In the Service of Empire: Imperialism and the British Spy Thriller, 1901-1914
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY WASHINGTON DC CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF INTELLIGENCE
Pagination or Media Count:
In the decade before the First World War, the British spy thriller was a cultural phenomenon drawing large and expectant readerships across all classes and catapulting its authors to prominence as spokesmen for then widely prevalent concerns about imperial strength, national power, and foreign espionage. Three hundred is a conservative estimate of the number of spy novels that went into print between 1901 and 1914. This article reflects upon some of the seminal publications from the period, including Rudyard Kiplings Kim 1901, the tale of a streetwise orphan who trains as a spy and becomes embroiled in the intelligence duel on Indias North-West Frontier Erskine Childerss The Riddle of the Sands 1903, the story of two gentleman yachtsmen who, cruising in the North Sea, stumble upon a secret German plot to invade England and William le Queuxs Spies of the Kaiser 1909, a dire prophecy of German espionage in advance of an invasion. While it is clear that Kipling, Childers, and le Queux were prone to exaggeration, their works were based on reality and, more importantly, reflected both an idealized view of Britains imperial needs and a desire for greater security. The anxieties they represented were not entirely without foundation and appear all the more authentic when we remember that they were often passed on by military figures. Fiction is more believable when anchored in reality, and it is the case that early 20th century spy fiction was used to push genuine agendas, including calls for a national service army, a larger navy, and a secret service. Though they celebrated imperialism and the qualities that built it, they also represented a tool for the mobilization of opinion and stood as clarion calls against perceived complacency in Whitehall.
- Information Science
- Government and Political Science
- Humanities and History
- Military Intelligence