It's what they do.
- John le Carré. A Legacy of Spies. Viking, 2017.
- David Ignatius. The Quantum Spy. W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
- Daniel Silva. House of Spies. Harper, 2017.
Over the past year, it has become impossible to ignore the fact that spy terminology has infiltrated everyday discourse. One does not have to be an intelligence analyst to speak confidently — or at least with knowing, giddy pseudo-confidence — of cut-outs and assets, dezinformatsiya and kompromat. Politics is less about speeches and party platforms than about declassified files, leaks from grand-jury testimonies, and the “dossier.” Collectively, we long for interrogation rather than debate; we yearn for the proofs that only a clandestine bureaucracy could offer. What did the President know and when did he know it? What was in the contents of that secret meeting? Only the spies — secreted in tapped wires and behind hidden cameras — know the truth. It all has had a childish glee to it, as well as a childish comfort: if the spy world seemed narrower than the one we were used to inhabiting, its confines promised protection and some kind of order, a durable state if not a deep one. So it was that I, assailed and assuaged by agency talk, read spy novels. It was 2017, and I was in need of reassurance. I also needed to know what that reassurance was costing me.To debrief: there are in the world real spies, in possession of real secrets, hired by real organizations with fantastic — if, according to their recipients, forever inadequate — budgets, who may prevent harm but also, very often, perform it. (John le Carré, writing in 1991, on the cold-war intelligence services of the US and the UK: “Both services would have done much less damage to their countries, moral and financial, if they had simply been disbanded.”) But the spy is always also a fiction. It isn’t simply that the spy relies on “covers,” or fictions, for their work. It is that no profession has greater traffic with the business of fiction writing itself. Studies in Intelligence, the in-house and partly classified academic journal of the CIA, reviews spy fiction with a connoisseur’s discernment for shoddy verisimilitude and thematic flimsiness. Put aside the covert funding of postwar writers by CIA fronts like the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Spy novelists themselves are routinely ex-agents or intelligence personnel — most famously John le Carré, a.k.a. David Cornwell; Ian Fleming; and Graham Greene — while in the US we have the less illustrious examples of ex–CIA officer and Nixonian ratfucker E. Howard Hunt, or blown agent Valerie Plame; and if they are not former agents they are journalists who cover the world of secret intelligence. So tight is the relationship that in burying myself in spy novels I became a cliché of agency life itself, like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, working at the American Literary Historical Society, reading thrillers for plot elements and reporting to his superiors on his discoveries.
Spy novels narrow the world to the dimensions of agencies and their rivals or targets. They are realist in texture, never experimental, resolutely focused. Characters become their functions: agent, handler, mole, director, or operational head. Like Balzac in La Comédie humaine, spy novelists reuse characters: though the plots are byzantine, the people are familiar. The locales are far-flung, but in an enclosed, airless way: casinos, hotels, safe houses, clubs, airports, and passport checkpoints. (The spy blends the solitary tourist’s isolation with the native’s blasé familiarity.) There is, of course, the lingo, which manages to be well-known while parading its exclusivity: walk-ins, babysitters, sleepers; to be burned, rolled up, exfiltrated. Spies in spy novels also read other spy novels — Olen Steinhauer’s Milo Weaver reads le Carré; le Carré’s Jerry Westerby reads Greene and Conrad as Saigon falls. Thus the weariness of the literate, worldly spy: there is nothing new under the sun.The limits of its thought-world defined, spy fiction comfortably becomes a literature of expertise — the literature, perhaps, of the knowledge worker. Written by former participants and experts, thanks to the conventional alibi that the secrets of their world can only be expressed allegorically or fictionally, the spy novel gives us a world with handles. How-to is as important to the spy novel as it is to Odysseus or Robinson Crusoe, and evoking it is one of the spy novelist’s most fundamental tasks. In David Ignatius’s The Quantum Spy, the novel’s putative villain — a mole inside the CIA who passes her Chinese masters scientific information out of the ideological principle that science should not respect borders — is caught, but arranges a plea agreement in which she writes “a manual on tradecraft”: “She wrote it in the form of a novel, which captured what she had come to understand about intelligence. . . . Ford’s book was circulated widely within the intelligence community. It gave Ford what she had sought through her career but had only achieved after she became a foreign spy, which was a reputation as a brilliant and intuitive operations officer.”Tradecraft: the spy’s professional fetish. The dead drop, the brush pass, the dry clean. Knowing how to evade surveillance, make a convincing legend, encrypt a message. Every action in the spy novel is done badly or well, clumsily or skillfully. The mystique of tradecraft lies somewhere between secrecy and simplicity, the suspicion a reader has that one could, with training, also do these things well. So wrote William Hood, former OSS and CIA officer, who in his 1982 memoir, Mole, asserted: “Tradecraft may seem mysterious to outsiders, but it is little more than a compound of commonsense, experience, and certain almost universally accepted security practices. . . . The fact is that tradecraft is like arithmetic: it has been around for centuries. The basics are easy to learn and good texts can be found in any library.” It is also, in its way, fun; when the American Oulipo member Harry Mathews was mistaken for a CIA agent in the early 1970s — as he writes in My Life in CIA — he played along: he invented a false travel agency to act as cover, commissioned maps woven into shawls, and left enigmatic chalk marks on Parisian walls...MORE.