|Eric J. Gates|
There was a time, long, long ago, in a galaxy not too far from where you’re sitting, when spies did more than sit at a desk in some underground bunker and punch a keyboard. There are still a few who do otherwise today, but in the main, they are in the minority. Yes, for younger readers, I am talking about the [hushed voice, looks furtively around] pre-Internet times of global espionage.
If you ask most spy novel reader about ‘classic’ books in their preferred genre they will immediately jump to Le Carré and particularly George Smiley. His adventures in a time when the Cold War was at its chilliest and the Cambridge Five (Philby, MacLean, Blunt, Burgess and Cairncross) were the trending topic of the day. For our American readers, and people born in this century, these were a group of Soviet spies recruited in Cambridge University in the 1930’s, who were active especially during WWII and after, as late as the 1960s, while also working for British Intelligence. Le Carré used them as the inspiration for his own novels ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and ‘A Perfect Spy’, as did playwright and novelist Alan Bennet for three of his works. And I’m sure many recall the 1987 movie ‘The Fourth Protocol’, based on an earlier novel by Frederick Forsyth, which makes use of Philby as the instigator of the plot to smuggle a nuclear bomb into the UK.
Now what you have just seen are three, and by no means the only three, instances of real historic spies being used as inspiration for best-selling novels and plays. Yet there’s more, much more. Have you heard of a guy called Ian Fleming?
The Bond movies are still drawing big crowds at the cinemas and speculation runs rife as to who will become the next incarnation of the mythical super spy. All this sixty-three years AFTER the first appearance of Fleming’s sophisticated secret agent who always presented himself with his surname first. Was Bond, James Bond based upon a real agent, you may ask at this juncture. As far as we know, the answer is no… but… Ian Lancaster Fleming did serve in British Naval Intelligence during WWII although apparently he was considered too valuable as Admiral John Godfrey’s assistant (the supposed inspiration for ‘M’) to be sent in person on dangerous wartime missions.
Today, we are inundated with the techno-spy who is far more at home behind a keyboard while some hapless associate, maybe on the other end of a satellite-linked earwig (that’s what they are called, people), is running the gamut of all the bad stuff the enemy can throw at them (think Chloe O’Brian and Jack Bauer for example).
Yet between these two were the grey areas (dare I say it again?) pre-Internet when the quantity of secret information grew exponentially and the need to analyze this was still centralized (in the case of the British Intelligence services, in London). No, you could not encrypt it into a .zip file and dump it into Dropbox! Someone, a real live human being, had to travel physically to where the information was, collect it safely, then courier it to its destination. And, yes, the traffic was two-way. Imagine a small horde of clandestine custodians running around the world like so many stealthy ants, each the concierge of some covert crumb which must be delivered with haste to their final objective while at the same time dodging ‘the opposition’ (friendly and not-so-friendly intelligence agents). Exciting times, and ripe for a book or two, you might think.
When fellow writer Mark Fine approached me to contribute a short story to a new anthology he was compiling, ‘Crooked Tales’, the premise of an abbreviated tale with a twist aimed at catching the reader out was like music to my ears. I had just finished writing a techno-laden novel where prime numbers were used by hackers to steal government secrets (‘Primed’, the sequel to ‘Outsourced’) and so I decided to seek inspiration in less-computerized times. Thus was born ‘Death of a Sparrowman’ (yes the title does kinda sound familiar, right – the deceit started right there) where I tell the story of one such covert messenger and how he is still rolling with the punches in our times still doing a job which was born many centuries ago. Inspiration can be found for intriguing and original storytelling by turning the pages of history back and examining, in this case, the evolution of the second oldest profession. If you are a writer, whatever genre, you might like to take a look at history as a starting point for your next novel. There’s an old saying about those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it, so why not do so on the pages of an original novel?
A huge thank you to Eric Gates. His story (and one of mine) can be found in our new anthology.
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