Who or what is Argylle? The literary mystery behind Matthew Vaughn’s new film

Dua Lipa and Henry Cavill in Matthew Vaughn's film Argylle
Dua Lipa and Henry Cavill in Matthew Vaughn's film Argylle - Peter Mountain

Elly Conway is an author so reclusive she makes Thomas Pynchon look like Katie Price. There’s a good reason for that: she’s not a real person.

In July 2021 Matthew Vaughn, the twisted mind (his words) behind the world-conquering Kingsman spy comedies, announced that he was to direct a film adapted from Conway’s yet-to-be-published spy novel, Argylle. “When I read this early draft manuscript I felt it was the most incredible and original spy franchise since Ian Fleming’s books of the 50s. This is going to reinvent the spy genre,” he gushed.

We’ve been led up the garden path, however. The newly released trailer for the Argylle movie reveals that Elly Conway is a character in the film: a spy novelist (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) who writes books about a Bond-esque secret agent called Argylle. The twist is that Conway manages in her novels to predict real-life events, which earns her the attention of competing Intelligence services.

This solves the mystery of why Elly Conway has not been all over the media for the past two years. If she existed, she would have become an instant celebrity: after all, where most debut novelists would be regarded as having hit the jackpot if they were offered Book at Bedtime, here’s one whose book has been snapped up as the basis for what’s being touted as a major franchise. The all-star cast of the first instalment– for which Apple Original Films has reportedly paid an eye-watering $200 million – includes Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bryan Cranston, Samuel L Jackson, Rob Delaney and Dua Lipa.

It was announced in 2021 that Random House would publish Elly Conway’s novel, but you didn’t have to be George Smiley to realise early on that there was something fishy about Conway. Her publisher’s website carried only the briefest of bios: “Elly Conway is the author of the heavily anticipated debut thriller, Argylle. She lives in the United States and is currently working on the next instalment in the series.”

No information about whether she has children or cats, and likes gardening or Mexican food - the usual stuff that pads an author bio - and no photo. And it didn’t take a cryptanalyst to spot that Conway’s first name had been spelt in different ways – both “Elly” and “Ellie” – in various bits of promotional material.

Most debut authors I know are strongarmed by their publishers into setting up social media accounts as soon as the ink’s dry on their contract, so as to establish an online presence by the time their book is published. Elly Conway does have an Instagram account (@authorellyconway), but where one might expect to see pictures of her living it up on Apple’s dime, or at least posing excitedly with a proof copy of her novel, she has yet to post anything. She has 110 followers but only follows one person: the US literary agent Eric Reid, renowned for his ability to secure movie deals for his clients.

And yet, although Conway is fictional, her book apparently exists. It has been advertised on Amazon for some time: its publication date was originally given as September 2022 but it has been pushed back several times and is now given as January 2024.

As thriller critic of this newspaper, I have been trying to get hold of an advance copy of Conway’s novel for well over a year – to no avail, even though most publishers are keen to push copies of their biggest books of the year on critics months in advance. When I asked her UK publisher if any more information about Elly Conway was forthcoming, I was told that “an announcement will be made soon” – that was nearly a year ago.

Argylle director Matthew Vaughn
Argylle director Matthew Vaughn - PA

It seems that the publication of the book keeps being pushed back because the release date of the film does too: the plan is that they will both come out at the same time. (The movie seems to have had an unusually long gestation: the first mini-trailer was released back in March 2022, and although the film was originally hyped as marking the acting debut of Dua Lipa, the Barbie movie has now leapfrogged it.)

As a marketing wheeze, it looks like a good idea. Novelisations of films have always been looked down on as a means of scrabbling to cash in on the hype around a movie that’s already proved successful. But why not release novel and film at the same time and let both benefit from the added buzz?

The real Elly Conway mystery still remains unsolved, however: who actually wrote this novel? It is possible, of course, that the manuscript of Argyll that Vaughn claimed to have read back in 2021 did not then exist, and from the start the plan was to create an interdependent film and book.

Perhaps the book has been written by Jason Fuchs, the screenwriter who is credited with adapting Conway’s novel for the film; or by Vaughn himself and his regular writing partner Jane Goldman. Maybe it was a lowly ghost writer; or maybe the screenplay was fed into a computer and the novel coughed up a few seconds later?

The cover of Elly Conway's long-delayed thriller Argyll
The cover of Elly Conway's long-delayed thriller Argyll - Elly Conway

Whatever the truth, I can imagine publishers monitoring the novel’s sales closely, with an eye to adopting this business model. Traditionally, when films are adapted from novels, the book has already sold well or been critically acclaimed: the film gives the book’s sales a welcome boost, but that boost would be even more welcome if it occurred when the book was first published and still in hardback. If a publisher can secure a tie-in deal to bring out book and film at the same time, that may prove very lucrative – although if this arrangement does become more common, one has to wonder whether the question of who writes the book or even how good it is will be of secondary importance.

I still cling to the hope, however, that there is a more romantic solution to the mystery of Elly Conway’s identity. Has this whole metafictional device been invented to protect a shy genius who doesn’t want her true identity revealed, like the pseudonymous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante? Or a real-life spy, forbidden by the rules of her Service to use her real name, like David Cornwell (known to his readership as John le Carré)?

Or perhaps she is already a superstar author who wants to keep her identity quiet and have the book judged on its own merits, as JK Rowling did when she started writing crime novels as “Robert Galbraith”. Maybe Vaughn’s final trick will be to reveal in January that “Elly” is really Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen.