Matthew Dunn, former MI6 field officer and author of the Spycatcher novels, on the true and ever-changing nature of espionage.
Many people have a misconception about the techniques of espionage tradecraft. Largely thanks to the movies, spies are perceived to be running around the world while shooting at each other, sophisticated technology is relied upon to protect our agents and to extract secrets from bad guys, foreign assets are portrayed as Machiavellian snitches who can be disposed of at the drop of a hat, and our intelligence officers have no problem using their mobile phones to call their headquarters to issue new instructions or receive fresh updates.
Film makers would have us believe that the secret world is anything but secret. It is overt, combative, and loud.
There is no denying that at times espionage can produce explosive moments of violence. Harking back to the days when Britain’s Special Operations Executive was tasked by Churchill to “set Nazi-occupied Europe ablaze”, most intelligence agencies retain a paramilitary capability and at times intelligence officers are required to do things that would make a special forces operator blush with envy. But such moments are rare, and typically are a last resort. My books shine a spotlight on such last resorts, though I balance that with the display of traditional espionage.
Coursing through the bloodstream of intelligence agencies is the desire to obtain secrets from people. Guns and gadgets often can’t meaningfully achieve that objective. And even technology intercept can produce patchy results or be misinterpreted. The heart of spying is sitting with a foreign asset and using charm and nimble thinking to elicit secret information from the agent. That was true in ancient China when military strategist Sun-tzu observed that secrets can only be obtained from men who know the enemy’s dispositions. It remains true today and will remain so unless humans become subservient to robots and super computers.
My first novel, Spycatcher, was written in 2010 and published a year later. Since then, I’ve written four other novels in the series plus a novella, all featuring my MI6 protagonist Will Cochrane. I’ve just been commissioned by my editor to write another novella plus full-length novels six and seven in the Spycatcher series. Each book is standalone and presents different complexities and threats. But, if there’s one recurring trend within all my books, it’s that I show that foreign agents are not disposable pawns; instead, they are often extremely courageous and loyal men and women. Moreover, I show the reality that intelligence officers like Cochrane typically work alone and with little support. A spy’s job is frequently a lonely one wherein he or she has to make difficult decisions based on sometimes scant data. There are no CIA drones or satellites hovering above him, telling him where the bad guys are and which route he should take to avoid them.
Tradecraft has barely changed during the last one hundred years since MI6 was established. What has changed is which bits of tradecraft an intelligence officer has needed to deploy, subject to the challenges he faces. Spycatcher, and my subsequent novels, reflects the modern era of espionage; one that requires rapid direct action, as well as long-game recruitment of foreign agents to spy on their countries. During the last few years, spies have had to deploy more of their tradecraft skills than at any other time in the history of the secret world. That reality supplies me with a fascinating writing experience.