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Sleuths, Spies & Sorcerers: Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes

Andrew Marr deconstructs detective fiction, fantasy epics and spy novels - the books we really read. He unpicks their conventions to show how these books keep us turning the page in our latest OU co-production with BBC Four. 

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In this three-part series, Andrew Marr explores the works of George RR Martin, Agatha Christie, John le Carré and others as he deconstructs three of the most popular genres of best-selling fiction: detective stories, fantasy epics, and spy thrillers.

In the past, genre fiction was looked down on as low-rent lit. But not anymore. The best of these books are intricately constructed: powered by plot and narrative, they are page-turners capable of conveying big ideas. No longer the embarrassing cousin of literary fiction, genre fiction is now considered clever and cool, not to mention intelligent and well-written literature.

What these genres share is that they rely on a set of rules to tell their stories. At one level, these conventions provide a comforting reassurance to readers but the rules also present the skillful writer with a set of parameters that can be twisted, subverted, or reinvented with fiendish ingenuity.  We hear from Neil Gaiman, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and Frederick Forsyth who let us into the tricks of their craft, and reveal how they keep us compulsively turning the pages. 

To complement the series, we've compiled a range of fantastic learning resources to take your knowledge of genres and writing further. You can:

The first episode of 'Sleuths, Spies & Sorcerers: Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes' will be broadcast on BBC Four on Monday 17th October 2016 at 9.00pm. Full broadcast details, and watch again links, can be found on

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Andrew Marr in a Berlin Bar with a spy Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC What is the allure of the classic espionage story? As Andrew Marr argues in the conclusion to his series about the books we (really) read, the British spy novel is much more than a cloak and dagger affair. Rather, these books allow readers to engage with some pretty big questions about the human condition: principally, who are you? What – or who- would you be willing to betray? And for what cause would you lay your life on the line?

To help him decipher the rules of the classic espionage story, Andrew travels to Berlin in the footsteps of master spy novelist John le Carré, whose experience of witnessing the Berlin Wall being erected in 1961 inspired him to write the twentieth century’s greatest spy novel - The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Andrew uncovers the various conventions that have governed the genre since it began. He shows how early spy novelists created a climate of fear, how they introduced the debonair gentleman spy, and how –through the works of former secret agents such as Somerset Maugham – they translated the often-mundane details of espionage into their stories. The tradecraft of spy-writing is gleaned from writers Frederick Forsyth, William Boyd, Gerald Seymour, Charles Cumming as well as novelist (and former Director General of MI5) Dame Stella Rimington. And Andrew considers the future of the fictional spy in an age when the agent on the ground is being superseded by electronic surveillance.

Episodes in this series

Episode Description
Detectives How does the curious world of Agatha Christie et al. encourage us keep turning the pages of the gripping detective... Read more
Fantasy What set of writing conventions govern fantasy novels by the likes of George RR Martin? Andrew Marr explores... Read more
Spies What are the rules of a classic espionage story? Andrew Marr follows in John le Carré's footsteps to find out. Read more


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