Spy Fever: how spy lies led to the creation of the Secret Service
Posted on: 17/05/2017 with tags: author blog, conspiracy theories, crime fiction, English History, historical crime, historical fiction, 20th Century
For a historical novelist, the usual way of things is to delve into history, to look at what’s interesting or important, a setting, an event, a time period – we write into this, try to recreate, re-imagine, re-use as we see fit. But what happens when this gets turned on its head, when fiction starts turning into fact?
In writing my first historical novel – The Irregular, set in 1909 – I discovered a startling example of invention becoming real, of fiction (spy fiction no less) having a very profound impact on history.
In 1909, the agencies we now know as MI5 and MI6 were set up largely as a response to spy fiction, rather than the other way around. It wasn’t as if the spy novelist heard reports of daring British spy antics and decided to fictionalise them (in the way that crime writers draw inspiration from real life crime). No, this was life – in the form of the government and powers that be – imitating fiction.
From around 1903 onwards – after the publication of Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands – a ‘spy fever’ began to grip Britain, reaching a pitch in 1908 with publication of the sensational and wildly popular The Invasion of 1910 by William LeQueux. The novel imagined a German invasion of the UK in minute detail, and was serialised in the Daily Mail (really? I hear you gasp). The paper sold a tale of widespread German spying to millions, egged on by veteran war heroes such as Lord Roberts.
The government was forced to set up an inquiry. They found no evidence of a German spy network operating in the UK. They found barely any evidence of any ill will by German nationals even, beyond the odd disgruntled landlord complaining about the price of beer.
Nevertheless, for reasons of political expediency – a political expediency almost entirely created by works of fiction – the government established a secret intelligence bureau in 1909, which later split into the domestic and foreign departments now known as MI5 and MI6.
In other words, Childers and LeQueux, rather than retooling the past to suit their needs – as we historical novelists do – retooled the present.
Historical fiction plays with history, but fiction can also create it.