There was a moment in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings last week that made thriller writers like me sit up and take notice. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions if he liked spy novels. The implication, of course, was that the motives for the alleged activities of the Trump administration and campaign were outstripping even the most extravagant plotlines one might find in a Washington conspiracy thriller.
But this raises the inevitable question: In an age of the surpassingly strange — possible election meddling and business favor-peddling and the firing of a real-life director of the FBI — how can a writer like me hope to compete? What are we supposed to write when we’re living in a thriller?
Spy novels, and suspense novels in general, start with a tear in the fabric of our usual lives, and often, by story’s end, deliver the promise of a restoration of the normal. An assassination plot is averted, a traitor is exposed. Terrorists have stolen a nuclear device and the hero takes the necessary measures, impeded by a timorous bureaucracy. An apocalyptic threat is averted and the status quo is restored.
But what if you’re living in a non-normal time, the age of the strange?
Take one of the old standby plots of the Cold War thriller: the mole, the sleeper agent who attains high rank — perhaps even the Oval Office itself! In reality, when the president’s campaign is suspected of collusion with the Kremlin, that no longer seems quite so shocking a premise. It’s a world where we’ve grown accustomed to conspiratorial and counter-conspiratorial claims.
Since the birth of the thriller, in late 19th-century Britain, spy novelists have prided themselves on their ability to presage disaster. An 1871 story called “The Battle of Dorking,” which anticipated an invasion of England by a German power, inspired hundreds of invasion novels, many of them bestsellers, including the first literary thrillers, “The Riddle of the Sands” by Erskine Childers and later “The Thirty-Nine Steps” by John Buchan.
Then came the First World War. As the spy novel developed, its specialty, it turned out, was an uncanny knack for capturing the ambient anxieties of the moment. In the years that led to the next war, great spy fiction like Eric Ambler’s “A Coffin for Dimitrios” and Graham Greene’s “The Ministry of Fear” dealt with shadowy business interests agitating for armed conflict.
During the Cold War, spy fiction tended to echo the widespread paranoia about Soviet communism. Washington and London were seen as imperiled fortresses doing battle with the Kremlin, under threat from without or within. In Ian Fleming’s thrillers, James Bond fends off assassination plots by SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence agency. In John le Carré’s novels, George Smiley searches for a Soviet mole inside the Circus, the British secret service, MI6.
But along with anticommunism came anti-anticommunism, the fear of homegrown despotism. We worried not just about Stalinism but also about McCarthyism. So we had novels about Soviet conspiracies as well as ones where the real villains exploited Cold War anxiety to seize power themselves. Le Carré’s ambivalent spies persevered in a slow simmering corrupt reality, always with a sense of gentle futility. Then there was Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Advise and Consent,” with a bad guy who’s secretly a communist agent. In Richard Condon’s satirical suspenser “The Manchurian Candidate,” the scion of a prominent political family is brainwashed into becoming a communist assassin.
Watergate and related scandals of the 1970s — like the Church Committee’s revelation of the CIA’s involvement in assassinations and other sordid international interventions — gave rise to a slew of thrillers of paranoia and disenchantment — paranoia, that is, about the U.S. government, which was portrayed as deeply, irredeemably corrupt. From James Grady’s sly novel that became the Robert Redford movie “Three Days of the Condor,” to Robert Ludlum’s playgrounds of paranoia (“The Bourne Identity,” “The Matarese Circle”), the most terrifying enemy wasn’t the man in Moscow, but the one who infiltrated our ranks and lurked within. Distrust of government ran rampant; elements in Washington secretly plotted against the interests of the citizenry.
The age of Reagan gave us Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers and his fantasies of a re-heroized America (albeit fettered by the timid pencil-pushers of the Deep State). Sept. 11, 2001, begot an age of suspense fiction dealing with the threat of terrorism, usually Islamist; the Pentagon even convened some thriller writers to come up with out-of-the-box plots, figuring that we suspense novelists can predict what’s next, or at least hazard a respectable guess.
The true keynote of the Trump administration is the wrangling over truth. Conspiracy theories, once the novelist’s stock in trade, emanate from the Internet like methane from a marsh. The big battle is over the truth itself — what it is, who gets to authorize it, which institutions are deemed credible, what’s fake and what isn’t.
Chances are, the tensions over truth are going to play out in fiction, too. The strangeness of these times have given novelists all kinds of new material for thrillers. You’re gonna love it, believe me.
Joseph Finder is the author of 14 novels, including, most recently, “The Switch.”