21 Aug 2012

Ian McEwan: a master of the spy genre?

Ian McEwan’s twelfth novel, Sweet Tooth, is set in the world of the domestic intelligence service in 1972. Does “England’s national writer” want to wrest the crown away from Fleming and Le Carré?

McEwan is fulsome in his thanks to David Cornwell (Le Carré’s real name) for “irresistible reminiscences” in his acknowledgements, rounding off a list of background reading that includes Stella Rimington’s autobiography and the now (in)famous Spycatcher.

However, unlike Fleming and Le Carré, McEwan admits that he does not have the James Bond or George Smiley qualities to become a member of her majesty’s secret service – he failed the new online recruitment test, even after teaming up with his son, for research.

Where the novel lacks the complex treachery of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or the glamorous action of Casino Royale, McEwan builds in betrayal and intrigue with the attractive protagonist Serena Frome (rhymes with plume).

Struggling with questions of surveillance, both professionally and as a function of relationships, Sweet Tooth borrows from its author’s own appearances in the limelight.

After the film success of Atonement in 2007 and his 1998 Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam, McEwan is unperturbed at being left off this year’s longlist.

Admitting that his last novel, Solar, was “loathed” by some, Sweet Tooth is littered with curious musings on the worth of literary prizes – calling the Booker “boisterous”.


McEwan’s first foray into the thriller genre was with 1990’s The Innocent, followed by his penning of the 1993 film adaptation.

Set in 1950s Berlin, its fictional plot overlapped with the real character of double agent George Blake and the joint efforts of MI6 and the CIA to instigate a Soviet wiretap.

In 2012, McEwan has focused on 1972, where MI5, anxiously aware of the new threats of terrorism, industrial unrest and economic uncertainty, is still fighting the cold war in the cultural sphere.


With cameos from Martin Amis and the author’s first editor Tom Maschler, among others, the new novel’s truthful parallels ran aground when his real-life publisher was forced to reprint the novel. The original Sweet Tooth had included a Sussex University English professor called Tom Healy – coincidentally the name of a genuine professor of renaissance literature at the university.

One member of Ian McEwan’s band of London writers noticeably absent is Christopher Hitchens, to whom the book is dedicated. McEwan has spoken of living “in a post-Hitch desert” after his friend’s death in December.


Neither a novel solely about political functionaries nor all-action blockbuster, McEwan’s new espionage yarn reaches further than the internal politics or external operations of the secret service.

Sweet Tooth’s passionate accounts of both creating fiction and consuming it overtake a wavering focus on MI5.

Reviewers are adamant that the enduring talent of McEwan means Sweet Tooth cannot simply be judged as a spy novel – which leaves such such classics as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold unchallenged at the top of British spy fiction.