Spy Fake

Spy Fake

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In May 1989, WH Allen published Quiller KGB, the thirteenth in a series of spy thrillers by Adam Hall, a pseudonym for the British writer Elleston Trevor. The novel was Hall’s swan-song for the Cold War, with the bulk of it set in November 1989. British agent Quiller foils a plot by Soviet hardliners to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev on an official visit to Erich Honecker in East Berlin. They don’t plan to carry out the assassination themselves, but have farmed out the job to a Brit. Completed in 1988, the novel successfully predicted Gorbachev’s visit to East Berlin the next year. There were, however, never any claims of an assassination attempt taking place during the real visit.

Until now.

In September, Hodder & Stoughton published Pilgrim Spy. This claims to be a memoir by ‘Tom Shore’, the pseudonym for a former SAS operative. ‘Shore’ relates how he undertook a series of incredible missions during the Cold War including, pivotally and most spectacularly, that he foiled a plot by Soviet hardliners in October 1989 to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev when he visited Erich Honecker in East Berlin.

Hodder have marketed Pilgrim Spy as ‘one of the great untold stories of the twentieth century’, but if anything that’s underselling it. In real life, British operatives rarely carry out solo missions, let alone get involved in gunfights with terrorists while saving world leaders from assassination. Add in that the gunfight in question apparently took place in Colditz Castle and that throughout his operation ‘Shore’ repeatedly encountered a young KGB major called Vladimir Putin, who he suspects of being involved in the assassination plot, and it becomes even more remarkable.

This extraordinary operation has never been so much as hinted at in any previously published accounts, and its daring and scale go far beyond any other operation we know about during the Cold War. Without the actions of ‘Tom Shore’, Germany would likely not have been reunited at that time, or perhaps ever. Such an operation would clearly be Western intelligence’s greatest coup of the 20th century, greater than the running of Oleg Penkovsky or Oleg Gordievsky, and ‘Shore’ deserves all our thanks, and several medals.

The book was initially treated as news by both the Sunday Times and The Guardian, perhaps unsurprisingly: Hodder is a highly respected publisher, and it’s very rare for an entirely unknown episode of Cold War history to be revealed; even rarer for it to feature British intelligence; almost unheard of for it to be involved in a spectacular, history-altering operation. It might seem bizarre that the operation has gone completely unknown of for so long, but ‘Shore’ had a ready explanation for this: the only other people who could confirm any of the events he relates are the dead members of the Red Army Faction, his dead SAS commander, and the MI6 officer, ‘Mark Scott’, who sent him on the operation unbeknown to anyone else and who then vanished without a trace.

‘Scott’ turns out to be a rogue MI6 officer chasing after a little black book that contains ‘the NOC list’. It’s complicated, but if you’ve seen the first Mission: Impossible film with Tom Cruise you’ll get the drift. ‘Shore’ ends the book absolutely furious at having been used by ‘Scott’, who along the way has also murdered two innocent people, including Kirstin, the beautiful blonde with ‘cornflower blue eyes’ who he has fallen for. ‘Shore’ notes that some readers might think this sort of skullduggery is just par for the course for spies, but that it really isn’t, you know:

‘Well, perhaps it’s because we have been brought up reading books and watching films about the likes of James Bond, George Smiley and Jason Bourne that we now expect such agencies to be duplicitous, ruthless and murderous as a matter of course. But, in my experience, the sort of duplicity and murderous intention that Scott showed towards someone on the same side – me – was a complete outrage to all the codes and standards by which these organisations live and work. I can honestly say I have never come across or heard of anything similar.’

No, me neither. Outside of spy fiction, anyway, where, as he notes, the agent discovering he’s been used as a pawn by someone on his own side is indeed a cliché. ‘Shore’ says that unless he happens to bump into ‘Scott’ again – ‘which wouldn’t end well’ – he will likely never know what the man’s true motives had been. But strangely, he doesn’t call on the security services to open an investigation into this criminal within their ranks. Forgetful, perhaps.

Of course, the publication of Pilgrim Spy presents an even more puzzling mystery: how on earth did Adam Hall know about ‘Tom Shore’s mission over a year before it happened? Like Hall’s hero Quiller, ‘Shore’ is shot at, chased down, and has a liaison with an East German woman intent on overthrowing the Soviet system, before saving the free world virtually single-handedly. ‘Shore’ doesn’t hang off a window ledge as Quiller does, but even more impressively recounts a pursuit across a rooftop which he escapes by jumping between buildings. The chapter ends in media res with him on the verge of doing so – incidentally, a trademark of the Quiller series. It’s also extremely striking that these plots to assassinate the same leader, in the same place, at the same time, masterminded by the same group of people, both happen to be foiled by British agents; on the face of it both the visit and the idea of an assassination plot during it are Soviet-East German affairs, with little ostensible reason for the UK to be involved. Both books give pretty tortuous motivations for British intelligence to insert itself into the events. This is a familiar suspension of disbelief in British spy fiction, of course: as with the Bond films, Adam Hall constantly had to figure out reasons for the UK to play the lead role in averting disasters around the globe. In the real world, though, British agents only very occasionally save the world, and when they have done it tends not to have involved rooftop chases and gunfights.

In Pilgrim Spy, we’re told that MI6 only received a hint of the assassination plot nine weeks prior to it taking place, and ‘Shore’ only figured out who the target was days in advance. So was British spy novelist Adam Hall a psychic with access to future plans for intelligence operations?

The truth is perhaps more mundane: Pilgrim Spy is not spy fact but spy fiction, and atrociously bad spy fiction at that. Every cliché in the genre pops up, and great gobbets of factual exposition are lifted from the internet, sometimes word for word. The plagiarism is insultingly clumsy, with most of the lifts taken from Wikipedia entries. Here are just a few excerpts from Pilgrim Spy - the text in bold has all been plagiarised from Wikipedia’s entry on the Stasi, while the text in italics is from the entry about Zersetzung. These are all straight lifts, with barely a word changed:

‘I knew all about the East German Stasi. It was the official state security service of the DDR, and has often been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in history...’

One of the Stasi’s main tasks was to spy on the population, mainly through a vast network of citizens turned informants.

They fought any opposition to the regime using both overt and covert measures including the process of Zersetzung.

During the Honecker era – from May 1971 to October 1989 – the Stasi used the accusation Zersetzung to silence political opponents by repression. German historian Hubertus Knabe wrote: “The goal was to destroy individuals’ self-confidence, for example by damaging their reputation, by organising failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships.” The use of Zersetzung is well documented due to numerous Stasi files published after the fall of East Germany, where it is estimated that up to 10,000 individuals had fallen victim to this barbaric process, with over 5,000 sustaining irreversible damage.

In addition, its Directorate for Reconnaissance was responsible for both espionage and for conducting covert operations in foreign countries and, under its long-time head Markus Wolf, this directorate gained a reputation as one of the most capable intelligence agencies of the Cold War.

Wikipedia’s Stasi entry also mentions Dynamo Dresden, Vladimir Putin’s time with the KGB in Dresden, and the agency’s military training with the Red Army Faction – all of which feature in Pilgrim Spy.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Red Army Faction contains the following paragraph:

‘Sometimes the group is talked about in terms of generations:

  • the “first generation”, which consisted of Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof and others;

  • the “second generation”, after the majority of the first generation was arrested in 1972; and

  • the “third generation” RAF, which existed in the 1980s and 1990s up to 1998, after the first generation died in Stammheim maximum security prison in 1977.’

Pilgrim Spy contains this paragraph:

‘The group is often talked about in terms of generations.

The first “generation’ consisted of Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof and others. The ‘second generation’ came about after the majority of the first generation was arrested in 1972. The ‘third generation’ RAF existed in the 1980s, 1990s and up to 1998.’

An enormous amount of the book’s material is lifted from Wikipedia in this way. ‘Shore’ tells us that in intelligence circles ‘agents under Non-Official Cover (NOC) are operatives who assume covert roles in organisations without any official ties to the government for which they work’. That, too, is virtually word-for-word the same as the opening of the Wikipedia entry on the topic. The hardback sells for just under £14, but Wikipedia, of course, can be read for free.

And ‘Shore’ doesn’t only plagiarise from Wikipedia. The biography of his SAS commander is taken directly from The Independent’s obituary of the man he is based on, Andy Massey, and to whom the book is brazenly dedicated. It’s almost as though this former SAS operative knows virtually nothing about espionage or the Cold War himself.

The dedication to Massey has proven the book’s undoing with veterans of the SAS, a group of whom were so outraged by what they felt was comparable to ‘stolen valour’ that they complained to Hodder, who have apparently now removed the dedication as a result. SAS and BRIXMIS veterans also pointed out several other discrepancies with the book’s claims, such as gunfights happening at Colditz with none of them ever hearing of it despite being on good relations with the staff there at the time. A former commander of the SAS also believes the book’s claims to be ‘utter rubbish’.

Pilgrim Spy isn’t the first special forces memoir to be greeted with such scepticism, and it won’t be the last. This field is open to abuse: it’s hard to disprove a tale of a top-secret operation told by an author whose name is itself withheld. When questioned by The Independent, Hodder admitted that the book contains plagiarism but downplayed this as ‘sloppy but not criminal’ and insisted that there were only three sentences taken from Wikipedia. The Independent’s article already listed several more than that, as have I above, and one passage on coffee plagiarises seven sentences in a row from Wikipedia.

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‘Sloppy but not criminal’ is a shocking response from a serious publisher to such an allegation – not long ago they would have investigated this properly and withdrawn the book as a result.

Adding to the mystery over the publisher’s reaction is Pilgrim Spy’s peculiar back-story. It looks to have started life as a totally different book: The Colditz Conundrum, a ‘new complete history’ of the POW camp that promised startling revelations about a ‘hidden hand’ at work behind the famous escapes from it. This had the same ISBN number and publication date as Pilgrim Spy, and the author biography read:

‘Tom Shore was educated at Woolverstone Hall school in Suffolk and Birmingham University in the 60s and 70s.’

On the Amazon page for Pilgrim Spy, we learn:

‘Tom Shore joined the British army in 1970, a few days after his eighteenth birthday.’

So… how was he at university in the 60s and 70s if he joined the army just after he turned 18 in 1970?

When I asked Pilgrim Spy’s editor about this eye-popping discrepancy, he claimed that The Colditz Counundrum ‘with accompanying biography was a dummy title substituted for the real book on the day of publication’. Strange: publishers usually trumpet their ground-breaking books well in advance to try to drum up publicity, rather than giving them detailed synopses for totally different non-existent books, complete with contradictory biographies for the author. Why the subterfuge, especially for a pseudonymous author? What would Hodder have done if a journalist had approached them wanting to write an article about the promised revelations in The Colditz Conundrum? It seems like an unusual PR strategy, let’s say.

Hodder have also been ‘sloppy’ in other ways. Despite their marketing of the book as a memoir and claims to five British newspapers that it gives an honest account of events during the Cold War, the book’s frontispiece features the disclaimer:

‘All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.’

Quite how that applies to Putin and Gorbachev, and whether it was inserted by a sceptical Hodder employee to cover their backsides, isn’t clear – but as Hodder have stated in print that it’s fictitious, even while insisting it isn’t everywhere else, they can’t very well sue the book’s critics for stating the same.

A few years ago, Pilgrim Spy would likely have been more of a scandal: the plagiarism is so blatant, the original writing is so poor, and the supposed events are so transparently ludicrous. A Million Little Pieces, Surviving With Wolves and other fake memoirs have been the subject of enormous interest, and this is probably the most blatant case of it I’ve seen. However, Hodder’s response in the face of the obvious has simply been to double down, Trump-style, and insist they believe ‘Shore’s preposterous story, while shrugging off the kind of plagiarism that would see a student thrown out of university.

The book remains on sale, and little looks to be able change that. It feels like it was an attempt to emulate Soldier Spy, the memoir of pseudonymous ex-MI5 officer ‘Tom Marcus’, which was a bestseller in 2016 and also garnered national newspaper coverage while having its share of doubters. The consequences for failing to replicate that success with a rubbish spy novel masquerading as a sensational memoir are close to nil, both for the author and publisher. Hodder are large enough for their reputation to take this hit – they publish hundreds of books a year, and this is already water under the bridge. The book might not sell as well as they’d hoped, but they will probably still feel it was worth taking a chance on. It’s a shame: it’s a brilliant publisher with a storied history, and this isn’t worthy of going out under their banner.


As a longtime fan of Adam Hall, ‘Tom Shore’ ripping off one of my favourite spy novelists’ books has its funny side. But as someone who also studies Cold War espionage, it feels like a dispiriting defeat: fake history in a time of fake news. The lack of fuss or consequence is partly because chicanery is no longer remarkable in public discourse. Information about espionage has also become so much of a part of our culture that even the most outlandish ideas can seem plausible, because we’re used to seeing them: jumping across buildings is so familiar from spy films that we don’t stop to think how unlikely that is to happen in real life.

Recent years have also seen an inflation in conspiracy theorism, and the line between a genuine expert and someone who has watched a lot of YouTube videos or read a few Wikipedia entries has become eroded. Today, we know more – or think we know more – about the inside workings of the intelligence world thanks to the likes of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. A few years ago, both appeared to promise a brave new era in which the shadowy actions of those in power would be held more accountable. In reality, this has mostly been confined to the West.

Wikileaks has itself become a power whose actions are often obscure, while Snowden’s focus on surveillance by the United States’ spy agencies has almost totally overlooked the actions of the likes of Russia, who have ramped up their use of disinformation and meddling in US politics. Vladimir Putin’s operatives have committed murder on the streets of Britain, and when exposed claimed to be clueless tourists to troll the British authorities and public – this has received scant condemnation from Wikileaks’ and Snowden’s supporters, and in some cases outright denial.

But while the truth doesn’t matter to Russia, it should to us. In his book, ‘Tom Shore’ speculates that a young Putin was involved in a plot to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev, but one doesn’t need to invent fables about his past to understand his motives or figure out how to tackle his actions. You can’t learn from history if you lie about it, and in muddying the waters between fact and fiction publishers aren’t simply being unprofessional, but playing a dangerous game at a time when clarity and trust are increasingly valuable. It’s already hard enough to figure out what happened during this period. With propaganda, disinformation and even assassination being used to undermine democracies by numerous states, publishers backing simplistic, self-glorying falsifications risk distorting understanding of the intelligence world and the lessons we can learn from the real Cold War.


HEADER IMAGE: LYSANDER YUEN, UNSPLASH

The Dark Interrogation

The Dark Interrogation

Last year, I was asked by the slightly mysterious ‘Samuel Carver’ if I would be interested in an interview on Goodreads. Sam runs The Orion Team, a discussion group devoted to thrillers on the site, and he had written several very generous and in-depth reviews of my novels. I agreed, and the interview went ahead in January. It can still be read in full on the site, but as it’s a little buried there and the format isn’t all that easy to follow I thought I’d reproduce it here, with Sam’s permission and some very light editing. I really enjoyed this interview, and hope it will be interesting if you’ve enjoyed any of my fiction and are interested in how I work. I tried to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve never read a Dark novel this probably isn’t the best place to start.


Samuel: You write Cold War spy fiction and created a unique protagonist, that of a jaded washed-out traitor who is trying to save his own skin, and along the way happens to do some good deeds in the situations he got himself thrown in. It’s rare to find such a morally compromised protagonist in 21st-century spy fiction. How did you create Paul Dark and how did he come together when writing him?

Jeremy: Basically, I came to the conclusion after reading a lot of spy fiction that I wanted to write some. The spy fiction I most enjoyed was set during the Cold War and I thought I’d give that a crack—it occurred to me that it was becoming ‘period’ in the same way the Second World War had done for thriller-writers in the ’60s and ’70s, and there might be something new to do there. But what? I didn’t want to write a Bond clone, but I am fascinated by Bond. Ian Fleming’s wife Ann had been worried about Kingsley Amis writing a new Bond novel because of his politics, and wrote of him making a ‘Philby Bond’. John le Carré had also written in the ’60s of Bond being an ideal defector. That idea crystallised, and so I decided I wanted a protagonist who was a villain. Like Tom Ripley. Outwardly he might appear like Bond, and even have a Bond-clone kind of name that you’d expect from a ’60s spy, but then you’d soon realize he was a wrong ’un. That idea seemed to have legs to me, and I started researching Free Agent.

Paul Dark is a traitor to Queen and Country and for all intents and purposes is a disgrace to SIS. However, you humanize him in several ways, chief among which includes making the ‘good’ guys that are trying to hunt him down bad, if not worse in the first two books. Was that contrast between a traitor who seeks repentance and the lawful authorities who are unforgiving and nefarious an intentional decision on your part, or did it come together by itself?

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Intentional. Initially, my idea was for Dark to be much more of an outright villain than he is. More like Frederick Forsyth’s Jackal: a cold-blooded killer you had no empathy for at all. But I felt that over the course of several books that wouldn’t work, and readers would find it unremitting. I wanted to give him some flickers of humanity. The situation of being a double agent had in-built suspense to it, but for that to work the character had to be afraid of getting caught and so on—I wanted the reader to be in his shoes to some extent. I thought I would try for a character who you weren’t entirely sure about. He could repulse you and scare you, but you could also find yourself, perhaps against your will, rooting for him. And I thought that one way to do that would be to make some of the characters trying to catch him a shade grey, too.

Ah, yes. Shades of the treatment by the SDCE Action Service paramilitary unit can be seen in what Italian military intelligence does in Song of Treason. It can be argued that your novels are a genre-bending hybrid mix of historical fiction and spy novel, blending real-world incidents like the Nigerian civil war and the 1975 Victoria Falls conference with fictional events. Is it easy or hard to use real-world occurrences as the backdrops for fictional plots or not at all?

I mostly find it hard, as I spend a long time finding the right events to use, and then researching them once I have. I initially decided on the assassination of Patrice Lumumba as being a key event in Free Agent, for example, before deciding that didn’t work. I worked on Spy Out The Land for months before realizing that summit had to be the major event in it. But once you have them in place there are some advantages: it’s a bit like a still life you can work around, if that makes sense.

Delving into some of the parts of the Cold War that not even John le Carré covered, have there been any ‘no way’ moments when your jaw dropped and you found a piece of information or an event that astounded you in the writing process? Your second book was full of these things due to the subject matter and how the central real-life element that the scheme hinged upon could have been easily perverted despite officially being used to preserve the liberties of democratic nations against godless totalitarianism.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but yes. Particularly in The Moscow Option, the Madman exercise and the mathematical calculations of winning a nuclear war both made my jaw drop. When I find things in research that astonish me, that’s when I start trying to figure out how to make them work in a novel.

There was a detour between the first three Paul Dark books and the fourth one. What caused that? Also, who is the new cover artist? I must say they’ve done a bang-up job on enhancing the look of the books.

The Moscow Option (Dark 3) features quite a bit of MI6’s activities in Moscow in the Sixties. When I was researching that to try to make it feel authentic, I found that the best source of most tradecraft from around that time was via the running of Oleg Penkovsky. I became fascinated by that operation and eventually pitched the idea of writing a non-fiction book on it. So I did that—it’s titled Dead Drop in the UK and Codename: HERO in the US—and it came out next. Then I went back to Dark for the next book, having taken that detour and recharged my batteries a little from writing Dark, as well.

The cover art for the new UK ebooks is done by the art team at Simon & Schuster, but I had a fair amount of input into them. It’s a long process, and I discussed it back and forth with my editor and agent via phone and email for quite a while. But I’m really happy with how they turned out: I think they look clean and minimalistic, but give a clear idea of what kind of book you can expect.

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Spybrary Podcast: Jeremy, who do you think is the most under-rated spy/thriller author either living or dead? Which author do you wish more people were aware of?

Do I have to pick just one? I’d go for three: Joseph Hone, Adam Hall and Sarah Gainham. Hone is quite similar to le Carré in some ways, but they have lots of twists and turns, and are just wonderfully written. As good as le Carré, Ambler and Greene for my money. Gainham is also in the Ambler/Greene vein and her prose is extraordinarily good. Lots of horrifying male characters. My character Rachel Gold in Spy Out The Land is partly a tribute to her—both her life and her characters, which were often intertwined.

Hall’s series about British secret agent Quiller has obviously been a huge inspiration for me. I think they’re the most exciting spy novels ever written. And the writing is amazing, albeit very different from Hone and Gainham.

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Samuel: I haven’t asked about three people I’ll call ‘the Sharks’, as they work at the only Aquarium in Moscow that the public is not allowed into. The father, the son, and the unholy ghost of a false lover. How did you create these three very smart but very terrifying and brutal Cold War antagonists? Most Cold War antagonists are a bit over the top here and there, but ‘the Sharks’ of the Aquarium most certainly couldn’t be accused of such a crime.

That’s very kind of you. I needed an emotional anchor for Dark and I wanted to connect with his past and his own family, so that is how one of them emerged. Sasha came about from researching double agents, in particular Kim Philby’s peculiar memoir My Silent War. There’s not a lot of tradecraft in that, but there is some, most notably his Kafkaesque travel routines to meet his handler. So I started thinking about who Dark’s handler would be, and what their relationship would be. How would he react once Dark started turning against the cause he had supposedly signed up for? And once the books gathered steam, I felt I wanted to see things more from his perspective, and that he would also have paternal issues, like Paul. That was also from research into Philby and others—many of the handlers of real double agents in Britain were summoned back to Moscow and purged. So I wanted to think through how Moscow would be viewing Dark, and they sprung from that.

As a writer who writes books in the ‘retro spy fiction’ sub-genre, you immediately distinguish yourself from the pack in mainstream thriller fiction which focuses on the 21st century and contemporary threats that may or may not be done to death now and then. In your view, what does ‘retro spy fiction’ set in the Cold War offer readers compared to the contemporary post-9/11 thriller? And what does it offer you as a writer in terms of benefits in terms of story and appeal?

My initial thinking behind it was in part to stand out from the pack, but also because that is just what I liked reading best, and was most familiar with. It also meant I could research it more easily, as a lot of Cold War stuff has been declassified. Of course, you can invent things if you’re writing about intelligence agencies now but, even so, I thought it would be fun to revisit the Cold War with what we now know. I’d seen the Bourne films with Matt Damon and thought they felt similar to conspiracy thrillers from the Sixties and Seventies in tone, as well as to the likes of Quiller, with chases through the Berlin U-bahn and so on.

For readers, I’d hope it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference if a book is set in 1969, 1976, 2002, 2018 or 2051 as long as the story and characters are compelling. But perhaps there’s some interesting history you’ll learn about or get interested enough in to investigate further. And I don’t think the books date quite the same way, which feels like a bit of a safety net in terms of longevity. That may be wishful thinking, though.

Ah, that last point is bang on the money. Dating has always been an issue. Out of all the real life traitors you must have looked up when writing the Paul Dark series, name one who was the most damaging of the lot. Then name another who you would say is the most audacious at his work. Then out of all of them would you say that with traitors, there is a common motivating thread among the ones you have researched?

Great question. I think I’ll have to be a bit obvious, though, and say Kim Philby was the most damaging. Some have claimed George Blake did more. Andrew Lownie makes a very persuasive case for Guy Burgess in his excellent biography of him. But damage isn’t only about the number of documents they handed over, or even agents’ lives. Philby rocked British intelligence to the core, and to some extent the whole of the British establishment. It took them decades to recover. His friendship with James Angleton was also crucial—that gave him a lot of information, but it also meant that when he was finally exposed Angleton was shattered by the revelation. That led pretty directly to Angleton’s paranoia about other moles, which ripped the CIA apart for years to come. Philby caused all of that.

Most audacious? Probably Burgess. To flaunt the fact he was gay and promiscuously so at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and on top of that to be drunk and rude to everyone, pretty much constantly… these aren’t strategies most double agents would employ, as they want to keep as low a profile as possible. Burgess went the other way.

The common motivating thread would probably be intellectual superiority or arrogance, coupled with stubbornness. Even now Blake thinks he was right and knows better than everyone else. Also, I suppose, a gift for self-delusion: to continue to believe with such certainty even when all the evidence tells you otherwise. This is why I decided to try to make Dark a little more sympathetic, incidentally. He realizes the cause is nonsense, and he regrets it. To have a Blake would change the dynamic completely, and I think it would be very hard to keep the reader along for the ride.

The first three novels in the Dark series were told in first person. The fourth novel, however, which could be considered a ‘soft reboot’ of the series after a long hiatus, was told in third person. What prompted the change in storytelling perspective? And was it easy or difficult to adapt to this change?

The BBC optioned the first three books for a TV series quite early on, and they got as far as a pilot script for Free Agent but no further. But that involved a lot of discussions, and the producer said early on the series would have to be very different from the books because you can’t really do first person on screen. He mentioned the dynamic of the Bourne films, where you switch between Bourne’s perspective and the CIA crow’s nest hunting him. That stuck with me. After three books from Dark’s perspective, I also thought it would be good to open things up—and to see what the world made of him.

With each book I have a tone in mind from the start, and the kind of thriller I want it to be. With Free Agent, I had Adam Hall and Deighton in mind, for example. With Spy Out The Land, I wanted to write a fast-paced third-person man-hunt thriller in the vein of The Day Of The Jackal, and I was also inspired by some of Ted Allbeury’s stuff. So that was the basic idea going in. I found it much harder to write than the first three, though, because I had become used to Dark’s voice. I doubted I could even write a third-person novel at all, and felt like I had been a fraud for being published with first-person narratives. A third-person novel was a Proper Book! But I got there in the end.

Ah, intriguing. I agree, the so called ‘rules’ about third person, first person and hybrid third person and first person perspectives are rather tricky.

The tactics Paul Dark utilizes in his attempts at saving his neck are the foundation of what even in the era of SVR cyber-trolls and PRC artificial intelligence is considered modern tradecraft. From your research for your novels and journalism, would you say modern espionage techniques and tradecraft hasn’t changed much despite the bells and whistles that the services pay for? Or has it evolved beyond recognition since the Cold War?

I’m probably not the best person to ask about modern tradecraft, because I don’t know nearly as much about it—I’ve spent significantly more time looking at the Cold War. But I would say that a lot of the techniques are pretty similar, and made easier or at times complicated by changing technology. But you still need dead drops and forged papers and spies on the ground and all the rest of it. The Moscow Rules that were developed after the Penkovsky operation haven’t fundamentally changed, even if the nature of threats has.

Can you name any contemporary-set mainstream published spy fiction which has gained your approval in recent years? Or are you a fanatical vintage purist who does not wish to be sullied with works set in the post-9/11 world?

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I’m not a purist in that sense, but I don’t read nearly as much spy fiction as I used to—I tend to find it distracting. An exception is Tim Stevens, who I’ve mentioned in a few places before and who I know a little: he’s a really terrific writer. Start with Ratcatcher. I also love the French TV series Le Bureau des Légendes, which is a contemporary classic, I think. Oh, and I really enjoyed Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, and am looking forward to reading the rest of that series when I find time.

Looking at the spy fiction genre today, what could be done to help improve the genre? Or if you had the power to warp reality, what would you do to improve the genre?

I’m honestly not qualified to answer that one. I just don’t know enough about what other writers to do to offer any kind of suggestions, and even if I did—well, it’s just me. There’s room for a lot of different kind of writing in the genre, I think, and that’s partly why I fell in love with it in the first place. It’s so much richer than I’d thought it was.

Paul Dark isn’t intended to be a nice man and for the first three books, his fundamental motivation is (very understandably) selfish self-preservation. He also wallows in self-pity that most people would find contemptible. On the other hand, he’s aware of his crimes and mistakes and wants to make them right and seek absolution for his big sin, despite the cruel world he’s in trying to squish him like a bug. What elements of Paul Dark’s characterization came from you? The Oxbridge education? The details-orientated professionalism that Dark maintains despite the near panic he’s in through the original three books? The vague centrism in a world where’s he’s surrounded by loonie lefties and shot at by right wing whack-jobs? Or is it something else? And what quality, if any, do you most admire about Paul Dark? Reason for this question is because when writing a character, most writers past and present make the viewpoint protagonist their fictional alter ego, like Ian Fleming or Brad Thor. And even those who try to avert this like Tom Wood with his assassin Victor still have bits and pieces of themselves end up in their creations.

I think it’s inevitable there are bits and pieces of me in the character, because they just seep in whether you want them to or not. I’m usually trying to figure out what I would do in his shoes, so of course that makes him more like me from the off. I deliberately gave him a background I shared some elements with, even if twisted, like his knowledge of Sweden and a particular archipelago nearby. He went to the same school I did, so I could use some of my knowledge there. I did all that because, fundamentally, I’m of course nothing like him: he’s a ruthless professional secret agent, and a traitor to his country.

I don’t see Dark as a fantasy version of me in any way, but occasionally he does things—I have him do things—I admire in one way or another. It would be quite nice to be able to know how to avoid the world’s intelligence agencies, even if I’m never going to need those skills. I’d quite like to be as quick-witted, fit and have his line of laconic humour sometimes. I am also probably less harsh on him than readers, because I’m in his head and he’s ‘My Guy’ in a unique way, because I created him. I want him to be very flawed, but not a complete monster. At points in writing the books I have felt like I am under his skin. Maybe he was under mine. The vague centrism hadn’t occurred to me—quite a good point. I guess that might have seeped in. I tend to be sceptical of left and right, it’s true.

What’s your preferred writing style? Outliner like Robert Ludlum, or seat of the pants like Fleming and Vince Flynn?

Some outlining, a lot of improvisation along the way (including more outlining). Too much outlining in advance and I find I’m bored and see it as pointless to write the book. But I need a tone and some central ideas or I’m totally lost and end up wasting lots of time rewriting. Did Ludlum outline? For some reason that surprises me a little.

Oh, yes. Had literal dossiers and files of the plans he made on his trademark yellow legal pad paper which he worked on. As for that vague centrism, well Ian Fleming said James Bond would probably vote for the Labour party, and I’d say it’s rather beautifully (but unintentionally) symbolic as Dark is hounded by the two political extremes in a world that was far more polarized than this century.

Now to the next question. Having written my reviews of your work listening to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March 1 (possibly the most inappropriate, ironic musical choice ever considering who Paul Dark is), do you have a reading playlist?

Didn’t know that about Ludlum—interesting. I listen to music when I read and write—always instrumental, usually a very long playlist I have on Spotify that mixes classical, jazz, electronica and so on. I listen to a lot of music when away from my desk and thinking about writing, and there’s a public playlist on Spotify with songs that inspired me when writing Spy Out The Land. Thank you very much for your excellent reviews, by the way. Much appreciated.

What is the general future direction of Paul Dark?

I have a couple of ideas. We’ll see. I like him in the ’70s—there’s a lot to explore.

Name a real world Cold War event and one country that Dark hasn’t been to yet, that you know about and would love to write a story around.

There are at least two but it’s because I want to do them that I can’t tell you, sorry. I don’t want someone else to beat me to it! But one’s in the Middle East and one’s in the Far East.

A wise decision, keep cards close to the vest. Okay, the next few questions will focus on writing matters. To any aspiring writers out there who may seek to follow your path and become a published writer, what advice would you give them on what to expect, what difficulties if any may ensue and what they should look out for to get the most out of their publisher?

Everyone’s experience is different, but I suppose my main piece of advice would be not to expect the world to fall at your feet—there are a lot of books out there—and also to keep your integrity. Some people like to take shortcuts, and the internet has made that easier, but these things have a habit of coming back and hitting you in the chops. Be enthusiastic, get stuck in, do all you can to promote your work and attract readers and so on, but try to keep your scruples intact. All publishers are different, but I think they all like their writers to be professional, to listen, to pick their battles and... to be nice. It’s a good idea, generally, I think.

Dialogue and word choice are probably the bit that aspiring writers fall down on. How do you come up with the right thing to say for the right scene without it sounding clunky or messy? And how long would you say it took to find your own prose style that was distinct as it is today?

Read a lot, write a lot, hone your voice. Read your work aloud, especially dialogue. Cut anything that sounds unnatural. Resist the temptation to show off, i.e. purple prose. I don’t want any fat in my work. ‘For me, anyway, I want there to be absolutely no fat at all in my books’ was my first draft of that sentence. Thank you for saying my style is distinct. It took me around seven years to get a draft of Free Agent I was happy with. Keep at it until you’ve written something like the book that you envisioned in your head.

Action scenes are, if not the heart of the thriller, the blood and veins. Tell us about your process in crafting an action scene.

I try to think of how I can make such a scene have these elements:

Advances the plot: everything has to do that. Don’t drop your guard just because people are using their bodies as well as their minds.

Exciting: it should have some stakes the reader thinks Dark might reasonably come out on the wrong side of. Harder to do in first person as of course we know he will survive.

Plausible: He’s not a superhero. I often use martial arts guides from the period for plausibility and authenticity’s sake.

Unusual: Is he simply being chased down a street? That’s not very interesting. What if he’s being chased down a street by one person and then realizes a completely different enemy is chasing him from the other end? It’s a fight on a rooftop, okay. What if the rooftop is the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican?

Historically relevant: I don’t always do this, but like to have it so the scene can’t have taken place today, or even can only have taken place at the time I have it. So it’s Rome in 1969, not Rome now. The topmost dome is no longer open. I want every element of the novel to be necessary for this story, and this story alone, not interchangeable.

These aren’t hard and fast rules.

The first three Dark books brought to life 1969 beautifully. Whether it being the exotic but very murky Lagos, the intimidating but dark heart of Rome (pun not intended) or a run across the snow-swept wastes towards the Russo-Finnish border, how do you go about building your setting? And what’s the key to building a fictional universe in your opinion?

That’s very kind, thank you. In my case, a lot of research on the basics. So I spent a long time looking into how one could get across that border, for instance. How long was it, how many watchtowers, dogs, what was the border guards’ routine, who had tried to do this before, etc. I look up weather, contemporary street maps, sometimes visit the place if it makes sense—I did that with Rome—watch films from the time that feature the setting. Then there’s sense memory—I grew up in Lagos—and of course imagination. I throw out a lot of research. You want to hone in on the most vivid details you can. A phrase or even a single word can bring somewhere to life if you place it properly. If there is a key, it might be that when it seems real to you it will to the reader.

What’s your editing process and what sort of things do writers need to do to edit properly?

I don’t have any real process for this. I try to get to the end of a first draft with as little editing as possible, because otherwise you can get hung up. But sometimes that happens despite my best intentions. After the first draft I just keep editing it until I’m happy. Apart from the obvious things like attention to typos and other errors, I watch for voice—the characters should sound distinct. Plot holes, of course. And that the novel feels like a coherent whole.

All writers have their own writing routines, the most famous being Fleming and Hemingway (recently there was an article in Publishers Weekly about someone trying to follow the writing routines of famous writers and he said it suckedperhaps it was the alcohol). Can you describe your own writing routine?

I don’t have one. In the research phase, I tend to read a lot in the day and search for things online late into the night. In the initial writing phase, I try to write every day, sometimes using a word-count as motivation. In the editing stage, edit every day if I can. But none of it’s in stone. Sometimes the key is to get away from the desk and go for a walk or a swim or have a coffee or just stare into space for a bit. For me, writing a book is a cross between being disciplined enough to write that many words, and undisciplined enough to have the inspiration and creativity to do that. The friction between routine and no routine is what makes it work—but it’s a lot easier said than done.


HEADER IMAGE: AKSHAY PAATIL, UNSPLASH

Agent Of Influence

Agent Of Influence

He was a giant of Cold War journalism, reporting from the alleyways of Vienna, Budapest and Berlin and the jungles of Biafra and Paraguay. A war hero, a Nazi-hunter, a spy and a master manipulator, he also influenced several of the 20th century’s greatest thriller-writers. Jeremy Duns delves into the many worlds of Antony Terry


Tony Terry offers a light to Austrian Chancellor Leopold Figl, Vienna, 1948. (Getty Images. Original publication 'In Vienna Today—A Foreign Correspondents Life', Picture Post, 1948.)

1. THE LONDON STATION

For several years during the Cold War, including while he was writing the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming was also working for the Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as M.I.6.

He was part of a network that at various times also counted among its members Malcolm Muggeridge, Kim Philby, George Blake and Frederick Forsyth. At one point M.I.5 had a long-term plan for John le Carré in the network, but he backed out at the last moment. Had he joined, le Carré would have worked directly for Fleming: a tantalising what-if in espionage history.

M.I.6 ran this network using the somewhat absurd codename ‘BIN’. It was first exposed by the Soviet press in 1968, when Izvestia published M.I.6 documents that listed several of its members and their accompanying code numbers, but the story quickly blew over in Britain after a flurry of scornful denials.

BIN was informally known as ‘the London Station’, and had its headquarters at Londonderry House in Victoria. At one time employing 20 officers, it was part of a larger department within M.I.6 with the title ‘Controller of Production Research’, which arranged all operations against the Soviet Union that used resources within Britain. BIN was initially overseen by Frederick ‘Fanny’ Vanden Heuvel, the dandyish son of a papal count and a friend of Fleming. Vanden Heuvel’s code number was Z-1, an indication that the department had its roots in the Z Organisation, a network of British businessmen who gathered intelligence in parallel to M.I.6 before and during the Second World War, and in which Vanden Heuvel had been a leading figure.

In line with the Z Organisation’s old role, BIN ran the ‘frequent travellers’: Brits who regularly went behind the Iron Curtain for business purposes and agreed to report what they had seen when they returned home. One of these was Greville Wynne, who would become Oleg Penkovsky’s link-man with M.I.6 in Moscow. BIN also targeted foreign diplomats and businessmen working in Britain for recruitment, and carried out the monitoring of embassies’ communications.

Finally, it developed and controlled a network within Britain’s newspaper industry. The press section had three main roles: to arrange journalistic cover for M.I.6 officers travelling behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere; to persuade bona fide journalists to gather intelligence for them on the side; and to encourage journalists to produce articles that had a propaganda benefit for Britain.

The concept of journalists working hand in glove with intelligence agencies is a familiar one in popular consciousness, but hard evidence of it taking place in Britain was scant during the Cold War, and even now this is a relatively neglected area of research among historians of the era considering the central role journalists played in shaping perceptions through those decades. The gap is for several reasons, one of them being that the Cold War is not long dead, and has arguably been reanimated. Journalists’ involvement in espionage raises several thorny ethical dilemmas—they are supposed to be free thinkers who speak truth to power, after all, rather than deceivers in service of the secret state—but even those who weren’t engaged in the practice and disapproved had editors or proprietors who were, and who considered this their patriotic duty. Exposure of M.I.6’s work with journalists would have been breaking the Official Secrets Act, as well as risked betraying colleagues and creating a working assumption overseas that all British correspondents were spies, which might have endangered lives.

Many British journalists and former journalists wrote spy fiction during the Cold War, so one might expect the idea to have featured heavily there, especially as the genre provides ample opportunity to reveal secrets between the lines. But while characters working as correspondents for TASS or Pravda are routinely undercover KGB operatives—with the unwritten implication that this was the case in real life (as it often was)—British spy fiction of the era features very few Western intelligence operatives working under journalistic cover. Even in thrillers this topic was, if not taboo, rarely under the spotlight.

However, as the Cold War waned mentions of this activity became more common, first in vague terms, eventually in detailed accounts. There is now enough information in the public domain to piece together how this was carried out.

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One of the most significant figures recruited by M.I.6’s BIN network was Ian Fleming. Like many others, he had been involved with intelligence during the Second World War: he had been the personal assistant of Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence (D.N.I.). Years later, Fleming would take inspiration from Godfrey when creating James Bond’s boss M, and as a result many have likened Fleming’s wartime activities under Godfrey to those of Bond under M. However, Fleming’s role at Naval Intelligence was much more akin to that of the character Bill Tanner, M’s trusty chief of staff: he drafted memos on Godfrey’s behalf, navigated Whitehall’s politics, and helped arrange and oversee operations. Fleming was a desk man, expressly forbidden from taking part in the field on the grounds that, were he to be captured by the Germans, he knew far too much.

Throughout the war, Fleming was in contact with other branches of British intelligence, including the Special Operations Executive, Bletchley Park, M.I.5 and M.I.6. He also worked with the Political Warfare Executive, a group responsible for creating and disseminating propaganda. Fleming was fluent in German, and was used in P.W.E. broadcasts ‘telling the Germans that all their U-boats leak’.

At the end of the war M.I.6 were interested in taking on people who already knew the espionage ropes, who had proven themselves discreet, efficient and trustworthy, and whose skills would be useful in the coming Cold War. Fleming fitted the bill. Before the war, he had been a reporter for Reuters, most notably covering the Metropolitan-Vickers Trial in Moscow, and also briefly in the same city as a ‘special correspondent’ for The Times in 1939—the latter occasion had opened connections to the espionage world that had led to his job in Naval Intelligence. Now he was to combine journalism with work for M.I.6, as in the war not as a field operative but as a desk man. In late 1945, he accepted a job at the Kemsley newspaper group, the offer having likely been facilitated through his friendship with Fanny Vanden Heuvel.

The Kemsley group included the Sunday Times, putting Fleming right at the heart of Fleet Street. Fleming wrote articles for the Sunday Times, chiefly colour pieces as he had a gift for projecting a simultaneously worldly-wise and boyishly enthusiastic view of subjects that took his fancy. From November 1953, he also compiled the paper’s gossip and miscellany column ‘Atticus’, and reviewed books. However, his main job was as ‘foreign manager’ for the whole Kemsley group, which provided copy for over 20 British national and provincial newspapers and around 600 papers overseas. Fleming managed 88 foreign correspondents, many of whom had also worked for British intelligence in the Second World War—several of whom now continued to do so in peacetime.

The group was officially called the Kemsley Imperial and Foreign Service, but was generally known as ‘Mercury’, its cable address. While M.I.6 had similar arrangements at other newspapers, Mercury was the jewel in its Fleet Street crown, and one mark of its success is how little an operation taking place at one of Britain’s best-known newspapers is known about even today.

Once Fleming had become famous, he often discussed his intelligence work during the Second World War in interviews, but he never publicly mentioned his subsequent work for M.I.6, for the obvious reason that it was ongoing and he would have been blowing his own cover. However, in his 1995 biography of the writer, Andrew Lycett quoted a private letter in which Fleming made his M.I.6 role explicit. As a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Fleming was obliged to spend two weeks a year on a training course, but in 1951 he argued that he should be exempted from this on account of the clandestine aspect of his day job:

‘As foreign manager of the Sunday Times and Kemsley Newspapers, I am engaged throughout the year in running a world-wide intelligence organization, and there could be no better training for the duties I would have to carry out for the D.N.I. in the event of war. As you know, I also carry out a number of tasks on behalf of a department of the Foreign Office and this department would, I believe, be happy to give details of these activities to the D.N.I.’

‘A department of the Foreign Office’ was an unsubtle way of referring to M.I.6 in an attempt to trump the request. The ploy didn’t work and Fleming resigned his R.N.V.R. commission as a result, but it gives us clear evidence in his own hand that he was working for M.I.6 while at Kemsley—and that he was well aware he was fulfilling that role.

The phrase ‘world-wide intelligence organization’ is also telling: Fleming might have been exaggerating Mercury’s importance to get out of a training course, but one senses he was also hinting at his real pride in the network he now controlled, and the power he held through it. A 2012 article in the Sunday Times put this in striking terms:

‘On his office wall at Gray’s Inn Road was a canary-yellow map depicting the Mercury News Service—the huge nexus he set up to service the whole Kemsley group of newspapers. This was the nerve centre of Fleming operations—an ambitious, grandiose plan for world domination that would have done Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself proud.’

Fleming might well have viewed his role with M.I.6 along such lines, but other than the letter unearthed by Andrew Lycett he appears to have kept such thoughts to himself: there are no hints of it in his interviews, articles or novels. He was an important cog in the agency’s machine, but he appears to have carried out his role discreetly. A gentle nudge would have been easily understood in a network largely consisting of old hands in the intelligence game, and activities like this were arranged over liquid lunches at the club or between the lines of letters rather than in ciphers retrieved from dead drops.

An example of the routine, almost casual way in which journalists acted for British intelligence in this way can be seen in the diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge. He had worked for M.I.6 during the war, but by 1950 was an editor at The Daily Telegraph, where he performed the same role for the agency as Fleming at The Sunday Times. In January 1950, he recorded a visit to a very ill George Orwell, before adding:

‘Visited in the evening by M.I.6 character who wants cover to go to Indo-China.’

And it was as simple as that.

For Fleming, involvement with M.I.6 was mutually beneficial. Thanks to his pulling strings in the background, several M.I.6 operatives received the excellent cover of working for one of Britain’s best-known newspapers while they were carrying out secret assignments around the world. But Fleming also used the role for his own purposes, incorporating intelligence he learned or sought out from these operatives into his novels. In turn, more by accident than design, his books would come to serve as propaganda for M.I.6 in particular, and for Britain in general.

MERCURY MAP.jpg

Agent of Influence is out now: information on where to buy it is here


Dead Drop Optioned

Dead Drop Optioned

I said this on Facebook a while back, but just a heads up that my non-fiction book Dead Drop (Codename: HERO in the US) has been optioned for a feature film. The plan is to focus on an unusual friendship that developed in the most tense of situations, that between Soviet agent-in-place Oleg Penkovsky and British businessman Greville Wynne, who was acting as a liaison between Penkovsky and MI6 and the CIA. In the background: the growing Berlin crisis, the Wall going up, and finally the shadow of nuclear armageddon with the Cuban Missile Crisis...

This Is How Five Eyes Dies

I've written an article for Foreign Policy imagining how Donald Trump's presidency could adversely affect the intelligence world. You can read it here.