DO SPIES TURNED NOVELISTS USE THEIR OLD SOURCES?
ON WHAT ESPIONAGE FICTION CAN TEACH US ABOUT THIS GEOPOLITICAL MESS
In early January of this year, a London-based literary agent appeared on the BBC to discuss a long-forgotten espionage novelist named Ted Allbeury, and his book The Twentieth of January, published in 1980. The agent, Julian Friedmann, described eerily prophetic parallels between the plot line of the book and the controversies surrounding then president-elect of the United States: Donald Trump.
The Twentieth of January revolves around a president-elect engulfed in a sex scandal set up by Russian spies. The book even has the CIA informing Congress of the allegations after learning of them from a British spy, in a way not dissimilar to the now infamous Russian dossier of former MI6 officer Christopher Steele.
“It’s the nature of spies or counterintelligence and of thriller writers to speculate,” said Friedmann. “Ted was one of the best because much of what he wrote was factually inspired or inspired by scenarios the intelligence services hypothesized about.” Friedmann told the BBC: “The bare bones [of the plot] are that an aspirant politician who was nowhere near being a serious contender for the presidency becomes a possible contender and keeps being helped, undoubtedly with financial support, and then becomes president. And the Russians have compromising photographs of him.” Allbeury, who died in 2005 at the age of 88 after writing more than 40 books, was, like Steele, a British intelligence officer.
There have been multiple stories surrounding Trump that draw parallels to Cold War fiction. Among them are those involving some of his cabinet and campaign staff’s dealings with Russia and the firing of former NSA advisor General Michael Flynn. News reports have indicated that Flynn, along with US attorney general Jeff Sessions, former Trump aides Carter Page and Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, had contact during Trump’s campaign with Russians, including ambassador Sergey Kislyak, an alleged KGB spy whose chief task is reportedly to recruit spies.
As of this writing, the latest revelation involves a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that included Manafort, Kushner, the president’s son Donald Jr., Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who allegedly was going to pass on to Trump Jr. damaging opposition research about Hillary Clinton’s financial ties to Russia, Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who worked in military counterintelligence for the former Soviet Union and is a colleague of Veselnitskaya, Rob Goldstone, a UK-based music publicist who contacted Trump Jr. on behalf of Russian oligarchs Emin and Aras Agalarov, translator Anatoli Samochornov, a former U.S. State Department staffer, and Ike Kaveladze, a real estate vice president for the Agalarovs.
Not unexpectedly, recent events may put the espionage novel back at the center of the culture. One of the first twists in the Trump story was the public revelation of Steele’s incriminating dossier, the significance of which was, at first, enough to drive the former MI6 agent into hiding. (In a delightful bit of coincidence, on the day Christopher Steele finally resurface, March 7, John le Carré announced that his most famous character, George Smiley, would return in his next book).
While some have said that if events unfolding in the news were written as a spy novel the story would be deemed implausible, several writers of spy novels, two of whom are former MI6 operatives, are readily able to draw real-life connections to their own or others’ novels, in the realm of both spy-craft and geopolitics.
New York-based Paul Vidich is the author of An Honorable Man (Atria), released in the spring of 2016, a critically acclaimed cold war novel set in Washington D.C. in the 50s. Vidich weighed in on the parallels between today’s events and Richard Condon’s Cold-War classic of paranoia, The Manchurian Candidate. “The fear in intelligence circles has always been that through blackmail, or drug-induced behavior, senior members of the U.S. government would betray their country,” said Vidich. When asked if the scenario unfolding now would have seemed plausible as a spy novel, he answered, “What might have caused the story to be rejected is that, who would believe that a formerly bankrupt developer turned carnival barker on middle-brow television could be elected president of the United States? That is harder to imagine.”
Chris Pavone, also based in New York, is the author of intricately plotted, fast-paced, international thrillers published by Crown, and has a distinguished career in book publishing. When asked about spy novels that resemble unfolding current events, he suggested “Robert Harris’s The Ghost, in which a politician’s allegiances are not what they appear to be. It’s a terrific book with great twists at the end.” He added, “But at this moment in history, we don’t really know where we are in the Trump story, do we? This could be just part one.”
A writer who can offer a unique perspective on the spy novel and its relationship to current events is another New Yorker, Eric Van Lustbader. Van Lustbader has written in a variety of genres covering many subjects, including an acclaimed thriller set against the backdrop of Japanese culture entitled The Ninja.
Van Lustbader has done what few writers have been able to do: maintain an established spy series (the Jason Bourne books, by Robert Ludlum) without losing any of the elements that made the previous books so critically and commercially successful. His work on the Bourne series provides some fascinating insight into how the novel reflects and predicts current events. In discussing the most recent Bourne novel, Van Lustbader said, “The Bourne Enigma posits that the Russian Sovereign (aka Vladmir Putin) decides to send troops and armaments into Syria as a way of keeping the world’s attention off his increasing incursions into Ukraine. The most interesting thing is that I wrote that book three years ago.”
“The Bourne Initiative deals not only with a fictional version of WikiLeaks, but more crucially with a very high-ranking US politician on the rise who’s been compromised by the FSB (via kompromat) and, within four years, will most likely be the president. This will form the basis of the next novel in the series, as well.”
Of course, a number of the most famous British spy novelists actually were spies. Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, and W. Somerset Maugham, among many others, worked for MI6. But that trend hasn’t actually gone the way of the Cold War.
Matthew Dunne, a former MI6 field officer whose Spycatcher books, published by William Morrow, reflect his experience, was involved in approximately 70 missions. Based in the U.K., Dunne discussed how his spy series draws comparisons to current events. “In my Spycatcher novels, I always deal with betrayal, duplicity, conflicting agendas, subterfuge and power. These stories are drawn from my imagination, but are rooted in what can go on and, with variations on the details, has happened in reality.” When asked if the scenario unfolding in contemporary geopolitics would have seemed improbable as a spy story ten years ago, he said, “On one occasion, I wrote a plot not dissimilar to what we’re seeing. I implicated the US and Russian presidents in a conspiratorial pact. My editor told me to “tone it down a bit” because he felt it was unrealistic. I have to sometimes temper my experiences gained in the field as a spy because of course most people don’t know what I’ve seen. But who knows now? Maybe there will be a flurry of thrillers with a central character being a corrupt U.S. president.”
When asked if he’s looked into today’s events through any of his old professional sources or former colleagues, Dunne replied with a quick “No,” and then elaborated with an inside look at the world of espionage. “A former MI6 officer and his family are on the run, fearing for their lives. To start asking questions around what’s going on could further jeopardize their safety. It would be an act of betrayal and a corruption of my morality to do or say anything that may inadvertently be to the detriment of current or former MI6 officers.”
As for whether he knew Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer who prepared the Trump dossier, or knew of him or remarks in January by Sir Andrew Wood, alluding to MI6 officers never being “ex” officers, Dunne had no comment.
Another former MI6 officer, who writes under the pseudonym Nicholas Anderson, can no longer travel to the United States or England and lives in retirement in the south of France. According to the author, whose NOC (Non-Official Cover) books are self-published, “All the stories actually happened, but I have fictionalized them to get around government restrictions.”
Anderson recalled a spy novel that wasn’t too far from the events unfolding around Trump. “In James B. Donovan’s Strangers on a Bridge, Donovan details the political differences between Americans and Russians and even (East) Germans from 1957 to 1962.” Donovan was a naval officer who eventually became an international diplomatic negotiator. Published in 1964, and co-written by Donovan and ghost writer Bard Lindeman, the book was used as the basis for the film Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance and adapted by screenwriters Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen.
Of his own first book, written in 1995, Anderson said, “I predicted the Russians would never give up the Crimean Peninsula nor other parts of the Ukraine, and they haven’t and won’t. It’s too strategically important to them.”
As for whether Anderson has used any of his professional sources or former colleagues for research, he said, “I have and my intuition and instincts were correct. “ He added that for now “I’ll keep my findings to myself, content for my next book.” With regard to the aforementioned remarks by Sir Andrew Wood, Anderson said, “He is correct to a point.” In terms of his own activities in this regard, Anderson said, “I don’t know about Steele, but I always try to check my secure encrypted e-mail either on the last day of the calendar month or the first day of the calendar month. Often there is someone from the SIS (MI6) headquarters asking me a question or three that pertains to the subject matter I was regarded as a specialist in. I wouldn’t exactly call it still working for MI6, but it’s (MI6) gleaning information from us even in retirement.”
Nigel West, unlike other writers interviewed for this article, is a non-fiction writer. Considered one of the foremost experts on MI5 and MI6, and a former Conservative Party member of parliament, West takes a very different view of Wood’s assertion that MI6 officers are never ex-officers. “It is incorrect to assert that SIS retirees continue to work for the organization,” West began. “It may be that they will maintain some element of contact, but I would respectfully disagree with Sir Andrew’s view. Nor do I think Chris Steele remains employed by SIS.” As for Steele, West said, “I confirm that I have known Chris Steele since 2010, but have not done any business with his company.” In regard to “if the SIS ever received a copy of the reports contained in the dossier now in contention,” West stated, “I think it quite likely, although I would not care to speculate precisely when this happened.”
Washington D.C.-based James Bamford, the author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America is the national security columnist for Foreign Policy magazine and has written extensively on the Russian hacking of the DNC for Reuters. He refers to the relationship now between the U.S. and Russia not as the cold war, but the “code war.” Bamford weighed in on the hacking aspect of the story. When asked about Julian Assange and Wikileaks, which leaked the DNC e-mails, Bamford said, “I’ve met with Julian Assange several times in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He takes his job very seriously and believes in keeping confidential most everything about the leaks that come his way. So there are still many unanswered questions as to who gave him the material he published related to the Democratic Party.” When asked why Edward Snowden, whom he interviewed for Wired magazine, is in Russia, Bamford said, “He’s in Russia because the U.S. cut off his passport after he took off from Hong Kong and that prevented him from boarding the connecting flight to Ecuador. He’s in Russia because of actions by the U.S., not because he chose it.”
It may be months, or even years, before we know the extent of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. The mounting “coincidences” of several recent deaths of Russian dissidents, journalists, and Russian intelligence officers adds another chilling parallel to the typical cold war international thriller.
Spy novels and political thrillers, while entertaining, aren’t likely to ever bring down a government or save any lives. But in imagining the darker side of geopolitics, in exploring the lengths that people will go to hold onto power, they offer us as clear a look at the future as anything you’ll find on the newsstand.