“Whatever you do, get it right.”
That’s what someone said to me when I mentioned I wanted to retire from my day job to write stories about spies.
Who was this person?
A member of the “IC”–the Intelligence Community, with whom I was on a task force about aviation security. This person–let’s use a nice, non-gender-specific name like, oh, Kelly. Kelly is an easy-going person with a wry sense of humor, even when I teased about them being a spy. But they didn’t mock my aspiration when I explained I’d wanted to write about spies since the 1960s when I was a fan of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
So was Kelly, and they were also a John le Carre fan, like me. “He gets it right,” Kelly said. “Sometimes it is boring. Also like me, Kelly was a fan of Ian Fleming’s early books, not so much the movies.
Kelly proceeded to school me on real spies–with care, of course, not to touch on anything classified–but we ended up talking a lot about the character of James Bond as we see him in the films.
Kelly acknowledged (as has British Intelligence) that the James Bond movie portrayal is a big reason why people want to join the intelligence community.
“They think it’s fast cars, cool guns, expensive booze, and beautiful women–or men,” Kelly said. Kelly then broke their points down one by one.
Fast cars are good because they can get you out of sticky situations, but flashy, overpriced cars like Bond drives–a big no-no. The whole point is not to draw attention to yourself. Wherever you’re stationed, your car should fit in, which is why in Moscow, for example, embassy employees (except for the Ambassador) often bought locally manufactured cars–which had no doubt been bugged before delivery. In-car conversations, then, had to be in code or on banal topics.
Kelly admitted sometimes the guns are cool, but more often than not, you go about your business of recruiting assets without one. I’ve mentioned this on my podcast and in other blog posts. In most countries around the world, if you’re caught carrying a gun, the police assume you’re a criminal or a spy or sometimes both. In some countries, like the U.S., being what’s called an “illegal” spy is a crime.
Booze, at least overindulging, is also a no-no. At times you have to drink to be sociable, but getting blind drunk leaves you open for being compromised.
“And don’t get me started on that ‘martini, shaken not stirred’ schtick,” Kelly said.
Even former Bond portrayer Roger Moore once commented that James Bond wouldn’t have been a good spy–he told everyone his name, and he always ordered the same drink the same way. Yes, said Kelly, you want to blend in, but consistently using something that could identify you is begging to be taken in for questioning. Even if James Bond was a cover name, Kelly said, he overused it, and he rarely bothered to disguise himself in any way. Expensive suits, fancy restaurants, signature drink, flashy car, all that draws too much attention.
And the beautiful women or men?
“Some were definitely beautiful, but their only interest in you is to compromise you,” was Kelly’s answer. “It’s never a quick encounter and bye-bye because they’ve probably filmed the two of you having sex and will blackmail you with it to get you to do something they want. Bond just breezes right through that without a thought to the consequences. Reality, like I said, is boring.”
Indeed, hotels in the old Soviet bloc, usually cooperated with the KGB and set aside special hotel rooms already bugged for conversations and with hidden cameras whenever a Soviet swallow brought someone in for a honey trap. So, the CIA started having case officers bring their spouses along, like any other significant embassy employee. Spouses, they thought would make the case officer less likely to fall prey to seduction.
Sometimes, the spouse, wittingly or not, provided the case officer’s cover. On occasion, too, spouses might willingly participate in minor aspects of operations. The KGB in particular didn’t suspect women of being spies–unless they were theirs–and American wives stationed with their husbands were used to complete information exchanges or to clear and fill dead drops to remove suspicion from their husbands.
And in the Cold War, there were a few women case officers, including one who worked in Moscow and gave the KGB a run for its money.
Spies Have Real Lives, Too
Kelly opened my eyes to the real world of spies, but they also pointed out that like any stressful job, you also had to balance your covert life with real life–family, kids, cutting the grass, wondering how to pay for a child’s braces, or hoping the family car held together for one more year.
That was one reason Kelly was shocked that the Russian mole, Robert Hanssen, wasn’t caught long before he was in early 2001.
“House in an upscale neighborhood, all those kids in private school, a spouse who didn’t work much outside the home, that should have raised a flag to someone in the FBI,” Kelly said.
I thought it best not to mention Aldridge Ames, who often walked out of the CIA with shopping bags full of documents he then sold to the Russians.
An interesting aside here: The Soviets had Ames and Hanssen on their payroll and in their service roughly at the same time, without either knowing about the other, and the Soviets often used one to confirm information from the other.
Long stretches of covert work can place strain on a marriage, especially so when you can’t discuss the details with your spouse. My ex and I worked for the same government agency, and we took solace from being able to discuss our work frustrations with each other and figure out ways to handle it. Not so much in the intelligence community, unless your spouse has the clearance.
Real Spies, Real Lives
“So,” Kelly told me, “if you’re going to write espionage, make it real, get it right.”
Kelly taught me about real spies with real lives, but I taught Kelly about dramatic license and literary tropes. Often, when I run a scene past Kelly, their first reaction is, “Nope, that’s not how it’s done.” I explain that readers who are fans of a particular genre are expecting certain tropes in order to have a satisfying reading experience and that I have to deliver one or two of them. However, Kelly offers good suggestions to move a scene more toward “real spies.”
I’m lucky to have such a willing subject matter expert to help me “get it right.” When I tell Kelly the topic I’m exploring, they’ll quickly tell me they can’t help me with that, and I know better than to ask why. Kelly never appears in my acknowledgements at their request.
So, the real lives of real spies look a great deal like yours or mine–maybe with a bit more occasional excitement. And real spies might be a tad more paranoid about anything outside of an established routine.
Kinda makes you long for the flashy cars, martinis, and bed-hopping. Just joking.
I have a preorder now available for an eBook-only box set of the reader magnets from my first series, A Perfect Hatred. Titled, Quintet, this novella-sized box set also contains a bonus, previously unpublished story.
Before the release of each book in the series A Perfect Hatred (End Times, Bad Company, Descending Spiral, and Collateral Damage), I released an associated short story with a sneak peek of the upcoming book. However, Quintet‘s fifth story is somewhat of a bridge between book three and book four. It was originally the opening chapters to book four, but it strayed too much from the storyline of stopping a domestic terrorist, so I pulled those chapters. A few months ago, I “rediscovered” the chapters while I was preparing Quintet and decided my readers deserved a bonus story.
To celebrate A Perfect Hatred: End Times‘ fourth anniversary, Quintet will release on 4/1/2022–NOT an April Fool’s joke. And it’s available not only for Kindle but for other eBook readers and eBook sites. For the Kindle version, click HERE. For all other outlets, click HERE.