THE immense popularity and proliferation of the spy story is a 20th-century phenomenon. Although espionage is often referred to as the second-oldest profession, and it plays a part in such early literature as ``The Iliad,'' ``The Odyssey,'' and the Bible, according to the authors of The Spy Story (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 259 pp., $22.50), ``It was not until the 20th century that the secret agent became the heroic protagonist of a major form of popular narrative.'' In their fascinating study of the spy story, which they define as ``a story whose protagonist has some primary connection with espionage,'' John G. Cawelti, professor of English at the University of Kentucky, and Bruce A. Rosenberg, professor of American civilization and English at Brown University, provide several reasons for its flourishing: First, the clandestine quality, with its accompanying fantasies of invisibility, disguise, and secret exercise of power, appeals strongly to the imagination. Second, the increasing importance of international espionage, caused by two world wars, the rise of totalitarian governments, the cold war, and the fear of nuclear catastrophe, has made spy and clandestine activity the ``central symbols of the human condition in the 20th century.'' Third, many people feel a sense of ambiguity about their place in society and a sense of alienation from the large organizations in their lives that enable them to identify with the spy ``out in the cold.'' And fourth, talented writers and filmmakers have developed and broadened the appeal of the spy story.
The first spy novel, ``The Spy,'' was written by an American, James Fenimore Cooper, and published in 1821. Set during the American Revolution, it was probably inspired by the capture and execution of a British spy, Maj. John Andr'e. It was the British, however, who were responsible for the significant development of the spy novel.
In late 19th-century Britain, a growing fear of anarchism and foreign invasion helped spur the growing popularity of espionage adventure stories, which were inspired by the colonial adventures of H.Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling. Kipling's ``Kim,'' published in 1902, combined colonial adventure with espionage. In 1903, Erskine Childers's ``Riddle of the Sands,'' in which two young British gentlemen expose a German invasion plot, launched the modern spy story. The first spy-story classic, John Buchan's ``The Thirty-Nine Steps,'' was published in 1913. Alfred Hitchcock made Buchan's novel into a spy-film classic in 1939.
Cawelti and Rosenberg devote individual chapters to the five major figures in the history of the spy novel. Buchan perfected the heroic spy story by combining the traditions of adventure fiction with international espionage. During the 1930s, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene introduced a new kind of spy story, in which ordinary people became caught up in international conspiracies. Ian Fleming revived the heroic spy story and added a strong dose of irony with the 1953 publication of his first James Bond novel, ``Casino Royale.'' John le Carr'e introduced the most recent school of spy fiction, in which loyalty, betrayal, and double agentry are stressed, with the publication in 1961 of his first novel, ``Call for the Dead.''
The five major figures in the history of the spy novel - Buchan, Ambler, Greene, Fleming, and le Carr'e - are all British. Most of the 20 names on Cawelti and Rosenberg's list of ``The Best Spy Writers'' (included in their 24-page chapter, ``Guide to the Spy Story'') are British. The only woman on the list, and one of the very few women in the field, is Helen MacInnes, an American born in Britain. Yet Cawelti and Rosenberg do not examine the reasons for or even mention the decidedly masculine and British influence on the spy story.
British domination of the field may be waning, however. American writers are well represented in the current crop of spy novels. David Quammen's The Soul of Viktor Tronko (Doubleday, New York, $17.95), offers a variation on the theme of the amateur caught up in the world of espionage, while William L. DeAndrea's Azrael (Mysterious Press, New York, $15.95), is the third novel in his series about a professional spy. The British are represented by For the Good of the State (Mysterious Press, New York, $16.95), by Anthony Price, whose novels are the basis for ``Chessgame,'' a British television series being broadcast on PBS, and The Seeds of Treason (Mysterious Press, $15.95), by Ted Allbeury, who is on Cawelti and Rosenberg's list of the best spy writers.
Spy fiction has long been regarded as part of the mystery-suspense genre. Whole chapters in both the first edition of Dilys Winn's Murder Ink (Workman Publishing, New York, 1977) and Julian Symon's study of crime fiction, Bloody Murder (Viking, New York, 1985), are devoted to spy fiction. However, several recent studies have been devoted exclusively to spy fiction. These include The British Spy Novel, by John Atkins (John Calder, London, 1984), The Novels of John le Carr'e, by David Monaghan (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985), and now, ``The Spy Story.'' As spy fiction becomes more popular and prolific, it may eventually be recognized as a separate genre.
Jane Stewart Spitzer is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in popular fiction.