Modern British spy fiction dates from the beginning of the 20th century as an expression of the anxieties of international rivalries. The British took most readily to spy fiction and it is British writers which have received most critical attention and acclaim. Spy stories provide a window into the shadowy world of espionage and clandestine operations for readers who have been denied knowledge of the activities of British Intelligence through official silence, gagging and cover-ups. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many writers of British spy novels were themselves employed by Britain’s intelligence services and consequently brought a supposed authenticity to their stories. One such writer has even invented a new vocabulary to describe the tradecraft of the spy and in doing so has made it seem more credible.
The Birth of the Spy Novel
The earliest example of the espionage novel was The Spy (1821) by the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. The action takes place during the American Revolution with the forerunner of the spy, Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious, prowling about on his subtle errands, pursued by friend and foe, and finally driven to his destiny, which at once both destroys and honours him.
The Dreyfus affair in France in which a young artillery officer was falsely convicted of treason in 1895 and sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, dominated and divided French politics. Though Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in 1906, the details reported by the world press in the intervening years with tales of penetration agents of Imperial Germany betraying the secrets of the General Staff of the French Army, and French counter-intelligence agents sending a charwoman to rifle the waste papers baskets of the German Embassy in Paris, contributed much to public interest in espionage and inspired the writers of spy fiction. This extraordinary miscarriage of justice was the basis for An Officer and A Spy (2014) by Robert Harris.
Early British Spy Novelists
The major themes of spying in the lead-up to the First World War were the continuing rivalry between the European colonial powers for control of Asia, the growing threat of conflict in Europe, the domestic threat of revolutionaries and anarchists, and historical romance.
One of the first novels by a British writer to introduce intrigue and rivalry between powerful countries was Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901), in which Kim, the orphan son of an Irish soldier, journeys across India against the backdrop of The Great Game, the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia in the mid 1880s. The ‘spy novel’ was defined in The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers, in which amateur spies discover a German plan to invade Britain. Even Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes became involved as spyhunter in The Adventure of the Second Stain (1904). The Anglo-French journalist and writer William Le Queux capitalised on invasion fears in The Invasion of 1910 (1906), one of his many pulp-fiction spy stories that had been published going back to 1894. The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad examined the psychology and ideology that motivated the members of a revolutionary cell who were determined to provoke revolution in Britain. G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was a thriller based on the infiltration of an anarchist organisation by detectives; but it was also a vehicle for exploring society’s power structures.
During the First World War
During the War, John Buchan, who had worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau, became the pre-eminent British spy novelist. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), an archetypal English spy thriller, was the first of five novels that featured Scotsman Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of sticky situations. In the novel which was set just before the outbreak of war in 1914, Hannay discovers a plot by German spies to steal British naval intelligence, but is forced to go on the run to Scotland to escape the police who suspect him of murder. At the end of the novel, the spies are waiting in a house in Kent above a private beach where a yacht is waiting until high tide to take the spies back to Germany. The path down to the beach has 39 steps. Buchan described his novel as a ‘shocker’, an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.
The Inter War Period
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the spy story was often concerned with combating the ‘Red Menace’, which was perceived as another ‘clash of civilizations’. Mysterious characters who threatened anarchy and who sought to overthrow governments were common in these stories. In 1922, Agatha Christie’s second detective novel, The Secret Adversary introduces the characters of Tommy and Tuppence, a duo of likeable upper-class detectives, who land themselves in all sorts of dangerous situations. They are employed by the British Government to locate a secret treaty signed before the war which if revealed could lead to a Bolshevik coup. The pair has to find out the identity of Mr Brown, the Bolshevik’s shady and elusive puppet-master.
Spy fiction was dominated by British authors, often former intelligence officers and agents writing from inside the trade. In his collection of short stories Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928), W Somerset Maugham portrayed spying in the First World War. It is said that he based Ashenden on himself and on his experiences working for the intelligence services in the First World War. The Mystery of Tunnel 51 (1928) the first of 24 spy and mystery novels by Alexander Wilson conveyed an uncanny portrait of the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original ‘C’, the initial that is still used as a signature by the head of MI6. Though there is no evidence that Wilson worked for the intelligence services in the First World War, Wilson led a mysterious and secret life. There were suspicions that he was involved in shady diplomacy in India in the 1930s, and he did work briefly for MI6 in the Second World War until he was dismissed because he faked a burglary in his London flat and because he was in trouble with the police.
Water on the Brain (1933) by Compton Mackenzie, best known for his comic novels set in Scotland, Whisky Galore and The Monarch of the Glen, was the first successful spy novel satire. Mackenzie worked for British intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean during the First World War, and later published four books on his experiences. Mackenzie was prosecuted in 1932 for quoting from supposedly secret documents but the trial ended with him being fined £100.
The Dark Frontier (1936) by Eric Ambler was the first of six novels that he wrote in the years leading up to the second world war, which brought a new realism to spy fiction. His tales of ordinary men and (sometimes) women caught up in the machinations of malign international corporations, or of stateless refugees facing an uncertain future in a volatile and unwelcoming Europe, revitalised the British thriller, and rescued the genre from third-rate imitators of John Buchan. Above Suspicion (1939) by Helen MacInnes about an anti-Nazi husband and wife spy team, was the first of many fast-paced spy novels occurring against contemporary historical backgrounds.
The Cold War
The metamorphosis of the Second World War into the Cold War and the Soviet ‘Iron Curtain’ gave new impetus to spy novelists.
With Secret Ministry (1951), Desmond Cory introduced Johnny Fedora, the secret agent with a licence to kill, the government-sanctioned assassin. In Casino Royale (1953), Ian Fleming, a former British Intelligence officer, followed with the glamorous James Bond, secret agent 007 of the British Secret Service, a mixture of counter-intelligence officer, assassin and playboy. Graham Greene, another former British Intelligence officer examined the morality of espionage in The Heart of the Matter (1948) and the semi-comic Our Man in Havana (1959), ‘our man’ being James Wormold, a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman. Wormold over-reaches himself when he forwards plans of a supposed secret installation constructed from blueprints of an ‘Atomic Pile’ vacuum cleaner and unfortunately for him greatly excites his superiors.
Len Deighton’s anonymous spy, protagonist of The IPCRESS File (1962) and later novels, is a working-class man with a negative view of the Establishment. His scepticism is vindicated when the use of mind control goes hand in hand with treachery within the Secret Intelligence Service.
Like many spy novelists before him, David Cornwall, alias John le Carré, served in the British intelligence services: as an Army intelligence office in 1950; working covertly for MI5 from 1952; becoming an MI5 officer in 1958; and transferring to MI6 in 1960. It was while working for MI6 in Germany, that David Cornwall wrote his first spy novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) under the name John le Carré, the pseudonym required by the Foreign Office as officers were forbidden to publish in their own names. Cornwell left the service in 1964 to work full-time as a novelist, his intelligence-officer career at an end partly as the result of the betrayal of the cover of numerous British agents to the KGB by upper-class traitor Kim Philby, the most notorious double agent (one of the Cambridge Five spy ring), who was exposed in 1963.
Le Carré created anti-heroic protagonists who struggled with the ethical issues involved in espionage. Most well-known is George Smiley who appears in Call for the Dead but who by the time of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) is a middle-class middle-aged spymaster burdened with reflection about the service and torn emotions over his aristocratic and unfaithful wife. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the mole that Smiley hunts and successfully traps is portrayed in the mould of Philby.
The Inner Workings of British Intelligence
John le Carré was undoubtedly the writer who introduced the reading public to the dark inner workings of intelligence institutions, in particular MI6 (more formally the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS). The success of his novels lies as much in the apparent authenticity of these goings on as in realism of the characters. The claim to realism should not be taken too far as le Carré has said that much of the terminology that he uses to depict the roles and actions of his characters was invented by himself.
Le Carré forged a lexicon so rich and memorable that real spies have appropriated it, including those in the CIA and also it is said in the KGB, the Soviet secret service from 1954 to 1991. Some of it has entered everyday speech. Take ‘honey-trap’, the strategy of using attractive people to entrap or get information from someone. Le Carré was the first to use the expression in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. ‘You see, long ago when I was a little boy I made a mistake and walked into a honeytrap’ confesses one of the more decrepit characters in the novel.
‘Mole’ was popularised by Le Carré to refer to a penetrative agent, an agent who burrows his way into his own country’s intelligence organization in order to spy for its enemy. Today the term is also widely used to refer to someone who leaks commercially or politically sensitive information. Le Carré explained in an interview after the release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that he thought the term mole was a genuine one used by the KGB to mean somebody of the Philby sort (one of the five members of Cambridge spy ring of the 40s and 50s), ‘who was recruited at a very tender age’. However the Oxford English Dictionary says that ‘mole’ in the sense of ‘a person who works in darkness or secrecy’ dates back to the 1600s.
Notwithstanding the picture painted by le Carré of the secret services, the 2011 book MI6: Life and Death in the British Secret Service by Gordon Corera is a very readable history of post-war British intelligence.
The Language of Espionage
It is difficult to know whether spies use the secret jargon that people who have ‘inside knowledge’ claim is used. The press, aided by a continuous stream of new novels and films, feed our appetite to know the secrets of how our intelligent organisations operate, and knowing the jargon, the lingo, and the slang is part of that. Euphemisms are however to be expected in a world of deception and half-truths, in which nothing can be described as what it is.
Here is a glossary, likely incomplete, of the language of espionage. These are mainly British expressions rather than American. MI6 is rather than SIS.
It’s assumed you’re familiar with agent provocateur, brainwashing, bugging, clandestine operations, cover, a decoy, a defector, a double agent, double bluff, eavesdropping, a front organisation, a microdot, a plant, a sleeper, a spook, a spy ring, surveillance, and a tail.
The expressions with an asterisk may well have been invented by John le Carré. No assurance can be given that every term here is actually used by the British intelligent services but it’s amusing to imagine that they are.
agents – usually external and free-lance espionage operatives. Circus staff are referred to as intelligence officers
angels* – local, non-allied security services or members of an opposing intelligence service
asset – a clandestine source or method, usually an agent able to pass on information.
babysitter* – bodyguards who covered clandestine meetings
backbearings* – a method of gathering information using indirect evidence or information to determine a fact. By determining what someone doesn’t know and is asking questions about, the agent can then determine what that person does know
bagman – an agent who pays spies and bribes authorities
bearleader* – the people charged with organizing and running an operation
birdwatcher – a spy
black propaganda – false information and material that purports to be from a source on one side of a conflict, but is actually from the opposing side
blown – to be discovered as a spy
brush pass – momentary contact between two agents in which crucial intelligence information is exchanged, and usually with no conversation between the two
burn – to blackmail
burned – when a case officer or agent is compromised
burrower* – researcher
canary trap – a method for exposing an information leak by giving different versions of sensitive information to each suspect
case officer – an intelligence officer handling and directing agents
the Circus* – Le Carré’s name for the higher echelon of MI6 (or the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS). Circus refers to the (fictional) location of its headquarters in Cambridge Circus, London
chicken feed – low value information offered to a double agent, used to establish them with the opposition as someone with access to intelligence
cleaners – people who sweep a room or building for listening devices
coat trailing* – an agent of one side acting as if they are a likely defector
the Competition* – MI5, the UK internal counter-terrorism and counter-espionage service. Referred to benevolently by Circus staff as ‘The Security Mob’
compromised – when an operation, asset, or agent is uncovered and cannot remain secret.
Control* – head of MI6
controller – an officer in charge of a number of agents
the Cousins* – the CIA, American equivalent to MI6
crash meeting* – an emergency meeting
cut-out – a person or mechanism that acts as an intermediary between intelligence officers and agents that allows them to pass material or devices securely and which minimises the number of people ‘in the loop’
dead-drop or dead letter box (DLB) – a secret location where documents or other materials can be concealed for another party to retrieve
dead drop spike – a concealment device used to hide money, maps, documents, microfilm etc which can be pushed into the ground or placed in a shallow stream to be retrieved at a later time
dry cleaning – a counter surveillance technique in which an agent moves about, seemingly oblivious to being tailed, to find out how many ‘tails’ they are being followed by
the Fall* – refers in Le Carré’s novels to the time of the unmasking of the mole
false flag – covert operations designed to make an activity appear as though it is being carried out by groups or nations other than those who are actually carrying them out
ferrets* – people who locate and remove hidden microphones and cameras
the Firm – a name used by MI5 for the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police
floater – person used occasionally, or even unknowingly, for an intelligence operation
Friends – a name used by MI5 for MI6
God’s access – the highest level of security clearance for access to the files of MI6
handler – the same as a controller
handwriting – an agent’s habits, technique, modus operandi
honey trap* – describes the enticing of diplomats, civil servants, atomic scientists etc by Soviet agents into sexual liaisons so they could be blackmailed and controlled
housekeepers* – the departments within MI6 responsible for finance and maintaining cover identities
illegal – an agent infiltrated into a target country without the protection of diplomatic immunity, having assumed new identities
inquisitors* – interrogators responsible for debriefing MI6 staff
janitors* – operations staff at the Circus. They act as security guards and ensure that all members have verified security clearances
joe – an agent out in the field operated by British or American intelligence agencies
lamplighters* – people in MI6 who carry out surveillance, clear drop boxes, intercept mail, protect safe houses
leash-dogs – people trained to follow pedestrians.
legend – the well-prepared and credible made-up identity or cover story created for a covert agent
Legoland – a name used by MI5 for the MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross
letter box – a go-between
mailfist job* – is an operation with the object of assassination
make a pass – make overt contact with an agent
mole* – a intelligence officer within his own country’s intelligence organization who spies for the enemy
Moscow Centre* – headquarters of the KGB, the Soviet secret service from 1954 to 1991
Moscow rules – tradecraft methods used in the most hostile of the operational environments, such as Moscow during the Cold War
mothers* – the secretaries and trusted typists serving the senior officers of the Circus
neighbours* – members of a sister intelligence service
non-official cover (NOC) – the same as an illegal
nugget – bait for a potential defector eg. money, political asylum, sex, or career opportunity
nursemaid – comes from the Soviet term for the security officer who accompanies delegations abroad to prevent defections
nursery* – the MI6 training and detention centre
nuts and bolts* – MI6’s engineering department, which constructs espionage devices.
the Office – a name used by MI5 officers for their organisation
one-time pad – a pad of sheets of paper printed with random five-number group ciphers used to encode and decode messages, which as a result makes the coded messages unbreakable
pavement artists* – MI6 operatives who inconspicuously follow or shadow people in public
Persil* – the cleanest security category available, used of questionable foreigners, ‘clean as fabric washed in Persil’
put out smoke * – a showy display by an agent of their cover identity in order to give their cover legitimacy
recycling* – sending defectors back to continue spying before anyone knows they are gone
registry* – the record room of MI6
reptile fund* – a slush fund to provide payment for covert operations
the River house* – the fictitious name of the MI6 building in London
Room 40 – the rooms in the British Admiralty where naval intelligence intercepted and decrypted German wireless and telegraph messages during the First World War
Rumpus Room* – the meeting room on the fifth floor of the Circus.
safe house – a secret place for sanctuary or suitable to hide persons from the law, hostile actions, or from retribution, threats or perceived danger
sandbagger – in spy fiction a person who carries out assassinations, from an earlier meaning of sandbag, to bludgeon someone. It may also refer to a person who deliberately misleads someone to gain advantage
SB – a name used by MI5 for the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police
scalphunters* – MI6 agents who do the dirty work: assassination, blackmail, burglary, kidnapping, and bringing defectors across the border
shoemakers* – MI6 document forgers, a forged passport is a shoe
station – a place from where agents operate such as an embassy where an intelligence officer is posted usually under diplomatic cover
sweat* – to interrogate
talent spotter – carries out reconnaissance and scouts establishment for people who recruit agents
Thames House – the actual name of the MI5 building in London
turned – to persuade an opposition agent to work for the other side, often by threats or financial incentives
Vauxhall Cross – the name of building alongside the River Thames in London that has been the headquarters of MI6 since 1994
walk-in – a defector who walks into an opposition building or makes contact with an opposition government and asks for political asylum or volunteers to work in place. Also known as a volunteer
walk the cat back – an American term referring to the laborious process of examining and retracing past events in the light of present knowledge to establish exactly what happened
watchers – people who carry out surveillance
wet job – an intelligence operation that involving bloodshed or killing, supposedly a literal translation of the jargon of the NKVD (the predecessor of the Soviet KGB intelligence agency) for ‘killing’, the assassination or elimination of people
window dressing – materials included in a cover story or a deception operation to help convince the opposition or other observers that what they are observing is genuine
wranglers* – MI6 radio/signals operators and code breakers, the name deriving from the term wrangler used of Cambridge University maths students
Real Life Honey Traps in the Cold War
The Soviets made extensive use of honey traps during the Cold War that followed the Second World War. ‘Swallow’ was the KGB codename for women honeypots, ‘raven’ for men. The British Ambassador in Moscow, Sir Geoffrey Harrison (below left) was caught out in 1968 when he had a brief affair with a chambermaid at the Embassy (below centre), and he was sent incriminating photographs by the KGB. When he realized he had been set up, Harrison informed his London superiors and was immediately recalled to Britain, just two days after Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
In an interview published in the Sunday Times in 1981, Harrison said ”It was an aberration on my part. It was absolutely crazy, but it may now give added warning to Western diplomats who might find themselves similarly tempted.’
The chambermaid was a KGB agent, Galya Ivanov, sister of Eugene Ivanov (above right), a dashing Soviet spy, who had played a leading part in the Profumo affair, a major British political scandal some five years earlier. It was as if British diplomats had learnt nothing from the ignominy that had led to the downfall of their government.
The Profumo Affair
Eugene Ivanov, who was posted to London in 1960 as a Soviet cultural attaché, a convenient cover for a spy, became friendly with osteopath Stephen Ward after being introduced to him by the managing editor of the Daily Telegraph during lunch at the Garrick Club. MI5 saw Ivanov as a potential defector and asked Ward to try to convince him to change his allegiance to the United Kingdom. Ivanov started an affair in 1961 with Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old would-be model (far right).
Subsequently at a pool party in Cliveden, the Buckinghamshire mansion owned by Lord Astor, Ward introduced Keeler to John Profumo, the Tory Secretary of State for War (first right), and the two started an affair. This was at a time when Cold War tensions were heightened. Ward and Ivanov are said to have asked Keeler to quiz Profumo as to when American nuclear missiles would be taken to then-West Germany.
In a personal statement to the House of Commons in March 1963, Profumo denied any impropriety, but a few weeks later he was forced to admit the truth and the possible security risk of his actions. He resigned from the government and from Parliament. These events brought Keeler fame and notoriety. The repercussions of the affair severely damaged the self-confidence of the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The Economist magazine put a photograph of Keeler on its front cover with the headline ‘The Prime Minister’s Crisis’ with no further explanation. Macmillan resigned as prime minister on health grounds in October 1963. The Conservative Party was marked by the scandal, which may have contributed to its defeat by Labour in the 1964 general election.
The 1989 film Scandal was a fictionalised account of the Profumo Affair and featured Ian McKellen as Profumo and John Hurt as Ward.
An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines published in 2012 perfectly captures the mood of the time.