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More Spies Turned Authors

Continuing our look at intelligence operatives who began writing careers after their government service, consider Graham Greene.

His sister Elisabeth worked for MI6 and recruited her brother for the agency due to his extensive traveling for research. He was posted to Sierra Leone during WWII and he worked under, and was friends with, Kim Philby, later revealed as a Soviet agent.  To the consternation of many, the author defended the spy/traitor, publicly stating that Philby had answered to a higher call than love of country, that of love of communism.  Philby had been recruited by the Soviets while a student at Cambridge and carved out a high-level career in British intelligence. He became friends with, and a drinking companion of, Graham Greene, and recruited him into British intelligence.  Could Greene not have known of his friend’s duplicity until it was revealed to the world in 1963?  Seemingly the friendship was lasting, as the two men certainly corresponded until Philby died in 1988.  It’s been speculated that Greene fancied himself one of the few who really understood the real Philby, whoever that may have been. More recent speculation centers on a double-double cross--could Philby, while masquerading as the man who betrayed the Crown for the Soviets, have bamboozled the latter in still remaining loyal to the country of his birth?  If so, so much for Greene’s steadfast belief that Philby stood up for his beliefs even at the cost of the betrayal of his homeland. What unceasing vigilance it must have taken to maintain lies within lies within lies!

But subsequent post-perestroika interviews with ex-KGB cast doubt on the triple-agent theory; indeed, it seems that the Russian agency didn’t fully trust Philby, while telling him that they were afraid that MI6 would kidnap or kill him, they really feared his potential return to the West.  In fact Philby believed that, upon his arrival in Moscow in 1963, he would be made an officer of the KGB but he was belittled as a hireling, putting a great big dent in his romanticized notions of Soviet Russia.


John Le Carre, on the other hand, in his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, has nothing good to say about Philby, or of Greene’s rationalization of the spy’s traitorous behavior.  Le Carre was recruited as a teen to deliver secret dispatches hither and yon for the agency and eventually moved up to more important assignments, leaving to write full-time in 1964.

Le Carre, aka David Cornwell, relates some troubling tales of the CIA, under Allen Dulles, recruiting retreads from the Nazi regime to use in anti-Soviet operations.   Herr Gehlen, Hitler’s chief of staff for intelligence,  was in possession of a trove of Soviet archives and buried them in Bavaria.  While technically under arrest by the Americans, he was wined and dined (and taken to a ‘baseball match’), and eventually turned over the archive. He was then set up with a West German office from which he tried to thwart Soviet geopolitical machinations.


Le Carre points out, logically, that operatives with a past such as the Nazis, would be very prone to blackmail schemes and was wary of using them beyond the obvious moral objections.  But in intelligence as in all fields, hypocrisy reigns supreme as American and European interests were not shy about using whoever they felt could help achieve their aims.

He is also mildly critical of the hypocrisy inherent in America claiming to be the ultimate arbiter of freedom and democracy while illegally spying on its own citizens.


Frederick Forsyth began covering the Nigerian civil war as a BBC correspondent in 1967. After his six month assignment was over, he requested permission to remain and continue his coverage, but was brusquely told that ‘it is not our policy to cover this war.’  In defiance of the edict, he resigned and stayed on to cover the conflict as a freelance writer.

According to Forsyth, it all starts with ‘contacts,’ even years after he’d left intelligence service to write full time, even if the contact is themselves in retirement.  In this way is research undertaken and the authenticity of the methods used may be verified.  For example, the unusual murder of ex-KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko, who battled organized crime in Russia, is seen by Forsyth as an example set to deter future ‘outing’ of agents and methods. (Litvinenko was poisoned in London in 2006 with a rare, radioactive element.) So why not a knife to the gut or a pistol in the face?  Well, to sow terror and doubt among would-be whistleblowers.

Forsyth’s memoir The Outsiders relates many of his adventures in and out of the spy trade. (Amusingly, in an interview with Der Spiegel, Forsyth comments that he has no computer or smart phone, since no one can hack a notebook!)


As mentioned in our previous post, possibly the best known of the agents-turned authors is Ian Fleming, who created the James Bond character and based his adventures on his own experiences as well as those of certain colleagues.

Interestingly, all the men discussed here showed a certain reluctance to share their experiences in the intelligence community, citing the Official Secrets Act which provides for prosecution of anyone who divulges information deemed important to national security, and a personal code of ethics which mitigates against possibly betraying the confidence of a colleague or friend.


Isn’t the advice given to aspiring writers usually some variation of ‘write what you know?’  Not a bad way to go; and who better to write spy thrillers than spies?

Questions/Comments/poison-tipped umbrellas?

Written by Ian Kern — September 15, 2016


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