A get-it-while-you-can column from Mark Steyn (available on his website and he rotates his archives). Steyn questions the absence of interesting, thrilling spy novels in the post Cold War world. Why?
Because the threats to the world are morally unambiguous and more of the Ian Fleming variety than Le Carre's Karla, and the major spy novelists of the 1960s through the 1980s (Le Carre, Littell, Deighton) approached the whole genre as a grey-on-grey chess game, those novelists do not produce good spy novels today:
If a global terror campaign that blows up Bali, Madrid and the London Tube isn’t enough to revive the brand, what is? With hindsight, the problem wasn’t the loss of the old enemy – the Soviet Union – but the whole wilderness-of-mirrors approach to it . . . The result of this approach is that the default mode of the entire genre became a post-modern chess-game played by two sets of grey knights.
In other words, the whole moral ambiguity angle that Le Carre (who has come out as wholly anti-American in recent years) and Littell played, the conspiracy theorizing that is Ludlum's stock-in-trade, all of which resounded with literati on the Left in the '70s and '80s that saw little practical difference between the US and the USSR (we'll leave discussion of how wrong they all were for another time), does not translate to the modern threats to the West.
Steyn regrets that Charles McCarry (the Paul Christopher novels) and Alan Furst (the excellent WWII-era World at Night novels -- don't miss Dark Star) haven't tackled the current climate. He misses Joel Rosenberg's recent offerings (regarding Middle East politics) and doesn't mention Tom Clancy's prophetic novels (Sum of All Fears, Debt of Honor, Executive Orders), but the point remains the same. With a moral compass that's been demagnetized, the spy novel genre is adrift.