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06 October 2008

Glimpses into agent psychology

We have long held the opinion that the British writers of the intelligence novel have offered the best examplars to be found of the psychological experiences of agents recruited for espionage. (That is, the classic intelligence definition of the term, and not the disastrous usurpation of the designation for the law enforcement community). Among the unique insights have been the often striking similarities between the subjects and those officers responsible for handling them, something particularly more visible in certain accounts and historical case studies than others.

We speak of course of Len Deighton, whose works remain classics, and of John le Carre, whose early pieces well captured the tenor of his time (despite the increasing gap between his later fiction and the realities they allegedly represent). A more recent entrant is Charles Cumming, whose depiction of the post-Cold War British intelligence establishment from the perspective of a partially witting asset is striking in its tone, not least of which is the result of the author’s semi-biographical approach. (This has been true of most of the better intelligence fiction writers).

It takes a certain personality to write fiction of this sort. Some insights are only the result of lived experiences. We are unsurprised, then, to hear recently of Le Carre’s early intent to defect to the Soviet Union. One can easily see the life-long hints of such intentions throughout much of his work, and most notably in the characters which in fiction carried out that which the man himself never did. It also provides an underlying cause to explain the often excessive intricacies found in the novels’ plot lines, which a number of years ago caused a former Russian intelligence officer to remark in despair regarding the negative impact that such fictionalization had upon younger professionals in his service attempting their own approaches along such models, without regard for the inevitable imposition of Mr. Murphy’s Russian equivalent in the real world. After all, after spending so long considering what one does not act upon, it is only expected that the resulting planning takes a tangled and impractical shape.

For students of intelligence as an activity and a profession, it is a subject perhaps best handled through fictional characterization. In this form, certain features may be exaggerated for the purposes of the narrative – and over time, a composite constructed to reveal the whole. Consider this sort of fiction perhaps the intelligence community’s version of the morality play.

We do wonder where the next century shall find the literature to play the same role. In this, we are reminded of the most insightful essay by Charles Stross, The Golden Age of Spying, in which he quite neatly characterized the unique cultural pressures which brought such works to the published market. We do not see a modernized parallel anywhere on the horizon, and we think the profession poorer for it.

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