Showing posts with label spies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spies. Show all posts

14 September 2018

Spies and Secret Agents

by O'Neil De Noux

The subject of the latest MYSTERY READER'S JOURNAL, the Journal of Mystery Readers International (Vol 34, No 2, Summer 2018) is SPIES AND SECRET AGENTS. It features articles by a number of writers, including me. I thought I'd share the gist of my article here on SleuthSayers.

Secret Agent Superheros

When I realized I would never play centerfield for the New York Yankees (too small, too slow, no athletic ability) I turned to books and decided I'd be a south seas adventurer or maybe an archaeologist. Then I stumbled across Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, John Le Carré, Adam Hall and others, which began a life-long fascination with secret agents. I wanted to be one. That did not turn out for me either. Ever hear of a 5'6" leading-man secret agent? I'm not cool or suave, not multilingual. Hell, I'm barely lingual.


Michael Caine as my all-time favorite spy – Harry Palmer (from THE IPCRESS FILE)

I became a police officer instead, an intelligence analyst and a homicide detective before becoming a private investigator. Along the way I found my true calling to be a writer. I wrote about what I knew – police and private eye stories before penning historical novels (I have a history degree).

The secret agent lingered in my mind, tapping my shoulder, asking when it would his turn. So, I created two secret agents and gave them a little help – superhuman powers – and let them loose in 1936, in a world on the brink of war.

So far I've had two novels published in the series:

LUCIFER'S TIGER (Big Kiss Productions 2017) introduces American agent Lucifer LeRoux in search of a mysterious stone only to run into a group of trigger-happy Japanese and Nazi agents and an alluring brunette who needs rescuing. Or does she? The audacious brunette is Catrin Allaway and like Luce, she has hidden powers and the chase in on as Japanese spies and German thugs pursue the American secret agents. Against a backdrop of exotic locales – from a giant casino in Macao, aboard ship through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca into the Bay of Bengal to India and to the Arabian Sea to battle Nazi SS troops and evil scientists. Enmeshed in a struggle between good and evil, the two Americans are drawn to one another on a lush, tropical island. What diabolical plan do Nazi scientists have for tigers? The perilous adventure becomes a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse in the realm of the ultimate predator – the tiger.



LUCIFER'S FALCON (Big Kiss Productions 2018). It is still 1936 and newlyweds Luce and Catrin are on a mission to rescue two men from two European castles. From the coast of Spain to the French Riviera to a high castle in snowy Bavaria, the American agents tangle with Spanish fascists, Nazi fanatics and monstrous men with superhuman powers. Can Catrin and Luce pull off the rescues and make it out alive to continue their honeymoon? With the unexpected aid of a rapacious falcon, they just may get out alive.

In creating these larger-than-life secret agents, I made them Advanced Humans whose ancestors evolved differently than regular people. It also gave me the opportunity to create superhuman villians. It is great fun to write and for a little while, I get to be a secret agent.

I'll save y'all the trouble. I know I'm a mess. My writing's all over the place. My brain just works that way.

That's it for now.

http://www.oneildenoux.com



20 September 2017

Cold War Words, Hot War Words


by Robert Lopresti
You may remember that my last piece here was about the importance of empathy as illustrated by two very different books about intelligence work: John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Nicholas  Rankin's Masters of Deception.  Today I want to go back to those books to discuss a  different topic: language.
Le Carré is renowned for his plotting and characters but it is his use of words that dazzles me the most.  He invented a vocabulary of spying, most of it in Tinker Tailor, which is both memorable and believable.
When TTSS was adapted for TV and appeared on PBS there was a full-page ad, sponsored by Mobil, I believe, promoting the show and explaining the vocabulary.  Clearly someone thought the average viewer would be baffled by the jargon and give up even before they had a chance to be baffled by the plot. 
The most famous example, of course, is mole, for a double agent, especially one who was working for Side A even before he dug his way into the ranks of Side B.  Le Carré says he borrowed it from Russian intelligence circles although it turns out Sir Francis Bacon used it in the 1600s.  Le Carré says he had not read Bacon, and why should we doubt him?.  What is certain is that mole is part of everyday usage now.
Here are a few more of Le Carre's memorable coinings:
The Circus: MI-6 , so nicknamed for its (fictional) location in London at Cambridge Circus, but of course suggesting the chaos that often goes on there.
Lamplighters: The secret communication and dead letter people.
Breakage: People quitting the Circus.
 Scalphunters: The dirty work crowd, killers, kidnappers, etc.
Joe: Any agent in the field.  "I have to meet one of my joes."
Coat-trailing: Trying to convince the other side that you are a likely candidate to work for them. 
Honey trap: An attractive person set to woo a spy with their physical charms.
And so on.
But it isn't just terminology that makes Le Carré's language so vivid.  Let's take a couple of examples from a later book, Smiley's People.  An old Russian wants to tell George Smiley that he has acquired three facts that might be used to destroy their deadly enemy Karla.  But the coded message he gives is "I have three proofs against the Sandman."  Sends a shiver down my spine.
A few pages later Smiley reflects on the fact that a spy in trouble immediately discards the most valuable thing he is carrying.  But here is how that comes out:  "in the spy trade we abandon first what we love the most."  And that brings it to a whole different level, doesn't it?

My favorite of Le Carre's non-Smiley books is A Perfect Spy.  The protagonist of that one, Magnus Pym, is a double agent (this is not a spoiler) and he writes a confession to his son, although he certainly knows that the boy will never be allowed to read it.  Discussing the years just after World War II, he writes, "Vienna was a divided city like Berlin or your father"  For me, that's a real gut-punch.

What about the new le Carre novel, A Legacy of Spies?  It's very good but only two bits of language leapt out for me.  There is a safe house which Smiley named the Stables.  If that strikes you as having a mythological reference, at least one character in the book agrees with you.

And in a flashback we see the old spy's protege Peter Guillam demanding an explanation of the dodgy operation they were involved in.  Smiley tells him some of the story and then asks:

"Do you now have all the information you require?"
"No."
"I envy you."
 
Classic Smiley.

Moving on to Rankin's book about deception in the wars.  I was fascinated to learn that certain important and familiar words came from World War I. (Rankin notes that they did not appear in the famous eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, which appeared in 1911, but received major attention in the twelfth, after the war.)

Among the new words are propaganda and camouflage.   Also, in the British empire the best shooters were those who could kill small, fast-moving marsh birds called snipes. And, of course, those shooters were called snipers. 

I knew that tank, the word for heavily armored fighting vehicle, came from a bit of World War I deception - they're just spare petrol tanks! - but I had not realized that Ernest Swinton is credited with both the concept and the name.  Swinton was also a writer; his much-imitated Defence of Duffer's Drift turns what could be a pedestrtian lesson in military strategy into a fascinating story. 

And speaking of writers, the Director of Information for Britain during part of the war was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps.  Oh, and one more?  During World War II, the assistant to the Head of Naval Intelligence had to be a real extrovert, a glad-hander who could play talent-spotter, make nice between competing agencies, and represent the office to the outside world.  The job went to a fellow named Ian Fleming.  Wonder whatever happened to him?

10 May 2017

Rattling the Cupboards

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the twelfth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Edgerley Gates

All happy families are alike, Tolstoy famously says, and each unhappy family unhappy in their own way. Tolstoy certainly knew from personal experience. John le Carré is another writer whose unsettling family history gave him not only a template, but a theme. He tells us the habits of concealment have served him a lifetime - not always with the desired result. Skeletons in closets.

Buried secrets are an old literary device. The buried past particularly. I'm always a sucker for it, and it's one I've used myself fairly often. I have to wonder too, like le Carré, how much of my personal history conspires to make the secret so attractive.

Well, first off, there's the official record - not all of it on the record, naturally. Most people know I was a Russian linguist and intercept analyst when I was in the Air Force, and probably as many people know from reading my posts here that my uncle Charlie Haskins was at Bletchley Park during WWII. He also served on Eisenhower's national security staff during Eisenhower's presidency. I suspect there's more to his life in the secret world, but I'll never know. Going back another generation, his own dad, the historian Charles Homer Haskins, was at Versailles with Wilson, in 1919. Specifically, he served on the commission to administer the Saar. You wouldn't think this was a political hot potato, because everybody pretty much conceded the French would control the coalfields, but it may have been one of Wilson's bargaining chips with Clemenceau. Wilson himself was impatient with the machinations at the conference, but his main advisor (and intelligence chief) Col. House didn't mind getting his hands dirty, and my grandfather reported to House. I can only guess, but given my fanciful nature, I imagine there's probably more to this than meets the eye.

Then, we got the unofficial. My mom's family, the same lineage as above, had one of those episodes everybody was deeply embarrassed about, and it was rarely spoken of. The problem being, for a kid, is that the hints and silent glances only made you want more, and more was never forthcoming, which of course made the whole thing out to be worse than it was. This dark blot on the escutcheon was the fact that my great-grandparents had divorced, a scandal that apparently shook late 19th-century St. Louis society, not least because he divorced her, which to all intents and purposes branded her a Scarlet Woman. A veil is drawn across what actually happened, but the point isn't what in fact actually happened - with a lot of spadework, my sister Bea has dug out the details - but that everybody felt it was too shameful, it had to stay hidden, it couldn't be talked of. Like the madwoman in the attic, Mrs. Rochester. There's more than a little of the Gothic, here.

It turns out there really is somebody in the attic, too, now you mention it. My grandfather, my mom's dad, the aforementioned Charles Homer Haskins, came down with Parkinson's. He had to give up teaching, and the slow degenerative process wore him down. It killed him at 66. For the last years of his life, he lived on the third floor of the house in Cambridge he and his wife had built early in their marriage. As a boy, I'd always found my grandmother's house spooky and dark, haunted not too strong a word. And it was only years later, when the house was being sold, that I ever ventured up to the third floor. To my enormous surprise, it was filled with light. Made me feel a lot better, truth be told, to know he wasn't left in darkness.

There's another legacy of shadow, the troubled relationship between their children, my mom and her two brothers. My uncle Charlie was the middle one, and from all the evidence a mediating influence. My uncle George was the oldest. Seen at this remove, a bully, emotionally abusive, a predator. Nothing to be done about it now. Not that I'd have a problem pissing on his grave. My real revenge would be to write a book about it, and cast him as the heavy.

It's odd to realize you get material out of this. If not the actual, the impulse. All that compacted sadness. It's not right, somehow. Or maybe we're making amends. That sorrow isn't of our making. It's gone, it's done, it's well beyond our control, it was never ours to begin with. Perhaps this is how we claim ownership, the way we bear witness. Survivors' guilt. We owe them. This is the coin we carry for the ferryman, to pay for our own crossing.

13 April 2017

"Afternoons in Paris" by Janice Law

by Eve Fisher

You remember Francis Bacon:
  File:Pourbus Francis Bacon.jpg  No, not that one, this one:  

Francis Bacon, artist.  Francis Bacon, gambler.  Francis Bacon, bon vivant.  Francis Bacon, gay, asthmatic, Irish, autodidact, devoted to his Nan, louche, rough, crazy...

Well, HE'S BACK!!!!



Yes, my favorite gay artist adventurer is back in Janice Law's "Afternoons in Paris".  Francis is 18 and in the City of Lights, and very glad to be there after the craziness of Berlin (read Janice's "Nights in Berlin":  the book and David Edgerley Gates' review).  Now he's on his own, working for a decorator/designer by day (the somewhat susceptible Armand), visiting galleries with the motherly Madame Dumoulin, and cruising the city by night with the totally unreliable Pyotr, a Russian emigre who, like Francis, has a taste for quick hook-ups and rough trade.

Pyotr has two Russian friends, Igor, who's sinister, and Lev, who's quickly assassinated.  After getting robbed (by Pyotr), beaten up (by 'Cossacks') in Montparnasse, and finding two more waiting to do the same at his lodgings, Francis tries to avoid Russians by moving in with Madame Dumoulin and her brother, Jules, who needs a caretaker.  Well, it could be argued that Francis is the last person to be anyone's companion/caretaker, but our boy knows how to be appreciative.  And Jules, although a traumatized WW1 veteran, is an innocent (at least compared to Francis):  much like Mr. Dick in "David Copperfield", he builds complex machines and flies kites.  Francis can enjoy both.

And then Jules gets a chance to design machines for the theatre group Les Mortes Immortels, and it's back to Paris for all.  Jules' machines are the best part of a production about as audience-friendly as "Finnegan's Wake"; that and the character of Human Hope, played by Inessa, a Russian Helen of Troy who enraptures everyone around her.  Except for those who are using her.

Russians are everywhere, and they're all dangerous:  Pyotr; the NKVD assassin Alexi; the NKVD blackmailer Anoshkin; Inessa's missing brother, Pavel.  And, wouldn't you know it, who's up to his neck in all of this but Francis' Uncle Lastings?  Now known as Claude, art dealer and bon-vivant, but still up to his neck in intrigue, scams, sex, and spying.  Francis has a lot of fast talking, fast running, fast thinking, and fast acting to do to survive...

Soutine's Chemin de la Fontaine
des Tins at Ceret - Wikipedia
As always, it's fascinating to see the world through Francis' eyes, especially at 18, when he is still at the beginning of creating himself.  He has a knack for noticing details, from the "distinctive stink of French drains" to the "most brutal and vigorous thing I'd seen in France" - a dead rooster, painted by Chaim Soutine.  When he writes to Nan that "a glance at her makes me feel more hopeful", we know that Inessa is indeed a remarkable woman, someone to pay attention to.  And, when told that Pavel can't be wandering Paris without proper papers, Francis' reaction is "My own experience in Berlin led me to believe that Monsieur Chaput was exaggerating.  A teenage boy has a number of ways of eluding bureaucrats and busybodies."  And he would know.
Image result for jessie lightfoot
Nan

Emotionally, Francis is still developing, or is he?  At one point he says, regarding his commitment to Jules:  "I had promised Jules, and I believe in friendship.  It tends to be more stable than romance." Not to mention family. As he writes to Nan about his uncle, "I know this is a surprise, but He Who Must Not be Named has secured a job for me, and this time, I have asked to be paid half in advance. You can see I am getting wise to the ways of the world." In fact, the only person Francis trusts implicitly is Nan, in "Afternoons in Paris", "Nights in Berlin", "Fires of London", "The Prisoner of the Riviera", "Moon over Tangier" and in real life.  She will always be the most stable person in his life, not excepting himself.

But even at 18, Francis is already witty, sarcastic, honest, observant, hungry, lustful, reckless, and utterly sure that he will never be among the bourgeoisie. (And how right he is.) He always gives a master class in the art of survival.  Francis Bacon and Paris in the 20s - it's hard to ask for anything more.







19 July 2015

The Spy Who Bagged Me

by Leigh Lundin

Zoya Voskresenskaya
Anna Chapman
Anyone who’s watched a James Bond or a tacky Derek Flint film knows the Russians have licentious taste in spies… well, perhaps not Rosa Klebb, more like famed Zoya Voskresenskaya (Zoya Rybkina, Зоя Рыбкина, née Воскресенская). Deported Anna Chapman wasn’t a very good spy, but her incompetence and stunning looks inspired the New York Post to ask “But can we keep her?”

Such a wistful propensity may have prompted other New York-based spies to opt for Hooters as a clandestine meeting spot. Hooters?

Code name Green Kryptonite

Meet Naveed Jamali. His parents owned a specialty store, Books & Research, in Dobbs Ferry, Westchester, New York. In the latter 1980s, a known Russian agent strolled into the bookshop and asked for arcane but legally obtainable reports available from a proprietary government database run by the Defense Technical Information Center. The FBI asked the family to fulfill those requests and notify the FBI as to Russian interests.

This continued for twenty years until young Naveed took over the store. Motivated by a desire to join Naval Intelligence, he leveraged his relationship with the FBI into becoming an amateur– but authentic– spy, complete with an audio recording watch Q himself might have designed.

Double-O-Nought

The FBI targeted the latest of a series of Russian agents, a trade mission attaché and seasoned operative, Oleg Kulikov. Diplomatic immunity meant the FBI couldn’t arrest Kulikov, but they could bring his career to a close. Considering occasional spy swaps, it was a smart move by the Feds.

The plan called for Jamali’s arrest at Pizzeria Uno in the presence of Kulikov, but at the last moment, the Russian opted to return to Hooters, putting the operation at risk. Nonetheless, federal agents swooped in and handcuffed Jamali in a fake apprehension, thus ending Kulikov’s espionage and usefulness as a clandestine operative.

Look for Naveed Jamali's book about his experience, How to Catch a Russian Spy. Fox Entertainment has negotiated film rights for the story.

Spies Through the Pages


Last year saw the release of a wonderful film about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game. For another great read and a chance to meet Turing’s competition in wartime British Intelligence, read Leo Marks’ autobiographical Between Silk and Cyanide.

20 June 2014

....and Handlers

by R.T. Lawton        (cont'd from two weeks ago)

If an agency doesn't have good procedures and controls in place for their assets and their Handlers, then they are looking for trouble in an area where trouble is easily found. Every agency now probably has its own system and policies in place, but the basics are generally the same, so let's take a look at them.

For security, it's best to give the informant, or asset, a code number to be used in all activity and debriefing reports. Within this code number file should be the informant's fingerprints, which may also help ensure he is who he says he is; a personal history or background, info needed to check up on him now and maybe in the future if he goes on the run; a records check to find any crimes charged with or convicted of in the past; a color photo; and a debriefing report to determine what value the informant may have to your agency.

Also in this file, it would be smart to have a signed copy of the Informant Agreement. This document lays out the parameters of what the informant will and will not do, such as realizing that he is NOT law enforcement, nor is he an agency employee. He also agrees not to break the law, unless specifically authorized, else face possible prosecution if caught.

Special permission is usually needed from some authority before a Handler can use a juvenile, a two-time felon, a drug addict, someone on parole or probation, a current defendant or a prison inmate. Doesn't mean a Handler can't use people in these categories, it merely means that extra steps must be taken and permission from the proper authority is required before use. Why? Because inherent problems need to be addressed before these people can be activated. For instance, use of a parolee requires permission of the affected parole or probation agency, a defendant requires permission of the prosecuting attorney and use of an inmate requires permission of that prison's authorities. The spy world has their own policies on restrictions and categories, which are considerably looser.

Two Handlers should be present at every meeting with an asset in order to prevent false accusations of wrongdoing on the part of the Handler, especially during those times when a Handler is paying funds to the asset. (This may not be feasible in some spy situations.) Informants are paid out of agency funds (or reward money) with paperwork and signatures to document the payments.

Handlers should not engage in personal socializing, joint business ventures or romantic entanglements with the asset, nor should they receive gifts from the asset. I think you can figure out some of the bad possibilities for these situations.

Informants should be searched before and after each controlled meeting with a targeted individual, thus if the informant brings back evidence from that meeting, the presumption is that evidence came from the target, not planted by the informant.

The asset should be debriefed at least every ninety days for new intelligence, else placed on inactive status. Supervisors should review informant status and manage controls.

The Handler should try to independently verify any information received from an informant to ensure it is good intelligence.

NOTE: Private investigators are not held to the same high standards as law enforcement, while spy agencies may have exigent circumstances allowing looser controls and procedures for use of informants.

How do things go bad? Ask the FBI agent who went to prison from the way he handled mobster Whitey Bulger as an informant.

And then there was the state agent who got his informant pregnant, lost his job and had to testify to all those facts during a defendant's subsequent trial in federal court.

We sometimes had one informant buy from another informant who was trafficking while working for us. The second guy went to prison.

Knew a state informant who without his Handler's knowledge, wired up his own house with hidden cameras and microphones and proceeded to act like his favorite movie character when dealing with other criminals.

One informant with a felony record which prevented him from carrying a gun, we soon discovered would sometimes show up at our meetings with his girlfriend who was carrying two concealed automatics.

I think you're starting to see why tight controls are necessary, cuz things can go really bad in a heartbeat. All of which could make good fodder for a crime novel. So, if you get any good writing ideas from the above, feel free to use them.

08 May 2013

THE BEACHCOMBER

David Edgerley Gates


This is a true story.

Years ago, I went down to the U.S. Virgin Islands on a brief trip, and I'd been told to look a guy up. He lived on St. John, above Cruz Bay. I flew into Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.

Back in those days, the islands were nowhere near as developed as they are now. You took a bus to Red Hook, at the east end of St. Thomas, and caught a ferry over to Cruz Bay. There was no marina at Red Hook, then, just a jetty and a parking lot of beaten earth. There was a gal who sold sodas and sundries out of a shack. The ferry wasn't a high-speed catamaran, either. It was a water barge, with low gunwales and a one-lunger diesel, the skipper and a crew of three. It didn't make more than five knots, so it took maybe forty-five minutes to get across. That early in the day, I was the only passenger.
Red Hook


Cruz Bay was a sleepy little town. A few miles up the coast, RockResorts was breaking ground at Caneel Bay, but that was the first sign of bigger investments to come. It says something about my lack of local knowledge that I'd assumed I could rent a car. No such luck. The lady at the rental agency, which served more than one purpose, she was the postmistress, too, among other hats she wore, explained kindly that they only had a dozen or so vehicles, and they were spoken for weeks in advance.  I asked her, by chance, if she knew somebody named Yuri Ivanov. Why, of course she did. She pointed me up the hill. Not far at all.

It was dusty. It was hot. The sun in the Caribbean is a lot more intense than you expect, if you're not used to it. But it was a nice walk, some scattered shade along the sandy path, the climb gentle. There were few people about. How he knew I was coming I don't know. He didn't have a phone. It didn't look like anybody did. There he was, though, standing outside a small cottage tucked into the hillside, as if he were waiting for me. I called his name, and scrambled uphill the last twenty or thirty feet.

He wasn't unwary, but neither did he seem surprised. I wondered how many visitors he got, in this out-of-the-way place.  Hot and bright, with the sea on every side, a quiet kind of exile. I'm a friend of Gorodny's, I told him.

"Aah," he said, smiling, and we shook hands. "I took you for KGB. You're so pale, you could have come straight from the winter streets of Moscow."

He was short, and thick through the chest, wearing a pair of cut-offs, and flip-flops. I guessed him to be about sixty. His skin was sunburned darker than walnut. I found out he snorkeled the reefs, almost every day. I asked him if he saw many sharks. "The water's full of them," he said to me, with his quick smile.

We sat on the flagstone patio in front of his cottage. The sun beat down. He was used to it. I felt a little faint. There were sea-grapes growing all around. Ivanov suggested we move our chairs into the shade.
 St. John


"How do you know Gorodny?" he asked. He was one of my Russian instructors, I said. "Nu, govorite po-Russki?" Da, nemnozhka, I answered. "Khorosho," he said. He got up and went into the cottage, and came back with some herring sandwiches. "Selyedka," he said, putting them down. Where did he get the black bread?  He baked it himself.

After elevenses, we went down the hill a few yards to the pump house. Ivanov brought a dented metal pitcher. Inside the little stone building, there was a fifty-five-gallon drum on a wooden cradle. He drew a pitcherful of Bajan rum the color of molasses. Well, it was made from molasses.

We sat under the sea-grapes, drinking rum and grapefruit juice. There was no ice. The sun passed the meridian. As the day drifted toward afternoon, his English got shakier, and my Russian got more persuasively fluent, or at least that's how it seemed. We were drug s drugom, fast friends. I was also half in the bag. The rum, the drowsy heat.

Ivanov drew me out, my family, where I'd studied Russian, what I figured to do with my life. He was an easy listener and asked only the simplest of questions. Finally, it was late afternoon. "Well, you'll miss your ferry," he said. He walked me back down to the harbor, waved me on board the water barge, and wished me well. "Do svidanya," he said.


Cruz Bay

Next time, I thought. I was in a stupor. Back across the channel, I bought a Coke from the woman at the beachfront shack in Red Hook. She fished it out an ice-cold cooler the size of a coffin. I went to wait for the bus.

It came, I got on, I found a window seat at the back. It was all local people, Thomians, women for the most part. A very nice lady sitting opposite me remarked that they didn't see that many tourists off the cruise ships at this end of the island. I didn't tell her I wasn't off a cruise ship. She offered me a slice of fresh mango.

Sitting there, looking sleepily out the window, my fingers sticky with fruit, the bus yawing through the curves on the one-lane macadam, back to Charlotte Amalie, I was thinking to myself, Boy, that was the worst debrief ever. I got nothing out of the guy, and he got everything. I must have been a slow learner.

The lesson is, when you match wits with an old pro, he's going to take you into his confidence, and win your trust, and turn you inside out like a sock. Or, as the saying has it, when you sup with the Devil, use a long spoon.

NOTE:  I've changed the names, although they say you can't compromise the dead, but who knows? Any embarrassment here is my own.

17 October 2012

Spy Lie

by Robert Lopresti

I just saw the movie Argo and I feel like I should say something about it because I wrote about it several years before it was made.  Well, not exactly.  But I wrote a piece on Criminal Brief called A Real-Life Genuine Phony Hollywood Spy Story,which was about the bizarre true event that served as a basis for Argo.  If you aren't familiar with it here's the one-sentence synopsis: during the Iranian hostage crisis the CIA got six hostages out by pretending they were a Canadian film crew.

So here's my review: it's a good movie.  You'll like it.  But you'll like it better if you don't read my earlier piece first, because the more you know about what really happened the more likely you are to be annoyed by the parts the movie gins up.  Apparently a spy sneaking into an insane theocracy to slip out six civilians, knowing that a single mistake could get them all beheaded was not suspenseful enough for Hollywood without a few added gimmicks.  Sigh.

I blame it on Irving Thalberg.  I believe he was the producer in the 1930s who dictated that every movie had to end with a 99 yard dash for a touchdown.  Apparently Ben Affleck and friends decided that the ball wasn't quite far enough back for the climax so they had to libel the Carter administration (who apparently did not look quite bad enough in real life) and bring in a lot of machine guns.  Plus they invented an airline  pilot so oblivious to the world around him that he made those two clowns who flew a state or two past their destination a few years ago look like paragons of alertness.

Honestly what annoyed me most was not the lies they put in so much as the facts they left out to make room (or because they didn't fit the story they were telling).  Here are a few true incidents that did not make the movie (which remember, is both funny and suspenseful):
  • The forgers put the wrong date on some of the passports, indicating that the carriers were travelers from the future. 
  • The Canadian cabinet had to meet in secret to authorize false passports.  Then the authorities refused one to the CIA agent, because he had not been included in the vote.
  • When the hero visited the Iranian consulate, he left his portfolio in the taxi cab.
  • The CIA agents’ map of Tehran led them to the Swedish embassy instead of the Canadian one. 
  • On the morning of the actual escape, our hero slept through his alarm. 
Wouldn't you think some of those items were worth including?  And then there was the equally suspenseful escape of the Canadian embassy staff which had to be perfectly timed, but didn't fit in with the phony scene the producers put in Argo.  Honestly, I liked the movie, but the more I think about it the more irritated I get.

And let me say that one reason I liked is that any flick which gives a juicy comic part to Alan Arkin does a service for mankind.  (And the fact that Arkin's character is a composite didn't bother me at all..)

Here's the irony, by the way.  I was at a songwriting group this week and  a woman had written a song about a real person.  I told her "you have to decide whether you're serving the person or the song."  In other words, she was cleaving too closely to the truth.  So call me a hypocrite, I guess.

Tangential episode: Speaking of the CIA, more than a decade ago I was at a dinner party and was seated near the new boyfriend of a woman I know.  I asked him what he did for a living and he said he was an engineer.  Well, practically everyone in my wife's family is an engineer so I asked what kind.  "Systems engineer," he said, and put so much unspeakable boredom into those two words that I changed the subject.

Later my friend told me that the guy was actually an analyst for the CIA.  And after he found out that I am a government documents librarian he was kind enough to send me a few books published by the CIA for my collection - nothing classified, I assure you.

Back when the CIA used to send a lot of paper documents to federal depository libraries like mine (now they don't because "everything is on the web," which it isn't but don't get me started on that), we used to receive pocket atlases of major cities in communist countries.  These  map books were highly prized because they were much more accurate and complete than maps of Peking and Moscow that you could actually buy there.  But nowhere on the entire publication would you find the publisher's name.  For some reason, people didn't wander around those cities carrying something that said CIA on it.  Go figure.

And go see the movie.  Just remember one thing that the film makes a point about: spies and movie moguls never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

29 December 2011

A rose is a rose is a rose...


by Deborah Elliott-Upton

A friend who knows I'm a lover of great mysteries discovered a new-to-me novel and sent it for a non-holiday gift. The copy of David Morrell's THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS is a delight as only the Rambo creator could write, but also interesting is the tidbit attributed to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Espionage. It seems the explanation of the rose representing the spy profession links back to Greek mythology when the god of love offered a bribe of a rose to the god of silence in promise of keeping confidential overheard sins of other gods.
When a rose hangs from a ceiling, perhaps someone isn't simply drying flowers for romantic sentiments, but the conspirators dealing in a pact. When a discussion is held beneath a suspended rose, sub rose, the information is agreed by those involved to be kept secret. Perhaps it is as clandestine as two lovers meeting in seclusion. The ideas suggested to me intrigues the imagination.
That is, it did, until I noticed two long-stemmed roses hanging in the teenage bedroom of our home. Since most teenagers are by nature, secretive to "older" relatives, I may have stumbled upon a clue to those "meetings with the Bro's" that accompany the turn of the lock after they file inside the lair I am not often welcomed.
It's okay. I am old enough not to be slighted and feel young enough to remember when I though the same way about some of the older folks in my own life.
Thinking of the James Bond books where the spies led glamorous lives with clever inventions that saved the day, but were to be kept underwraps to the public, I understand.
While other girls were asking Santa for a Barbie dream house, I secretly coveted a spy camera. I still want one.
Spy characters are fun to read about and to write about, too. I like the idea of meetings held undercover with secret handshakes and traditional passwords. What fun we have as readers to live such adventures through a character's viewpoint without having to put ourselves on the line.
Roses hanging by a cord from a ceiling fan probably are dried remains of a lovely memory of prom date and nothing more. That doesn't keep my mind from creating scenarios where something much more interesting is happening behind locked doors with a roomful of bro's.