Today's guest blog is by author Clare Carson whose new novel Salt Marsh is out now. Clare talks about her love of spy thrillers. I grew up reading spy thrillers. My father was a police spy in the seventies. In the absence of hard facts about his work, I read stories about cops and spies and imagined what he was doing. Writing was an extension of this habit. I have written two novels, The Salt Marsh and Orkney Twilight about Sam, the daughter of a police spy. In these novels, I shift the point of view from the spy to those characters – like daughters – who are usually absent or pawns. I wanted to write an insider-outsider’s view of the spy world. Here are some of the thrillers that have informed my perspective.
I still love the oldies, even if they are very boys-own. I admire John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male for their economy of language, pace and surreal edge – after all, spying is an absurd occupation. The dead cat used to block an air hole in Rogue Male sticks in my memory. I have always tried to write landscape which feels alive, and these are both stories about spies who merge with their surroundings – in the case of Rogue Male, quite literally as he buries himself underground in a sunken lane in Dorset.
John le Carré, of course, I go back to again and again. My favourite of his novels is The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. I love its cynicism, bleakness and the glimpse of Smiley at the end of the book, a much harder man here than in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Le Carré is often criticised for being bad at writing women – but in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Liz Gold is a living character. It was A Perfect Spy, though, which most informed my own writing. Inspired by Le Carre’s own father, it explores how the relationship between a dissolute, deceitful father and his son produces the ideal spy.
I devoured Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’ when I was a teenager – Our Man in Havana and Travels with My Aunt. As a staunch atheist, I couldn’t be bothered with his quest for God. Recently, though, I’ve gone back to his work with a less stubborn eye than my teenage self. I appreciate his search for something – anything – beyond failing human institutions. I can see where he’s coming from, even if I don’t want to end up where he’s going.
I read Kim Philby’s memoir My Silent War as if it was spy fiction. Written in exile after he fled Britain for Moscow it is endlessly fascinating. How much is true, and how much has he fabricated to wind British Intelligence up? He is compellingly loathsome in his ability to charm and knife the reader in the same sentence. Like Le Carré, I suspect his relationship with his father was formative. His father rejected Europe for the Arab world. Was Philby junior trying to better his father by betraying Britain to the Soviets?
Of the new wave of spy fiction, I particularly admire Helen Dunmore’s Exposure - an exploration of concealment and betrayal and why we choose not to see what is under our noses. It’s not a thriller, but it gets to the heart of the relationships that are central to spying, and brings a new dimension to the genre which so shaped my childhood.
The Salt Marsh by Clare Carson (£18.99, Head of Zeus) Out now.
It is a year since Sam's father died, but she cannot lay his ghost to rest. Jim was an undercover agent living a double life, and Sam has quit university to find out the truth about his work. Her journey will take her from the nightclubs of 80s Soho to the salt marshes and shingle spits of Norfolk and Kent. Here, in a bleak windswept landscape dotted with smugglers' huts and buried bones, Jim's secret past calls to her like never before. Now Sam must decide. Will she walk away and pick up her own life? Or become an undercover operative herself and continue her father's work in the shadows…