Kim: The First-Ever Spy Novel?

“Something I owe to the soil that grew—
More to the life that fed—
But most to Allah who gave me two
Separate sides to my head.”
—Rudyard Kipling, Kim 


Rudyard Kipling's KimI love a good spy novel. My obsession started with James Bond—from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale and John Gardner’s Icebreaker to Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care and Jeffery Deaver’s Carte Blanche. And continued with dozens of others by Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Jeffery Archer, and Fredrick Forsythe. More recently, Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series has become a favorite. Silva is an excellent writer and his thrillers are gripping.

So when I picked up Kim by Rudyard Kipling and saw that it has been called “the first modern spy novel”, my interest was piqued.

Turns out that description is almost right.

Kim (published in 1901) is part spy novel, part travel narrative, and part coming of age story. All set during “The Great Game” in 1890s India.

Kimball O’Hara is an Irish orphan living in the streets of Lahore. He delivers messages for Mahbub Ali, a horse trader and an agent of the Secret Service. Because Kim speaks Punjabi, very few people know he is British. Kim befriends a Tibetian lama and becomes his disciple (chela). As he wanders with the lama searching for enlightenment and the River of the Arrow, Kim is discovered by men from his father’s Army regiment and is sent first to military school, then to learn trade craft from other spies.

Eventually, Kim is sent with a message to a spy named Huree who has been watching the Russians. Unfortunately, Kim finds Huree dead. Rather than give up, he ingeniously infiltrates the Russian’s camp and is able to steal maps and other papers and deliver them safely to the British. The book ends rather abruptly, as the lama finds his river and enlightenment. Is he alive or dead? It’s not exactly clear.

There is no doubt that espionage is one of the main themes of this book. However, most of Kim’s involvement is training for the game that is to come. The stuff that happens after the book ends. That’s not a complaint. This is a good read. But if you’re looking for intense, adrenalin pumping action, Kim is something else.

The other main theme of the book is the search for enlightenment. Yet even the lama seems to understand that the real world of “The Great Game” protects those who don’t pursue it, teaching Kim that a world where evil men are not slain would not be very good for “weaponless dreamers” like himself.

Whether Kipling intended it to or not, the two themes of this book seem to represent the conflicts within British India itself.

The thing that really stands out from this book is Kim. Unlike protagonists from other books on our list (boorish Rabbit Angstrom or whiny Will Ladislaw), Kim is an incurable optimist and a survivor. A very intelligent and adaptable boy who does what it takes to get ahead. He is a quick study and easily moves from his Indian persona to a British one. He is unfailingly faithful to his friends, whether it be Mahbub Ali, the lama, or even E23, a British spy he has only just met and helps escape danger by changing his appearance. Through it all, Kim is his own man.

But this book can be difficult to understand at times. As I read it, I would find myself suddenly asking what is going on? Then a few paragraphs later, it was all making sense again. Maybe that’s indicative of the way 1890s India was?

So is Kim a spy novel? Not really.

At least, it’s not the kind of book we would call a spy novel today. But Allen Dulles (the longest serving Director of the CIA) might disagree. One rumor has it he kept a copy of Kim on his nightstand.


Media: Audiobook and E-book (421 pages, print edition)
Rating: 3.5 Stars (out of 5)


Books Mentioned in this Post:

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
Icebreaker by John Gardner
Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks
Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver
Gabriel Allon (series) by Daniel Silva
Kim by Rudyard Kipling

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