Spy Fiction

"There's a man who leads a life of danger
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
With every move he makes another chance he takes
Odds are he won't live to see tomorrow"
Johnny Rivers, "Secret Agent Man"

Related to the Action Series, although not necessarily a series, it's any work in which the main character or characters are spies, secret agents, double agents, or some other form of espionage professional. Spy Fiction tends to come in two flavors: "Martini" and "Stale Beer".

Martini Flavored (shaken, not stirred) Spy Fiction is what you might call the Tuxedo Approach. This involves glamorous parties, fast cars, hot women, cool gadgets, brutal fights involving guns and fists and big explosions (swap those adjectives around as you wish). Despite the glamor, spying is not for the faint heart and is fraught with danger and the stakes are massive. A Death Trap is par for the course. The main example here is of course James Bond (the movies in particular). This is the Hotter and Sexier spy game, with Spy Catsuits and Sex Face Turns by the dozen. The Tuxedo Approach as a whole is more glamorized and idealistic with clearly defined "good guys" and "bad guys", they often have a bit of an "action movie" feel.

Stale Beer Flavored Spy Fiction could also be called the Trenchcoat Approach. "More realistic," pre-dating the other approach but seeing a resurgence as a deconstruction of it, this is the more gritty style of espionage. It involves dead-drops, brush-pasts, blackmail and morally iffy things. Spying is stressful and you may end up an alcoholic or worse. This is the approach taken by Len Deighton and the Bourne series (the books and films alike), John le Carré, and by Callan, the classic counterpoint to James Bond. This is the Darker and Edgier spy game. Ironically, the original James Bond novels are like this and both Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig played the character this way. The Stale Beer approach as a whole is more gritty and morally ambiguous, spying reflects power politics between whichever nations or organizations are involved and other nations and people are caught in the crossfire.

In other words, the Tuxedo Approach would have a Soviet defector be a gorgeous, aloof Slavic beauty with whom the hero will probably elope at some point; the Stale Beer Approach would have a Soviet defector be a shaken, morally gray individual looking probably more for personal profit than for any virtues of right or wrong.

Stale Beer Served in a Martini Glass Spy Fiction is the gritty style of espionage taking place in glamorous international or domestic locations, such as Tokyo, Italy, Spain, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Hawaii, etc. I Spy and the Daniel Craig James Bond films exemplify this trope.

Bathtub Gin Flavored Spy Fiction applies to civilians drawn knowingly or unwittingly into the world of espionage that is either "martini flavored," "stale beer flavored," or a "dirty martini." They may have or not have transferable skills to help them survive, and they may or may not become realized agents at some point. Examples include: Mrs. Peel, The Avengers (in the opening voiceover intro, she is introduced as a "talented amateur"), Chuck, Chuck; Amanda King, Scarecrow and Mrs. King; the show Masquerade (where civilians with special occupational or avocational expertise are drafted to help the government on one-off missions; and Tom Hank's character in The Man With One Red Shoe. Alfred Hitchcock also exemplified this to a tee in his earlier films, especially in such stories as North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The 39 Steps.

The Martini Flavored and Stale Beer Flavored tropes as well as the various trope permutations (Stale Beer Served in a Martini Glass and Bathtub Gin Flavored) may involve a Cloak & Dagger agency, Agents Dating, or any of the full gamut of Espionage Tropes.

See Spy Literature for an index of literature in the Spy Fiction category.


A note: the examples do not have to fit EXCLUSIVELY into their category, but they must fit most of the category's criteria. - Something that is "Martini with hints of stale beer" will fit into Martini, but something that is "Martini with strong elements of Stale Beer" will fit into Dirty Martini. Of course, as always, this is a wiki, feel free to correct/edit.


Stale Beer
  • 24 — Stale Beer
  • Atomsk by Cordwainer Smith — Stale Beer
  • Brotherhood Of The Rose — Stale Beer
  • The Bourne series (and anything else by Robert Ludlum) — Stale Beer.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops — Stale beer.
  • Callan — Extremely bitter Stale Beer.
  • Catherine Ling — Dark and gritty, dealing with the modern CIA and organized crime such as The Triads and the Tongs.
  • Danger Man aka Secret Agent — Mostly Stale Beer, at the insistence of star and co-producer Patrick McGoohan; he found the Martini style both unrealistic and ethically questionable.
  • The Debt —Focuses on the mental challenges of operating undercover, and the emotional scars left by making the morally ambiguous decisions spy work demands.
  • The Game (UK TV): realistic spy drama set in 1970's Britain.
  • James Bond — Ironically the novels are more Stale Beer, while the movies tend to glamorize or parody the novels. Timothy Dalton read the novels and took his character in this direction. The first two Sean Connery Bond films, Dr. No and From Russia with Love could probably also be considered Stale Beer. They are quite gritty (Bond is not above executing enemy agents and roughing up women to get information) and more down to earth than the later films. Casino Royale was a return to Stale Beer in full for the series, which shows just how cyclical tropes can get.
  • From Eroica with Love — Stale Beer with occasional Martini flavoring. Specifically, the spy character enjoys stale beer while the thief he's after drinks his martinis from diamond glasses.
  • The Good Shepherd— Stale Beer. It chronicles the life and career of an OSS and CIA agent, with his work depicted as particularely unglamorous and the main character being downright apathetic in general.
  • Halting State — Stale Scottish Beer.
  • Hanna— Stale Beer in the way of The Bourne Series, but with a teenage girl as the protagonist. (Hey, if she's old enough to fight, she's old enough to have a beer.)
  • Hopscotch— Stale Beer. The writer wanted to take a James Bond story and take out all the sex, gadgets and over the top action.
  • The Ipcress File — Probably the Ur Example for Stale Beer, but it's significantly less stale than the beer served by Le Carre. Later works by Deighton (e.g. Funeral in Berlin) aren't so much Stale Beer as rather What Gets Wrung Out Of The Bar Mat (which has occasionally been used as well to wipe the boots of this or the other spy coming in from the cold).
  • I Spy — Stale Beer Served In a Martini Glass. The "Stale Beer" element comes from the grittiness of espionage work coupled with the main characters often discussing and wrestling with their consciences regarding the moral ambiguity and the ethics of their profession. The "Served In a Martini Glass" element is that the assignments occur in glamorous international and domestic locations: Tokyo, Italy, Spain, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, etc.
  • "Madras Cafe" — Bollywood variety (without even any typical Filmi Music to distract the beleaguered agents from the betrayals and conspiracies, which makes it staler). Beverages served: toddy ( moonshine), not so exotic in Jaffna, and cheap roadside rum (when in India).
  • Ministry of Fear — Ray Milland chased by Nazis who want his MacGuffin
  • Mr Palfrey of Westminster — Stale Beer. Not as stale as Callan, but no Martini.
  • The Sandbaggers — extremely Stale Beer (characters often comment, "this isn't James Bond.")
  • The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad — Stale Beer
  • Three Days of the Condor — thriller with Robert Redford as a CIA analyst
  • The works of Tom Clancy tend more towards Stale Beer; it's even taught in his version of the CIA.
    • It tends to get considerably less stale as time goes on. Later works are a nice fresh American Lager. Or maybe a Bourbon?
    • In Clear and Present Danger CIA Operative John Clark even lampshades the fact that he's not in martini-flavored spy fiction by saying to another CIA agent "Larson, if this were a movie, you'd be a blonde with big tits and a loose blouse."
  • The Quest for Karla — Stale Beer to the max, along with most other John le Carré works and particularly the trend setter for this: The spy who came in from the cold.
  • Declare by Tim Powers is Stale Beer spy fiction — with a secret occult war.
  • The Laundry Series by Charles Stross involve spies as they exist in the real world. Most of your time is spent doing paperwork and what jobs you have are generally very boring and mundane. Kind of stale beer, but more "generic bar beer".
  • Except for the bit with the Eldritch Abominations — that doesn't generally happen to real-world spies. Ergo, generic bar beer spiked with a liberal helping of LSD.
  • Subverted in the second book, The Jennifer Morgue, where the main character starts exhibiting all of the Bond martini tropes because the Big Bad is employing an Evil Plan which involves using a spell to make our hero a Bond hero right up until the moment where the plans would usually be foiled.
  • The November Man — Stale Beer, which is surprising because Pierce Brosnan plays the lead agent
  • The Quiller novels by Adam Hall.
  • Everything by Anthony Price — Stale Beer
  • Spy Game — Scotch, and never less than 12 years old.
  • Intelligence (2006)
  • The Agency
  • The Splinter Cell series of video games are stale beer spy fiction, and every installment gets progressively darker and grittier as time goes on. It should be no surprise it's a Tom Clancy property.
  • John Wells
  • Charles Cumming
  • Spy of Darkness
  • The Company (2007 mini-series)
    • Robert Littell's novels in general (including this one) are Stale Beer.
  • Ronin — The film was largely responsible for making Stale Beer popular again (and possibly revitalizing Spy Fiction in general at the time). No heroes, no flashy technology (there is some high-technology monitoring involved, mostly during a car ambush, but that's it) the two main protagonists are easily approaching retirement age, tons of moral ambiguity.
  • The Osterman Weekend — A messy stale beer with something floating in it.
  • Spooks
  • Vladimir Vasilyev's Wolfish Nature duology is of the stale beer variety with a twist: the events take place in an alternate world where humans have evolved from dogs not apes.
  • Homeland a gritty and dramatic take on post 9/11 intelligence.
  • KGB aka Conspiracy - extremely stale beer produced in state-owned Soviet brewery struggling with constant shortages of raw materials.
  • Aubrey-Maturin The hardships of the spy life are well explored (derision from friends and confidants, inability to discuss work, torture, living on the run), and while Stephen is a capable assassin, his biggest successes are always the result of paperwork and manipulation (the best example being a "dropped" notebook, which contained "evidence" that a number of key assets in the French intelligence service had gone rogue).
  • The Americans focuses on the dangers and stresses of living a double life as KGB agents in 1980s USA and how far one can go for one's country.
  • The Kremlin Letter focuses on espionage, cloak and dagger, and the other darker parts of the job including drugging retired spies to recruit them back, assassination orders for innocent civilians, and betrayal.
  • Turn is set during the American Revolution and focuses on the Culper Spy Ring in New York City.
  • The Assets is a Based on a True Story miniseries about Aldrich Ames.
  • "Our Man in Havana" - homebrew beer that's gone off. The other books by Graham Greene that involve intelligence and espionage are similarly serving beer that's been brewed based on half-remembered recipes and substituting missing ingredients by whatever is available locally. Most of the times, the first sips even taste pretty much like real beer.
  • The League Of Magi stories feature a strange variant of the Stale Beer variety. While the stories feature magic, monsters, and paranormal beings, the actual spy work being done more closely conforms with reality. One of the stories is even called "Dead Drop."

Dirty Martini (A Mixture)
  • Alex Rider purposefully iuses many of the unrealistic, martini-flavored elements of typical Bond films (car chases, huge explosions, hero gets a hot girl, etc) but takes great care not to gloss over the gritty realism of being a spy - the death, the danger, and the fact that The Hero's whole life is essentially a Trauma Conga Line the moment he accepts the position as a spy.
  • Burn Notice — Michael Westen's fashion sense and the Miami setting suggest the former, but the work he gets is more or less stale beer (Westen emphasizes the boredom a lot in his voiceover narration) with a few flashy scenes/explosions per episode. A good description might be "Stale Beer in a Martini Glass." On the other hand, the work Michael was doing before he was burned was distinctly Stale Beer, and (patriot that he is), he wants to go back to that life.
  • Firefox— Stale Beer until the plane takes off, when it becomes Martini very quickly.
  • Nick Fury — Started out as Stale Beer but rapidly became some kind of radioactive psychic cocktail after he became immortal and clones of Adolf Hitler started taking over the world.
  • The Prisoner — Martini flavor, but gives a hangover worse then any flavor of beer (stale or otherwise), or (for that matter) any alcoholic beverage period (red wine and tequila included). Also, it feels like someone dropped a tab of LSD into the glass.
  • Spooks — Martini, but with major Stale Beer elements.
  • NCIS varies in its depiction of spying. Sometimes it's the martini approach - Ziva described it as "It's not all fast cars and sex...Well, there was a lot of sex." One of her flashbacks is shooting someone from the back of a motorbike. Later, the series seems to favor the stale-beer approach a lot more, with plenty of extremely boring stakeouts featuring.
    • Its mother series, JAG also swung in its depiction of the espionage business. While CIA officer Clayton Webb often is portrayed as a martini spy on the superficial level, there's also a whole lot of morally ambigious stale beer stuff in his line of work as well, and often used story-wise as a stark contrast to the morally superior JAG officers (and the U.S. military in general). Other than Webb and a couple of other exceptions, people in the spy business tends not to be trustworthy at all.
      • Webb himself is morally ambiguous being something of a Well-Intentioned Extremist. His main saving graces are that he is not personally corrupt, is devoted to his country and is usually loyal to his friends at least at the end of the episode.
  • Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax books defy both conventions with their lead character — a little old lady from suburban New Jersey who volunteered at the CIA in order to get some excitement into her life in between meetings of her garden club.
  • My Own Worst Enemy — Swings between Martini and Stale Beer every episode. For example, the missions JANUS performs (protecting a foreign political candidate from assasination, thwarting a bomb plot, interrogating targets, retrieving a government employee from enemy hands) fall under Stale Beer, their workplace and its equipment are clearly Martini; in addition to all of Edward's stuff.
  • The Thin Man (book and movies) — Nora is from a Martini background, but happily follows Nick into the private eye's Stale Beer life.
  • Alpha Protocol takes the action, gadgets, explosions and sexy women of the Martini genre, but mixes in the moral ambiguity, power politics, betrayal, and some of the gritty combat of the Stale Beer genre. In particular, it starts out more Stale Beer-flavored (with Saudi Arabia being the kind of mission you might expect MI6 or Delta Force to be sent on in the real world) and adopts more Martini characteristics later on. Oh, and Steven Heck is spiking the drink with something really weird.
  • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Our Man Bashir" has Dr. Julian Bashir in an obvious James Bond parody holoprogram, making it VERY Martini. On the other hand, actual spy organizations (e.g. Section 31 and the Obsidian Order) in the show are Stale Beer. One of these Stale Beer spies is trapped in the program with Bashir, who treats it like the real thing.
    Garak: Kiss the girl, get the key. They never taught us that in the Obsidian Order.
  • James Bond yet again. If you think he shouldn't be in all three categories, just remember that he's been going on for 50 years. Many films have elements of Dirty Martini, paricularly pre-Goldfinger when he was still an Unbuilt Trope to some degree. On Her Majesty's Secret Service has no gadgets and a believable (while simultaneously bonkers) plot, and the Bond girl dies. And the first two Moore films had scenes where he uses women in ways tantamount to abuse.
  • Necroscope, the early works smell very much of stale beer, but get steadily classier as the series progresses.
  • Covert Affairs — Dirty Martini. It looks like regular Martini, but a lot of emphasis is placed on how hard the job is and the stresses it places one the agents personal life.
  • 009-1: Technicolor Ninja cyborg spy girls with miniskirts and machinegun breasts, traveling the world and looking great doing it... while taking part in stories about betrayal, tragedy, and moral ambiguity, with happy endings virtually nowhere to be found.
  • Sleeper - Black Martini. Takes all the tropes of Martini (flying cars, cool gadgets, alien technology, superpowers) and runs them through a blender full of Chambord.
  • The Bionic Woman comes closer to stale beer than martini as Jamie Sommers eschews glamor for working in her non-spy hours as a schoolteacher and living in a loft above a farmhouse. But when she is sent on missions the stakes are often of the "save the world" level, and she does get to put on fancy clothes when the mission calls for it.
  • Played with on Las Vegas, in that ex-CIA agent Ed seems to have had a Stale Beer-flavored first career, but his life after espionage is Martini-flavored once he retires from spycraft and puts his surveillance skills to alternative uses, busting cheats and thieves for the Montecito.
  • Burn After Reading - Every character seems to think they're in a different type of spy movie. They are all wrong; they are in fact in a really, really dark farce.
  • Mr. & Mrs. Smith - Features a dueling between the types; John is Stale Beer, Jane is Martini.
  • Red. Beer, Beer, Martini, Beer, Beer, Martini, Martini ... Frank, Sarah and Marvin are definitely beer. Cooper, the Fed after them, is so martini his eyes should be pimento stuffed olives. Victoria and Ivan are the champagne.
  • Babylon 5 has a number of episodes involving intrigue, notably feuding between rival Centauri clans. It is often high class martini level but some events take place in the Down Below section.
  • Discussed in Choosers of the Slain, between Mike and an MI6 agent killing some time during a lull in the action, particularly how the Tuxedo and Martini variety is incredibly unrealistic, with the Stale Beer that's actual intelligence work is rather boring. Later in the series the actual spycraft by Katya is of the Stale Beer variety, although with some high-tech enhancement thanks to the US government in Choosers.
  • The Man Who Was Thursday, which is somewhere in between a spy novel and a metaphysical tract. It's something like a martini glass filled with LSD and a splash of martini. Considered by some the first spy novel.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops, oddly for a Call of Duty game, took a Stale Beer approach, as it had a plot about secret, morally nasty operations done in secret by both the US and Russia. Much of the game really took place in a dingy torture room, along with a very gritty atmosphere and secret story underlying the game. The game did have some martini flavoring, in the vein of a James Bond-esque attempt at destroying the US and some gadgets - but due to just how dark the plot is, it dives right back into stale beer.
    • Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is, for the most part, significantly less gritty, focusing more on a Bond-esque hi-tech plot to destroy the superpowers of the world, and done with gadgets and a super-villain that's very reminiscent of a Bond villain, but the flashbacks still contain much of the grittiness and moral grayness of the first game.
  • Dragon Age II - Mark of the Assassin: Wyvern poison. Hawke and co. think they're taking part in The Caper, until it turns out the "thief" they're helping is Qunari (the local super-determinist religion). She's there to stop a defector from giving the Orlesian Empire military secrets that could hurt her people and get plenty of civilians killed in the crossfire. The result: a Cold War story with wyverns, giants and elves.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier plays up the Stale Beer approach, complete with morally gray conspiracies, a government agency that may have sinister agendas, and a hero who is forced to confront his idealism against the cynical world he has found himself in. Being a superhero film, it naturally also comes with some Martini flavorings, especially in regards to the tech.
  • Daughter of the Lioness takes place in a lush tropical setting with a flirtatious and highborn protagonist, but with a lot of grit and technical stuff, like crawling through disgustingly polluted harbors and human ugliness that she has to deal with (and occasionally exploit).
  • Night Raid 1931: The first half (most especially the first episode) started out as Martini due to the protagonists using their Psychic Powers (in place of tech and gadgets) and the setting being in Shanghai which in Real Life is the City of Spies. Then the second half went to Stale Beer, particularly the episodes detailing historical events such as the Mukden Incident which leads to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and Emperor Puyi's coronation. The epilogue episode deals with the February 26 incident which paves way to the Second Sino-Japanese War.
  • Alpha Team: Mission Deep Freeze RPG is based upon LEGO Alpha Team, listed above under Martini, so naturally it shares many of its Martini characteristics. However, compared its source material, the RPG is considerably Darker and Edgier, tackling more serious themes such as Character Death (a subject avoided entirely by the LEGO toyline) which causes it to dip into Stale Beer on occasion.

Parodies (Typically Martini Parodies)

Need Classification subverting the Martini line.

Alternative Title(s):

Spy Drama, Spy Fi