Cause for Alarm (1938)
by Eric Ambler
The modern "spy thriller" is forever linked to the politics of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, but its genre roots predate that conflict. The first novel to be widely acknowledged as a spy novel is the The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Erksine Childers. That book took place in the North sea, and the plot revolves around a couple of English gentleman seafarers who unwittingly stumble upon nefarious German activity. Conrad's The Secret Agent, published in 1906, is widely known, though its literary quality sets it above the common genre work of most later spy novels. The clear inspiration for The Riddle of the Sands is the "adventure novel," popular in the 19th century. In Riddle, the spy/espionage element seems almost happenstance, merely an additional element dreamed up by an author looking for novel incident for his sailing adventure story.
The spy novel as we know it incorporated the crime/hard boiled fiction of the 1920s and 30s with the political upheaval of the 20th century. In this sense, Cause for Alarm, written almost a decade before the outbreak of the Cold War, is the first "true" spy novel in the 1001 Books list. The story concerns an English engineer who is suddenly put out of work in his native land and, out of desperation, accepts an assignment as the representative of an English machine tools company in Fascist Italy, stationed in Milan.
He becomes embroiled in the kind of international geopolitical machinations familiar to any reader of later spy novels. So unformed in the genre at this point that one of the main characters is an American working FOR the Soviets against the interest of the German/Italian Axis. Cause For Alarm is a fast paced thriller, and will appeal to any fan of the genre.