British intelligence is more than a little glamorous, with the real-life James Bond at MI6—the British equivalent of the CIA—traveling to foreign locales in tailored suits and driving Aston Martins. So many British spy novels are also set in exotic settings, populated with figures whose style is impeccable and whose motives aren’t always clear.
One thing that makes British intelligence so captivating is their tendency to keep secrets under wraps for decades. One recently released memoir book about the time at MI6 refers to events in the 1970s! The veil of secrecy surrounding these organizations can make them seem like they’re from a different world entirely from the one most people live in—and there’s nothing more exciting than feeling like you’re being let into a secret world, even if only through fiction.
Do you think of the James Bond series? Or maybe a book by John le Carré?
If so, you’re not alone. People love spy novels if it’s British; they love them even more.
But what is it about British spy novels that makes them so popular? One reason might be nostalgia. When people read about the past in a novel, they want to feel like they’re learning about a different time and place, and for many people, Britain has always been a bit mysterious and exotic. From afternoon tea to the Queen’s Guard to Stilton cheese and crumpets to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, images from Britain can invoke a sense of mystery and excitement that draws readers in and makes them want more.
Another reason could be the language. If you’ve ever read The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, British English can be rich with words that aren’t often used in American English. In addition to being fun to read, these words make readers feel clever when they learn them (even if they don’t necessarily understand what they mean).
How would it feel to live like that?
Let’s say you’re a spy. You work for British Intelligence, also known as MI6 British Intelligence. You don’t know what your cover is. In fact, you don’t even know when you’re undercover—it could be all the time or none of the time. What if, for all you know, you’ve been underground for ten years with no idea?
You’d have to develop an incredibly thick skin. But that doesn’t mean your life wouldn’t be hard—actually, it would be pretty terrifying.
You work for an organization with no real accountability to the public or other branches of government. That means you can do whatever it takes to complete your missions. Sometimes that means killing innocent bystanders in a situation; sometimes that means killing people who did commit crimes, and sometimes it means using the information you have on influential people to gain their trust (and then using their faith against them).
What are the reasons people love British spy novels?
The answer is not just one thing but rather a combination of elements. A well-written British spy novel will contain clear characters, high stakes, and a clever plot that keeps readers guessing until the very end.
The first element is clear characters. If you don’t know who everyone is—who the good guys are, who the bad guys are. British spy novels often have multiple main characters, but each character has a distinct personality, which helps make them easy to tell apart.
Another critical element is high stakes. In a spy novel, someone’s life is usually on the line every chapter. The characters almost always have to make life-or-death decisions about whether to trust this person. The stakes are high for both the protagonist and the reader: if you stop reading because you’ve figured out what will happen next, you might miss something important!
Finally, there’s a clever plot that keeps readers guessing until the end. It’s not enough to have an exciting story with twists and turns; it has to be well written!