Bryce Dallas Howard as the enigmatic author Elly Conway in the film version of “Argylle”. Image: Landmark Media / Alamy

Taylor Swift’s first novel! Or maybe not…

The internet is full of gossip about this spy thriller from a first-time author—who may or may not be the reigning queen of pop
January 24, 2024
Elly Conway? (RRP: £18.99)
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A spy thriller always needs a mystery. And Argylle certainly has one of those: its author, Elly Conway. According to Penguin Random House, Elly Conway is from upstate New York and once worked as a waitress; Argylle is her debut novel. But the internet is alive with speculation that Conway might not exist and could be a pseudonym for someone seismically famous.

Why? Because Argylle has followed a very different trajectory to most debut novels by unknown authors. In August 2021, two and a half years before the book was published—it came out on 4th January 2024 in the UK—the rights to its adaptation sold to Apple TV+ for around $200m. Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn announced that he would be turning it into a movie starring Henry Cavill, Dua Lipa and John Cena, among other big-name stars.

The average novelist receives a median pre-publication advance of $25,000, and books are not usually adapted into films unless they have already achieved commercial success. So why did Conway’s Argylle attract such astronomical sums of money before it was even published? According to Vaughn, Argylle is the “most incredible and original spy franchise since Ian Fleming’s books,” and will “reinvent the spy genre.” But does the book’s quality really explain its unprecedented path to publication, or is there more to the mystery? I decided to investigate, beginning with the first piece of evidence: the book itself.

Aubrey Argylle is a relatable protagonist for a spy thriller. Living in a “tropical backwater” in northern Thailand’s part of the Golden Triangle, he enjoys a relaxed life, riding his motorbike, leading tourists on hikes around mountain jungles and playing pool in a local bar. Argylle is not a natural candidate to be a secret agent, being thoughtful and a bit of a worrier. He’s also a pacifist, having inherited the politics of his dead hippie parents who—in the novel’s least convincing plotline—are former international marijuana dealers murdered by a local drugs gang.

When a CIA plane is shot down by the same gang near where he lives, Argylle helps the survivors, angering the perpetrators and attracting the interest of the US intelligence service’s head honcho, the unassuming former librarian Frances Coffey. With his life at risk if he stays in Thailand, yet with nowhere else to go, Argylle accepts Coffey’s offer of a job.

A pacy plot sets agent Argylle and his special ops teammates after the tech-billionaire supervillain Vasily Federov, a populist Russian presidential candidate who wants to form a “united, ultra-Right Russian superstate”. He believes that he can secure the adoration of the Russian people by reuniting them with the “Amber Room”—sometimes described as the eighth wonder of the world—a real-world chamber in the 18th-century Catherine Palace near St Petersburg that was looted by the Nazis during the Second World War and then lost. Coffey tasks Argylle with finding the amber plates that once lined the chamber before Federov can recover them himself.

The feats that Argylle and the team must perform along the way are terrific fun. A bracelet has to be extracted from the wrist of Federov’s wife at a ball in Monaco, which leads to a motorbike dash through the charming village of Èze. A parachuting mission to recover a clue from the treasure room of the monastery on the Greek island of Mount Athos is thrilling, vivid—“up here the air is scented with pine and laurel”—and vaguely comic: the monks, “unused to so much deviation from the rigid routines of their lives,” grow “overexcited” when they discover the robbery.

Conway also surrounds Argylle with a host of likeable characters, from Woody Wyatt, a one-time Marine who is a “broad, dense cube of a man” with whom Argylle reluctantly forms a friendship, to Coffey herself, whose invisibility as a middle-aged woman is her superpower; she has an “ability to convince people that they already know everything there is to know about her, that her very ordinariness makes her not worth the trouble of engaging with.”

I don’t buy that the book was special enough to win a $200m pre-publication movie deal on its own merit

However, for all its merits—most notably its creative incorporation of historical events into the plot, plus its compelling descriptive detail—Argylle is plainly not a great book. At times it feels exaggerated to Hollywood proportions, and its twists are predictable and over-explained. It is also occasionally clumsy in its writing: after a confrontation, the atmosphere between Wyatt and Argylle is described as “as sour as halitosis”.

So I don’t buy that the book was special enough to win a $200m pre-publication movie deal on its own merit. This left me with the next piece of evidence: the trailer for the movie, which was released in September 2023. Here, the plot thickens, as the story in the movie appears to bear little resemblance to the one in the book I have just read.

The first clue that this movie is not a straightforward adaptation of the novel is that Elly Conway appears as a character played by Bryce Dallas Howard—she is a reclusive bestselling author of espionage novels who is contacted by a real-life intelligence agency when the plots in her books begin to mirror its own covert operations. This, the movie’s meta-conceit, suggests that Argylle is neither the novel from which the film was adapted nor a novelisation of the film. Instead, it is supposedly a work by one of the film’s lead characters—in short, a prop. 

I can’t help but feel cheated by this. I want to read an original spy thriller that is so compelling it has been made into a big-budget movie, not—I can’t help but suspect—a marketing device that has been reverse-engineered from a big-budget movie.

But it gets worse. To try to find out why the book itself has successfully generated so much excitement, I turn to videos on TikTok, where thousands—millions—of Taylor Swift fans have speculated that Elly Conway is really a pseudonym for the globally famous pop star and 2023 Time Person of the Year.

You can see what’s got the Swifties fired up. The singer has long been known for leaving clues or “Easter eggs” in her music and videos, so her fans are always on the lookout. They couldn’t have failed to notice that Conway launched an Instagram account, full of pictures that never show her face, on 13th December 2022, which is Swift’s birthday. They have also interpreted elements of the Argylle promotional campaign, including the fact Elly Conway has the same kind of cat as Swift, a Scottish Fold, as further proof. Leaving cryptic clues for her fans would, they argue, be entirely in keeping with Swift’s modus. 

Thousands—millions—of Taylor Swift fans have speculated that Elly Conway is really a pseudonym for the globally famous pop star

Sources in publishing have confirmed to Vanity Fair that Conway is not Swift. But the hashtag #taylorswiftargylletheory still has 22.9m views and counting. Some of its purveyors, such as @chloeandpercy, have included screenshots purporting to show messages from Random House Books, stoking the rumours and offering advance copies of the book.

We may never know for sure who Elly Conway is and whether Taylor Swift—who was once rumoured to have been offered a role by Vaughn in a previous spy film—has contributed in some way to the project. Or whether it was a happy accident for Vaughn and Apple that Swift fans developed a conspiracy theory. Or whether a genius marketeer for Argylle intentionally left Swift-coded clues in its promotional materials in hope of achieving precisely what has been achieved.

What’s clearer is who benefits from the speculation. Firstly: Vaughn, who’s made the movie, after all—and who, according to online sleuths, might own the book’s copyright. Secondly: Apple, which made $22.3bn from its “services” division, including its streaming business, in the third quarter of 2023 alone.

Perhaps what is sad about the Elly Conway mystery is that it is a mystery at all—that the idea of a young debut novelist landing a multimillion-dollar deal in the current publishing landscape is so unbelievable. Recent times have seen a steep decrease in wages for authors: according to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, the earnings of professional writers have fallen by around 60 per cent in the last 15 years.

Whatever the truth of Argylle, I fear it may inspire a new commercial model for publishers—in which books are conceived of and released as marketing tools, as props, for blockbuster films, rather than as works of art in their own right. Why take a risk on a genuinely new author when you could conjure up a celebrity mythology around a book that has the backing of a streaming giant?

The tagline for Argylle is: “Once you know the secret, don’t let the cat out of the bag.” In a way, I agree: please keep this particular moggie locked up forever and unable to spread its baleful influence.