Women Writers Infiltrate the Realm of Spy Novels
By Tom Nolan
The Wall Street Journal
May 18, 2004
On 9/11, when the twin towers had been struck but had not yet fallen, writer Gayle Lynds got a call at her Santa Barbara, Calif., home from her literary agent in New York. “He phoned to ask who could have done such a terrible thing,” recalls Ms. Lynds, author of several novels of contemporary intrigue, including the just-released “The Coil” (St. Martin’s Press). “And I told him, ‘Osama bin Laden’ — that he was the only person with the organization, financing and technical sophistication.”
She recounts this story to make a point about how well-informed authors in her genre must be. But the anecdote also demonstrates something about the changing nature of spy-thriller fiction.
The sort of novel in which Ms. Lynds specializes — one where an evil event is planned or imminent, and an often lone protagonist races to thwart it — was formerly the exclusive preserve of such male authors as Frederick Forsyth, Tom Clancy and the late Robert Ludlum. In part, it was Mr. Ludlum himself who opened the gates to female spy-thriller writers — by building the plot of “The Scorpio Illusion” (1995) around a tough, brainy, lethal female villain, says Ms. Lynds (who collaborated on three novels with that author). But the notion of women writing spy thrillers with female heroines took a bit longer to catch on.
In 1995, Ms. Lynds says, the woman president of a New York publishing house at first agreed to buy her debut spy thriller, “Masquerade” — only to change her mind the next day. “Her reason? ‘No woman could have written this novel.'” Ms. Lynds (who once worked at a think tank where she had Top Secret security clearance) found another publisher for “Masquerade,” which became a bestseller.
Now, as her seventh book is published, she finds herself joined by a growing host of female spy-thriller writers — authors who often claim real-life experience in the fictional world they portray.
Leslie Silbert, a former Harvard grad student whose just-published debut novel “The Intelligencer” (Atria) has a plot connecting Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century spying with a contemporary international conspiracy, currently works as a private investigator in New York, under the guidance of a former CIA officer. “I haven’t worked for a clandestine intelligence unit,” she says. “But I do work as a p.i., and that aspect [of the book] is much more realistic, I think, than your average pop-culture p.i. thing, like ‘Charlie’s Angels.'”
Raelynn Hillhouse — whose first novel, “Rift Zone” (Forge), to be published in August, depicts a female operative caught up in a Stasi plot to prevent the fall of the Berlin Wall — describes an even more exotic resume than Ms. Silbert’s: “I lived in Europe for over six years, when the Berlin Wall was up, and shortly after it fell. On a student budget, I needed to stretch those eastmarks and rubles; I learned various ways to make money in the West, by running things — contraband, like Cuban rum — between East and West Berlin; and laundering money, and smuggling jewels, and other things that you only did when you’re in your 20s and don’t know any better. I’ve stared down the barrels of Kalashnikovs, with police running after me and screaming. Been followed from the East into West Berlin and questioned, many times.” The East German Stasi and the Libyan secret police both tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit her, Ms. Hillhouse says. (Today, she works as an executive in a children’s mental-health services agency in Hawaii.)
“Women aren’t just props in ‘Rift Zone,'” she says. “They’re fleshed-out characters, whereas in the Ludlum and the Clancy books, they’re not; they’re the receptacle of the action, perhaps, but not actually the agent of it.”
Jenny Siler keeps fast fictional pace with her sister thriller-writers. Her recent, fourth novel, “Flashback” (Henry Holt), carries this tease: “Discovered in a ditch by the side of a French country road, Eve has only good American dentistry and a ferry ticket scribbled with Arabic letters to suggest her identity. That, and a bullet wound in her brain that she miraculously survives….Was she a spy?”
Certainly her creator — the Missoula, Mont., mother of a baby daughter — was not. But Ms. Siler says she’s not unacquainted with people from the other side of the law: “I’ve had a strange, drifting life. I lived in Key West for a long time, and my roommates there were smugglers.” As for the espionage elements in her work: “That’s purely out of my imagination. When I was a little girl, my family lived in Europe; I got to live in some of the countries behind the Iron Curtain. It was such an incredible experience, it always stayed with me.”
Ms. Siler’s fiction inspirations were writers such as John le Carre. “I’ve always loved those old-fashioned Cold War thrillers.” She says she purposely weaves political and social content into her books — though some readers seem to gloss over those parts. “With ‘Flashback,’ one reviewer said, ‘People who are fans of the television show ‘Alias’ would love this book.’ I know they meant to be kind. But that’s kind of insulting, because in my mind there’s a lot of serious commentary in the book, about the way the world has changed since Sept. 11.”
Whether provoking thought or describing thrilling action, female authors and their female protagonists are making their presence felt in the espionage genre. So popular has the woman’s viewpoint become, Ms. Lynds says, that “female heroes and villains are not only common but institutionalized.” In fact, things might soon come full circle. “My next book may have a male lead,” Ms. Lynds adds. “But only because it’s right for the story.”
Tom Nolan reviews for the Wall Street Journal and is the author of the award-winning Ross Macdonald: A Biography.