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Fact and fiction surrounding MI5 and MI6

17-May-2009 • Literary

Spy novel had role in birth of British intelligence. Books reflect real-life espionage and can influence it - explains Times Online.

In the spring and summer of 1909, Colonel James Edmonds presented himself at a sub committee of the Committee of Im perial Defence in Westminster. Although nominally head of Britain’s military counterintelligence, Edmonds had a budget that was tiny, and he had only two assistants — most intelligence still being gathered by the Admiralty, the War Office and the Foreign Office. But the subcommittee had been convened to assess the threat of a German invasion, and Edmonds saw his chance. In three secret sessions, he made the case that Britain was all but overrun with German spies, presenting detailed information about suspicious barbers and retired colonels plotting dastardly deeds across the land.

When this failed to convince the committee, a dramatic document arrived at the War Office at the last minute. It was said to have been discovered by a French commercial traveller who had shared a train compartment between Spa and Hamburg with a German who had a similar bag. The German, it was claimed, had disembarked with the wrong bag. In the one left behind, the Frenchman discovered “detailed plans connected with a scheme for the invasion of England”. This pushed the subcommittee over the edge: a few weeks later, it recommended to the prime minister the creation of a Secret Service Bureau, divided into Home and Foreign. These sections would later split and become known as MI5 and MI6.

If the idea of the country being overrun by German agents sounds like the stuff of spy novels, that is because it was. In a desperate bid to stop the police from taking over what he saw as his rightful domain, Edmonds had brazenly taken many of his “cases of German espionage” from a novel called The Spies of the Kaiser, written by a friend of his, William Le Queux, and published a few months earlier. Spy fiction, then, played a key role in the birth of Britain’s intelligence apparatus. In the century since, this curious relationship has continued, with spy novels often reflecting real-life espionage events, and occasionally, as in 1909, influencing them.

The first world war was not much of a success for the Secret Service Bureau, nor any other intelligence agency in Europe. Most found out to their cost that it was relatively simple to discover the location and strength of the enemy’s forces, but extremely difficult to gauge what they planned to do with them. Spy fiction prospered during the war, though: Le Queux, John Buchan, E Phillips Oppenheim and others turned out a stream of thrilling, if implausible, tales of gentlemen heroes saving England from dastardly plots.

It was not until the 1920s that the genre would receive its first dose of reality. This came from Somerset Maugham, whose short stories about the British writer-turned-agent Ashenden were the first to present espionage as a rather shabby occupation, filled with loose ends and frustrating bureaucratic muddles. Ashenden is sceptical of the spying game from the start, when a colonel in British intelligence known only as R tells him about a French minister who is seduced by a stranger in Nice and loses a case full of important doc uments as a result. Ashenden laconically notes that such events have been enacted in a thousand novels and plays, but R insists the incident happened just weeks previously. Ashenden is not impressed, remarking that if that is the best the secret service can offer, the field is a washout for novelists: “We really can’t write that story much longer.”

Maugham had worked for British intelligence during the war, but his greatest follower in this new school of spy fiction was an advertising copywriter, Eric Ambler, whose centenary will also be celebrated this year. Ambler brought a new psychological dimension to the genre, and in novels such as Epitaph for a Spy (1938) and The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) he ex posed the murky underworld of European politics and finance. His 1930s novels were also dominated by the spectre of the coming war — though he was not the only one to see the writing on the wall.

Published only a few months before the war began was Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, arguably the forefather of the modern action thriller: a British gentleman tries to shoot an unnamed dictator, fails and is pursued by enemy agents across the English countryside. Like Ambler, Household looked beyond the simplistic vision of good and evil in earlier novels, as well as introducing a dose of physical toughness to the genre. His unnamed narrator acts not out of patriotism but out of principle.

Once war had been declared, though, the genre would again struggle to make that distinction. The blackout created a huge demand for escapist reading mat erial, and one of the first to capitalise on this was Dennis Wheatley. His thriller The Scarlet Impostor, published in January 1940, was the first spy novel to be set during the second world war. Wheatley was firmly in the Le Queux and Buchan school of scrapes and fisticuffs. To make his baroque plots more believable, he also used brand names on a grand scale — the first thriller writer to do so. In The Scarlet Impostor, agent Gregory Sallust, we learn, smokes Sullivan’s Turkish mixture cigarettes, drinks Bacardi and pineapple juice, carries a Mauser automatic and has his suits made by West’s of Savile Row. The romantic vision of the spy had returned with a vengeance.

Wheatley spent the war balan cing the fictional and real worlds of intelligence. While still regularly publishing thrillers, he was a member of the London Controlling Section, a team within the Joint Planning Staff of the War Cabinet dedicated to devising deception operations against Germany (such as The Man Who Never Was and Montgomery’s double). His novels from this period are curious mixtures of thrilling potboilers packed with up-to-the-minute analysis of the politics of the time.

With the end of the war, the Soviets became the new enemy, and it was felt new methods were needed to defeat them. The Special Operations Executive, “Churchill’s secret army”, was rapidly disbanded and replaced by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6. A new breed of professional secret agents was trained and sent into the field, and the spy novel was also changing. The genre had long been dominated by men, but after the war female spy writers emerged, notably Helen MacInnes and Sarah Gainham.

The big development, however, came in 1953, with the publication of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. With his Balkan cigarettes, vodka martinis and Savile Row suits, James Bond was a Gregory Sallust for the age of the cold war. In 1962, the first Bond film was released, and Britain’s fictional spies dominated the rest of the decade. Our real-life intelligence community, however, was in disarray: paranoid, disillusioned and turn ing on itself as a result of the discovery of an alarming number of double agents in its ranks, most notably the Cambridge Ring. As the extent of the deception became clear, spy novelists turned away from the fantasy of Bond. Led by Len Deighton and John le Carré, plots increasingly revolved around the hunt for these “moles” — a term coined by le Carré but later adopted in intelligence circles. Like Maugham and Graham Greene, le Carré had first-hand experience of espionage and was able to give readers the impression they were privy to the inner workings of the spy world. The genre had again turned to the darker sphere of human psychology.

In the 1970s, Frederick Forsyth emerged as the inheritor of ­Fleming, with plausible but highly melodramatic thrillers that paved the way for a new field called “faction”. Thriller writers began to explore the second world war in earnest, and for the first time Nazis were portrayed in an empathetic light (in Jack Higgins’s The Eagle Has Landed and Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle, for example). During the 1970s and 1980s, the real world of espionage sometimes seemed more extraordinary than its fictional counterparts. A Venez uelan terrorist for hire eluded the world’s security forces in a way that would have made Ambler’s Dimitrios gasp — he was even dubbed “the Jackal” by the press after a copy of Forsyth’s novel was said to have been found among his possessions. In London, the dis sident Bulgarian wri ter and broadcaster Georgi Markov was poisoned with a ricin-tipped umbrella as he walked across Waterloo Bridge. A thousand would-be spy novelists picked up their pens — but, as Alexander Litvinenko’s murder in 2006 shows, such techniques have not disappeared.

As the cold war wound down, so did the spy novel. Deighton retired, and le Carré moved on to new subjects. But eventually the genre rose from the ashes, in new forms. Robert Ludlum’s fran tic conspiracy thrillers and David Morrell’s brutal action novel First Blood — inspired by Household’s Rogue Male — led to the SAS adventures of Andy McNab and Chris Ryan in the 1990s and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in 2003.

In this decade, the spy story has flourished: on television and in cinemas, Spooks, 24 and the Bourne films are reflecting the current reality, while novelists such as Charles Cumming, Henry Porter and Tom Cain explore it in print. Meanwhile, writers such as Alan Furst and Tom Rob Smith are shedding new light on espionage history; I hope to do the same with my own novels set in the cold war. How espionage will develop from here, nobody knows, but one thing is certain: spy novelists will be tracking its moves.

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