Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Long Strange History Of Novelists Who Became Spies: The Overlapping Worlds Of Espionage And Fiction

In writing about his new spy thriller, The Moroccan Girl, at, via St. Martin’s Press, Charles Cumming (seen in the below photo) looks back at the famous novelists who became spies or were spies before they became novelists. 

In my new novel, The Moroccan Girl, a successful writer of spy thrillers becomes an agent for MI6. Kit Carradine is in his mid-30s. He lives alone in London, forever putting off the moment when he has to sit at his desk and write the required 1000 words per day which will allow him to meet the deadline on his latest book. Restless and easily distracted, Carradine is struggling to come to terms with what he calls the “Groundhog Day routine” of the writer’s life. In short, he’s a bit bored.

Then, a miracle. While en route to an afternoon screening of a film in Notting Hill (another instance of Carradine avoiding his desk), our hero is buttonholed by a mysterious man named Robert Mantis who claims to be a fan of his novels. The two men later meet for lunch, where Mantis reveals not only that he is an intelligence officer, but also that MI6 want to recruit Carradine as a support agent. Before he has time to ask himself whether or not he is doing the right thing, Carradine is on a plane to Casablanca operating as a bone fide British spy.

Could such a thing happen in real life? Does MI6 use writers in this capacity—or can I be accused of writing a 350-page wish-fulfilment fantasy? The answer is: of course! MI6 has a well-documented history of recruiting novelists to its cause.

Take Frederick Forsyth, for example. In his 2016 memoir, The Outsider, the author of The Day of the Jackal revealed that he had worked as a support agent for MI6 for more than two decades. On one occasion during the Cold War, Forsyth agreed to have sensitive documents hidden in the paneling of his car, which he then drove across the border into Communist East Germany. At an agreed time, Forsyth met a contact in the men’s lavatory of a prestigious Dresden museum and passed the documents to him from one locked cubicle to another.

… Forsyth was by no means the first famous writer to work for British intelligence. During World War One, MI6 recruited W. Somerset Maugham as an asset in Switzerland. While supposedly working on a new play, Maugham was in fact spying for king and country. The celebrated novelist and dramatist later produced Ashenden, a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories inspired by his experiences. Winston Churchill was said to be so incensed at Maugham’s breach of the Official Secrets Act that he demanded several of the stories be destroyed to prevent publication.

Already well-established as a writer, Graham Greene also did his bit, working for MI6 in Sierra Leone during World War Two. Greene’s Head of Station was none other than Kim Philby who, of course, was secretly working for the Soviet NKVD at the time. Greene later gave his MI6 code number—592000—to a character in Our Man in Havana, that devastating satire of espionage. He also parlayed his experience of the secret world into two of the finest spy novels of the 20th century: The Quiet American (1955) and The Human Factor (1978).

Why should novelists be sought after by intelligence services? Well, as Mantis tells Carradine in The Moroccan Girl: “Writers on research trips provide perfect cover for clandestine work…The inquisitive novelist always has a watertight excuse for poking his nose around. Any unusual or suspicious activity can be justified as part of the artistic process.” Put it another way: as an author visiting Moscow or Tehran, I can write things down, take photographs, meet politicians and business leaders – all under the legitimate guise of researching a thriller.

It works the other way around, too. The most famous spy-turned-author is undoubtedly John le Carré, who worked for both MI5 and MI6 while writing his first three books. The global success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold allowed him to retire from the secret world and to devote himself full time to writing.

And then there is Ian Fleming, whose experiences in naval intelligence during World War II led to the creation of the most famous spy of them all—James Bond. Fleming was also partly responsible for one of the most ingenious intelligence coups of the war: Operation Mincemeat, in which false Top-Secret papers were planted on a corpse with the intention of misleading Nazi command.

… Already a world-famous writer at the outbreak of war, Ernest Hemingway was keen to be of service to his country. A recent biographer alleges that ‘Papa’ set up a counterintelligence bureau in Havana on behalf of the FBI and offered his 38-foot yacht, Pilar, for use as a scouting vessel to search for German U-Boats. Perhaps Red Sparrow author Jason Matthews, himself a former CIA officer, could confirm or deny this story?

The Moroccan Girl was inspired by these real-life examples of novelists turning to espionage—and vice-versa. Fans of Eric Ambler might also recognize my homage to The Mask of Dimitrios, in which a celebrated mystery writer, Charles Latimer, is drawn into a real-life crime story by Colonel Haki of the Turkish Secret Police. The Moroccan Girl may tackle the era of Trump and Putin, but it is a deliberately old-fashioned spy novel about an ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances: An Ambler specialty.

You can read the entire piece via the below link:  

Note: The top photo is of W. Somerset Maugham. Below are photos of Frederick Forsyth, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, John le Carre and Eric Ambler. Also included is William F. Buckley Jr, not mentioned in the piece, but he served briefly in the CIA and later wrote a series of spy thrillers.

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