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The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage
The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage
Frederick P. Hitz
Knopf, 2004
224 pp., $22.00

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by Jim Ohlson


The Spy Who Loved Me

What's real in espionage fiction?

The Report of the 9/11 Commission has put the CIA and related services in an unflattering spotlight and provoked an unprecedented debate over the structure of the U.S. intelligence program. But for every American who reads the report, a hundred will head to the local multiplex to see The Bourne Supremacy or The Manchurian Candidate. At home, they may have a copy of Absolute Friends, the latest novel by John le Carré, or Dark Voyage, the new book from Alan Furst, who has supplanted le Carré as the reigning master of espionage fiction. It is from such stories, in print or onscreen—from John Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps and the exploits of James Bond in all his guises; from Eric Ambler and William F. Buckley, Jr.; from Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum and Charles McCarry and all the rest—that most of us, however sophisticated we imagine ourselves to be, have formed our notions about the shadowland of "intelligence." Even spies, after all, read spy fiction.

But how much—or how little—do these notions correspond to reality? Two recent books shed light on this question. In The Book of Spies, Alan Furst has compiled a lively anthology of literary espionage. And in The Great Game, Frederick Hitz—formerly inspector general at the CIA—attempts to sort out the hard reality of espionage fiction from the confabulations of myth. Both books belong on the shelf right next to the 9/11 report.

In his introduction to what he calls "the literature of clandestine political conflict," Furst includes a fine description of the evolution of the modern spy novel. While from the time of Moses there have been spies, and then literature about spies, modern spy fiction began with Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1905 (though Furst does not include an excerpt from The Scarlet Pimpernel in his collection). Others at about the same time, notably Rudyard Kipling in Kim, were also pioneers of the genre. Kipling's phrase, the "Great Game," not only set the tone for much of the last century's intelligence ...

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