The Spy Novel: Cooper’s The Spy

We all love a good spy novel. 

At least, I know I love espionage thrillers. I have already reviewed several on this blog, including Red Sparrow, The Rhythm Section, and Leaving Berlin. The spy has always been part of Western literature. In Homer’s Iliad, there is a book dedicated to Odysseus and Diomedes as they sneaked into the Trojan camp. They encountered a Trojan spy named Dolan, whom, in an act of counterespionage, they killed. As they continued on their spy mission, they stole the Thracian horses and killed thirteen Thracians, including Rhesus, the Thracian king. In Homer’s other epic poem, The Odyssey, Helen tells about how Odysseus would enter Troy under disguise to learn Troy’s strategy in the war. In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Joshua tells about the spies he sent into Jericho. But these examples are just episodes in works whose main plot has nothing to do with espionage. Several centuries will pass before the first spy novel would appear. That novel was James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy

I’m beginning a survey of spy novels, to examine their history and development over the decades. According to Wikipedia, The Spy, along with Cooper’s The Bravo (1831), founded spy fiction as a genre. I haven’t read The Bravo, but I have researched it. It’s set in Venice. Rather than focusing on international conflict, it concerns itself with the conflict between social classes. In truth, it sounds like a more satisfying spy thriller than The Spy. But The Spy, published ten years earlier, has to be considered the first spy novel. In looking at spy novels and analyzing them, I want a systematic approach. I’ll examine these themes: 1) the historical context, 2) the spy and his skill, and 3) the mission and its stakes.


The Spy is set during the American Revolution. It’s the fall of 1780; the primary location is The Locust, the country home of Mr. Wharton and his family. This was in neutral territory, in West-Chester County, north of New York City. Setting the action in neutral territory allows Cooper to explore the motivations of both Loyalists and Rebels. The Wharton family was ambivalent about the war. Mr. Wharton believed his business interest was better served with a British victory in the war, and his son fought in the British army. His oldest daughter, Sarah, was in love with a British colonel. However, his other daughter, Francis, and the aunt, who served as a mother figure, supported independence. As Sarah was in love with a British officer, Francis loved Major Dunwoodie, a cousin in the Continental Army. 

The county of West-Chester, afte rthe British had obtained possession of the island of New York, becaem common ground, in which both parties continued to act for the remainder of the war of the revolution. A large proportion of its inhabitants, either restrained by their attachments, or influenced by their fears, afftected a neutrality they did not feel. The lower towns were, of course, more particularly under the dominion of the crown, while the upper, finding a security from the vincinity of the continental troops, were bold in asserting their rebolutionary opinions, and their right to govern themselves.

In modern spy novels, the spy or those seeking to disrupt his mission are the natural protagonists. But in Cooper’s book, the spy, Harvey Birch, is a secondary character; the main protagonists are the Whartons. Mr. Wharton’s son, Henry, a captain in the British army, came to visit the family. While he’s at home, the Continental Army captured him. Since he had crossed their lines in disguise, they took him for a spy and intended to try him. The punishment was death by hanging. The main plot revolves around the family’s efforts to save Henry Wharton from this fate. 

They were a wealthy family, wealthy enough to have both a city and a country home, and they owned at least one slave, Caesar. Since the plot focuses on the Whartons efforts to vindicate Henry and save him from the hangman’s noose, The Spy is less a spy thriller and more a family saga. War, no matter how just the cause, is untidy. The Whartons suffer during these events. Along with Henry’s capture, their efforts to straddle both loyal and rebellious sentiments under the same roof caused them other hardships. Many of the side characters also experienced unpleasant consequences. 

Much of this suffering came at the hands of the Skinners, a band of marauders who supported independence, but who also used the war as an excuse to raid, steal, kill, and (implied) rape. Neutral territory doesn’t mean nonviolent. The Skinners made it a very violent place to live. They contended with the Cow-boys, a marauding band loyal to the crown. These two bands waged their quasi-war against civilians whose politics differed from their own. In truth, both groups were less concerned about victory for their side and more concerned about ways to profit. With their introduction, Cooper explores the theme of the hardship of war, especially for the civilian population. This is a very modern view of war. These days, we would understand the actions of both the Skinners and the Cow-boys as war crimes and terrorism.     

There’s an interesting interaction between Caesar and Harvey Birch. Birch used that word that, in modern times, had become banned in all contexts except Hip Hop songs by Black artists. In response, Caesar told Birch, in no uncertain terms, what he thought about racism. I found this passage interesting because it shows that racial slang was recognized as insulting even during the heyday of slavery. Cooper published The Spy in 1821, but the events in it took place in 1780. Despite this exchange, I doubt too many modern readers would approve of Caesar’s characterization. He comes across as an Uncle Tom, content in his servitude, loyal to his masters. 


Though Harvey Birch, the spy in the title, is a secondary character, his importance to the story can’t be understated. It’s established early in the novel when a mysterious traveler named Mr. Harper learned he had accidentally called on Birch’s home. The story ends with an episode about Birch that happened years later, during the War of 1812. An effort to capture Birch for the reward motivated The Skinners. Capturing Birch to bring him to justice was the primary goal of Captain Lawton, an officer in Dunwoodie’s unit. It drove much of the action. Since Birch helped Captain Wharton cross enemy lines to visit his family, I would argue that nothing in this novel would happen without Birch. 

Still, most of his “spying” was off-page. Sometimes he disappeared from the novel for long passages, even for several chapters. Yet, he’s there, lurking, watching, waiting for opportunities to insert himself to effect into the events. His profession as a peddler gave him the means and reason to cross contested ground. It gave him the perfect “cover,” and as any reader of spy fiction will tell you—establishing a convincing cover is the first task of spycraft. 

Harvey Birch enjoyed other skills as a spy. He’s both an escape artist and a master of disguise. In the backstory, we learn that he had been captured and tried by the Continental Army. Before they could execute him, he escaped. Two times during the novel, we see Birch managing escapes. During both getaways, he employed that second skill—disguise. As a master of disguise, he helped Henry Wharton disguise himself for a visit to the family. This disguise was so convincing that the family didn’t recognize their relative. Later, Birch donned disguises that fool people who are well familiar with him. Later in the novel, we visit his “safe house,” where, hanging on the walls, were several costumes he could use—and probably had used—for other disguises. 

Against the walls and rock were suspended, from pegs forced into the crevices, various garments, and such as were apparently fitted for all ages and conditions, and for either sex. British and American uniforms hung peaceably by the side of each other; and on the peg that supported a gown of striped calico, such as was the usual country wear, was also depedning a well-powdered wig: in short, the attire was numerous, and as various as if a whole parish were to be equipped from this one wardrobe.

I would’ve loved to spend more time in Birch’s company. My chief complaint of The Spy is that the spy wasn’t the protagonist. I would’ve preferred a central plot of Captain Lawton’s efforts to capture Birch, with either Birch or Lawton as the protagonist, or a plot centered around Birch’s efforts to avoid the vindictive Skinners. Either would’ve made a more interesting and exciting novel. Instead, The Spy spent too many pages focused on the love affairs between the Wharton daughters and their men. More Harvey Birch, less Sarah and Francis Wharton—that would’ve been my prescription for a better spy novel. 


Little is said of Birch’s official mission as a spy. Since he’s a British spy, we assume it is to watch the Continental Army movements and infiltrate their territory to gather information. At such duties, we have reason to believe he’s capable. He has already been tried and convicted of espionage. Lawton only awaits Birch’s capture to execute him as a spy. 

Birch accepts an informal mission unrelated to those duties: to help Captain Henry Wharton visit his family and to see Henry safely return to British-controlled territory. As a neighbor to the Whartons, Birch undertook this mission as a personal favor. It’s not clear whether Henry knew Birch was a spy; in fact, I suspect he didn’t know. But he knew the peddler crossed contested ground all the time, traveled between American and British territory, so asking for that favor was natural for Henry. As a neighbor to the Whartons, who were also his customers, Birch felt obliged to grant the favor. 

 Whatever motivated him to accept this mission, he stayed true to it. After Henry was captured, he never abandoned the captain. Since both the Skinners and Lawton were closing in on Birch, it would’ve been a wiser decision to leave the area and to abandon Henry to whatever fate he faced. But Birch stayed close for no other reason than to help the Whartons save Henry.

Spy novels come with twists, and The Spy is no different. But Cooper handled the main twist so poorly that I predicted it by the middle of the book. Even then, it felt clumsy and unrealistic. That’s not how it would’ve happened, I thought. I think the twist was there to give American readers reasons to sympathized with the British spy; however, I doubt the reader needed a reason to sympathize with Birch. We sympathize with him because he’s a man of integrity. In one line, he bragged that he had never killed anyone. Quite a feat, considering he’s a spy during a war and that those chasing him already had the hangman’s noose tied.  


As a spy novel, The Spy disappoints. The espionage elements of the story play second fiddle to the Wharton family saga. Despite this complaint, I enjoyed reading The Spy. Set during a war, it gave us battles to be won, and Cooper’s descriptions of those battles filled several tense pages. Though I think Cooper was interested in the espionage plot, I fear it didn’t fit his theme about civilian hardship during war. Focusing the novel on the Whartons rather than on Harvey Birch allowed him to better develop that theme.  

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