Contexts of History

  • Lars Ole Sauerberg
Part of the Macmillan Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature book series


The genre of the secret-agent story is less than a hundred years old. Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands was published in 1903 and is usually considered the first of its kind. Some critics, however, prefer to trace the genre further back, to J. F. Cooper’s The Spy1 from 1821, and two of them even further back. The Swedish critic Jan Broberg agrees with his American colleague Vincent Starrett that we see the first manifestation of the genre in the Old-Testament account of how Moses sent his ‘secret agents’ into the land of Canaan (Numbers, ch. 13) (1964: 143). Obviously Broberg cannot have been in earnest, but he probably meant his observation as a humorous gibe at critics, who, like Dorothy L. Sayers in her anthology of stories of detection, mystery and horror, have proposed such an ancient heritage for the detective story. Sayers boldly prefaced her anthology with the assertion that the ‘detective-story proper and the pure tale of horror are very ancient in origin’ (1928: 9), and cites passages from the Jewish Apocrypha, Herodotus and the Aeneid to prove her contention.


Mass Society Detective Story Popular Appeal Secret Agent Realistic Tradition 
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© Lars Ole Sauerberg 1984

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  • Lars Ole Sauerberg

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