Sunday, October 8, 2017

Guest Post: John Lawton on 'What Makes A Spy?'

I'm delighted to welcome, as my Bouchercon Hiatus, another guest post by the inimitable John Lawton, whose erudite espionage thrillers make compulsive reading. His latest Inspector Troy novel, FRIENDS AND TRAITORS is hot off the press this week.

What makes a spy was the subject of a panel discussion at the Bristol (England) Crimefest in May this year: Michael Ridpath, Mick Herron, Matt Richardson, James Silvester … and me. This is an attempt to assemble comments and thoughts uttered and thunk almust at randum into summat a tad more coherent. Here goes ...

The original title was ‘what makes a good spy?’ As I’ve no idea what makes a good spy I quietly dropped the adjective. I’ve had a little experience of dealing with real spies … I was briefly the literary agent for the suppressed memoir ‘Inside Intelligence’ by former MI6 agent Anthony Cavendish — indeed he is largely the basis of my character Roger Bentinck, although I hasten to add so fictionalised as to be almost a nice person; Cavendish wasn’t — and very early on in my days at Channel 4 I was roped into the Peter Wright affair, quite possibly because I’d dealt with Cavendish.

We would have loved to put Wright on camera, but with his book still banned the resulting legal mess would, quite obviously, not be worth it. However, there was nothing to stop us talking to his lawyer, a very bright young Sydney eagle named Malcolm Turnbull. Malcolm had not yet run for political office, but the glint was in his eye.

 One day in 1988 – I think it was spring in England and the monsoon season in Sydney, as I’ve never seen rain quite like it – I plonked myself down in Malcolm Turnbull’s office for a run through on the subject of ‘Secrecy’. I bought myself a moment by pushing my copy of Wright’s ‘Spycatcher’, co-written (is that different from ‘ghosted’?) with Paul Greengrass, for ages now the writer/director of the Jason Bourne franchise, but in those days just another TV director like me (thinks: must try harder.) across the desk.

“What do you make of Peter?” Malcolm said.

Well … I’d given that one a lot of thought on a 22 hour flight.

“It’s a peevish work. A quite distasteful read. He’s bitter and angry. He’s a man who’s spent his life on the outside and is now pissing in because he can’t be the man on the inside pissing out.”

“That about sums him up. He sees MI5 as a club he’s been in without ever being allowed to join. Desperate to belong but never really has.”

(You will appreciate that after thirty years that’s a paraphrase.)

Belonging or not belonging has, ever since, struck me as being crucial to the nature of the spy. I logged that one in the mental Rolodex without which any novelist is lost.

Several years passed. I had just finished my second Troy novel, ‘Old Flames’, and needed an apt quotation on the matter of belonging. I stumbled across a line from Kim Philby, uttered in an interview (quite possibly the only one he ever gave in Russia) in 1967:

“I was never a traitor. To betray you must first belong. I never belonged.”

The interview had been given to one Murray Sayle of the Sunday Times Insight team (if you’ve never heard of them, they were the cat’s pyjamas of journalism in the ante-diluvian, pre-Murdochian sixties and I urge upon any reader their insightful Penguin Special ‘Ulster.’). I’d worked with Murray at Channel 4. Every so often he’d roll up at our offices in Tottenham St. on his folding bike, with a Mac Plus, strapped to the rack, grab a desk, ask me an impossible question (eg. ‘What is the role of interest in a capitalist economy?’ Duuuuh.) and then proceed to answer it himself. This time I was ready for him.

“Did Philby really say that?”

“Yep. And I can give you a transcript of the entire interview if you like.”

“Did he believe it?”

“Most likely. But then we all kid ourselves about something.”

The pattern seemed complete – the snake had swallowed its own tale.

 Wright, outraged and enraged, first by the defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951, and then by Philby’s defection, after many years of suspicion, in 1963, had become MI5’s witchfinder general. It’s tempting to say ‘self-appointed’ but I’m not at all sure that he was, although I’m pretty certain that both Roger Hollis and Dick White found him a pain in the arse. In particular Wright held that ‘the queers’ were a security risk. He based this on the fact that one of the three Cambridge spies had been, in the words of Alan Bennett, ‘one of the most notorious buggers in London,’ and had time but mellowed him all his prejudices would have been revived and confirmed by the arrest of William John Vassall in 1962.

Of course the ‘notorious bugger’ was Guy Burgess, and now the snake spits out its tail. Spy and spycatcher each driven by a common sense of exclusion?

Did Guy Burgess belong? Did Guy Burgess think he belonged?

As he’s the subject of my next novel (Atlantic Monthly Press Oct 3rd), I’ve pondered this over many a glass of claret and even turned off the Archers from time to time of an evening to muse.

Can any gay man ‘belong?’ I’m clueless on that score, but I will assert softly that Burgess did belong and knew he belonged. The old Etonian tie was no affectation. When it wore out – there’s only so much fried egg you can scrape off before the fabric gives up – a new one was posted to him from London. And while there’s a contrast between his membership of London gentleman’s clubs and the quasi-orgiastic private parties he threw at his flat in Bond Street the one did not preclude the other – the society he was born into represented by the RAC Club in Pall Mall (incidentally the last place he was ever seen in England) and the society he opted for represented by rough trade and cottaging (the only offence with which he was ever charged.)

Perhaps it’s time to ditch Murray Sayle and pick up Dr. Spock. What makes a spy?

Mum … and Dad … would be my answer and in all likelihood Spock’s too. It’s just that no one ever asked  him.

There’s a marvellous scene in the first film in the revived Bond franchise, Casino Royale. Daniel Craig and Eva Green meet in the dining car as a eurotrain snakes its way into Montenegro – how they have avoided running into each other in the twenty or more hours since London St. Pancras baffles me, but no matter – and each dissects the other in terms of childhood, and of course they are both orphans, ending with:

“How was the lamb?”

“Skewered. One sympathises.”

(Dialogue courtesy of Wurvis, Hade and Paggis)

Neither relates to a parent. The first dislocation life has to offer, the first step to not belonging.

Both my spies fit into this, although it’s a pattern I’ve discerned after writing not before.

Charlie Leigh-Hunt, my fictional fourth or fifth man (I forget which) in the Cambridge spies is the sexually precocious only son of a very merry widow, always wondering which new ‘dad’ she will turn up with on school sports day.

Joe Wilderness is the son of an alcoholic mother and a violent war-deranged father who commits suicide in front of him. Neither belongs, neither feels they belong. Leigh-Hunt becomes a willing traitor ... Wilderness a willing spy always on the look out for ‘something interesting on the side’, who would never let loyalty get in the way of profit.

Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb, in the Slow Horses series, doesn’t seem to have much of a back story (don’t take my word for this – read the books) but his character River Cartwright fits the pattern I’m trying to assemble as well as James Bond does… an absent father, a feckless mother and an overly-influential grandfather. And I begin to wonder about the childhood of Kim Philby, son of a too-famous father, either dragged around the world or abandoned to English public schools.

But … Guy Burgess loved his mum. Treasured her letters from England, endured five years of silence before the Russians would let him tell her where he was, and was finally rewarded with visits to Moscow. Bang goes me theory.

But Dr. Spock is still with us. So let me end on summat as succinct as I can make it.

If you haven’t read John Le Carré’s collection of essays ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ yet, let me plug the one called ‘Son of the Author’s Father’, an engaging sketch of Ronnie Cornwell who is at least as outrageous as the fictional dad, Rick Pym, in ‘A Perfect Spy’. What makes a spy? Le Carré knows better than anyone. And I fear it is the psychological tug of war between defining oneself in opposition to a parent – never a happy parent, and never both parents – and the inevitable inheritances of character, all heightened by a cultivated mistrust, by growing up in a world where there are no fixed identities or irrefutable truths.

Oh Ivanka. What fate awaits thee?

P.S. : There's a postscript to this. Several weeks after the annual Mullerfest I was in the audience for the Chelmorton Festival’s Crime Night, run by the tireless Sarah Ward, in a Derbyshire village not far from my own bucolic retreat of Futtocks-in-the-Peak (one pub, one shop, one chapel, one church … er, that’s it.)

On the panel was another ‘local’ — Martin Pearce great-nephew of Maurice Oldfield (the ‘M’ of his day) and his first biographer of any note.

The point of Anthony Cavendish’s brief book, as I saw, it was to defend the reputation of Oldfield — in my fictional version of this, ‘Bentinck’s Agent’) Roger Bentinck just scrawls ‘Maurice Oldfield was not poof!’ across his abortive memoir. 

I asked Martin if he’d interviewed Cavendish. But Cavendish had died just as Martin began his research. So I quickly sketched for him the man I knew in all his blustering upper-crust Englishness. Martin replied, and here I paraphrase, “You know there’s doubt he was English at all. He might have been Austrian or German.”

If that really is the case then Cavendish sat on more secrets than I’d ever imagined and his impersonation of an Englishman knocks Robert Maxwell’s into a cocked hat, and there was a far, far better book to be written than the one he finally published.

It is 1958. Chief Superintendent Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard, newly promoted after good service during Nikita Khrushchev's visit to Britain, is not looking forward to a Continental trip with his older brother, Rod. Rod was too vain to celebrate being fifty so instead takes his entire family on 'the Grand Tour' for his fifty-first birthday: Paris, Sienna, Florence, Vienna, Amsterdam. Restaurants, galleries and concert halls. But Frederick Troy never gets to Amsterdam.

After a concert in Vienna he is approached by an old friend whom he has not seen for years - Guy Burgess, a spy for the Soviets, who says something extraordinary: “I want to come home.” Troy dumps the problem on MI5 who send an agent to de-brief Burgess - but the man is gunned down only yards from the embassy, and after that, the whole plan unravels with alarming speed and Troy finds himself a suspect.

As he fights to prove his innocence, Troy finds that Burgess is not the only ghost who returns to haunt him.

This Week's Word of the Week is velleity, meaning an inclination or wish not strong enough to be acted upon, from the Latin velle, to will.

Wednesday, October 11th
Sharp: 9-11pm, Noir @ The Bar, the Rivoli at 334 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON M5V 2A2

Bouchercon 2017, Sheraton Centre, 123 Queen St W, Toronto, ON M5H 2M9
Sharp: 8-10am Author Speed Dating, Grand Ballroom East
Lawton: 11-11:20am '20 on the 20' What Makes A Spy?, VIP room
Lawton: 1-2pm, 'Recent' History, Sheraton B

Sharp: 8:30-9:30am, Liars' Panel, Grand West
Lawton: 11:30am-12:30pm, Wartime and Crime, Sheraton A
Sharp: 2-3pm, Tough Guys & Gals, Sheraton A

Tuesday, October 17th
Lawton & Sharp: 7-9pm, Centuries & Sleuths event and signing, 7419 Madison St, Forest Pk, IL 60130

Wednesday, October 18th
Lawton: 7-9pm, Mystery Lovers Bookstore event and signing, 514 Allegheny River Blvd, Oakmont, PA 15139

Wednesday, October 25th
Lawton & Sharp: 6:30pm on, The Mysterious Bookshop event and signing, 58 Warren St, New York, NY 10007

FOX HUNTER October Blog Tour so far:

Oct 2nd, Vic 'Elementary V' Watson 'Keeping A Series Fresh'

Oct 3rd, Crime Book Junkie 'Character Assassination - Charlie Fox'

Oct 5th, A Lover Of Books 'My Writing Day'

Oct 6th, The Book Trail 'The Locations for FOX HUNTER'

Oct 7th, Rachel's Random Reads Back Catalogue Q&A


  1. I have not read any of John Lawton's espionage fiction, as that isn't my taste in mysteries.
    However, I have twice read any essay he wrote among anti-Semitism among those in the British establishment prior and during WW II that is the best exposition of this issue that I've seen.
    So, thank you for that.

  2. Errata: problem with writing late at night.
    The second paragraph, line one should be:

    However, I have twice reaed an essay he wrote about anti-Semitism among those in the British establishment prior to and during WW II that is the best exposition of this issue that I've seen.
    So thank you for that.

    1. I'm glad it isn't just me whose brain, fingers, and eyes are not quite connected at times, Kathy!

  3. What a terrific writer! I'm talking about you, John.

    Your "Ivanka" line is priceless.

    As for "Futtocks-in-the-Peak," it sounds more like an act than a place.

    Can't wait to get my hands on "Friends and Traitors."

    1. Don't worry, Jeff, I wouldn't have thought you might be talking about me :))

      I'll have you know that the practice of 'Futtocks-in-the-Peak' is illegal in most counties in England. Can't speak as to Scottish law. Things are different north of the border. You're still allowed to run wild haggis to ground with dogs, so I assume no futtock is safe.

    2. The Queen's futtocks are protected by law but the rest of them are fair game.

    3. I'm amazed, Ms. Zoë and Ms. Caro, at the differing cultural attitudes on the pressing question of "futtocks-in-the-peak." Where I'm based (not debased, you quick-witted ones), the Queen's futtocks are fair game but the rest of them are protected by law.

    4. I think it rather depends on which Queen is involved, Jeff. There is rank to royalty :))

    5. Some wags might even say there's no need for a preposition in your final sentence. :)

    6. Quite so!

      This from Mr Lawton himself, btw:

      'From the Dorling Kindersley Dictionary of Evolution

      'Futtock: the vestigial third buttock on a rhinoceros, now only perceivable as an egg-sized bump above the anus. The last three-buttocked rhino is believed to have become extinct approximately 30,000 years BC.
      Although evolved in the rift valley of Africa, several triple-arsed rhino skeletons were unearthed in Derbyshire in 1837 … hence the name of my village.'

    7. Wait, wait, don't tell me! And John's neighboring village is called, "Pilonidal."

    8. Just because you *can* come up with a brilliant one-upmanship response, Jeff, doesn't actually mean you *should* ...


  4. Welcome back, John. What a delight to know you'll be there to sign my copy in Toronto. One day--not this week, I imagine--we will have a chance for a talk about characters' problems of not belonging and the gifts that gives the storyteller. See you soon. Hooray for that!

    1. I'm, looking forward to seeing you in Toronto, also, Annamaria. Zxx

  5. I accidentally read that as the 'irritable John Lawton' rather than ..err Oops!
    Surely the most useful thing for a spy, is not to look like a spy....

    1. So, less James Bond, and more James ... Corden?

      As for Mr Lawton, I understand that he can be both, Caro :))