10 Favorite Spies

I've been watching a lot of spy shows and films lately, and it's got me making lists. Who are my 10 favorite fictional spies of all time? I set myself some ground rules, of course. No more than one spy from any give show or franchise. No attempt to really put them in any kind of order except what felt right for the flow of the post. And offer readers the chance to mention other favorites in the Comments section. After all, I had to sacrifice a number of spies to bring it down to ten.

LangelotWorks for: Le Service national d'information fonctionnelle (SNIF).
This may seem an obscure start, but Langelot was the very first spy I ever read about. From of a series of teenage fiction books by Lieutenant X (a pseudonym for Vladimir Volkoff... hey that name sounds familiar), Langelot is France's youngest secret agent at 18. As Agent 222, he has a tendency to go rogue when he needs to, and has adventures in the James Bond vein. I loved those books in my pre-teens and early teens, and read everything I could find at the local library, and even managed to buy some of the books for myself at the rare book fair. I remember casting myself in the role, probably the first time I had ever done so (I would next play Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's), and I know I copied the secret agent card from the books and carried it around with me. While spy fiction was never my number one pursuit, it was never that far behind science fiction, fantasy and superheroes. Now that I'm absorbing a lot more of the genre, I kinda want to take the short novels out of storage and see if they hold up...

Black Spy
Works for: Black side
Mad Magazine's resident spies were always my favorite feature, and I even owned and played the Spy vs. Spy computer game on the C64! Their Looney Tunes antics - closest to the Foghorn Leghorn shorts seeing as there wasn't a dominant character - were great fun and I've got the Prohías collection next to my bed even as we speak. I knew I wanted one of the spies to figure here, but which one? Well, though their are essentially interchangeable, Black was always easier to read on the page, so was always my favorite. He wins... this time.

Ruth Evershed
Works for: MI-5
I'm a big fan of the UK's Spooks, here called and sold as MI-5, and the show's gone through a lot of spies over its 10 seasons. Ruth was one of the longest-serving, and became the emotional core of the series. I like her here because she represents the analysts whose work is so important, but rarely valued in spy fiction. She's no agent, though she's had to go in the field. What she is is a brilliant linguist, puzzle-solver and expert in literature and history, skills that make her as good at breaking codes as she is at figuring out a terrorist's next move.

James Bond
Works for: MI-6, Her Majesty's Secret Service
Well, of course, James Bond. He's seminal. He's iconic. And if I didn't like one actor in the role, I'd still have a strong handful to choose from, plus the literary Bond of Ian Fleming's novels. I'm partial to Daniel Craig right now, but for me it's a little like Doctor Who - I tend to favor the actor currently playing the role. More than that, I like the grittier take that's closer to the damaged Bond of the books. I admit I haven't seen a lot of Connery (or not as often/recently). I was raised on Roger Moore, but he's aged badly. And the Bond I most want to reevaluate is Timothy Dalton's.

Jason Bourne
Works for: Rogue. Formerly CIA, Project Treadstone
The first Bourne film is like a watered down version of Ronin. I loved the Paul Greengrass-directed sequels, however, which convinced me that Bourne could win a fight with any fictional character except maybe Batman. Who knew Matt Damon could be an action hero? The brainwashed super-assassin is a common enough trope. Having him wake up with his ethics returned to him makes for some really cool, paranoid stories.

Works for: Exiled. Formerly Obsidian Order
Deep Space 9's resident tailor (a reference to a certain Le Carre novel?) was the coolest, slickest spy, and you never knew who he was actually working for. Andrew Robinson was awesome in the role for 7 years as the best silver-tongued liar to ever work in an intelligence service.

Number 6
Works for: Unknown. Retired.
Ok, the Prisoner is a former spy, but he was hardly out of the game a few minutes before they pulled him back in again via the Village. No 6 takes going rogue to an entirely new level, the "free man" who refuses to follow the State doctrine and yet is no less a hero for his lack of patriotism. He's the perfect agent provocateur, and his kind of dissidence is infectious. I wonder if Patrick McGoohan was thinking that 007 WAS just a number, a spy who was NOT free or freedom-loving. Bond as fascist, and 6 as his opposite number.

Cinnamon Carter
Works for: Impossible Mission Force (IMF)
I'm a big Mission Impossible fan, by which I mean the original show, not the Tom Cruise movie franchise (which I don't dislike, but can't call myself a "big fan" of), but if I limit myself to only one operative, it has to be Cinnamon. Played by the always classy Barbara Bain, she often out-cools Rollin Hand, Jim Phelps, Barney Collier and the rest. TV's IMF is remarkable in that it's composed of ordinary citizen who have pledged their services to help their country. Volunteer spies. Cinnamon is a former model and actress, now giving performances that have to be good enough not to get her and her team killed, and she's not bad an improvising either. She's the least gimmicky of all IMF team, and that makes her the best spy.

Arne Treholt - Norwegian Ninja
Works for: King Olav V's secret army of Norwegian Ninja
One of the best films I saw this year is 2010's Norwegian Ninja, an INSANE Cold War spy thriller/comedy translating real-life person Arne Treholt, arrested for espionage in the 80s, into the founder of a ninja cult in the Land of the Fjords. He doesn't look like much with his big 80s glasses, but the man spins out zen teachings, can practically turn himself invisible, and protects his country from communism as well as 007 does and with just about the same number of vehicles per film. He's not in jail. He's still out there. Trust me on that.

Sarah Walker
Works for: CIA, Carmichael Industries
Oh Sarah... The sexy stone-cold assassin who let a nerd melt her heart is wish fulfillment at its best, and yet, she's such an awesome action heroine that she never becomes objectified no matter how often she walks into the BuyMore with wind in her hair. Sarah Walker is duty personified, but she also wants more for herself. We want to be her, but she wants to be us. And through that osmosis, we bond with her just like a certain member of the Nerd Herd does. I wouldn't want any other spy on this list to have my back. But then, I'm likely in love with her...

Did I miss one of your favorites? Sidney Bristow perhaps, or George Smiley or Nick Fury? Let us know in the Comments section. Plenty of secret warfare out there!


snell said...

I was always convinced Damon would have made a good Bruce Wayne... (and for the record, I liked Bourne I much better than II & III...so sue me).

Siskoid said...

If it didn't steal its action beats from Ronin, I might have agreed...

snell said...

But 2 & 3 stole their action beats from 1 (& each other). And, for reasons discussed here, 2 & 3 fall short for other reasons, IMO.

Matthew E said...

Other spies... man, I'm sure there are all kinds. Tara Chace, for one. Jack Ryan? Maybe not Jack Ryan.

Matthew Turnage said...

Timothy Dalton is definitely worth a reevaluation. He's my favorite Bond, and while there will always be a certain soft spot because he was Bond when I came to the series, I also think he's the closest to Fleming's. While both of his films are good but not great, his performance in both is top notch.

Garak was portrayed by Andrew Robinson, not James.

Siskoid said...

Hahaha. Except on Earth-2.

Weird brain freeze moment.

chiasaur11 said...

What about Michael Westen?

He's always helpful. Gives advice to amateurs.

Then there's Dirk Anger. The most well adjusted man in comics!

Siskoid said...

Go Nextwave!

SallyP said...

Archer of Isis. My favorite spy guy.

Siskoid said...

I've only seen the first episode of Archer, but want to delve in more.

Spies that might have made a longer list include Sydney Bristow, Emma Peel, the Black Widow (comics version) and Secret Squirrel. Archer might have made that Top 15 eventually.

Craig Oxbrow said...

Were I to say a Bristow, it would be Jack. Sydney does fine work, but her father is Just That Scary.

Siskoid said...

Yeah, Papa Jack was pretty awesome.

Michael May said...

Most of mine have already been mentioned. I like Sydney, but love Jack. Black Widow.

No one's said Hanna yet. She was awesome.

Moriarty said...

Michael Westen from Burn Notice is a really good choice. I've missed the last couple seasons, so thanks for the reminder to go back. Also agree that Jack Bristow is pretty worthy, as is his daughter.


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