Literary festival spies chance to tackle thrillers

Dame Stella Rimington. Picture: Getty
Dame Stella Rimington. Picture: Getty
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AS the birthplace of Hollywood’s greatest secret agent, Edinburgh’s brush with the murky world of espionage extends far beyond its brief turn in the pages of spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Sir Sean Connery’s days as the peerless 007 may be long gone, but his hometown is now set to host a major literary festival celebrating intelligence-gathering, subterfuge and covert ops.

Dubbed Spy Week, the event boasts screenings of several classic spy films and a keynote address by former M15 director general Dame Stella Rimington, an alumna of Edinburgh University which is running the festival, who will reveal the differences between “spy fiction and spy fact”.

The work of John Buchan, whose famed novel The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the most influential spy thrillers of all time, will be discussed, focusing on Scotland’s role in his books.

Buchan is best remembered for the creation of spy character Richard Hannay, who became the ultimate model for countless spy heroes after him, including James Bond. Bond creator Ian Fleming wrote in You Only Live Twice that the fictional agent had attended Fettes College.

The festival will feature screenings of film classics The Spy in Black and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed 1939 version of The 39 Steps, featuring thrilling scenes on the Forth Bridge.

Dame Stella will also join a discussion on the enduring appeal of the spy novel.

Also taking part will be Scots-born Charles Cumming, who was awarded the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger in 2012, action thriller writer Tim Stevens and Jeremy Duns, the creator of fictional British double agent Paul Dark.

The week has been organised in partnership with the Filmhouse, National Library of Scotland and Blackwell’s Bookshop.

Professor Penny Fielding, of Edinburgh University’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, said: “The world of espionage has not only provided authors with some of their most memorable plots but spy fiction also confronts some of the ethical, cultural and historical events which have shaped the modern world. This inaugural Spy Week is an opportunity to celebrate and explore that work.”

Spy Week runs from April 6-12.


The Thirty-Nine Steps, by the Scottish author John Buchan, was first published in 1915 and adapted for the screen in 1935, 1959, 1978 and 2008.

Considered one of the most influential spy novels of all time, Buchan chronicles the pre-First World War adventures of Richard Hannay, a Scotsman who embarks on a bid to thwart a German plot to steal the British plans for war.

The novel was Buchan’s first “shocker”, as he called it – a story combining personal and political dramas. It is said to be one of the earliest examples of the “man-on-the-run” thrillers – a plot device for dozens of modern Hollywood films – and marked a turning point in Buchan’s literary career.