Spies in History & Literature ~
An Emerging Trend in Spy
Fiction – Retired James Bonds Become Ian Flemings
By Mark T. Hooker
In 1994, in his spy novel Last Train from Berlin,
W.T. Tyler – a retired Foreign Service officer –
characterized one of the retired CIA officers populating his book
as “little more than a ghost now, prowling his Georgetown
house, pretending fulfillment in the imaginary companionship of his
imaginary book” (p. 65). In the twenty-first century, however,
spy fiction by retired intelligence professionals is no longer the
stuff of imaginary books.
These days, there are enough books by retired insiders to speak
of a trend in spy fiction, or perhaps even of a subgenre.
In his article for the New York Times in March 2005
entitled “Ex-Spies Tell It All,”
Scott Shane speaks of the “swelling library of increasingly
candid CIA memoirs” which paints a portrait of the CIA that
“is none too flattering.” (Note 1)
Big-splash nonfiction memoirs are finding a ready reception in
publishing houses and movie studios with deep pockets for publicity.
Insiders’ spy fiction, however, is often hard to locate, as if
these kinds of novels – just as their authors once were
– are under cover, reflecting the reluctance of traditional
publishers to take on these projects. This new spy fiction trend is,
therefore, perhaps best visible on the book review webpage of the
AFIO (Association For Intelligence Officers).
There, one can find novels from publishing houses whose names
do not have the recognition factor of conventional publishing power
houses such as Brassey’s Books, Forge Books, William
Morrow, and Random House. This new class of books is from
publishers with names like Xlibris, Infinity Publishing, First Books
Library, and iUniverse. Books from these houses do not get the
same kind of editorial push to marketability as books from the
big-name houses, so, if there is an agenda in the book, it is the
author’s and not the publishers.
The conventional wisdom that traditional publishers are the best
judges of the public’s taste in the literary marketplace is
starting to give way to success stories of independently published
books like A Train to Potevka: An American Spy in
Russia, which has sold over 150,000 copies and whose
author has a motion picture contract in hand. And Voices
Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, which was an
award winner at the 2008 Hollywood Book Festival.
The developing trend in spy fiction that they represent is only
just beginning to be identified by inquisitive spy fiction researchers.
To give the reader a feel for the substance of this emerging trend
in spy fiction, this review will take a look at four of the books that
are a part of it. Though they are part of a trend, the books
themselves are all uniquely different.
One is a HUMINT procedural, with a drama worthy
of a Greek tragedy. (Note 3)
One is a psychological study of a case officer’s
last tour, with a happy ending. One is the tale of a covert
action gone awry.
And last, but not least, there is a representative of that rarest
species of spy fiction – a SIGINT novel.
James Bond’s “Brothers”
Perhaps because 2008 is the centenary of Ian Fleming’s
birth, interviews with these authors invariably compare their stories
to those of Fleming’s James Bond, whose Hollywood
adventures were stretched beyond the bounds of Fleming’s
books to create the larger-than-life Bond of the silver screen.
The title of an article about A Train to Potevka in
The Costco Connection plays on the familiarity of
James Bond’s hallmark introduction – “Bond,
James Bond.” The article is entitled “Ramsdell, Mike
Ramsdell – Reality is as compelling as fiction for real-life
James Bond”. In the article, Ramsdell concedes that
Bond’s movie adventures were what initially made him
want to become a spy. T.H.E. Hill (Voices Under Berlin)
makes a similar admission, specifically blaming Sean Connery for
the way that he portrayed Bond in the movie Dr. No
(1962) as the reason he entered intelligence work.
In the movie Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Miss
Moneypenny calls Bond a “cunning linguist” on
the phone when she speaks to him in Oxford, where he is brushing
up his Danish under the tutelage of a voluptuous instructor in a
state of undress. Ramsdell, Murphy, and Hill all learned Russian
in the military. “Military linguists have been calling themselves
‘cunning linguists’ since long before Miss
Moneypenny made the term popular in the movie Tomorrow
Never Dies,” said Hill. “None of my instructors
ever looked like that, and we never did any role-playing with the set
of vocabulary that Bond was practicing in the movie.” Hill
speculated that one of the script writers must have been a military
linguist “in another life”. (Note 6)
Ramsdell, Murphy, Coyle, and Hill are quick to point out that
real-life spying is a far cry from Bond’s action-packed
screen adventures, liberally decorated with dazzlingly attractive
fold-out girls. As Ramsdell says in A Train to Potevka,
“actual intelligence work is far removed from the ‘cloak
and dagger spies’ portrayed in Hollywood. . . In reality,
intelligence work is extremely serious, tedious, and unglamorous”
“One of the key features of Voices Under
Berlin,” says Hill, “is the boredom inherent in
any intercept operation while waiting for the target’s
proverbial loose lips to provide the information that will sink a
proverbial ship.” In Hill’s novel, boredom takes on
a role similar to the one it played in Thomas Heggen’s
Mister Roberts. To relieve their boredom, the Americans
play practical jokes on one another and on the hapless East-German
guards in a tower across the border.
In The Dream Merchant of Lisbon, Coyle has his
hero come in to his embassy office during lunch so that he will not
be disturbed while he catches “up on his financial accountings
and other non-glamorous administrative aspects of being an intel
officer.” The narrator quips that Reilly had “seen
every James Bond movie ever made and never once had [Bond]
ever had to file an accounting.” (p. 254) The world that
Reilly lives in, says the narrator, is “not the fantasy world
of books and movies, but the shadowy real world where you
recruited people to spy, helped overthrow governments and
sometimes people died.” (p. 10) “I think Ian
Fleming intended [Bond] as a spoof, and people took it as
reality,” says Murphy in an interview in The Northeast
Times. “It’s really the farthest thing from
reality.” (Note 7)
The gap between the fantasy of James Bond’s screen
adventures and the reality of day-to-day espionage as seen by
these authors means that the new “reality” spy
fiction may not appeal to “thriller” fans. The stories
that these authors have to tell are not the stories of James Bond,
Jack Ryan, or Jason Bourne. They are the stories of real intelligence
officers, and those are not quite as action-packed.
Seeking the Truth
Thomas Murphy (Edge of Allegiance) spent a
quarter of a century – 14 years of that overseas –
with the CIA before retiring in 1992. (Note 8)
Edge of Allegiance is the fictional postmortem of
a failed Cold-War HUMINT operation that the author calls the
Bagatelle case. It takes the reader from Rio de Janeiro, to Washington
and Moscow, from Budapest to Vienna, Prague, and Paris, following
the source (Bagatelle) and his case officer (Frank Manion), while
the narrator explains where and why things went wrong.
By the time the narrator had found the answers to his questions,
“[i]t was too late to restore reputations,” or
“raise the dead.” The reason that the narrator gives
for continuing his quest despite its apparent futility is found in the
quotation from the Gospel according to John that is to be seen at the
main entrance to the CIA – “And you shall know the
truth, and the truth will set you free.” (p. 2) Murphy’s
narrator wanted to learn the truth. As W.T. Tyler says in his novel,
Last Train from Berlin, the truth isn’t “what
you begin with but what you discover” (p. 369). The process
of discovering the truth from Murphy is well worth the effort.
The narration of the novel deceptively speeds up the glacial
movement of a HUMINT operation the same way that a naturalist
filmmaker compresses the blooming of a flower into a one-minute
segment of action. The nine months of a Hungarian language course
is bridged with a single Christmas party episode. The week-long
tedium of waiting for an asset to show up is skillfully covered in a
single paragraph. The result is as readable as the filmmaker’s
stop-action movie of a blooming flower is viewable.
While Murphy quite correctly says that Edge of Allegiance
“is not a boom and bang thriller,” it is a page-turner.
More than half of those who posted reviews of Edge of
Allegiance on Amazon.com said that they were looking
forward to reading another novel by Murphy with the same
The language is lively, and the jargon authentic; the Russian
cursing especially so. For those who have been there and done
that, the dialogue and the action immediately feel as comfortable
as a pair of well broken-in shoes. For those who have never been
there or done that, this is what it is really like.
Murphy does a good job of defining the fault lines between
headquarters culture in Washington and the culture of those who
work in the field, and it is abundantly clear on which side of that
line Murphy’s allegiances lie. He describes headquarters
as a “bureaucratic treadmill” (p. 161), where
everyone is “looking over your shoulder” (p. 200).
His most telling criticism though, is of the jaundiced attitude
towards field officers that is held by headquarters officers, who,
he notes, “would have little to do” without the
officers in the field who make recruitments. (p. 67)
Escape, Evasion, and Survival
Mike Ramsdell (A Train to Potevka) served as a
Military Intelligence (MI) officer, rising to the rank of lieutenant
colonel before his retirement. His uniformed and civilian career
took him throughout Europe, Russia, Scandinavia, and to Asia.
A Train to Potevka is a tale of escape and evasion
aboard a train traveling across the vast frozen wastes of Siberia
following the collapse of a covert operation. Ramsdell’s
train is not, however, the luxurious train of Agatha Christie’s
snow-bound Orient Express, but an ice-encrusted,
third-class milk-train with hard seats, no heating, and no food that
a foreigner can ingest safely.
Ramsdell’s writing style is not going to make him the
new Hemingway, Fleming, or Pasternak, but the reason for the
book’s popularity is clear. It is a tale of survival, written
with enough of an adventurous edge to make you want to keep
reading to find out how the author lived through the events
described in it. It’s not edge-of-your-seat excitement, but
that’s not the intent.
On the one hand, it has the atmosphere of the icy adventure
of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” and,
on the other, a sense of the spiritual depth of Alexander
Solzhenytsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,
which is likewise a tale of a battle with the Siberian cold. A
Train to Potevka is a story of individual survival in a battle
with the forces of nature, and of the value of small achievements
in the face of grindingly depressing circumstances.
In other words, it is not great literature with a capital “L”,
but it is a great story.
One reviewer on Amazon.com seems to have captured exactly
the right description of Ramsdell’s writing by comparing
the reading of A Train to Potevka to “listening
to war stories told by a favorite uncle.”
An episode in Ramsdell’s tale that will bring a smile to
the face of many a hard-boiled veteran of a tour inside the Iron
Curtain is Ramsdell’s story of treating his Russian
surveillance to a take-out meal from McDonald’s when
the surveillance couldn’t buck the line like Ramsdell (a
foreigner) could. It is a story that there are a hundred variations
of, but one that is nevertheless a pleasure to hear again and again,
because it restores one’s faith in the inherent goodness
of the intelligence officers who took pity on their surveillance, and
did something nice for them. The Hollywood James Bond would
never have done something like that.
Typical for this new trend in spy fiction, Ramsdell addresses
the culture clash between HQs and the field. In Ramsdell’s
novel, this thread of the story has an almost “fairy tale”
happy ending, in which the members of “the Good Old
Boy Washington Establishment” who put his life in danger
find themselves “in serious trouble.” (p. 267) His
treatment of this topic is the least realistic of the four.
Leaving the Game
Gene Coyle (The Dream Merchant of Lisbon)
retired in 2005 with 29 years of service, almost half of which
was spent overseas, including a tour in Moscow. He is a
recipient of the Intelligence Medal of Merit.
The Dream Merchant of Lisbon is a psychological
study of two intelligence officers on their last overseas tour. One
of them is the CIA case officer Shawn Reilly. The other is Boris
Sergeevich Parshenko, the SVR (KGB) Resident in Lisbon. Both
of them have to decide what they are going to do once their tours
are over and they can no longer play the game of espionage. Along
the way Coyle paints a realistic picture of how a case is handled.
The case that Reilly is handling is, of course, Parshenko,
code-named FOX. Parshenko has decided that retirement in
California is more to his liking than retirement in Moscow. Parshenko
does not intend to take his wife with him into retirement, and Reilly
thinks to himself about how many broken marriages there have
been. He thinks to himself that “there would probably be
an Oprah show one day – the abandoned wives of Russian
intelligence officers.” (p. 149)
Reilly is not in much better shape himself. His wife is divorcing
him, and he has no idea what he wants to do when his tour in Lisbon
is over. The lives of the two men neatly mirror each other as the
novel progresses to its surprise conclusion that recalls some aspects
of Hopscotch (Brian Garfield, 1975).
Coyle, like Murphy, devotes a considerable amount of time to
the issue of the divide between headquarters culture in Washington
and the culture of those who work in the field. Coyle complements
his descriptions of the CIA’s bureaucracy with descriptions
of the SVR’s. The narrator says that Reilly would have had
a better career with the CIA, if he had “concentrated more
on the bureaucratic side of the business and taken management
positions” behind a desk, “but he was a street case
officer at heart.” (p. 11)
In his final confrontation with his Chief of Station, Reilly says,
“I’ve always had trouble seeing the difference
between a team player and kiss-ass – thanks for giving me
an example.” (p. 257)
One of Parshenko’s many complaints about SVR HQs
is that “the bastards” back at Moscow Center
“have nothing to do,” but they just sent him a cable
informing him that his end-of-the-year reports were submitted in
the wrong format, and he has to do them over. As if he does not
have anything better to do. (p. 236)
Coyle has a slightly more pointed parallel to Murphy’s
question of “is there intelligent life at HQs?”. When
HQs sends out a message advising the Station how to handle the
Parshenko case, Reilly comments ironically that he “always
loved reading the views of CIC, an office full of experts who had
never recruited or handled an agent in their entire careers.”
The Ultimate Eavesdropping
T.H.E. Hill (Voices Under Berlin) retired in 1993
after 26 years of combined uniformed and civilian service, 16 of it
Voices Under Berlin is a fictionalized look at the
CIA cross-sector cable-tap tunnel in the Rudow district of Berlin,
perhaps better known as Operation GOLD (code name: PBJOINTLY).
Hill’s novel is ostensibly the story of the American soldiers
who worked the tunnel, and how they fought for a sense of
purpose against boredom and the enemy both within and without.
It is told with a pace and a black humor reminiscent of that used by
Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Richard Hooker
(M*A*S*H*). The writing style used in the novel,
however, is unique. It demonstrates an unusual approach to
literature that reminds the reader of Henrik Ibsen’s “play
for voices,” Peer Gynt. This play is usually
considered very hard to stage due to its accent on the aural,
rather than on the visual.
The novel is likewise almost totally lacking the kind of visual
clues that readers are accustomed to seeing on the printed page.
Instead – as the novel’s title (Voices Under
Berlin) suggests – it is a novel of voices, intended
as a tale to be heard. Half the novel is made up of unnarrated
transcripts of conversations between the Russians whose telephone
lines have been tapped. The other half of the novel carries the same
“aural” signature as the transcripts, reflecting the
ear-centric worldview of the people who had to transcribe the
Russians’ conversations. The result is a new type of spy
novel, as unique as Berlin herself.
The faulty transcription of one of the Russians’ calls
takes the world to the brink of war. Can the mistake it contains
be corrected before the Cold War goes hot? “And why
is this man transcribing a tape in his underwear?” asks
Lieutenant Sheerluck, oblivious to the fact that they are teetering
on the razor edge of the line between war and peace.
When the novel ends, the reader is left pondering a question
that is common to all four of the novels in this review. Who were
really the victors and who the vanquished in this battle of wits?
History says the Russians won, but were they the real enemy,
or were they just the target of the tunnel operation? The novel’s
answer is much more subtly presented than it is in the other
Though Voices Under Berlin is set in the 1950s,
one reviewer on Amazon.com characterized it as “relevant
for today,” because the skill set that the hero possesses
is the one that helped to win the Cold War. The reviewer says that
this is the same set of skills that we still need today to win the war
on Terror. A similar comment is found in one of the Amazon.com
reviews of Edge of Allegiance. There is clearly more
than just a “war story” woven into the warp of
words in these novels.
Beyond the Mainstream
The words of these four novels may not speak to publishers’
and literary agents’ perceptions of what it takes to put their
bottom line in the black in the dog-eat-dog modern literary
marketplace, but they do speak to those interested in the reality of
the human condition of America’s spies, rather than in the
literary and silver-screen representation of it. Read one or more of
these novels and see for yourself.
Mark T. Hooker is a specialist in Comparative Translation
at Indiana University’s Russian and East-European Institute.
Retired, he conducts research for publication. He is the author of
“The Military Uses of Literature: Fiction and the Armed Forces
in the Soviet Union,” an analysis of works of literary fiction
written by serving and retired Russian military officers and
“Tolkien Through Russian Eyes,” an analysis of the
nine Russian translations of The Lord of the Rings.
He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Russian Institute (USARI) at
Note 1 –
“Ex-Spies Tell It All”, by Scott
Shane; New York Times, Published: March 15, 2005
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Note 2 –
Association for Intelligence Officers, Book Reviews
by AFIO Authors.
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Note 3 – HUMINT = Human Intelligence,
i.e. the source is a human being.
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Note 4 – SIGINT = Signals Intelligence,
i.e. the source is an intercepted message.
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Note 5 – J. Rentilly, The Costco
Connection, December 2007, p. 33.
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Note 6 –
Hill’s Voices Under Berlin – A Spy Novel
That Breaks All the Molds”, by Wesley Britton, located
in the Spies in History &
Literature section of Spywise.net.
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Note 7 –
“This spy came in from the cold”, by William
Kenny, Times Staff Writer, Northeast Times, Dec. 15, 2005.
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Note 8 – Not to be confused with David
E. Murphy, one of the co-authors of Battleground Berlin: CIA vs.
KGB in the Cold War, Yale University Press, 1997.
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