Old School Spies

As a teenager, I read John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Along with the TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it intrigued me about the world of espionage, especially Cold War espionage.

I’m a child of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis is not mere history to me. I lived it. I was glued to the television news. I had to bring a shoe box to school with a change of underwear, a bar of soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and some other odds and ends I don’t remember. We practiced “duck and cover” and trooping to the school’s musty basement, designated a fallout shelter. My father, in the Reserves by then, was told he’d likely be called up and deployed again to Berlin.

At the time I didn’t realize if a nuclear exchange had occurred, he would have died quickly. Not so much us. We lived two hours outside of Washington, D.C. We would have survived the initial blast, but radiation poisoning would have gotten us sooner or later.

I was ten and a half years old, thinking I wouldn’t make it to eleven.

Le Carre – The Master

Born David John Moore Cornwell, Le Carre was a pen name he used for writing spy novels while employed by Britain’s Security Service and Secret Intelligence Services. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was his third novel, and its success allowed him to leave MI-6 and write full-time. His best-known character is the spy George Smiley, who has appeared in most of his works. He swears none of his work, especially “In From the Cold,” is based on things he experienced. Rather, he says, he was a keen observer of behavior and people.

His novels are dark and gritty, the settings dreary places I’d read about. My father had served in West Berlin and talked a bit about the situation there. I watched news reports about the Berlin Wall and about the daring escapes by people from the east to get to the west section of the city. Le Carre’s books were “real” to me.

And I loved them. They drew me into the world of intrigue and counterintelligence, not enough to want to be a spy, but enough to want to write stories like Le Carre’s and, later, Alan Furst’s.

Back to the Beginning

Le Carre’s newest release is A Legacy of Spies, a sequel of sorts to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. That intrigued me enough to plan on reading A Legacy of Spies, but I decided after almost fifty years, it was time to re-read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Oh, the language! The way he describes people and places. He puts you there. In the opening scene, I was at Checkpoint Charlie waiting in the cold and dark for an asset to defect, my tension a direct result of Le Carre’s scene-setting, his subtle revelation of the characters’ emotions. Though you never “see” the main character in that scene, Karl, the defector, when he meets his fate, your heart is pounding.

And it’s a writing lesson, too, on how to engage a reader, how to infuse a scene with tension, and how to deliver the punch to the gut.

It’s old school espionage, not the gadget-ridden, high-action novels and movies of this century. It’s spy vs. spy, it’s pitting wits against other wits, it’s manipulation and extortion, it’s human not tech, and it’s absolutely thrilling.

Do you want to know why I write about spies? Read anything by John Le Carre.

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P. A. Duncan’s first novel, A War of Deception, is available now on Amazon. This week only, the Kindle version is 99 cents.

Getting Ready for Tinker Mountain

TMWW logoI’ve made my to-do list for the next week so come Sunday afternoon, I can hit the road and arrive in Roanoke for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop. It’s the tenth anniversary, with a lot of extra workshops and new instructors. As usual I’m nervous, excited, and, well, nervous.

The past two years have been very positive experiences. Last year, for example, led to having an agent review a manuscript. (He turned it down but said lots of positive things.) The first year I attended was the first time any of my MSS had been critiqued by total strangers, and they liked it, they really liked it. This year is the first time a portion of one of my genre MSS is being critiqued by strangers. The workshop I’m attending is “Crafting High Quality Genre Fiction,” and the instructor is Laura Benedict. She also happens to be the spouse of my first Tinker Mountain instructor, Pinckney Benedict.

The forty pages I sent in comes from an MS titled A War of Deception, which is loosely based on the Robert Hansenn spy case from the early 2000s. I say loosely because it started out as a fictionalized version of that event with my U.N. spy characters in the mix. It turned into a study of revenge when what I intended to be a subplot became the main plot. The title comes from a Sun Tzu quote in the Art of War, one of my favorite books: “All warfare is based on deception.”

I’m sure I’ve mentioned my love affair with the Art of War before. I had the audio book on my iPod and listened to it every day on the way to work. It was that kind of workplace at times. Plus, Sun Tzu has a lot to say about spies and espionage which resonates today.

Anyway, the nervousness comes from having my genre fiction workshopped. It’s a first, though the material workshopped in my first Tinker Mountain visit was a speculative fiction piece I submitted because I didn’t have anything else ready. However, I don’t consider myself a speculative fiction writer. A lot of my flash fiction falls into that genre but only because I’m not sure I could sustain a full-length spec fic novel, even that particular manuscript. It seems I inadvertently channelled Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I wrote it for NaNoWriMo a few years ago. When Pinckney encouraged me to work on that MS, I explained about the striking similarity to Atwood’s dystopian piece–“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. Ms. Atwood may not think so, however.

This year’s MS is one of my “historical thrillers,” to borrow a term from Alan Furst, a writer of espionage fiction I hope to emulate. It’s got a mole in the FBI, sex, violence, marital discord, and two mysteries to be solved. I hope I have a third great experience. Even if the rest of the workshop hates it– Ack! Let’s not put that in my head!

So, off to do laundry, water plants, and pack, etc., and be ready for a worthwhile week of workshopping, craft lectures, and writer friends that is Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop.

Story Cubes Challenge – Week 7

Several people have asked me why I write espionage fiction, and the truthful answer is, it just happened. When I was in high school I was a big fan of the old television show, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” which got me intrigued about the world of espionage (and good-looking Russian men). But I was a bigger fan of John le Carre who wrote spy stories that were authentic. No car chases, no missile-equipped Astin Martins, no unlikely gadgets. Oh, there are women, but they aren’t Bond girls.

My favorite le Carre novel is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and it has thriller aspects, but it’s a deep psychological study of espionage tradecraft and the people who employ it. I find this type of espionage writing very engaging, and when I figured out I wasn’t going to write cute little mysteries involving a smart, young, female FAA inspector, I decided I wanted my stories to be an homage of sorts to le Carre.

In the 1990’s I discovered the spy novels of Alan Furst. Furst writes the “historical spy novel,” meaning he immerses himself in the time and place where he sets his novels, and his spies are the unlikeliest of people, which is most always the case. Being an historian myself, I love his series of novels set before and during World War II. They’re a “behind the scenes” look at the tangled web espionage can be. Again, his novels, like le Carre’s, are the antithesis of the cinematic James Bond. (Ian Fleming’s first several Bond novels were straightforward, gritty stories of just how dirty and amoral espionage can be, but crass commercialism, alas, is crass commercialism.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing myself to either le Carre or Furst. I have a healthy ego, yes, but I also know I could only be imitative of two masters of true to life spy novels. I try, but how well I’ve done remains to be seen.

That little bit of background in place, here is the picture for this week’s Story Cube Challenge:

This is what I saw, left to right: break/broken; pushing/up against a wall; hand in hand/holding hands; hanging/hanging on; flower; reaching/out of reach; reading; book; lab accident (It looks like a lab flask to me!).

Again, I have to say that when Jennie Coughlin rolls these dice, the result is chance but also challenging. This week was probably the most challenging yet. Once again, there were repeats, so coming up with something that didn’t echo a previous story took me some time.

This week’s story, “A Beautiful Day,” involves some of that old-fashioned tradecraft, but I threw in an explosion for you action lovers. It also shows that espionage and spies are necessarily deceptive, sometimes even to the people they trust.

If you’re interested in giving Story Cubes Challenge a try, use the picture above, write a story, then go to Jennie Coughlin’s blog and post a link to your story. Did you see the same things I did?

Plot Versus Character

During the Q&A session for the “Thrilling Me Softly” panel at Virginia Festival of the Book last week, the dreaded question came up almost immediately: Which is more important–plot or character? What ensued reminded me of debates between seasoned flight instructors: when you’re coming in to land, which is more important, power or pitch? (Turns out, it’s a balance, and you have to manage both well, especially if the engine quits.)

“Plot or character?” is a question in the league of “When did you stop beating your spouse?” In other words, there’s no good answer.

The members of the panel gave it a try, though it ended up being three to one, character to plot. One author, who shall remain nameless, disdained the notion that characters take over. “My characters do exactly what I tell them to do,” he declared, and he believed an intricate, well-wrought plot is more important. One panelist countered by saying she gets an idea for the plot, but she has to have the characters fleshed-out before she can bring them together.

I looked over several of the plot proponent’s titles at the book fair and scanned some pages of each. They are well-executed thrillers, with, indeed, intricate, well-wrought plots. Though I didn’t read much of each book, I could see his main character, however, was the stereotype of an unyielding federal law enforcement officer and probably not very complex.

I’m not dissing thrillers. I read a lot of them because they’re great escapist fun, though they seemed to be of a distinct right-wing bent. That alone means I’ve usually forgotten them a day later. A book or short story speaks to me and stays with me if there are multi-layered characters, people I can “see” on the street or in my life. I’m not a big Hemingway fan, but the old man from The Old Man and the Sea has stayed with me for forty years. The plot of a Vince Flynn pot-boiler–nope, can’t remember a thing.

The “thrillers” I have liked are those by John Le Carre or Alan Furst, where the world of espionage is populated by rich, realistic characters you come to know and worry about, and they are involved in a convoluted plot with multiple threads to be tied up at the end. They combine the best aspects of plot and character and are more literary than genre works.

I think, like a well-executed landing, a memorable work of fiction has the perfect balance of character and plot. Weigh in–what do you think? Plot? Character? Or both?