Prolific spy novelist John le Carré at his desk.
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media criticism / culture

Coming in from the Cold

On spy fiction.
Over the past year, it has become impossible to ignore the fact that spy terminology has infiltrated everyday discourse. One does not have to be an intelligence analyst to speak confidently—or at least with knowing, giddy pseudo-confidence—of cut-outs and assets, dezinformatsiya and kompromat. Politics is less about speeches and party platforms than about declassified files, leaks from grand-jury testimonies, and the “dossier.” Collectively, we long for interrogation rather than debate; we yearn for the proofs that only a clandestine bureaucracy could offer. What did the President know and when did he know it? What was in the contents of that secret meeting? Only the spies—secreted in tapped wires and behind hidden cameras—know the truth. It all has had a childish glee to it, as well as a childish comfort: if the spy world seemed narrower than the one we were used to inhabiting, its confines promised protection and some kind of order, a durable state if not a deep one. So it was that I, assailed and assuaged by agency talk, read spy novels. It was 2017, and I was in need of reassurance. I also needed to know what that reassurance was costing me.

To debrief: there are in the world real spies, in possession of real secrets, hired by real organizations with fantastic—if, according to their recipients, forever inadequate—budgets, who may prevent harm but also, very often, perform it. (John le Carré, writing in 1991, on the cold-war intelligence services of the US and the UK: “Both services would have done much less damage to their countries, moral and financial, if they had simply been disbanded.”) But the spy is always also a fiction. It isn’t simply that the spy relies on “covers,” or fictions, for their work. It is that no profession has greater traffic with the business of fiction writing itself. Studies in Intelligence, the in-house and partly classified academic journal of the CIA, reviews spy fiction with a connoisseur’s discernment for shoddy verisimilitude and thematic flimsiness. Put aside the covert funding of postwar writers by CIA fronts like the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Spy novelists themselves are routinely ex-agents or intelligence personnel—most famously John le Carré, a.k.a. David Cornwell; Ian Fleming; and Graham Greene—while in the US we have the less illustrious examples of ex–CIA officer and Nixonian ratfucker E. Howard Hunt, or blown agent Valerie Plame; and if they are not former agents they are journalists who cover the world of secret intelligence. So tight is the relationship that in burying myself in spy novels I became a cliché of agency life itself, like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, working at the American Literary Historical Society, reading thrillers for plot elements and reporting to his superiors on his discoveries.
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