Browsing in Barnes & Noble, Borders, or any other good-sized bookstore makes readers aware, once again. of the many genres of literature available to them. Avid readers have their favorite authors in particular genres. During the latter half of the 20th century, the genre of espionage thrillers experienced explosive growth.
Consider, for example, Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October , Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park , and Craig Thomas’ Firefox. What do they have in common?
True, each was produced as a major Hollywood movie. Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin starred in the movie version of The Hunt for Red October , while William Hurt and Lee Marvin starred in Gorky Park , and Clint Eastwood in Firefox. But, there’s another common denominator which serves to explain, in large part, why they were so popular and successful.
Quite simply, it’s the Cold War.
Each of those novels, along with hundreds of others, were set against the real world backdrop of the United States and the Soviet Union in a face-off with each other. Thus, that aspect of international politics provided abundant fodder for novelists such as Clancy, Smith, and Thomas to generate (seemingly never-ending) series of novels, eagerly snapped up by avid readers. With story lines based on tensions between the so-called superpowers, with plots bearing direct links to real world developments, and with characters spying on each other in myriad ways, the works of these authors enjoyed phenomenal popularity.
Authors set the action of their stories in such cosmopolitan locales as Berlin, Paris, London, and New York. They researched those geographical areas and provided accurate descriptions of relevant places and landmarks. They detailed customs, habits, and beliefs of people who lived in those cities, as they allowed their characters to interact with each other overtly and covertly. .
Although the Cold War was a period when the world supposedly found itself on the brink of nuclear annihilation, it proved to be a period which was especially good for authors in the genre of espionage thrillers. Given the basic framework of international politics during that time–the world divided into two opposing camps, one consisting of the Soviets and their allies and the other the United States and its allies–authors could let their imagination run wild, as they dreamed up ingenious plot twists and turns taking place against such a fascinating backdrop.
Clearly, when the Cold War came to an end, it threw authors of espionage thrillers for a loop. In one fell swoop, they lost a key girder supporting their genre. In fact, Thomas, Smith, Clancy, and others have appeared to be somewhat at a lost for how to proceed (with their writing) in the post-Cold War World. What kinds of story lines should they develop now?
After having acquired such expertise concerning U.S./Soviet relations, it’s time for them to head back to the drawing board (now that the Soviet Union no longer exists). The world has changed dramatically, in ways which they likely were not expecting. What do they know of terrorism carried out by, for example, Islamic radicals? How can they generate story lines featuring such actions when they (as authors) (1) are unfamiliar with the culture of Islamic societies, (2) don’t know Arabic or any of the other languages in the Middle East or southeast Asia, or (3) can’t obtain talk with members of terrorist cells in order to get firsthand information on how they organize and operate?
Source material was readily available to writers of espionage thrillers during the Cold War. Now, they have to junk the database of knowledge they’d built and effectively start from scratch. In more ways than one, the post-Cold War world is filled with problems for the genre of espionage thrillers.