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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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Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC What is it about stories of magic, epic adventure, and imaginary worlds that has turned Fantasy into one of the world’s most popular forms of storytelling, regularly filling the best-seller lists and entrancing adults and children alike?

In the second episode of his series that deconstructs the books we (really) read, Andrew Marr argues that these stories are filled with big ideas. Yes, there may be wizards with pointy hats- as well as the odd dragon – but what Fantasy is really good at is allowing us to see our own world in a surprising way – albeit through a twisted gothic filter.

The current leading exponent of Fantasy is a bearded Texan, George RR Martin, whose A Game of Thrones began a book-shelf buckling series of novels, and spawned a vast TV empire. But Andrew reminds us that this is a genre whose origins are British, and at its heart is still a quest to reconnect readers with the ancient ideas and folk-beliefs of the world before the Enlightenment.

Andrew breaks down Fantasy into a set of conventions that govern the modern genre: he looks at the intricacy with which imaginary worlds are built (as seen in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series), the use of Portals that are able to bridge this world and another (most famously, the wardrobe in CS Lewis’ Narnia books), as well the concept of ‘thinning’: these novels are typically set in a world in decline. In Fantasy fiction, Winter is always coming.

To help him understand these books, Andrew meets best-selling Fantasy writers - and the programme includes interviews with Neil Gaiman, Alan Garner, and Frances Hardinge. As well as profiling key figures such as CS Lewis and Sir Terry Pratchett, Andrew considers the spell that medieval Oxford has cast on generations of authors- from Lewis Carroll to Philip Pullman. And he gets to grips with the legacy of JRR Tolkien – a figure so important that his influence pops up everywhere – “like Mt Fuji in Japanese prints”, according to Pratchett. Tolkien’s predominance would not go unchallenged, and Andrew shows how writers like Ursula K Le Guin confronted Tolkien’s rather European notions of what an imaginary world should be. 

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