When people hear “spy story,” they often think “James Bond.” The womanizing British assassin, also known as “007,” certainly looms large in the collective imagination, and he is indeed the reason I discovered the genre. As a high school kid, I loved Hollywood’s James Bond movies, but it was really the James Bond novels by the talented English author Ian Fleming—who also wrote the famous children’s story Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang—that hooked me.
Not only did Fleming’s Bond books get me through 9th grade biology (I read them in the back row with my friend Susy, and since we had As, our teacher let it pass), but they eventually led me to more great spy adventures from authors such as John Le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Graham Greene, Rudyard Kipling, Daniel Silva, David Baldacci, and José Latour. When I began to toy with the idea of writing spy stories myself, and realized I hadn’t read any by women, I also discovered a group of lesser-known but just-as-amazing female spy novelists, including Francine Mathews, Gayle Lynds, Baroness Emma Orczy and Helen MacInnes. It was discouraging to realize they were not household names, despite their merit, but encouraging to know they at least existed.
I love spy stories because they not only serve up thrills, but also sprinkle particular complications on top—international intrigue, foreign languages, far-away locations and varying cultural norms. The crossing and mixing of competing worldviews that happens in every spy story really challenges the reader to consider what is real and true. What do we stand for? Why? How far are we willing to go to defend our ideals? Are we sure we know what’s really “good” and “bad”? Who might benefit from misleading us? Who is really a “patriot”?
To be sure, some of the most thrilling works of spy fiction are marred by stereotyping and bias (racism, sexism, genderism). Strong, well-developed characters who happen to be female, non-white, and/or LGBTQ are the exception, if they exist at all. Often, such characters are cartoonized or infantilized. That is something I always wished were different.
Now, in my stories—starting with Agents of Suzharia, published in 2016, and then Source of Deceit, which I am about to release, and hopefully on into the future—I’m offering readers an “update with a twist.” I aim to ditch the old prejudices while keeping the best elements of the classic spy novel—those sprinkles I mentioned above. I’m also giving the genre a twist, since my protagonists are journalists, not spies. As a former journalist, I know first-hand how vigilantly the vast majority of journalists apply skepticism, verify data, corroborate sources, triple-check facts and dig deep for sources’ motives in order to get as close to objective truth as possible. It’s time to go beyond James Bond.