William le Queux: spy novelist and a spy?

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Le Queux was labelled the master of mystery and this title was very fitting for him as his life was extremely mysterious and secret. One of the main ambiguities around Le Queux was the concept that he was a spy for the British state in the years prior to 1914. This concept was fashioned by both Le Queux as well as his biographer, Douglas Sladen.[1] According to them Le Queux’s spy fiction was influenced and shaped through his access to secret reports as well as the experiences and connections that Le Queux had while working as a British spy. In the introduction of many of his spy novels Le Queux wrote that through some unspecified connections he had gained knowledge of some aspect of secret service work or foreign espionage threat in Britain which he used to produce his fiction.[2] For example, in the introduction to his 1909 bestseller Spies of the Kaiser Le Queux wrote ‘I have before me a file of amazing documents, which plainly show the feverish activity with which this advanced guard of our enemy is working to secure for their employers the most detailed information’. [3] This resulted in some of his readers gaining the impression that Le Queux was well informed about the secret world of intelligence and through his fiction and public speeches he was offering an insight into the world of British clandestine operations. Le Queux’s heroic spying exploits for Britain were also praised by Sir Robert Gower, a Conservative MP, who stated that Le Queux ‘risked his life in countless exploits for the country’s benefit – exploits far exceeding in their daring the most colourful adventures of his bravest heroes’. [4] Thus it would appear that Le Queux was bridging the gap between the fictional world of intelligence in his spy novels and the real world of British secret service activities. The problem with these claims of Le Queux’s secret work is the lack of evidence to support them. These accounts were always vague. For example, when describing his supposed secret service work, he never provided dates, locations or names of individuals he interacted with and he was often extremely vague about what he had done. Once he simply said ‘I had kept my eyes and ears open’ when detailing his secret work in Germany on an unspecified date prior to 1914.[5] Moreover, among the available historical evidence there is no proof to support the claims that Le Queux was a spy. Rather it can be viewed as an attempt to create an air of authenticity to his stories and as a very effective publicity tool to increase his readership. Additionally, a report from 1914 produced by the London Metropolitan Police on Le Queux in reaction to Le Queux’s frequent claims that he was about to be assassinated by German spies due to his supposed secret service work noted that he ‘is not a person to be taken seriously and his ways are somewhat tortuous’.[6] Thus, it can be seen that Le Queux was fuelling his own fantasies about his supposed secret service work and in doing so blurring the lines between spy fact and spy fiction.

[1] Le Queux, Things I know, pp 78‒9; Sladen, The real Le Queux, pp vii, 117‒8.
[2] Le Queux, The German spy, pp 1‒3; Le Queux, Bolo, the super spy, pp 9‒11.
[3] Le Queux, Spies of the Kaiser, p. xxxiii
[4] Sladen, The real Le Queux, p. xv.
[5] Le Queux, German spies in Britain, pp 12, 20.
[6] Report re. Mr. Le Queux, 2 March 1915 (The National Archives, MEPO 3/243).

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Jonathan Best

I historian of modern British history. In particular my research has focused on the activities of British secret services during the twentieth century, particularly during the two world wars and the early decades of the Cold War. In addition to this my current research has also examined the history of British spy fiction with a particular focus on the British spy novel between the late Victorian era and the 1960s. This interest is fueled by my personal passion for the secret world of espionage, intelligence, clandestine operations both fictional and factual.

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