By David Flin
Is there an area of fiction, set in any period, alternate or current world, that is less understood than that of the spy? There is a range of fictional spies stretching from James Bond on the end of myth and fantasy, rooted in a near-total disconnect from reality, through to George Smiley on the end of attention of detail.
Terminology is often in flux, and practises change as things develop. Sometimes an author wants to run with the myth and zeitgeist of the worlds of espionage, rather than the reality. Sometimes they want to achieve an ambience of gritty realism. Sometimes you want a world in which the hero hang-glides from a captured helicopter to open an international event, and sometimes you want a world in which the troubled hero is a dry, grey man sitting in a dry, grey office, manipulating flawed pawns in events where he only gets to choose between the least worst options.
Sometimes being accurate can actually make things harder for the reader. An example of this can be found in the very first paragraph of the first chapter of Agent Lavender*.
‘Termination’ was not particularly subtle, as British euphemisms went. As Agent Temple entered the service stairwell of the Hotel Stadt Berlin, he mused that the country responsible for ‘closed for the duration’ and ‘powdering one’s nose’ could have drummed up a less explicit shorthand for cold-blooded murder.
In point of fact, in the period in question, MI5 and MI6 used the terms ‘Redbooking’ and ‘Clause 13’ for this kind of operation, but the vast majority of the readership wouldn’t have understood these terms, which would have required explanation, and derailed the start of the story. In 47 words, Agent Lavender introduces the concept of what is going to happen in a way that readers can follow, and it sets the tone. The terminology is inaccurate, but in this case, it is more important to feel right than to be right.
If I’m honest, a lot of espionage work is misunderstood, even by people who should know better. For example, what is an Asset? How many times have you read about someone being revealed to be an Asset of a foreign intelligence service? Some of you are quite possibly an asset of a foreign intelligence service. The whole point of running an asset is that they don’t realise that’s what they are.
It’s generally not a good idea for an agent to reveal to outsiders, even potential assets, that they actually work for a foreign intelligence service. Assets are useful for what they might know, and who they might be able to persuade, and what influence they might have. What they might not be good at is keeping a secret, and telling one: “Oh, by the way, I work for the TLA, an intelligence service working for the kingdom of Kafiristan,” the chances are that the asset will let that slip to someone else. The whole point of a secret service is that it is, well, secret.
An asset is someone that the agent meets and chats with, and picks up information in the way of normal conversation. A good agent can direct a conversation without it being realised that’s what they’re doing. All an asset realises is that they’ve talked a bit about their work with someone who was interested. An agent certainly doesn’t introduce an asset to get involved in anything. The ideal asset is one who never has a clue, and just thinks that the agent is interested in their studies, and is generally happy to talk.
Sometimes an asset thinks that the agent is something else entirely. For example, a real-life situation. In the 1970s, the Lebanese Civil War was going on. It was not pleasant, and Beirut was something of a Hell-hole. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people who just wanted to live a normal life wanted to get away from a city where murder was a way of life, and people checking in to the Commodore Hotel would be offered the choice of: “Car bomb side or sniper side?” for rooms. (Sniper side gave you better views across the city).
MI6 had an agent in the city, and he’d speak with a number of these people, and would pose as a person smuggler. For a relatively modest fee, he would arrange for them to be smuggled out to Cyprus, where his colleague would arrange for transport to somewhere more stable: Singapore, France, Canada, Cuba, or possibly India. They would arrange for the person to get a quiet, unobtrusive job there, as a cook, or a taxi driver, or a porter, or similar. A nice, safe, quiet job in a relatively safe part of the world, where they could build a new life.
Of course, it wasn’t altruism that produced this operation. MI6 asked these people to send regular letters back saying how they were getting on, providing them with a pen pal. And every so often, someone would collect a percentage of their income, as part of the ongoing deal. That last was so that they would think that the reason for being helped, and never suspected that the letters were what were of interest.
Individually, there’s not a lot that can be gleaned from a few letters from one person. Gather enough little snippets, and one can start to draw conclusions from a ground-level view from many countries. It gave MI6 a feel for attitudes in that country, some elements that could be incorporated to improve the legend of an agent, some possible contacts should an agent require something. What was more, the operation turned a slight profit from the trafficking fees.
I’ve no idea if anything similar to the operation is currently active, but it was an intelligence operation back on the day. Not the sort of thing one would expect James Bond to get involved in, although getting people out of Beirut in 1976 could be a little exciting at times.
But that’s the nature of intelligence operations. They’re rarely a giant, dramatic coup, but more often tend to be patient gathering of lots of little snippets carefully put together to make a bigger picture. Narratively, it’s hard to make that exciting when writing fiction, which tends to favour the dramatic coup.
As a result, the author of an alternate history covering espionage will have to decide whether the feel they want to achieve is that of George Smiley, or James Bond. Either is fine, but please, can authors stop using phrases like: “He glanced behind to see if any familiar figure was following him, pausing to see who paused at the same time.” That’s not how you follow someone. There’s a team with rolling coverage, so the follower is constantly changing. But then, the day that someone produces a precisely accurate description of how Intelligence Agencies operate is the day I start watching the obituary columns.
* Agent Lavender, by Jack Tindale and Tom Black. A tale of 1970s Britain, with the premise that Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, was an agent of the Soviet Union. Part-historical epic, part-pulpy thriller, and featuring a cavalcade of 1970s public figures from Enoch Powell and Gerald Ford to Jack Jones and Michael Bentine, Agent Lavender takes readers into a maelstrom of intrigue, civil disobedience, satire, Cold War tensions, and downright farce. Of course, the suggestion that the democratically-elected leader of a Western nation might be influenced by intelligence agencies from Russia is one that could never conceivably happen.
Or is it?