The Espionage Thriller: Post-War and Post-9/11

Al and I have been friends for two decades; we met in a writer’s group (where else?) along with Theasa Tuohy. Being a newspaper man by profession, Al’s a fast writer and with an imagination that works at warp speed, he already has a back list awaiting publication. 

After serving with the Army overseas, Albert Ashforth worked for two newspapers. He is the author of three books, numerous stories and articles. His espionage thriller, THE RENDITION, was described by a reviewer as "smoothly written, fast-moving and suspenseful." He is a professor at SUNY and lives in New York City. -Robert Knightly

The espionage novel is a relatively narrow literary genre, and as the world political situation over the last 70 years has gone from bad to worse and back again, the fortunes of the espionage novel have also see-sawed up and down – but with a difference. When the world’s political situation takes a turn for the worse, the situation of espionage novels takes a turn for the better. And vice-versa.

During the 1920’s the State Department established an office responsible for breaking codes and reading messages sent between other nation’s embassies and their capitals. It was our country’s first attempt to establish an intelligence agency. But when Henry L. Stimson, then Secretary of State, learned what the office was doing, he immediately had it closed down and famously said, “Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail!”

Espionage novels could hardly be written in a time when national leaders regarded one another as gentlemen. Needless to say, things changed with the arrival on the world stage of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, both of whom began throwing their weight around during the 1930’s. It was hardly a coincidence that three early and successful writers of espionage novels, Eric Ambler, Helen MacIness and John Buchan, also emerged around this time.

Before the 1930’s, very few espionage thrillers were written, and it is easy to see why. In order to have spy novels you have to have spies, and the United States didn’t establish the OSS, the precursor of the CIA, until 1944. Something else you need is a tense international situation. You need a foreign government readers really dislike in order to make the gritty, distasteful job of spying acceptable. First Nazi Germany and then Communist Russia filled that bill very nicely. The Cold War provided both spies and a fierce rivalry, and as the United States and Russia competed against each other with every means at hand short of going to war, espionage – the KGB versus the CIA – was the obvious way to try and beat out your rival. The result was that the last six or seven decades have been a truly great time for the writers of international spy thrillers.

Although Ian Fleming’s charismatic James Bond is the best known intelligence agent of the Cold War years, John le Carré’s rather drab George Smiley is the most realistic.

Alex Klear, the hero of my novel, The Rendition, also began his career during the Cold War, and he is closer to Smiley than to Bond. He recalls spending much of his time doing the same gritty, dangerous job that many of our intelligence people stationed in Europe did during those years: recruiting and running spies behind the Iron Curtain. Although governments sanctimoniously maintain that the spies they recruit from the other side are motivated by ideological beliefs, the truth is that most come over because they’ve had their arms twisted – in other words, they’ve been blackmailed. Alex and his partner, Buck, often acting on information supplied by the National Security Agency, did the twisting, first recruiting and then running their agents for as long as they could provide useful information. But Alex, who is fluent in German and knows some Russian, finds he is an anachronism after November 1989, the month in which the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. With Russia no longer an enemy, Alex realizes he is no longer needed, and decides to retire.

Although the world cheered the disappearance of the Wall, which was the perfect symbol of Communist oppression, espionage writers didn’t. One espionage writer, Len Deighton, was forced to make last-minute changes to a novel about Berlin, Spy Sinker, but he wasn’t the only espionage writer caught by surprise by this sudden development. The blunt truth is, when world tensions decline, so do the fortunes of spy novelists. During the 1990’s, with borders now open and old rivals becoming trading partners, there were no jobs for spies and no enemies to justify the betrayals and dirty tricks which are part and parcel of espionage thrillers. During the 1990’s, espionage writers had to find new topics to write about.

But with the attack on the World Trade Center things changed yet again. Not since the demise of Hitler and Stalin have espionage writers had such a hated figure as Osama bin Laden. Once again, the end could justify the means, and we could again start opening each other’s mail.

In the years since 9/11, one development in particular has helped make espionage thrillers more popular and more significant. Our government has become tight-lipped. Although the public knows we are fighting a war on terror for which we are spending hundreds of billions, there is very little information about it in the newspapers. Savvy readers are discovering that one of the best sources for finding out what’s going on is the spy thriller, which can take them places even newspaper correspondents can’t go.

For example: Let’s suppose the American ambassador to Afghanistan were to meet with President Karzai to discuss some kind of crisis. If news people are denied access, they can only report that the meeting took place. They can’t make up quotes or write anything they don’t know to be true. The writer of fiction, however, can imagine what the two men might have spoken about and describe a stormy exchange with the president raising his voice and the ambassador storming out of the palace. If the writer has done his job well, he might well have given a roughly accurate representation of what actually happened, and there is nothing to prevent him from connecting the meeting to a subsequent real political development which might involve his hero and heroine. And he could go on from there. The thriller writer is limited only by his imagination and his knowledge of the topic.

And believe me, most thriller writers are experts in the areas they write about.

Since the publication of The Rendition, I have had any number of people ask me, “Say, what is a rendition anyway? Isn’t that when somebody sings a song?”

Well, it used to be, but now the term has an additional meaning, one coined by our intelligence agencies probably because of its lack of either good or evil connotations.

Since 9/11, our government has unleashed a bag of dirty tricks aimed at making life miserable for those who would do us harm. One trick involves kidnapping a terrorist from a foreign country where he might be strolling around openly and enjoying life to the fullest, secure in the belief he is beyond the reach of the American government. A “rendition” takes place when the terrorist, against his will, is snatched off the street or perhaps even grabbed in his home, as one target actually was. In all likelihood, he is transported to a nation friendly to the United States, where he is subjected to “enhanced interrogation,” which means his captors use methods for extracting information that are not permissible in the United States or under the Geneva Convention. Probably the friendly nation passes this information back to us, and we go after more terrorists.

Although Secretary Stimson would be in shock were he to see what’s going on today, we thriller writers are in seventh heaven. In addition to carrying out renditions, our government attacks other nations with drones, hacks into other nations’ computer systems and conducts “black ops.”

When the government doesn’t want to be held responsible for undertaking certain kinds of dirty tricks, it sometimes sanctions a “black” operation, in other words an operation that lacks all traces of government involvement. This is fine as long as things go smoothly, but when they go awry and the government invokes “plausible denial,” it’s nearly always our intelligence officers who find themselves holding the bag. In such cases, they have roughly the same standing with a foreign government that a bounty hunter might have -- in other words, none -- and this is the predicament in which Alex finds himself when the rendition he is involved in goes off the rails.

In the course of the story, Alex bugs a phone, breaks into someone’s home, helps a guy escape jail and of course takes part in a couple of renditions. Although under Secretary Stimson’s definition, he would hardly qualify as a “gentleman,” he makes the grade as a warrior and a survivor.

Albert Ashforth