I Spy The Next Bryant & May
One of the purposes of the Bryant & May series is to try out different sub-genres within the overall embracing genre of crime fiction. I’ve already worked my way through many of them – I’ll stop when I’ve done them all – but one which has until now eluded me is the spy story. I never appreciated much beyond ‘The Third Man’ until I read Ben McIntyre’s books and learned about the sacrifices demanded by loyalty, which gave me the springboard for the next B&M novel.
Within the spy tale itself are other sub-genres. There’s a huge difference between Ian Fleming’s books, for example, and John Le Carré’s. It doesn’t help that cheesy 007 films encouraged us to overlook the original novels, which are more parochial and snobbish, although surprisingly fun to read. The modern version of the early spy novels is, I suppose, Mick Herron’s enjoyable Slow Horses novels, which in some ways feel like a riff on my own, although Mr Herron takes his in a different direction.
If the spy story is back, its real life dramas are courtesy of Russia’s duplicitous incursions into western politics. But how much do we want our fiction to reflect news headlines? In the real world right now elections are being fixed, protestors are being misled by social media, leaders are blindly lying, mothers are refusing to believe in science and sickness is ravaging the planet. In the land of Bryant & May, though, killers are being tracked down through abstruse means and eccentrics win the day.
How much should a novel reflect the world? Does it have to be pertinent? Wodehouse continues to sell and is as pertinent as wallpaper.
I’ve written a few zeitgeist novels in my time and have found that with the possible exception of Jonathan Coe’s ‘What A Carve Up!’ it is not always a good idea to be pertinent. It can be shelf-life destroying and limiting.
In literary fiction the real world is often accessed to provide the fiction. Colum McCann’s startling, elliptical ‘Apeirogon’ may be written in an experimental, fanciful, fragmented style but it is based on a true story of real people caught in Middle East conflict. Perhaps poetry takes something from the pain of reality. In Lithuania and Budapest the headquarters of the secret police have been transformed by art, heightened and made less insufferable.
Crime novels now often use real events, real and fictional characters merged together – something that was never attempted before because there was, rightly, a queasiness about blurring the lines. Now that queasiness seems has vanished. The danger lies in losing the facts.
If I loaded my slightly magical realist approach with real crime characters I would risk creating an unworkable hybrid. I used the King’s Cross fire, something that has personal resonance for me, in ‘Bryant & May Off The Rails’, and made the fantastical ‘Soho Black’ semi-autobiographical, but that’s as far as I would go.
Although the spies of the present are very different from those of the Cold War, they share the same origin. The nascent CIA picked its employees from postwar British saboteur units. Espionage has become more insidious. Its genius now lies in removing the distinction between a real and/or imagined crime, and in taking on strange new forms.
An example; Yesterday I read a rave 5* Amazon review for a terrible, terrible book, and out of passing interest ran a quick check on its authorial provenance. What I found were hundreds of 5* reviews by the same person for equally dire books, so I crosschecked him on other social platforms and got a hired gun, someone who has been paid to cross the line from social influencer into undercover persuader. This, I would argue, now falls under the cover of spying.
Which brings me to ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’. Arthur Bryant & John May will be looking into a case involving spies, deception, government cover-ups and inevitably, a murder. My take will of course be individual enough to annoy spy story purists, an acting exercise I usually only get to perform with ranting science fiction aficionados.
It means a change of shape for the Bryant & May storyline because murder mysteries can ramble more, given that they’re following an established template. So of course I’m writing the first rambling spy story with sidelights on eccentric London history. I’m reaching the end of the third draft with two tidy-ups to go. The next thing to do will be to think of an image for the cover.
The book features an elderly Mata Hari type (see top for that somewhat hefty spy) but it’ll be fairly old school – no social influencing industrial spies or code-hacking online geeks, but plenty of figures lurking in shadows.