Help me learn about spying.
October 17, 2011 5:15 AM   Subscribe

Help me learn about spies and spying.

In a fiction book I read recently there were interesting details about how a former member of the Russian intelligence community thought and acted based on his training and his past. I would like to learn more about that world, though not necessarily from a Russian point of view - US or UK or wherever also fine.

Are there copies of training manuals or well-known books that I should read, or should I be looking at the various 'tell-all' books from former spies and special-forces types? Or do I need to get much more specific and focus first on a specific agency or country?

All this is with the the aim of writing convincing fictional characters myself. If the answer that is that practically all spy-work is crushingly tedious and fiction is completely misleading, I would still like to understand the tedium a bit better.

posted by StephenF to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
The Spy Museum in DC offers some reading suggestions here and here.
posted by argonauta at 5:20 AM on October 17, 2011

John le Carré wrote what he knew and his writing is infused with the psychological details of that world.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:25 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Read Maugham's Ashenden, Or the British Agent.
posted by j.edwards at 5:44 AM on October 17, 2011

There are a number of good books about Kim Philby, who was an extremely important spy. I've never read Philby's own account, My Silent War, but it's probably very interesting.

John Le Carré is the gold standard in spy fiction. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is coming out as a film this winter, is one of his most read books, and it's loosely based on the fall of Kim Philby. According to Le Carré himself, the most realistic of his novels is The Looking-Glass War. It also happens to be one of his best. Le Carré's The Tailor of Panama is more farcical in tone, but it's also eerily prescient of America's recent intelligence adventures with Curveball.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:48 AM on October 17, 2011

I liked Peter Write's Spycatcher, which is the opposite side of the Kim Philby tell-all above. It has a lot of great details about spying in the 1950s -- mixed in with some completely insane paranoia about Russian incursion into the UK government in the 1980s, so take it with a heaping grain of salt.

Le Carre is great. The Interpreter, while not strictly about spying, is one of my favorite books.
posted by miyabo at 6:36 AM on October 17, 2011

Peter Wright d'oh
posted by miyabo at 6:39 AM on October 17, 2011

Stella Rimington worked in the spy business from 1967 to 1996 and was the Director General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996. She was the first female DG. She has written an autobiography Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 and several novels about a female MI5 intelligence officer. First one is At Risk.
posted by nooneyouknow at 6:43 AM on October 17, 2011

The main character in the television show Burn Notice is a spy. He narrates with various "spy tips" in each episode.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:45 AM on October 17, 2011

Legacy of Ashes might be both a big help and a huge bummer.
posted by fatllama at 6:51 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's worth noting that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was made into a movie some time ago - the BBC did a miniseries version staring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. If you can't wait for the big-budget version, I thought this one was pretty good. You might also take a look at Body of Secrets by James Bamford, which details the inner workings of the National Security Agency. Lastly, any list of spy books ought to include Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. It focuses more on a nascent terrorist cell, but includes some fascinating psychological depictions of the characters.
posted by jquinby at 6:58 AM on October 17, 2011

The funny thing about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that the first time I read it, I figured out the identity of the mole about 20 pages in, just by looking at which character most resembled Kim Philby (i.e., charming, likeable, amoral bastard).

I haven't read Philby's My Silent War in a while, but I recall it being both fascinating and self-serving. Interestingly, it was cited by Robert Hanssen, the worst (known) Russian mole inside the FBI, as one of his favorite books. The movie Breach, although it takes some liberties, is a good depiction of the effort to catch Hanssen.

It's also worth reading some Graham Greene, who was a colleague of Philby's and Le Carré's at MI6 (and remained friendly with Philby after his defection). In particular, be sure to read Our Man in Havana, to which Le Carré's The Tailor of Panama is an overt tribute.

Finally, I would recommend Tim Powers' Declare, which is a thoroughly ahistorical (but entirely consistent) novel about Kim Philby, which ties together Philby's defection, the fall of the Soviet Union, the supposed Ark on Mount Ararat, the biblical story of Solomon and the two mothers, and a whole lot of other good stuff. It's very much in the tradition of Le Carré, and is full of spycraft.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 6:59 AM on October 17, 2011

From an actual defected russian spy: Inside the Aquarium. You may want to read the first book to gain more insight: The "Liberators".

Can't vouch for the quality of the translation since I read them in russian, but the originals were very interesting. As you can imagine the Soviet, and now Russian, government denied a lot of it, but then again they would, wouldn't they.
posted by pyro979 at 7:08 AM on October 17, 2011

Charles McCarry's novels are quite accurate about tradecraft and such, as he worked for the CIA.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:18 AM on October 17, 2011

For background, you might want to read The Second Oldest Profession by Philip Knightley. It was written before the collapse of the USSR and it still explains how the intelligence services were unable to predict it.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:21 AM on October 17, 2011

TV show, but Sandbaggers has a reputation as being surprisingly close to actual spook life -- little gee-whiz gadgetry, lots of office work and jargon and politics and jockeying, and most of tension coming from sitting and waiting to hear news. The creator was rumored to have been a spy.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:41 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Witness by Whittaker Chambers.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:56 AM on October 17, 2011

Seconding "Legacy of Ashes" -- it's exactly what you want for the "understanding the tedium" part of this question. It's the book that made me realize that the world of James Bond is total fiction, and real life spying has been more like a comedy of errors. I particularly remember the part where the CIA tried to drop arms to Cuban rebels on the ground from an unmarked plane, missed the drop, Castro's soldiers immediately captured both the arms and our friends on the ground, and the pilot got lost on the way back and had to crash land in Mexico, where he was arrested with no ID, creating a diplomatic incident. This book has story after story like that. You will never believe a conspiracy theory about the CIA again.

On the other hand, the book emphasizes that the KGB and MI6 were much better at what they did, and those early Le Carre novels (Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Looking Glass War) are among the best windows onto that world. I'm not sure that even Le Carre wasn't embellishing somewhat, though.
posted by pete_22 at 9:08 AM on October 17, 2011

I will not recommend it for the writing (it is perhaps by its nature somewhat repetitive), but A Spy's London has good (true) stories and explains well the people, places and processes necessary for good spy work in a certain era. Loved the book even without the opportunity to use it in London.
posted by whatzit at 9:22 AM on October 17, 2011

Do you mean spies as in skullduggery covert operatives in foreign lands, intelligence analysts sifting through information, codebreakers breaking codes, or something else?

The lives, training, and methods of each are quire different.
posted by zippy at 10:01 AM on October 17, 2011

Miles Copeland, Jr. (father of Stewart Copeland of The Police) had a career with the CIA, and wrote several books about it. They're out of print and hard to find, though.
posted by dhartung at 11:10 AM on October 17, 2011

Nigel West aka Rupert Allason is considered an authority on espionage and has written several books on the subject.
posted by adamvasco at 12:41 PM on October 17, 2011

Thanks everyone! Great answers as everything.
posted by StephenF at 1:50 PM on October 17, 2011

This website has everything you ever need on the literature of intelligence. It is completely up-to-date, and covers every single bit of literature ever.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 11:00 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

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