we have Kimball O’Hara and he is English but he’s born in India… He almost becomes emblematic for Kipling’s kind of interest in that idea, of east meeting west."

Another forefather of the spy novel. Erskine Childers, paved the way with his novel The Riddle of the Sands.  Following in this tradition is prolific spy writer Helen MacInnes, who wrote about a husband and wife team who took on the Nazis.

"Her husband was a British ambassador and she used to go with him wherever he was posted, and she would set a novel every two years wherever he had been posted - and there were allegations, unproven, that he was a spy too, but probably not if your wife is publishing spy novels!"

Russians often get bad press within the spy novel, noted Sean, asking why this is.

"To a certain extent it is art imitating life and the Russians, particularly after the Second World War, they were set up as the ogre, they were the Great Bear beyond the Iron Curtain. The west knew very little about communism and what was happening behind the Iron Curtain and what we don’t know, we fear - and it was very easy to make these caricatures, these stereotypes."

Of course, you can’t talk about literary espionage without bringing 007 into the equation, though Declan says he wasn’t always the roguish spy in the bow tie so many have come to love in the movies.

"He’s a much colder, a much more, I would argue, sociopathic character than he appears in the films."

Click here to listen to Arena.