The Wednesday before Easter is known as Spy Wednesday because on this day Judas made a bargain with the high priest to betray Jesus for 30 silver pieces. I’ve read that in Poland kids throw an effigy of Judas from the top of a church steeple and drag it around town, throwing rocks and sticks at it. At the end of the day, what remains of the effigy is drowned in a nearby stream or pond.
Instead of wasting my time making an effigy, I decided to compile a list of influential spies in fiction. Without further ado, here is my list.
#10) Lancelot Link.
In the 1970’s ABC TV show “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp,” Lance and his colleague Mata Hairy worked for APE (Agency to Prevent Evil) as agents fighting the evil organization CHUMP (Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan). What other secret agent under 3’ tall has saved the planet so many times and also surfs, plays in a rock band, and has pie-throwing fights?
#9) Harriet the Spy.
Eleven year old Harriet Welsch is the hero of the book by Louise Fitzhugh, and an inspiration to any grade school kid who ever thought of spying, writing, or just exploring the neighborhood. Harriet wants to grow up to be a spy, and as part of her training she carries a notebook where she documents her insights into her subjects. Unfortunately, her subjects are her classmates and neighbors, and when she leaves her notebook on the playground the other kids are outraged by the way Harriet describes them. They gang up on Harriet and form a “Spy Catcher Club” that makes her life a living heck. Luckily she’s got pluck, and soldiers on to a happy ending. Harriet shows she has the attributes to make a great spy: integrity, the ability to observe details, and the skill to convey those details in writing in an interesting way.
#8) The Grey Spy.
The Spy vs Spy strip by Antonio Prohias has run in Mad Magazine since the early 60’s. The premise is an ongoing battle between the White Spy and the Black spy, with each one occasionally gaining the upper hand for a single episode, but there’s never a clear winner. Until Prohias introduced the Grey Spy. She not only had the ability to woo Black and White separately, but also the cunning to pit them against each other. Unlike Black and White, who alternated between victory and defeat with each new strip, whenever the Lady in Grey appeared she was always the winner. Unfortunately her last appearance was in December, 1965 in MAD Magazine #99. After that she apparently either retired, or was retired by Black or White.
#7) Joe Turner.
Five years before Robert Ludlum wrote “The Bourne Identity,” Robert Redford appeared as Joe Turner in “Three Days of the Condor.” The premise is simple: Turner works in a clandestine office of the CIA reading newspapers and books from around the world and looks for hidden meanings or odd ideas. Unfortunately he files a report on an oddly translated spy novel which gets the attention of someone who comes and wipes out his entire office. Luckily he was out getting a sandwich at the time, but he loses his appetite when he gets back to work. Freaked out, he attempts to contact higher-ups for help, but they’re either in on it, or dying in the process. So Turner uses his knowledge from reading – yes, that’s right, he’s a spy-bookworm – to keep himself safe and unravel the mystery around him. Any spy who’s into books, that’s a “level up” for me.
#6) James West.
Conceived at a time when Westerns were losing TV airtime to the spy genre, The Wild Wild West was an inspired mashup. Imagine, if you will, the US after the Civil War, a time when the west was expanding and outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James ran rampant over the wild spaces in between. At the same time technology is growing by leaps and bounds with devices like the locomotive, the telegraph and the Gatling gun. Into this milieu President Ulysses S Grant commissions secret service agents James West and Artemus Gordon to protect the land against all threats. Artie had the ingenious disguises and pre-Steampunk inventions, but James was good-looking, knew how to fight and handle a gun, and ooh, those tight pants!
#5) Stephen Maturin.
James Bond may have a license to kill, but Dr. Maturin has a license to kill, perform an autopsy on the body, and deliver the cadaver to a medical school for further study. Maturin is the close friend of Captain Jack Aubrey in the Maturin-Aubrey series of sailing novels by Patrick O’Brian. One can get a feel for Dr. Maturin in the 2003 film “Master and Commander,” but to really get the blood racing with excitement I recommend reading into at least the first six or seven books of the series. Maturin is a man of the times, a naturalist in the style of Darwin and Audubon, a learned doctor, and an occasional opium fiend, he’s also fiercely anti-Napoleon, so much that he’ll fight and kill to protect England from Bonaparte’s tyranny.
#4) Mata Hari.
When I was a kid I had “The Real Book About Spies,” by Samuel Epstein and Beryl Williams, a tome with an air of secrecy about it, and a section on Mata Hari. Although the real Mata Hari was executed for spying, Wikipedia says she was probably innocent. But the fictional Mata Hari is more memorably played by Greta Garbo in the title role, as a dancing girl who seduces German officers in order to steal secret documents for the Allies. This pre-code film oozed scandal and seduction, and had to be censored by Hollywood after the Hays code was adopted. Leaving behind reality, Mata Hari has become over time the world’s greatest female spy.
#3) Maxwell Smart.
Funnier than Austin Powers, with a soundtrack as snappy as the 007 Theme, and accompanied by the pretty Agent 99, who could resist CONTROL’s Agent 86? Well, The Chief, for one. "Get Smart", created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, brought KAOS to its knees on a weekly basis. I loved his car, a red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger, and often pretended my shoe was a phone, 20 years before cell phones became popular. Max acted dumb, but anyone who can catch all those KAOS spies and still get Barbara Feldon to hang around him is pretty Smart…Maxwell Smart.
#2) #6 .
Played by Patrick McGoohan in the mind-blowing British TV series The Prisoner, #6 has the ultimate assignment: to escape society’s restrictions and discover whether his fate is in his hands, or directed by a faceless #1. When he quits the secret service he’s abducted to an island community known only as The Village. Week after week the latest #2 submits the prisoner to a series of mental and physical tortures in an attempt to learn why #6 quit his job as a secret agent. This series not only breaks the bounds of TV, but explores the secret agent in what was a completely new, paranoid role for the time.
#1) James Bond.
What more can be said about this spy? He’s changed his face many times, yet the women still swoon for him. Guys like him because he’s got all the coolest gadgets and cars. In the novels he’s much more finicky, concerned about greasy eggs for breakfast and poor service on the train. But tie him to a chair and torture him for a while and you’ll see what 007 is really made of. For queen and country, and beyond.
Bonus: Spy Magazine.
Ok, Spy Magazine actually has nothing to do with spies. But it was funny. Really, really funny. And they were early adopters of photoshopping celebrity heads onto ironic bodies, which is always funny. Some of the memorable regular features in Spy Magazine were “Logrolling in our Time,” which pointed to authors who reciprocally blurbed each others’ books, “Separated at Birth?”, and elaborate Candid-camera style hoaxes. In 1992 Spy ran a single serious piece on President George HW Bush’s alleged extramarital affairs. This piece was apparently compiled without any actual spy activities.