5 of the Most Famous or Notorious Spies in Fiction
By David Adams ClevelandMay 31, 2022
Alger Hiss, the Soviet spy at the center of my novel, Gods of Deception, hardly fits the mold of his contemporaries, such infamous Cold War agents as Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and John Cairncross (the Cambridge Five), who were all plagued by fears of exposure, alcoholism, and some would say self-hate and shame for betraying their class and country. All except Blunt ended their lives in Soviet exile, drinking themselves into early graves. Hiss, too, was a man of the establishment (or portrayed himself as such), but the similarity ends there. Never was a spy more perfectly adapted to his cover as a brilliant gentleman, shrewd lawyer, and cool pillar of the New Deal, State Department, and foreign policy elite. Even though convicted of passing State Department papers to his Soviet handler, Whittaker Chambers, in the late thirties, Hiss never admitted his guilt. To his dying day he insisted on his innocence and tried to clear his name, while enlisting his family and major players in government and media in his defense. So convincing was the earnest and upright Hiss that fully half the country believed his innocence, sparking ideological wars that divided a nation for two generations, including three generations of the Dimock family in my novel.
Perhaps even more sinister—and fascinating for a novelist—is the soul searching that went on behind the scenes among many of Hiss’s most fervent supporters—as the hard truth became apparent: if a man of such impeccable character and bona fides (Harvard Law degree, a clerkship with Supreme Court chief justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes) could turn to the dark side, who was safe? These questions and many more plague the characters in my family saga as they do in the greatest spy stories, where questions of loyalty, patriotism, and belief in a code of honor often conflict with the sad duty that needs to be performed in ferreting out the betrayers and betrayed, not to mention the hard choices required in pursuit of the truth.
The great spy novels on my list are more about the character issues faced by both pursuers and pursued than the crimes in question. Even as the crimes of Alger Hiss, as we now know, stagger the imagination: an agent of influence who sat at Roosevelt’s right hand at Yalta while debriefing his Soviet handler each morning as to the American negotiating strategy.
Adolf Verloc in The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad (1907)
Joseph Conrad’s sinister tale about terrorism and anarchism, a scene-setter for the rest of the century and beyond, takes the reader into the troubled underside of London in the period before the First World War, when the British security services were facing the first onslaught of foreign and homegrown terrorism. In The Secret Agent, a plan to blow up the observatory at Greenwich. We are deftly taken into the life and family connections of one, Adolf Verloc, a spy (supposedly for Russia), a reticent shopkeeper of pornography and contraceptives, who is goaded by his handler into doing something memorable. The novel is a veritable case history of the kind of family betrayals and ideological compromises that will become rife in the spy novel genre to come. Conrad’s acute psychological insights into this fevered underground world of secret intelligence is both thrilling and poignant, and ultimately sad in their prescience of things to come.
James Wormold in Our Man in Havana by Graham Green (1958)
Although Ian Fleming’s James Bond would come to dominate the spy/thriller genre in the post-World War Two era, Bond rarely let on to his family or his past. Graham’s Green’s spies and MI6 handlers are all about their families and marriages, religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and love affairs. Like James Wormold, in Our Man in Havana, his characters are put to the test in terms of loyalties to king and country—and more poignantly, to a set of standards that touch on the values of a class and culture. Although James Wormold (as his name suggests) tends to the blackly comic—a vacuum cleaner salesman spying for British intelligence in Cuba—the blowback on his family and his sense of self is not. Desperate to raise money to support his Catholic daughter’s exorbitant lifestyle, Wormwood begins sending back bogus intelligence reports to London, about people he’s never met, and places—in his photos—that look a lot like vacuum cleaner parts. The real irony here is that those vacuum cleaner parts look remarkably like Soviet missiles that only a few years later turned out to be very real.
Alec Lemas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)
With John Le Carré’s early masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the reader is fully engaged with the dark subterfuges of the Cold War, as the intelligence agencies of both east and west vie with one another to turn each other’s agents. Caught in this maelstrom of deceit and soul-defying compromise, is MI6 spy-runner Alec Lemas, immortalized by Richard Burton in the film of the same name. Never before—or since—were the mindboggling twists and turns of the competition between east and west so devastatingly portrayed, or the price paid by its main character. Looking back now some sixty years, the novel seems more relevant than ever in its depiction of a west plagued by indecision and self-loathing when faced by a ruthless competitor across the Iron Curtain. A competitor that set the soul-defying rules of the game, in which there were few winners.
George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (1974 )
Another Carré tour de force, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy brings us the inimitable spymaster, George Smiley (immortalized by Alec Guinness and later Gary Oldman) and for anyone who likes puzzles and whodunits—this is the read for you. Although the pot is complex, all the characters—and potential suspects—are fascinating. The pacing and the intrigue are simply gripping. But as in so many of Le Carre’s novels it is the central figure of George Smiley who proves absolutely riveting as we, the reader, begin to understand all the complexities of his life, his yearning for the love of his wife, and his fiendishly fraught machination to uncover the fellow member of the “Circus” (MI6) who has betrayed him and his country—and why.
Victor Maskell in The Untouchable by John Banville (1997)
John Banville’s, The Untouchable, offers perhaps the most profound insights into the nature of betrayal, delving into the motivations of the historical spy, Anthony Blunt, (full disclosure, who makes an appearance as well in my novel, Time’s Betrayal), one of the infamous Cambridge Five. Blunt was a pillar of the post-war artistic establishment in Britain, keeper, no less, of the Queen’s pictures, and a renowned art historian and Poussin scholar. We follow Blunt’s—Victor Maskell writing a roman à clef—early years as an undergraduate at Cambridge, (a member of the Marxist Apostles) where he was first recruited by the KGB, and later during the war when he, in turn, recruited his fellow spies, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, all thinly disguised. Through Victor Maskell’s eyes we glimpse not just the double life of a spy, but the underground life of a gay man in the fifties, a hidden life in the shadows that ultimately plays out on the world stage when Victor is outed in the House of Commons by no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. This rich and rewarding novel should have won the Booker Prize.
About Gods of Deception by David Adams Cleveland:
At age ninety-five, Judge Edward Dimock, patriarch of his family and the man who defended accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss in the famous 1950 Cold War “trial of the century,” is writing his memoir at his fabled Catskill retreat, Hermitage, with its glorious Italian Renaissance ceiling. Judge Dimock is consumed with doubts about the troubling secrets he’s kept to himself for over fifty years—secrets that might change both American history and the lives of his entire family. Was his client guilty of spying for Stalin or not? And if guilty, did Hiss’s crimes go far beyond his perjury conviction—a verdict that divided the country for a generation?
Dimock enlists his grandson, George Altmann, a brilliant Princeton astrophysicist, in the quest for truth. Reluctantly, George finds himself drawn into the web of deceit that has ravaged his family, his curiosity sparked by a string of clues found in the Judge’s unpublished memoir and in nine pencil sketches of accused Soviet agents pinned to an old corkboard in his grandfather’s abandoned office. Even more dismaying, the drawings are by George’s paternal grandfather and namesake, a once-famous painter who covered the Hiss trial as a courtroom artist for the Herald Tribune, only to die in uncertain circumstances in a fall from Woodstock’s Fishkill Bridge on Christmas Eve 1949. Many of the suspected spies also died from ambiguous falls (a KGB specialty) or disappeared behind the Iron Curtain–and were conveniently unable to testify in the Hiss trial.
George begins to realize the immensity of what is at stake: deceptive entanglements that will indeed alter the accepted history of the Cold War–and how he understands his own unhappy Woodstock childhood, growing up in the shadow of a rumored suicide and the infidelities of an alcoholic father, a roadie with The Band.
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