Saturday, July 24, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

If you live in or near one of several metropolitan areas, for the past few weeks it has been hard to avoid news of the arrests of ten Russian spies.

To those of us who grew up cutting our teeth on James Bond and John le Carre novels, the news reports sound like deja vu all over again. Haven't we heard all of this before–like, forty years ago? The carefully (or maybe not so carefully) crafted false identities, the spy paraphernalia (invisible ink, for heaven's sake!), the scheduled info drops–it all sounds very familiar, not to mention dated. I mean, Ian Fleming's Russia is not today's Russia. A lot of things have happened in that country, and a lot of things about American-Russian relations have also changed.

The whole thing was finally put in perspective by an article in last week's Boston Globe that actually had me giggling (Brian MacQuarrie's piece titled "Light on plot, spy story still intrigues"). What makes it delightful is that MacQuarrie interviewed a clutch of "spy novelists" for their assessment of this real-world story. And the general response from them was, huh?
One said, "why now?" Basically the embedded Russians were leading very ordinary lives and had little access to anything resembling a state secret or even sensitive information. They didn't do anything any one of us couldn't do.

Another asked, "what was the hurry?" They'd been in place for years. One possibility is that US counter-espionage thought that maybe the Russians were about to pack up and go home. Because they were bored? Or someone had finally realized they were useless? If they had left, or had been called back by spy-masters tired of trivial results, they would have been of no use to the US, so why arrest them now? One theory holds that we were saving them for a special occasion: we wanted to swap them for someone valuable to us.
It turns out that US agencies had been aware of them and watching them for quite a while (thank goodness we don't look like total bumbling idiots). We'd had cameras trained on at least one household for years. Don't you wonder where all those recordings go, and who actually looks at them?

Another author that MacQuarrie interviewed suggested it might make a better story if the spies we knew about were only decoys, masking something much more nefarious. Now that we've gotten rid of them, we can be careless and complacent again, and the "real" spies will take advantage of that.
It really makes you wonder. We grew up with the concept of the Evil Empire (thank you, Ronald Reagan), the Iron Curtain. For years the Russians were the designated bad guys. I had friends in grade school who were seriously traumatized by the idea that the Russians were ready to drop a bomb on us at any minute, and actually lost sleep over it. Remember air raid drills? Like hiding under a wooden desk would protect us from nuclear attack. But watching Nikita Khrushchev pound his shoe on a table did not make us feel any more confident in the rationality of our so-called enemy. At the same time we competed with them for space in space, for bigger and more weapons. Looking back, it was kind of nice to have only one bogeyman to focus on, rather than trying to deal with vague threats on several fronts at once. It was a simpler era.
Maybe that's why this story has such legs. First, it taps into all those fears we internalized as children. Second, we have trouble believing that our former arch-enemies could be so bumbling, so there must be more to the whole thing. Or maybe we have trouble rationalizing our fears in the face of a less-than-brilliant opponent.

Thrillers are a popular genre, which suggests that readers actually like to be frightened, at least within a controlled environment (and a medium they can put down and walk away from at will). Maybe we're disappointed when the real-world scenario is so much less convincing than the fictional ones.
If you were writing this spy story, couldn't you do it better?
NB. One of the damning pieces of evidence found at the residence of a spy family was a Coke can with a false bottom. I have a deodorant can with a false bottom; it was a gift, and was intended to hide jewelry while traveling. Does that make me a spy? I could probably cobble together some invisible ink, if I tried. And I have one of those cute little Minox cameras (it was my grandmother's–was she a spy too?). Perhaps I'm not who I seem to be...


Paul said...

The most intriguing stories are the ones spun from the most mundane and trivial beginnings. Everyone nearly laughs off the details of this spy scandal, yet a clever writer could take it from there and slowly peel back the veneer to reveal (create) a fantastic story hiding in plain sight.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lovely, lively post, Sheila. Big smiles. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

The latest group of spies to be unveiled are about the most pathetic bunch I've ever seen. I can't imagine why the Russian government thought they were worth keeping on the payroll. A writer would have to work very hard to turn them into viable material for fiction.

Julia Buckley said...

Sheila, the answer is yes: you and your grandmother are both spies. :)

But it will probably increase book sales now that it's become public.

Diane said...

My father was a career Air Force pilot in the USAF SAC (Strategic Air Command). Those bases were prime targets during th cold war. And we kids knew it - and lived with it. In the mid-60s, the high school for dependants in Madrid, Spain, was on the base less than a mile from the flightline. The assistant principal was gesturing while talking and accidentally set off the bomb warning alarm. The time was between classes, and the kids just quietly sat down wherever they were. No panic - no running, no screaming. They were pragmatic. I don't think the civilian kids - or adults - at the time would have been so calm.

Torres said...

The most intriguing stories are the ones spun from the most mundane and trivial beginnings. Everyone nearly laughs off the details of this spy scandal, yet a clever writer could take it from there and slowly peel back the veneer to reveal (create) a fantastic story hiding in plain sight.