Literary Agents: The Many and Varied Writers who have Spied for Britain
In 1995, American thriller writer David R. Cudlip, commenting on the British tradition of spy fiction, suggested that its excellence derived from the fact that ‘their countrymen were so good at the real stuff’. Spy fiction and spy reality have proved enduring bedfellows in the British literary firmament, not least from the fact that so many writers, greater and lesser, have claimed experience, greater or lesser, of the secret world. When considering the more accomplished and successful authors of espionage stories, it is simpler to list those who profess to no encounter with intelligence work. Pre-eminent among the uninitiated were Eric Ambler (Epitaph for a Spy, 1938), who began writing in the 1930s and used the spy thriller to explore the moral uncertainties of the times, and Len Deighton (The Ipcress File, 1962), who helped modernise the spy thriller in the early 1960s. Deighton was honest enough to admit in 1987 ‘to not knowing much … about the British Secret Services’, a confession which could well have embarrassed his publishers, as they would have been sensitive to the market’s fondness for the seeming reality in the spy story.
It has become a truism that the writer and the spy share certain emotional affinities. Both, it has been argued, display a highly developed fantasy life; and the novelist, it has been suggested, is a natural spy, secretly observing, and constantly gathering intelligence for stories. In this regard, writer and biographer Anthony Masters has singled out the double-life of the author: ‘One part of the writer lives a normal life in society, while the other part observes, gathers information and fantasizes’. It is perhaps unsurprising then that literary-types have been drawn to, as well as drawn into, secret intelligence work. Temperamentally, they seemed ideally suited to the role, with a ready-made set of skills and inclinations. For their employers, such individuals were likely to be in possession of fertile imaginations, and sharp and inquiring minds - perfect for propaganda work, wartime deceptions, and, for a select few, field work and agent running. The world of intelligence is in need of artful, subtle types, and many writers have been put to devious use in the murkier corridors of power. Not all temporary spies and agents though have felt impelled to write spy fiction; examples of this unusually reticent type of subsequent author are Roald Dahl (British Security Co-ordination, umbrella organisation for the secret services in the US), Fay Weldon (Information Research Department, covert channel of anti-Soviet propaganda), and the poet Basil Bunting (MI6 plot to depose Prime Minister Mossadeq following his nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry).
When treating writers in intelligence broadly, it is necessary to distinguish between those who produced factual and those who produced fictional work. Despite strict secrecy laws in Britain and their sometimes robust enforcement, a surprising number of former agents and intelligence officers have managed to get themselves published. So much so that Nigel West, the prolific writer on the intelligence world, has claimed that ‘there is probably more in print about the British secret services than about any of their foreign counter-parts, and a fair proportion has been produced by authors with direct, first-hand knowledge of their subject’. An obvious area of literary output has been service and wartime memoirs. Such activity commenced following the First World War, when in 1925 Captain L.B. Weldon published his memoir Hard Lying, in which he recalled his intelligence work in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Great War. One area of operations which came in for particular attention were the anti-Bolshevik activities of British agents working to undermine the Soviet regime bloodily established in Russia in 1917. Publications included such tales as Sir Paul Duke’s The Story of ‘ST-25’: Adventure and Romance in the Secret Intelligence Service in Red Russia (1938), William Gibson’s Wild Career: My Crowded Years of Adventure in Russia and the Near East (1935), Sir Samuel Hoare’s The Fourth Seal: The End of a Russian Chapter (1930), and George Hill’s Go Spy the Land (1932). As the (sub)titles tend to reveal, the accounts fitted comfortably in the traditional mode of adventurous espionage; the memoirs would also have served as useful propaganda for a ruling elite which sought to demonise the dangerous Soviet political experiment.
In a similar manner, a spate of memoirs followed in the wake of the Second World War. Notable examples were Lieutenant Colonel Oreste Pinto of counter-intelligence and his Spy-catcher and Friend or Foe? (both 1952), and Maurice Buckmaster of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and his Specially Employed (1952) and They Fought Alone (1958). More troubling for the guardians of secrecy were the revelations in The Man Who Never Was (1953) by naval intelligence officer Ewen Montagu, which divulged a major wartime deception operation. The published account only came about because former wartime cabinet minister Duff Cooper used the essentials of Operation Mincemeat in his novel Operation Heartbreak (1950). The security services reluctantly felt the best response was to allow publication of a slightly sanitised version of the story, refraining from disclosing the ‘Ultra’ secret, wherein the plotters behind Mincemeat knew that the Germans had swallowed the deception through the de-cyphering of enemy signals traffic.
Eventually, wartime secret warriors would come to write officially-sanctioned histories of the intelligence war. First into the field was M.R.D. Foot, former intelligence officer to the Special Air Service, who, as a peacetime Oxford historian, was commissioned to write SOE in France (1966), the story of sabotage, resistance and secret agentry in wartime France. In order to pre-empt a wild cat publication in the United States, Group Captain F.W. Winterbotham, former Air Staff representative to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), was authorised to write and publish The Ultra Secret (1974), which let the cat out of the bag regarding the breaking of German codes and what was wartime’s best kept secret. In 1979, and representing a sea change in attitudes, there commenced the mammoth task of publishing the story of British Intelligence in the Second World War. This was put together under the stewardship of Cambridge historian F.H. Hinsley, who had spent his war at the Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park. The team also included Charles Ransom, formerly of SIS in Rome, and Anthony Simkins, latterly Deputy Director-General of the Security Service.
In dealing with authors of spy fiction it is important to take regard of one important distinction. Those already established writers of spy thrillers who subsequently served in the secret world, as against secret warriors who later took up the pen and put their insight into spy stories. Of the former, Graham Greene (The Confidential Agent, 1939) stands out, publishing influential espionage fiction both before and after his wartime service in MI6. Mention should also be made of Geoffrey Household, who published his classic Rogue Male in 1939, just before the outbreak of war led to his despatch on a mission of sabotage targeting the Ploesti oil fields in Eastern Europe. A rather special case of this type of writer was Erskine Childers, whose novel The Riddle of the Sands (1903) was the first classic of the modern spy genre. Later in the First World War he was involved in operations in the Near East, running agents up the Turkish coast and flying intelligence missions. A hard-line advocate for the Irish republican cause, and in quite a turnaround in his public standing, he was executed as a traitor by the British in 1922. A.E.W. Mason (The Four Corners of the World, 1917) and W. Somerset Maugham (Ashenden, 1928, featuring a writer commissioned into the secret service), were other wartime intelligence officers who went on to write some notable spy fiction. Distinctively, Compton Mackenzie straddled the worlds of faction and fiction. His wartime had included service for SIS in the Aegean, and his experiences were the basis for the light-hearted espionage novels When Extremes Meet (1928) and The Three Couriers (1929). These did not trouble the authorities. On the contrary, Mackenzie’s factual account of his career in wartime intelligence, Greek Memories (1932), was successfully and very publicly prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. The embittered author had his revenge with Water on the Brain (1933), a wicked satire on the world of secret intelligence, and still very funny today. Marthe McKenna, who as Marthe Cnockaert and a nurse in occupied Belgium served the British in various clandestine activities, similarly produced both factual and fictional material. Her I was a Spy! (1932) remains of one the best known memoirs of clandestine activities in the war, and she later co-wrote over a dozen spy thrillers with her husband John McKenna. Other recruits into the ranks of writers of spy stories in the post-First World War period included Sydney Horler (air intelligence, The Secret Service Man, 1929), author of numerous blood and thunder thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s, and Cyril Henry Coles (military intelligence, Drink to Yesterday, 1940), who wrote with Adelaide Frances Oke Manning under the pen-name of Manning Coles.
By far the best known of World War Two’s secret warriors who went on to a career in spy fiction was Ian Fleming. He spent his war in naval Intelligence, and the author’s Commander Bond, launched in Casino Royale in 1953, would become the iconic secret agent for the age of affluence: the stories an intoxicating blend of tradition and modernity, and the agent an impeccable guide to the delights of the consumer society. Dennis Wheatley, although perhaps now best remembered for his supernatural fiction, had conjured up a popular spy hero in the 1930s in Gregory Sallust, a character who was subsequently mobilised for war duty in novels such as V for Vengence (1942). Wheatley was involved in wartime deception and had close relationships with the Security Service, fulfilling various tasks and sometimes providing convenient cover for its agents. It is perhaps not insignificant that the author’s wife and stepson (both authors), stepdaughter and secretary all served in MI5. Ted Allbeury (SOE, A Choice of Enemies, 1972), Gavin Black (military intelligence, Suddenly at Singapore, 1961), William Haggard (military intelligence, Slow Burner, 1958) and David Mure (Deception and case-officer for German agents in the ‘Double-Cross’ system, The Last Temptation, 1984) all later established themselves as distinguished authors of spy fiction. Paul Dehn (covert operations and political warfare) became an eminent writer for the cinema, scripting the James Bond picture Goldfinger (1964) and the John le Carré adaptations The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and The Deadly Affair (1967, from Call for the Dead). While holding no claim to personal experience in the spy world, Helen MacInnes, the author of popular spy thrillers which commenced with Assignment in Brittany in 1942, was married to Gilbert Highet, an eminent professor of Greek and Latin, who served in wartime British Intelligence in the United States as well as in post-war Germany. It is interesting to speculate on the nature of the couple’s pillow talk!
The Cold War was a crucial era for spy fiction, a period when issues of realism, morality and treachery were considerably sharpened in stories centring on the great ideological divide of the time. While Ian Fleming pursued a highly lucrative style of wish-fulfilment and excess in the James Bond thrillers, John le Carré transformed the spy story with his more disillusioned, cynical and seemingly realistic espionage stories such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). Le Carré (David Cornwell) had the unusual distinction of having served in military intelligence as a national serviceman, and in both MI5 and MI6, which arguably provided him with uniquely broad insights into the secret world. Le Carré had been encouraged to write by his MI5 colleague Lord Clanmorris, who, as John Bingham, successfully authored detective and spy novels as a sideline (The Double Agent, 1966. Bingham’s wife and daughter, both authors, worked at MI5). Other writers with privileged insights included a group of mainly political journalists who later, or occasionally, turned their hand to thrillers and spy novels. The list includes Lionel Davidson (The Night of Wenceslas, 1960), Francis Clifford (The Naked Runner, 1966), Gavin Lyall (The Secret Servant, 1980), Hugh McLeave (Vodka on Ice, 1969), Anthony Price (The Labyrinth Makers, 1970), Tim Sebastian (The Spy in Question, 1988) and Brian Freemantle (Goodbye to an Old Friend, 1973). Exceptional among this class of writer was the controversial Chapman Pincher (The Penthouse Conspirators, 1970), defence and intelligence specialist on the Daily Express, self-styled Fleet street mole hunter, and author of numerous exposés of the secret world of intelligence and security.
Since the end of the Cold War, the tradition of spies or near spies writing espionage fiction has been maintained. Matthew Dunn (The Spycatcher, 2011) served in MI6 where it is claimed he was involved in around 70 missions. Charles Cumming (A Spy by Nature, 2001) was approached for recruitment to MI6 after graduating from Edinburgh University, but got no further than the preliminary stages of vetting and training. Alan Judd (Legacy, 2001) was a civil servant in the Foreign Office where he would have come up against the sharp end of intelligence and security matters. Roger Pearce (Agent of the State, 2012) served for 30 years in Special Branch, rising to rank of commander. Although possessing no personal experience of intelligence work, family connection alone makes Charlotte Philby worthy of inclusion among the spy novelists. Her latest novel Edith and Kim (2022) is a fictionalised account of the recruitment to the Soviets of her grandfather Kim by the Austrian-born Edith Tudor-Hart. In a class of their own were Douglas Hurd and Stella Rimington. Hurd (Scotch on the Rocks, with Andrew Osmond, 1971) was a senior Conservative politician who rose to serve as secretary of state for Northern Ireland (a security trouble spot), and as Home Secretary (responsible for MI5) and as Foreign Secretary (responsible for MI6). Rimington (At Risk, 2004) served in MI5 between 1969 and 1996. She retired from the service as Director-General, making her the highest ranking intelligence officer to turn to spy fiction. In 2001, Rimington took the unusual step of publishing her autobiography, Open Secret. A fact sometimes conveniently forgotten is that a previous Director-General, Percy Sillitoe, controversially published his memoirs as Cloak Without Dagger in 1955.
The malevolent subject of any number of spy stories, the traitor within, the double-agent, was represented on the bookstalls by a handful of individuals who shamelessly published accounts of their treachery. Pre-eminent among these was Kim Philby, former officer of MI6, with his My Silent War which appeared in 1968. The book carried a forward by Philby’s wartime colleague Graham Greene, one of the very few prepared to be associated with the publication. Further treachery within the Secret Intelligence Service was recounted in No Other Choice, the biography of George Blake published in 1990. Both were written in exile in Moscow. Another insider account unwelcome to the British authorities was Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, published amidst boiling controversy in 1987. The basic story of rogue operations and paranoid mole hunts within MI5 had previously appeared in Chapman Pincher’s Their Trade is Treachery in 1981, a book which had enjoyed some journalistic protection. A personal account by a former officer who had signed the Official Secrets Act was beyond the pale.
Treachery working in entirely the opposite direction was evident in the published accounts of wartime double-agents and former agents of the Soviets. Among those who ostensibly worked for the German Abwehr but served the British were Eddie Chapman (The Real Eddie Chapman Story, 1966), Jan Pujol (Garbo, 1985), and Dusko Popov (Spy CounterSpy, 1974). Briton Alexander Foote defected from the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) at the end of the Second World War, and his Handbook for Spies (1949) was written and published with MI5 support. Russian-born agents who got their privileged insights into print included Anatoliy Golitsyn and Oleg Gordievsky. The former defected to the West in 1961 and published his analysis of Soviet political thought and action as New Lies for Old in 1984. Among other things, Golitsyn’s initial revelations led to the unmasking of Kim Philby, although the British double-agent was allowed to slip away. Gordievsky fled to Britain in 1985 and published his autobiography as Next Stop Execution in 1995. For their extraordinary services to Britain, Golitsyn was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) and Gordievsky received the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), the sixth-most senior in the British honours system.
Helen MacInnes once revealed the three most common questions she was asked as a writer of spy thrillers: What is true? How much is invented? Did you ever experience any of those situations? For the dedicated reader of spy fiction authenticity seemingly counts for something, and this can perhaps be found with the writer who can claim legitimate experience of the clandestine world. The spy turned author is a persuasive and welcome guide for a public highly curious about a hidden realm of life and death struggle. The world of intrigue, by it nature, has been shrouded in mythology; facts have been elusive, disavowed, speculative. Access to a secret, mysterious and guarded world is empowering and pleasurable for the inquisitive, and an initiate of the covert sphere, accepted as such, comes over as a dependable escort. After all, who else is there who can be trusted?
The Spy is an artist, a practitioner of deep artifice, stratagem and contrivance. His triumph is ultimately a successful performance. So, too, the artist is a spy, a secret sharer, committed to the discovery and betrayal of our deepest secrets.
(Eric Homberger, 1986)