The Sons of Sinon – The Spy Heroes

The Sons of Sinon – The Spy Heroes

A tall man in black-tie stalks into a smoke-filled casino. His clothes are as immaculate as they are expensive. His watch is a Swiss luxury model and is guaranteed to withstand depths of 100 meters. His custom-tailored jacket doesn’t quite conceal a bulge beneath his left armpit. Arrogance is a part of him. His eyes are cold and hint of cruelty. He listens to the room with those eyes categorizing and dismissing every threat he detects.  Everyone watches him covertly. All of the men know they can only envy him, all of the women lick their lips, and examine him through half-closed eyes as their breathing quickens. He orders a drink that he invents on the spot, it’s made from only the top-shelf liquors.  The bartender nods in approval of his new customer’s excellent taste.  He asks a couple of questions and makes his way to the baccarat table to confront a fat man with pock marks on his face who has begun to sweat coldly.

The Spy Hero is pretty much dead in modern fiction.  If you don’t believe me, you didn’t see the last James Bond film.  This archetype is quite unusual in that it is only really at home during one decade.  Oh, sure there are revival attempts now and then.  Certainly, the OG franchise is more alive than it should be. But these days when you see James Bond in a tuxedo it is a deliberate throwback to Sean Connery’s iteration.

So, what is a Spy hero? 

What was his function? 

And why did we need him?

In this case, we have to start with what he isn’t: A field intelligence officer.  The Spy Hero is absolutely NOT a spy.  They never do any kind of actual gathering, they don’t set up networks or create sources but they are very flashy. Above all things a real field officer: Does. Not. Stand. Out. In. A. Crowd.  So, looking flashy is priority last.

Whereas it’s unthinkable for a Spy Hero not to have the tastes and appearance of a man from the lower upper class.  Catching everyone’s eye with his superb taste in cars and clothing is a requirement.  

The Spy Hero is a superhero whose uniform is bespoke evening wear. Now back in the sixties, even my farmer grandfather owned a tuxedo for evening social wear. If you wore a business suit to a dinner back then, you may as well have been wearing a New Jersey wife beater.  When James Bond first became popular, wearing one was a way to blend in. In the early Fleming stories, Bond would, in fact, try to do that. But when the movies started, things changed rapidly.  The closest thing to a John le Carré-style film that Bond ever made was From Russia With Love, and that wasn’t too close.  But to answer the first question; at the end of the day what a Spy Hero is, is a good monster. I’ll explain in a bit.

The Spy Hero archetype answered the defined needs of audiences during a very specific era.  

Put yourself in that generation’s shoes. You were brought into the realm of Law. The world in 1920s, an unparalleled time of plenty, this is where you spent your prepubescent childhood.  The Great War was in the rearview mirror, there would probably never be another big war like that again.  Cars had replaced horses, homes had electricity, and telephones were everywhere now.  Your Daddy was rich, and your Mama was good-looking.  Dad said he was rich on something called, “stock margin.” Everybody could afford the good life.

And it all came crashing to an end seemingly overnight.  Jobs vanished and your family couldn’t go back to the family farm because your Dad had sold the family farm. You entered your teens in a world where your Mom and Dad were struggling to find any kind of work.  The food on your plate smelled funny but as Dad said in his loudest voice it was eat it or starve.  He wasn’t joking because occasionally you did go to bed hungry. Saltines were a luxury your family couldn’t afford.  One day you came home to find the Sheriff on the front step serving your Dad with an eviction notice.

Then came the rumblings from Europe.  The big war that everyone promised you was never going to happen, was starting up. Only this time it seemed to be cropping up all over the globe.  It would be a real “world war” this time around.  When Pearl was bombed you knew you’d be in uniform sooner or later.  

Then finally, it was all over.  You had survived. The bad times were finally done, you were out of the Army and had a great job with real security. You have a wife and kids; you also have neighbors who are all in the same place as you.  But you grew up in a world where you didn’t know if there was going to be food on the table and then you were an adult in one where you might not come home at all. Now, you finally, FINALLY had some stability in your life. The Fifties were better than the Roaring Twenties.

You were living in the realm of Law again and were happy to be there. The problem with all that was you couldn’t help but feel your life was built on quicksand because you absolutely knew it could all vanish overnight.

When John Kennedy left most of his brains on a Dallas street, you knew in your gut the bad times were starting again.  

Doctor No was released within a year of Dallas and it was a smash hit.  Spy Mania had begun.  

The Spy Hero was a champion of the realm of Law.  All of his enemies were servants of Chaos.  They were always trying to bring about a state of anarchy. Nuclear bombs were a good way to do it but anything that would cause the world governments to collapse fit the bill so far as the Spy Villains were concerned. It’s telling that these spy heroes from the Sixties were never talking about the Soviet Union.  Oh, they would be hostile to any Russian agent if they encountered one but after that, more often than not, the spies would be teaming up against the threat.  If the Russian agent was female, intimate détente would invariably ensue.  But their real enemies always belonged to shadowy organizations with vast resources.  They were all rich men who didn’t care about wealth, they wanted power.  Power without limits and to do that they needed to bring about a state of tumult across the world.  The Spy Hero’s enemies always served the realm of Chaos.

While the Spy Hero leans strongly into intellectualism, (in truth he is just as dependent on his mind and he is his brawn), he’s not really a subcategory of the Detective Hero.  A Detective is defined by his enforcement of the boundary between Law and Chaos.  The Spy crosses that boundary and operates within the realm of Chaos to defeat the Spy Villain.  In many ways, he was the successor of the Explorer Hero. On those rare occasions where they got together, there was instantly a spirit of kinship between them.

The Spy Hero is also notably amoral.  He will without question, murder in cold blood if ordered to do so.  If the mission requires him to despoil and abandon a virgin, so be it. The same for seducing a married woman. He preferred women who were already “experienced” anyway.  While not a rapist, the Spy Hero wouldn’t take no for an answer or “stop” for an order.  Although, in the Spy Hero World he was only getting her to where she wanted to go anyway.  Regardless, women were nothing but a source of temporary pleasure for him. When I was watching Casino Royale and Bond told Vesper he loved her, I heard someone in the audience mutter, “Sacrilege!”  And he was right.  The Spy Hero was, for the most part, incapable of love, and when he was it always ended in tragedy.  He was very high on the Dark Triad.  The archetype was of a broken but not defective hero. As I said, a good monster.

There is no avoiding the fact that while men envied everything about him, the Spy Hero was a harbinger of decaying morality. James Bond’s relationship with Playboy was a firm one.  The Spy fulfilled the masculine fantasies of adolescents and middle-aged men who had spent their youth in a high-stakes world and were now committed to a dull family life they felt trapped in.

One element I couldn’t shoehorn into the prologue was the gadgets.  That was a huge part of Spy Mania.  In the first two Bond films, the gadgetry was confined to things that wouldn’t have been too out of place in real-world espionage and Q was just an armorer. In Goldfinger, Bond’s toys all went to eleven.  So did Goldfinger’s come to that. The toys were fun, I inherited my brother’s Agent Zero M collection of cap guns, and they held up.

Spy Mania was all over movies, TV, and toy stores. Here’s a partial list of the ones that I could remember without looking them up:

John Steed

Emma  Peele

Napoleon Solo

Ilyan Kuriaken

Matt Helm

Kelly Robinson

James West

Artemus Gordon

Jim Phelps

Derek Flint

The Saint

There were a bunch of others I never saw.

In addition, there were some Spy Hero adjacent heroes like Hogan’s Heroes and Gary Seven from Star Trek.  I’m not going to touch all of the kid’s entertainment that was built on the archetype.  When even Jethro Clampett got into the act you knew it was going to burn out soon.

The end of the Sixties brought with it riots, assassinations, rampant drug abuse, and a rejection of traditional morality.  It was a world that was falling apart.  A world falling into chaos.  The Spy Hero had failed in his purpose. People lost interest. The shows were canceled. The film franchises started to lose money and James Bond himself only survived as a clownish parody of himself once Roger Moore settled into the role.

The era of the Spy Hero had ended by the early seventies.

I can’t wrap this up without taking a quick look at the single Anti-Spy Hero: John Drake.  His show arrived a little too early in 1960 and was canceled in 1962. But then it was *revived when Spy Mania took off.  His show was quite unusual in that it strove for more realism than any of the other spy show productions.  Drake didn’t carry a gun for a start, he said, “They are noisy and hurt people. Besides, I do alright without.”  The bad guys usually ended up dead anyway.  Drake did not screw women on the job either.  That was at the insistence of its star Patrick McGoohan who regarded James Bond and the rest of the Spy Heroes as completely immoral. John Drake was dedicated to his job at first but as time went on, he began rebelling against his orders.  He didn’t like a lot of the things he had to do and there were frequently sad endings to his stories.

Depending on who you talk to, he eventually resigned from his job. However, the information in his head was invaluable to an enemy.  He was abducted and woke up in a place where that information could be either protected or extracted.  He was taken to the strongest bastion of Law on Earth and devoted himself to becoming an agent of Chaos.

But that is another post.

This post would not have been possible without the invaluable resources that is Professor Geek’s podcast.  The Dark Herald Recommends with Enthusiasm.

*In the UK the series was called Danger Man.  In the USA it was renamed Secret Agent, just to make sure American audiences knew for certain this time around that it was really a spy show.  For the sake of clarity, I’ll just call both shows: John Drake.


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