Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about your latest spy novel, Queen & Country, and its protagonist, Charles Thoroughgood? This is now the seventh novel to feature the character. Your relationship with Charles has now lasted longer than most marriages, especially most marriages in the intelligence community, one may imagine. What keeps drawing you back to him?
I invented Charles Thoroughgood because I wanted a character not so highly coloured as to fade out other characters and incidents but to be one through whom they could be revealed in their full colours. In Breed of Heroes, where he first appears, many of the incidents involved me or others I knew and I wanted to convey them as vividly as I could. There’s a bit of the Everyman in him, an easy and comfortable character to use, like pulling on a well-worn glove.
My aim in Queen & Country was to produce a taut, focussed novel with contemporary reference and a little more physical action than I usually put in – as well as, of course, the underlying ethical questions for Charles which are made clear at the end. It was written during lockdown before – unfortunately – Ukraine.
The character of Thoroughgood originally started as a soldier, in Breed of Heroes, but then crossed the floor so to speak to become a spy. Do you consider that there are traits from being a soldier which can both help and hinder someone when they then work in the intelligence community?
Concepts of service, duty and loyalty, while not unique to the military and to intelligence services, are common to both. Former military people crop up in civilian intelligence and civilian agencies often have serving military personnel on loan to help coordinate joint operations. Also, the armed services have their own intelligence branches for coping with their specific requirements. Some countries, such as Russia with its GRU, have very large military intelligence services operating alongside civilian agencies. As for whether military characteristics help or hinder someone transferring to a civilian intelligence service, my guess is that it depends largely on the individual. If they’re too rigid and hidebound, too tightly locked into one way of doing or seeing things, it’s a hindrance. On the other hand, if they’re flexible enough their sense of mission and determination to get things done may be significant assets.
Thoroughgood has now experienced the Troubles and the Cold War, as well as many other changes in the world and how the intelligence trade operates. In relation to being a spy, how do you think the profession has changed – or remained the same – over the past few decades?
You could say that everything is different and nothing has changed. What has not changed is that spying involves people and that the motives for spying – good and ill – remain much as they were. People have always done it for all sorts of reasons – religious, mercenary, ideological, revenge, ego and self-importance, a desire to confront evil, tribal loyalty and the thrill of secrecy. The FBI expressed it succinctly in the acronym MICE – money, ideology, compromise, ego. (By ‘compromise’ they usually meant the threatened exposure of sexual or financial wrongdoings.)
What has changed – and is ever-changing – are the technology and the circumstances of spying. The mobile phone and the internet have made the same differences to how spies operate, communicate and are caught as they have made in other areas of life. The swiftness and ease of electronic communications and the security of end-to-end encryption have been a boon to spies. But, at the same time, any electronic advance may be vulnerable to an electronic counter-measure and so, ironically, some of the old steam-age methods – dead-drops, landline communications, secret writing – may sometimes be safer.
Nor does the increasing use of technology for intercept and surveillance – TechInt – mean that human reporting and opinion – HumInt – becomes irrelevant. They are complimentary. Technical observation of Putin’s massing of tanks, guns, fuel and blood supplies on Ukraine’s border, for example, enabled British and US intelligence to say that he was poised to invade and probably would. They were right. But they only knew they were right that he was preparing to invade and had previously expressed an inclination to do so; they couldn’t have known whether he would actually go ahead with it until he did. Only he and those close to him would have known that, which is why a human source recruited from his private office or family circle would have been (perhaps was?) invaluable.
We have now entered a new chapter in the Cold War. Frosty relations didn’t quite thaw out like some hoped. How do you think history may repeat itself, or diverge from the past, as a potential new world order unfolds? There is also a message within Queen & Country that, although technology can be an ally to spies, it can also prove a double-edged sword and create vulnerabilities.
I wouldn’t like to venture on prophecy. Yes, history does sometimes repeat itself and, no, we don’t always learn from it (or even recognise it). And, yes, the tectonic plates of human affairs do shift – the rule of Rome collapsed under its own weight, the British Empire, which comprised a quarter of the globe, is no more, the Soviet empire is no more (despite President Putin’s desire to reinvent it), printing, the industrial revolution and the internet have changed everyone’s lives. As for a new world order, everything’s in flux – as perhaps it always is, really. Perhaps only in retrospect does a period seem stable and unchanging. Granted, there seemed no end to the Cold War when we were in it but within that overarching context international affairs were in constant flux – Russian’s blockade of Berlin, the Korean War, the repression of breakaway Budapest and Prague, Sino-Soviet hostilities and rapproachment, Vietnam, the birth and growth of the EU, the 1970s oil crisis, Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalisation of China, the Iranian Revolution, 9/11. These and other events were all said to herald a new world order.
As for the message in Queen & Country to the effect that technology is a double-edged sword – noted above – think how massively the CIA was damaged by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning when they leaked computer files. In the old days of paper files they could never have achieved such unsupervised access across the range of CIA activities, nor could they have purloined so much information without a fleet of removals lorries. Of course, computer access should have been much more tightly restricted and monitored – technically easy to do – but it’s at the point where humans and the technical interact that vulnerabilities occur, as in Queen & Country.
One of my favourite novels of yours is The Kaiser’s Last Kiss. The novel is written with both elegance and brevity, which are not the easiest traits to mesh together. Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of the novel? Also, have you ever been tempted to write about the last days or twilight years of any other historical figures?
Unusually, I can say exactly how the idea for The Kaiser’s Last Kiss came to me. I was walking along Piccadilly with my friend, the writer David Crane. My wife and I were thinking of going to The Netherlands for a few days and David, who knows it well, urged us to visit Huis Doorn, where the Kaiser spent his last years. I knew the Kaiser had fled into exile at the end of WW1 and had a hazy notion that he’d died shortly after. ‘No,’ said David, ‘1941.’ So he died under Nazi occupation, I thought. What must that have been like? Hence the novel.
Final scenes, the end of empire, the fall of tyrants, are – or can be made – dramatically interesting. I’ve written one other novel with such a theme – Dancing With Eva, set largely in Hitler’s bunker at the end of WW2. I had read everything I could on the bunker. It had long fascinated me, just as the cornering of Macbeth by his nemesis, Macduff, fascinates: the beast at bay, forced at last to recognise reality and his doom – ‘Of all men else I have avoided thee,’ confesses Macbeth. But I couldn’t think of a way of writing about the bunker without in some way glamourising those involved until I read the memoir of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries. I adapted some of her experiences and gave them to an invented character, Eva Braun’s secretary. Unfortunately, that excellent film about the bunker, Downfall – which also used Traudl Junge’s memoir – came out just before my novel, which might otherwise have made it into film.
Another book, outside the Thoroughgood series, which I enjoyed was Shakespeare’s Sword. The novel is, in part, about the theme of obsession. How obsessed do you become in relation to researching your books?
I’m not sure obsessed is the right word, so much as immersed or engrossed, implying (I hope) that wider perspectives and eventual emergence are still possible. What had long piqued my interest in the subject of Shakespeare’s Sword was just that: that he had one, as we know from his will. They were expensive and a mark of status. Why, what kind of sword, when did he get it, did he ever use it, who was Thomas Coombes and why did Shakespeare leave him the sword? Above all, what happened to it? Might it still exist, hanging on some wall somewhere, ignored and unrecognised? It was another novel over which I hesitated for years because I wasn’t sure how to do it – should it be about Shakespeare or about the sword, contemporaneous with him or set now? Or should it follow the history of the sword through the centuries, the kind of fantasy that Virginia Woolf makes in Orlando? The fact that I chose the way I did doesn’t mean, of course, that you – or I – couldn’t go back to it and explore each of the other ways.
The followers of Aspects of History are keen readers. Can you recommend a few summer reads, whether new or backlist titles, by authors you admire in the spy genre? Also, for any budding writers out there interested in writing a spy novel, can you recommend any non-fiction titles which may help them in their research?
I shouldn’t push Mick Herron’s Slough House series without confessing that he’s a friend. That done, they’re a most original and amusing take on the spy genre, nothing to do with reality, of course – as Mick well knows – but that doesn’t matter in the least. He writes well, they work and they’re deservedly very popular. Well done Mick.
A very different take is that of Andrew Taylor, the well-known crime novelist whose The Ashes of London begins a series of espionage novels in that turbulent but (nowadays) curiously neglected period of English history, the English Civil War. Again, it’s good writing, well-researched, atmospheric and credible. I hope there are more to come.
If you want actuality, some of the most realistic and best spy fiction is in Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden Papers. Set in WW1, they’re based on his own experiences. He apparently wrote more of them and showed them to his friend, Winston Churchill to see whether they would get him into trouble. Churchill advised him to burn them which, sadly, he did.
Aspiring spy writers seeking a non-fiction account could learn a lot from Frederick P. Hitz’s The Great Game, the Myths and Reality of Espionage. Hitz was the CIA’s inspector general and knows whereof he writes. As do Adrian Furnham and John Taylor in their recent book, The Psychology of Spies and Spying, a thoughtful examination of how and why people do it, with plenty of examples.
Finally, can you tell us a little bit about what you are currently working on?
As for me, I’m writing a WW1 spy novel featuring a young Miss Marple figure (though I won’t be allowed to call her that), drawing on the early history of MI6 which I covered in my biography of its founder, Mansfield Cumming. At the same time I’m researching a novel about Aphra Behn, successful Restoration playwright, the first woman in Britain to make a living by her pen – “I write for bread,” she said – and a documented spy who went abroad on missions for Charles II’s government. Her reports are in the National Archive.
Alan Judd is a former soldier and diplomat and bestselling novelist. Queen & Country is his latest book.
Richard Foreman is a bestelling writer and publisher.