- - Wednesday, December 23, 2020

I’ve loved spy thrillers since I was a teenager, and I’ve always loved short stories, so I was pleased that Otto Penzler has edited “The Big Book of Espionage Stories.” 

Otto Penzler, the president and CEO of MysteriousPress.com and the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, is the editor of previous fine anthologies, such as “The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films” and “The Big Book of Pulps.” 

This collection of espionage stories covers WWI, WWII, the Cold War and beyond. Included is W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Hairless Mexican,” Eric Ambler’s “The Army in the Shadows,” Ian Fleming’s “For Your Eyes Only,’ Charles McCarry’s “The End of the String,” and other terrific spy stories.

“Espionage has been called the second oldest profession, and with good reason,” Mr. Penzler writes in the introduction. “Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War,’ a famous textbook on waging an effective war, devoted a great deal of significance to espionage and the creation of a secret spy network. All warfare is deception, he stated, and “Be subtle! Be subtle!” he intoned, and “use your spies for every kind of business.” It was published in 510 BC.

“The craft of espionage has fascinated people ever since stories were told, whether orally, on the printed page as journalism or fiction, or on a screen. The secrecy, manipulation, deception, and potential danger combine to produce an aura of romance and adventure to the enterprise.

“Those who are actually involved in the world of espionage and counterespionage have quite a different view, recognizing and accepting the fact that it is mostly boring work, gathering information from technical journals, computers, overlong reports, and often self-serving memos, then analyzing the staggering mountain of information in order to filter out the tiny nuggets of data that may add a worthwhile grain of gold to a dossier that may never be used for any serious purpose.”

But Mr. Penzler notes that once espionage stories get into the hands of creative authors, much of the dull work is ignored, and the more colorful work is highlighted and embellished. He writes that W. Somerset Maugham’s “Ashenden, or The British Agent,” the 1928 book of connected short stories about espionage in World War I, marked the birth of the realistic espionage story in which ordinary people are caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

He also tells us that Charles McCarry, whom he calls the greatest American writer of espionage who ever lived, recognized that the West, most notably the United States, was in a just battle against totalitarianism during the Cold War.

“It can be no surprise that there is a long history of real-life espionage agents employing the secrets of their surreptitious trade, embellishing and fictionalizing them for the printed page,” Mr. Penzler writes. “W. Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming, John le Carre, and Graham Greene had worked for the Secret Service, and so did Charles McCarry (1930–2019), who spent eleven years as a deep cover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency in Europe, Asia, and Africa.” 

Ian Fleming’s character James Bond, Mr. Penzler writes, has challenged Sherlock Holmes as the world’s most recognizable crime fighter.

“Bond’s extraordinary set of skills and attractiveness to women were never designed to appear totally realistic, which was fine with his readers and the millions who flocked to his cinematic adventures,” Mr. Penzler writes. “Although Bond (like Fleming) despised the Soviet Union, his villains seldom had ideologies that transcended their thirst for massive fortunes or total world conquest — an acceptable substitute for fascism and communism.”

Mr. Penzler notes that the latest enemy of democracy in espionage stories is Islam and its extremist adherents.

“As the modern spy novel has become ultrarealistic, relying more on technology than on colorful espionage agents, one might think that the genre would be in danger of becoming tedious, bogged down with computers and other futuristically developed machinery that removes the human factor from these adventures,” Mr. Penzler explains. “Fortunately, the talent and finely-honed skill of most of today’s practitioners make this a fear to be discarded.

“As long as Nelson DeMille, Lee Child, Daniel Silva, Stephen Hunter, and others continue to work in the field (even if only occasionally), the future for those of us who love the battle between Good and Evil is assured.”

Along with stories from notable espionage authors, Mr. Penzler also offers espionage stories from writers not usually regarded as spy writers, such as O. Henry (“Calloway’s Code”) and Mark Twain (“A Curious Experience”).

“The Big Book of Espionage Stories” is a fine collection of espionage stories and a must for spy fiction aficionados. 

• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.

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Edited by Otto Penzler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $26, 832 pages

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