Writing period spies: a feature for Crimetime
God commands Moses in the bible to send spies into the land of Canaan to see if its people are strong enough to resist an invasion. Someone clever once said that spying was the second oldest profession, and no more decent than the first – prostitution – the imprimatur of the Lord not withstanding. Spying is for liars and prostitutes and profit, one of the characters in my new thriller The Suicide Club observes. Doing God’s work will have taken Moses’s spies into some very dark corners. State secrets and lies are whispered in dark corners, friends are betrayed and sent to their deaths in them, and personal integrity is sacrificed in the name of duty. Those corners are the stuff of the spy thriller – or they used to be.
The Suicide Club is set at British headquarters and in German occupied Belgium during World War 1. It is the story of a soldier-spy who is asked to investigate the army’s own intelligence operation. The stakes cannot be higher: the lives of thousands of British soldiers. To discover the truth its hero is obliged to venture into those dark corners. There’s no other way. This is the old world of make do disguises and paper passes, dead drops, army issue revolvers, couriers and carrier pigeons, where lies are told and promises broken face to face.
Bent over screens in air conditioned offices, the greatest risk most of today’s electronic spies run is of burning their fingers on their café lattes. Intelligence services still have boots on the ground, but this is surely the age of the computer snooper. Secrets are hacked and downloaded on to drives. There are fewer dramatic possibilities a satellite’s distance from the enemy, and – pace Edward Snowden – less likelihood of an electronic spy suffering a severe attack of conscience.
That’s one reason for the growing popularity of the period thriller. Were Moses’s men the same when they returned from their mission to the land of Canaan? The best whites of the eyes spy stories are human dramas that hold a mirror to our own lives. When is it right to tell a lie, and how many can we tell before we begin to lose sight of ourselves? In The Suicide Club the telling of many small official lies mushrooms into one big lie that costs the British Army many thousands of lives and its intelligence network behind enemy lines.
The narrator-spy of Robert Harris’s best selling period thriller, An Officer and A Spy, leaves his story of French state intrigue with his lawyer in case he is murdered before he is able to testify in court. It seems melodramatic, like a thriller, he observes, but ‘now I have come to see that thrillers may sometimes contain more truths than all [the novels] of social realism put together’. That’s why writers and readers are drawn to them, too.
The spy is the servant of the state, and what he is secretly required to do in its name allows the writer to hold up a second mirror to the politics and history and values of the time. In Harris’s story, it is to the canker of anti Semitism in French society; in The Suicide Club, the failure of British military intelligence, the hubris of a Field Marshal, and the dark corner politics of a Prime Minister.
Erskine Childers and John Buchan wrote classic contemporary adventure stories set before and during the First World War but their spies are full of righteous certainty and so is their country. The best period writers revisit the past with a more critical and questioning eye. Read the world weary memoirs left by the spies themselves and a different picture emerges, similar in its shades to Eric Ambler’s brilliant spy thrillers of the thirties, and to Cold War John le Carré. One might say, it’s the difference between an official history and one written with diaries and secret files many decades later.