Spies in History & Literature ~
Spy Fiction à la
Canadienne – The Novels of Adrian de Hoog
By Mark T. Hooker
Canadian author Adrian de Hoog
Adrian de Hoog, an author from the wide-open prairies and
icy-cold of Canada, delivers a fresh, new perspective on the game
of espionage in his two novels: The Berlin Assignment
(2006) and Borderless Deceit (2007).
These are not bang and boom spy thrillers, but are rather
novels with spies in them. The Berlin Assignment plays
out against the backdrop of post-wall Berlin and the problems of
German reunification. Borderless Deceit is the tale of the
Canadian role in the intelligence war against illicit weapons trafficking
and money laundering that begins with the same kind of cyber attack
that was launched on Georgia before the Russians invaded in August
2008. The world of fiction was ahead of the real world on this one.
Borderless Deceit came out before the attack became
Both novels share the same story line, which is both an advantage
and a disadvantage to the reader.
The advantage is that the common story line provides de Hoog
more time to develop his excellent psychological portraits of the
The disadvantage is that the reader can guess how Borderless
Deceit ends before the final chapter is read. The reason that
the story lines share so many parallels, explains De Hoog, is that he
rather enjoyed constructing the interplay of the story elements when
he was working on The Berlin Assignment, but after a
number of years passed without the novel finding a publisher, he
concluded that “it would never be published and then
thought [he] might as well use that structure again.”
That is not to say that the one novel is a simple retelling of the
other. No. The details of the stories are subtly varied, creating new
interesting visions of the same motif.
The main attraction of De Hoog’s novels are the people
who inhabit them. His visual portraits are economic, but his
psychological profiles are detailed and filled with subtle brush strokes.
In both the novels, the main show is a search to understand the
relationships between the characters. The central characters of the
story line are an introverted male lead and an extroverted female lead.
The key issue in their relationship is best reflected in one of the
questions that the female lead in Borderless Deceit asks
herself: “Where lies the line between being alone and being
lonely?” (BD p. 179) De Hoog’s novels explore the
consequences of crossing this line.
The moral of both stories is perhaps best expressed by a
Gorbachev quote found in The Berlin Assignment. When
asked what he thinks of the Honecker regime on the eve of the fall
of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev replies, “History punishes
those who act too late.” (TBA p. 420).
In Borderless Deceit, the heroine connects loneliness
and time when she tells the male lead that “you suffered from
some form of monomania and the tragedy is you allowed it to waste
precious years.” (BD p. 317) For the heroine, time is fleeting,
but “good memories are the return on an investment of
time,” and she already has had a good return on her
investment in her Vienna years. (BD p. 173) To the contemplative
reader, the clear implication of her conclusion is that the male lead
has invested unwisely.
The element of espionage comes into play in both novels in the
attempts of outsiders to understand the complex relationships of the
two leading characters. When viewed in a certain light, their
relationships have all the makings of a spy drama. Thanks to the
narrator, however, the reader knows the “truth” of
these relationships, making the outsiders' efforts to uncover the
counter intelligence (CI) aspect of the couple’s relationship
seem like full-blown cases of paranoia.
In The Berlin Assignment, the investigation of the
couple’s relationship is set against the backdrop of East
Germany’s Stasi past. This backdrop serves to highlight
the parallels between the analytical methods and motivations of
the Stasi and those of the retiring British Chief of Station in Berlin,
who wants a CI coup to close his career and believes that the
starring couple of the novel will be it.
De Hoog comments on this with subtle indirectness. When
the male lead of The Berlin Assignment finishes
reviewing his Stasi file, he makes an observation about the great
amounts of insignificant detail that fill the file, meticulously kept
for year after year. “A Stasi specialty,” says the
archivist. “They lacked feedback loops telling them they
were on a wild goose chase. Once they started, they couldn’t
stop.” (TBA pp. 326, 477) The attentive reader soon
sees that the same is true of the British Chief of Station.
In Borderless Deceit, De Hoog has a marvelous
characterization of the motivation for continuing to believe the CI
analysis of the main characters’ relationship, and for
further pursuing an investigation of it. The chief inquisitor is
confronted by the female co-star of the novel, who calls his CI
analysis “pseudo-intellectual trotting around,” the
purpose of which is to “spice up” his “own
ego” (BD p. 203). The “wild goose chase that could
not be stopped” and the “spice of pseudo-intellectual
trotting around” are simply two sides of the same coin.
The irony of all this is that the character who defends the male
lead in The Berlin Assignment from the witch hunt of
the British Chief of Station is the same one, who in Borderless
Deceit is leading the witch hunt to spice up his own ego.
The exploration of the CI aspects of the leading characters’
relationships leads to the issue of the truth, which is a key one in
the shadowy CI world where things are never as they seem. In
The Berlin Assignment, the male lead says that
Canadians are “selfless white knights, all of us. The truth
first, self-preservation second” (TBA p. 436), and it appears
so, because the “bad guy” is a Brit.
In Borderless Deceit, the actions of the male lead
confirm this positive assessment Canadians, and the lead turns
into a “knight errant” (BD p. 349). The actions of
the chief inquisitor, however, demonstrate that not all Canadians
have a good handle on the truth, and that the truth has a certain
malleability in some circles.
Recommended for those looking for something more than boom
and bang in their spy fiction. These are “literary”
spy novels that make you think. The Berlin Assignment
is especially interesting for its illumination of the social dynamics
of post-wall Berlin. Borderless Deceit will appeal to
those with an appetite for stories of the intricacies of technical
intelligence collection and analysis. A translation of the novels to
the silver screen could produce films that would rival The
Lives of Others and The Quiet American. I
hope that this will not be too long in happening.
Visit the books’ websites at ~
The Berlin Assignment
Adrian de Hoog’s novels are available in bookstores
everywhere, as well as these on-line merchants ~
Chapters – Canada’s on-line