Modern Spy Fiction's Debt to Poe, Arsene Lupin & the Crime Pulps; An Early History of the Genre

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Adventure stories and tales of political intrigue have been around for hundreds of years. Spies have been around for millennia. But the spy novel is a distinctly 20th century innovation. What took it so long?

This video examines the cultural stigmas and propaganda pressures that impeded (and promoted) the development of the spy genre. It’s not an exhaustive overview of the early history of the genre, but it provides a flavor of the literary milestones that led to Ian Fleming’s James Bond and the seismic cultural shift Bond ushered in.

Some of the authors discussed include Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman, E.W. Hornung, Maurice Leblanc, Leslie Charteris, Anthony Hope, Rudyard Kipling, Erskine Childers, Baroness Orczy, John Buchan, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Francis Beeding, G.K. Chesterton, W. Somerset Maugham, John P. Marquand, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Ian Fleming, John le Carre, Len Deighton, Alistair MacLean, Richard Condon, James Grady, Robert Ludlum, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Gilman, Patrick O’Brian, Harry Harrison, Keith Laumer and Michael Moorcock.

In an upcoming video, I’ll explore all of Fleming’s James Bond novels, evaluate them on their own merits, and compare them to their film versions.

0:42 Spy fiction stigma
5:46 Early propaganda motive
8:08 19th Century literary spies
9:34 Emergence of detective fiction
10:40 Criminal anti-heroes
11:54 Political adventure novels
13:39 Early 20th Century spy stories
17:17 Influence of hard-boiled crime fiction
17:57 Ian Fleming’s James Bond
20:04 Genre growth in the 1960s
21:08 Influence on other genres in the 1960s
22:49 Recap


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Art and film clip credits:
John McClusky
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
The Thirty-nine Steps (1935)
Secret Agent (1936)
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
Raffles (1939)
He Walked by Night (1948)
Dr. No (1962)
Waterloo (1970)
The Age of Innocence (1992)
The Three Musketeers (1993)
Hornblower (1999)
The Patriot (2000)
The Four Feathers (2002)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Troy (2004)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: At Bertram’s Hotel (2007)
London Olympics (2012)
Game of Thrones (2011)

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