Sunday, April 13, 2008

Spy Fiction

Spy novelist Charles McCarry has written about his career as a spy novelist in a recent article called "Intelligence in Fiction." McCarry's books were published back in the 70s but he is apparently undergoing a sort of renaissance because of the quality of his writings. The Tears of Autumn was an early JFK assassination conspiracy novel, suggesting the Ngo family of Vietnam killed him in revenge for the murders of the Ngo brothers.

Intelligence work, McCarry tells us, is much different than that portrayed in novels, and bears no resemblance to its popular conception in the public's mind as a sexy, high-status occupation. On the contrary, intelligence is exceedingly boring. I suppose we could draw from this that the genius of writers like Ian Fleming was to turn the reality upside down and make something exciting where such did not really exist. The library profession awaits its own Ian Fleming.

Another article on spy fiction, "Spy Fiction, Spy Reality," written by another author a few years ago, criticized Tom Clancy and those of his school for neglecting the bureaucratic realities of the spy business, as Jack Ryan is never hassled over travel vouchers or caught arguing with headquarters whether he has the proper authority for a recruitment. Readers such as myself would answer, but that's why it's a thriller--Clancy and others mercifully leave out the boring details so that we may be encouraged to turn the next page. Novelists know it isn't cold, hard reality their readers want. The spy novelist or thrillerist spins an aura of reasonable plausibility and the reader enters into a willing suspension of disbelief.

McCarry touches on the subject of American leftists of the 1930s and 1940s eager to betray their country by offering their services to Soviet intelligence. And it reminded me of the current situation, where intelligence is so much in the news, in relation to the legal ability to eavesdrop on terrorists, or the legality of waterboarding, or the legality of Guantanamo, that has drawn so much national angst as a result of liberal elements in our modern society. The rights of terrorists, and their ability to operate freely to conduct terror, seem unlikely topics of prominent debate, especially so close after 9/11, or perhaps precisely because of 9/11. As an example of liberal coolness to intelligence, former CIA director James Woolsey said he could never get a one-on-one meeting with President Clinton during his tenure in that office.

Obama, Hillary, and others from the left side of the national stage continue the adversarial stance to the Intelligence Community that has always marked the left--not in the sense of spying for the Russians, but operating from a mindset that harmonizes--I would think uncomfortably and all too often--with the known policies and objectives of America's terrorist enemies, as well as those of states who see themselves as the enemies of the U.S. and the idea of democracy.

One doesn't need a background in espionage to write good spy novels, McCarry, an ex-CIA employee, says, but it does seem that way sometimes, when one thinks of the most famous writers, such as John Le Carre and Ian Fleming. McCarry makes the point that those didn't work in the business had a big hand in creating the conventions of the genre and that would seem to work in the favor of authors without a flashy resume.