Spy novels have never been so popular, and Adam Brookes is at the forefront of a new generation of authors who are reinventing an enduring genre for a whole new century.
To kick off the Blog Tour for his new novel Spy Games, published by Sphere, Brookes gives us the intel on the second oldest profession.
It’s fair to say that he knows his stuff – as a BBC correspondent in Washington, Brookes was deeply engrained in the world of government secrets, and has reported on assignment from many of the world’s most dangerous countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea.
And in China he found himself in a potentially dangerous situation when he received repeated visits from an anonymous man offering to sell him military secrets to pass to British Secret Services – a likely ‘dangle’ designed to entrap him. The event inspired the writing of his first thriller, the acclaimed Night Heron.
Brookes is a fascinating and informed interviewee. He talks about his hunted protag Philip Mangan, how technology is changing the face of the spying game, and he talks about the big beasts of the genre who inspired him to write…
Tell us about Philip Mangan…
Philip Mangan is a freelance journalist who works in China. He files copy for a newspaper and television packages for a small TV news agency. He’s tall, rangy, red-haired, shabbily dressed, disorganised in all but his thoughts. We meet him at the start of Night Heron in Beijing, where he’s based. He tries to report seriously on China, but Communist Party control and the difficulty of getting to the story leaves him feeling hamstrung and restless. He’s vain, too, and, like many journalists, he sometimes hankers to be involved in the events he observes. It’s that impulse that will draw him into espionage, and into trouble.
Spy Games picks up where its predecessor Night Heron left off – with Mangan in a very sticky situation. Where does Spy Games take him?
By the start of Spy Games, Mangan has fled China. We find him in Ethiopia, still reporting, hovering at the edge of the clandestine world. But Chinese intelligence knows who he is now. And they have plans for him.
Is it difficult to keep up with ever-changing geopolitical complexities – are you afraid your topical spy novels will be superseded by real events?
I try not to think about it, to be honest. And I try to focus on the building of my imagined world, where real geopolitical events may be reflected, but where they aren’t essential. You can still read a spy novel written in the Cold War – one long ago left behind by events – but which retains its power because of its characters and the world they inhabit, and the predicament they find themselves in.
As the BBC’s China correspondent, you found yourself in a dangerous situation when a man offered to sell you military secrets – what happened?
This elderly guy came to the BBC Bureau in Beijing and tried to get me to accept Chinese secret documents. He claimed to have all kinds of tantalising information – military secrets relating to missile technology – and he wanted me to be his go-between with ‘the right people’ at the British Embassy. I sent him away, rapidly. He was very persistent, but eventually disappeared and I heard no more. I’m fairly sure it was some sort of provocation. Someone was testing me, just to see what I’d do. This happens to journalists and businessmen from time to time. It’s not so unusual, but it’s weird when it happens to you, the sense that you are being watched, evaluated.
How has spying as a profession changed over the years, do you think?
I’d only know from what I read and what people tell me, but I think much has changed because of technology, obviously. Information that once moved on the airwaves in code, or in diplomatic pouches, or was handed around in paper files, now resides on servers. Technical collection now uses the bulk of intelligence agencies’ resources – cyber, eavesdropping, satellite imaging, the tracking of electromagnetic and chemical signatures, biometric monitoring, data mining. But many in the intelligence agencies continue to argue for the centrality of old-fashioned human intelligence: the recruiting of agents to spy.
Technology has changed things here too, of course. Where a fabulously successful Cold War agent like Penkovsky might steal or photograph hundreds of documents, a single USB stick can now hold hundreds of thousands. Where once the target of agent recruitment might be a disillusioned colonel or a wayward diplomat, these days the agencies want to recruit systems administrators, too, for their access to networks and servers full of secrets. Intelligence agencies have become huge, expensive bureaucracies reliant on the private sector for digital infrastructure and support. But there are still agents and handlers: that world still exists, and will for a long time to come, I think.
How did you start writing?
With difficulty. I was a journalist for more than twenty years, and only through the daily grind of writing dispatches and news stories did I begin to get any sort of feel for good writing. I never planned to write fiction. It just sort of crept up on me in my forties, and now here I am, stuck with it.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
I think it was learning to grit my teeth and take the edit administered by, well, whoever happened to be editing that day. And then learning to appreciate the edit. And then learning to value it, and to love the rewrite.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Le Carre, of course, because he both defines the genre and transcends it. Alan Furst for atmosphere and economy; his Dark Star was the book that really made me think about attempting to write fiction. William Boyd for his complex, flawed characters and his understanding of how stories about spies speak to all our fears and anxieties. Hilary Mantel because, well, Hilary Mantel. Thomas Cromwell was an intelligence operative, remember.
Give me some advice about writing…
Only if you give me some back. In truth, I hate giving advice. Someone might follow it. I’ll pass on some advice which helped me. It’s from Will Self: ‘You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.’
What’s next for you and Philip?
A third, and final, descent into darkness. In which Philip Mangan must decide if he wishes to fight his way back into the light.
Spy Games by Adam Brookes is published 10th March by Sphere, price £7.99 in paperback.
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