Skip to content

On Her Majesty's Secret Service: Writers and Spies

On Her Majesty's Secret Service: Writers and Spies Shapero Rare Books
The banning of books by dissident authors in repressive regimes such as Stalinist Russia is well-documented, but here are some titles you might not have realised were also banned – in some cases, much closer to home.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service: Writers and Spies Shapero Rare Books

Upon discovering at the impressionable age of seven that my home in sleepy Hampshire was once the childhood home of the charming spy Guy Burgess, I embarked on a rather unhealthy fascination with the none too salubrious world of spooks, spies, and spy writers - I mean, it's pretty normal to pretend to be a KGB spy infiltrating your school at 7 isn't it? A fascination that continues to this very day.

Decoding the world around them, breaking through the surface to get to the truth beneath, the worlds of Writers and Spies are all too alike. Both study characters and types, they observe and record; a turn of phrase here means something else there, and of course the creation of narrative (or throwing people off the scent of a narrative) is above all the name of the game for both.Below I look at writers and spies from the 20th century, 19th-century players in The Great Game, as well as some truly classic spy stories.
No spy write-up could ever be complete without the incomparable Ian Fleming and of course his creation James Bond.As the tale goes, the inspiration for Bond came from Fleming’s time in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War. Whilst playing a baccarat game in Lisbon, the author is alleged to have whispered to his friend ‘just suppose these fellows were German agents—what a coup it would be if we cleaned them out entirely!’

The end of the war saw Fleming demobbed and working in a dreary job for a newspaper in London. Holidaying every winter at his beloved home of Goldeneye in Jamaica, it is here that he wrote all of the Bond stories, starting with Casino Royale in 1952. Fleming later claimed that he wrote the novel to distract himself from his forthcoming wedding, and called the work his ‘dreadful oafish opus’!

For the main character, in many ways an alter ego to the author, he sought to choose a name as boring and nondescript as possible.

Looking around his library, the author’s eyes alighted on a book entitled Birds of the West Indies by an ornithologist named James Bond…

As a lovely bit of trivia, the publishers Jonathan Cape were highly unenthusiastic about Casino Royale, with even Fleming’s friend, the writer and literary editor William Polmer remarking ‘so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent’! Fourteen books and 24 films later, Fleming definitely had the last laugh!

Both his established career as a writer, and his penchant for travel, made Graham Greene the perfect candidate for MI6. Recruited in 1941, he monitored the Vichy forces in Sierra Leone, searching ships for smuggled diamonds and documents.  Under the ruse of book research, he travelled widely across China and the USSR, observing and reporting.  Later he worked under the famous Soviet mole Kim Philby, the two became friends even after Philby’s unmasking as a traitor.

The Philby connection also gave Greene a rather dubious honour: whilst spying for MI6, he was himself the subject of an investigation by the FBI due to his links with the Cambridge Spy Ring. With wonderful irony, whilst the author was under investigation by the Bureau, the CIA was helping to turn one of his novels into a film.....
Previous article Caring for Antique Books

Leave a comment

* Required fields

Enjoy reading our blog?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay in the know!

About Us

About Us

Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

Shop online and enjoy free international shipping now.


read more

Your cart is empty

Continue shopping