RARA-AVIS: Spy Fiction in the '60s

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 27 Feb 2003

Considering that it's the topic of the month, there's been very little discussion about the 1960s. One point that I think should be mentioned is that the single most popular mystery sub-genre in the '60s, particularly the mid-60s, was spy fiction.

This is mostly attributable to the phenomenal success of the James Bond films, which, in turn, at least according to folklore, is supposedly directly attributable to an off-hand comment made by newly-lected president JFK to the effect that FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE was one of his favorite novels.

At one point, spy fiction was in such a boom period that Anthony Boucher, in his N.Y. TIMES mystery review column, estimated that more than half of all mystery novels being published were spy thrillers.

It had a similar effect on television. LIFE magazine even did a feature story on the proliferation of cloak and dagger shows during the 65-66 season. Right off the top of my head, there was THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.
(which Ian Fleming was peripherally involved with), I SPY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, SECRET AGENT (aka DANGER MAN), THE AVENGERS, BLUE LIGHT, THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS, and spoofs like GET SMART and THE DOUBLE LIFE OF HENRY FIFE. Cop shows like THE F.B.I. and HAWAII 5-0 devoted significant percentages of their episodes to counter-espionage cases. There was even a western version of the 007-style spy thriller (THE WILD, WILD WEST), and a popular sophisticated whodunit called BURKE'S LAW, about a millionaire police detective who patrolled LA in a Rolls Royce, metamorphosed, in its last season, into a spy show, changing its name to AMOS BURKE - SECRET AGENT.

Aside from the Bond films, there were three films featuring Michael Caine as Len Deighton's British agent "Harry Palmer," two films from John Le Carre's George Smiley novels, one featuring Adam Hall's Quiller, and at least three awful films featuring Dean Martin as Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm (well, maybe not HAMILTON'S Matt Helm, but at least a character named Matt Helm in films ostensibly based on Hamilton's novels). Alfred Hitchcock made two stand-alone spy films during the decade, TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ.

A few of my favorite spy novels from the '60s include DEATH OF A CITIZEN by Hamilton, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by Le Carre, THE IPCRESS FILE by Len Deighton, THE DRAGON'S EYE by Scott C.S. Stone, and my all-time favorite spy novel, THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM


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