On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Writers and Spies

With MI5 celebrating its 110th anniversary this month, we are exploring all things cloak and typewriter by delving into the murky world of Writers and Spies.

At the impressionable age of seven I discovered that my home in sleepy Hampshire was once the childhood home of the charming spy Guy Burgess, and so began a lifelong, and possibly rather unhealthy fascination with the none too salubrious world of spooks, spies, and spy writers – it’s pretty normal to pretend to be a KGB spy infiltrating your school at 7 isn’t it?!

Decoding the world around them, breaking through the surface to get to the truth beneath, the worlds of Writers and Spies are all too alike. Both study characters and types, they observe and record; a turn of phrase here means something else there, and of course the creation of narrative (or throwing people off the scent of a narrative) is above all the name of the game for both.

Below we look at writers and spies from the 20th century, 19th century players in The Great Game, as well as some truly classic spy stories.

If you have any questions about any of the works, or if there is a particular work not featured here which you would like use to source, please do get in touch.

Twain’s adage ‘write what you know’ could have been written for the authors whose works follow below. Having all worked for British Intelligence, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham were inspired by their time in the shadows, putting pen to paper and coming up with some of the greatest spy stories of the 20th century.

The last author in this Writers and Spies section came as an absolute blindside, but on reflection it’s actually rather indicative of the character of the hard drinking, fight-loving man, throwing himself into everything (good and bad) that the world offered up.

Ian Fleming. Casino Royale. 1953. £32,000.

No spy write-up could ever be complete without the incomparable Ian Fleming and of course his creation James Bond.

As the tale goes, the inspiration for Bond came from Fleming’s time in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War. Whilst playing a baccarat game in Lisbon, the author is alleged to have whispered to his friend ‘just suppose these fellows were German agents—what a coup it would be if we cleaned them out entirely!’

The end of the war saw Fleming demobbed and working in a dreary job for a newspaper in London. Holidaying every winter at his beloved home of Goldeneye in Jamaica, it is here that he wrote all of the Bond stories, starting with Casino Royale in 1952. Fleming later claimed that he wrote the novel to distract himself from his forthcoming wedding, and called the work his ‘dreadful oafish opus’!

For the main character, in many ways an alter ego to the author, he sought to choose a name as boring and nondescript as possible.

Looking around his library, the author’s eyes alighted on a book entitled Birds of the West Indies by an ornithologist named James Bond…

Ian Fleming. Dr. No. 1958. £1,900.

As a lovely bit of trivia, the publishers Jonathan Cape were highly unenthusiastic about Casino Royale, with even Fleming’s friend, the writer and literary editor William Polmer remarking ‘so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent’! Fourteen books and 24 films later, Fleming definitely had the last laugh!

Already an established writer by the time British Intelligence came calling at the outbreak of the First World War, Maugham had the perfect cover for espionage. Dispatched both to Switzerland and to Russia, which was in the early throes of Revolution, Maugham passed largely unnoticed under the guise of finishing a play and doing some book research.

W. Somerset Maugham. Ashenden. 1928. £3,800.

It is this Russian trip that has elicited the most fascination, with the true nature of the mission a mystery even a hundred years later. Rumours have abounded that he was there to assassinate Lenin, with the author even going so far as to state he was there ‘to devise a scheme that would keep Russia in the war and prevent the Bolsheviks, supported by the Central Powers, from seizing power’

Ashenden or, The British Agent is in large part based on the author’s own undercover experiences. Initially there were 31 stories but as the story goes, 14 had to be destroyed on Churchill’s orders as they were in breach of the Official Secrets Act (perhaps Maugham’s mysterious Russian mission was revealed?).

Both his established career as a writer, and his penchant for travel, made Graham Greene the perfect candidate for MI6. Recruited in 1941, he monitored the Vichy forces in Sierra Leone, searching ships for smuggled diamonds and documents.  Under the ruse of book research, he travelled widely across China and the USSR, observing and reporting.  Later he worked under the famous Soviet mole Kim Philby, the two becoming friends even after Philby’s unmasking as a traitor.

Graham Greene. England Made Me. 1935. £16,500.

The Philby connection also gave Greene a rather dubious honour: whilst spying for MI6, he was himself the subject of investigation by the FBI due to his links with the Cambridge Spy Ring. With wonderful irony, whilst the author was under investigation by the Bureau, the CIA were helping to turn one of his novels into a film…..

Ernest Hemingway. In Our Time. 1925. £15,750.

An unexpected addition to this list, all the more surprising since Hemingway signed up as a spook not for his native America, but shockingly for the NKVD, a precursor to the KGB!

Code named Agent Argo by the Russians, apparently he was an absolutely god-awful spy and was dropped rather quickly after failing to ‘give any political information’ and was never ‘verified in practical work’ – more a spy in name than action.

Theories have been circulated as to why Hemingway would have worked with them, one is that he was merely a pseudo-spook, possibly seeing his clandestine dealings as potential literary material.

The steppes and mountains of Central Asia were a hotbed of espionage in the 19th century as John Bull (the British Empire – think of a stout red-faced farmer in a top hat and high boots) and the Russian Bear (the clue is in the name there) faced off in a shadowy political confrontation over Afghanistan, central and South Asia and the ‘jewel in the Crown’, India.

Immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in ‘Kim’, The Great Game, as it came to be known, began early in the 19th century, with both sides suspecting the other of looking to expand their control in the region.  The Russians believed that the British intended to move northwards through Afghanistan (a correct guess on their part), whilst the British feared that India was threatened by Russia (an incorrect guess by the Brits). At the start of The Great Game, the frontiers of the two imperial powers were separated by two thousand miles; by the end, only 20 miles kept them apart.

With the belief that a confrontation would take place in Afghanistan, both sides dispatched explorers, writers, spies and diplomats. These men crossed vast deserts and almost impassable mountain ranges, surveying , mapping and monitoring the approaches to the Jewel in the Crown.

Below are some of the most fascinating books to have been written about The Great Game.

At only 26, Alexander Burns was one of the first agents to be sent to Afghanistan by British Intelligence. Labelled both ‘the master of The Great Game’ and more recently the ‘Victorian James Bond’, double-crossing deals, secret mapping, intercepting Russian documents and espionage were the name of the game for Burnes.

Sir Alexander Burnes. Cabool. 1842. £1,850.

Amongst his many exploits, he surveyed the route through Kabul to Bukhara (earning the nickname ‘Bukhara Burnes’), produced the first detailed accounts of Afghan politics, travelled over a thousand miles up the Indus River (to prepare the way for a future assault on the Sindh), and produced the bestselling book Travels into Bokhara (1834).

Sir Alexander Burnes. Travels into Bokhara. 1834. £1,850.

Charles Masson

The first British man to explore Afghanistan on foot, and the father of Afghan archaeology, Charles Masson is an incredibly colourful character. Previously known as James Lewis, he deserted from the East India Company artillery, changed his name and tried to pass himself off as an American all the while living in Afghanistan.

Charles Masson
Charles Masson. Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan. 1842. £5,000.

After his former masters discovered his true identity, he was blackmailed into becoming a secret agent for the East India Company, spying in the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan.

Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan
Charles Masson. Narrative of various journeys in Balochistan. 1842. £5,000.

During his time on the run he excavated over 50 Buddhist sites around Kabul and Jalalabad in south-eastern Afghanistan, building up an extraordinary collection of artefacts which are now housed in the British Museum.

Muravev’s arrival on the playing field of The Great Game was the earliest significant move to come from the Russian side.

The young spy was sent to Western Uzbekistan with the aim of establishing contact with Muhammed Rakhim, the Khan of Khiva. After a century of no communication with Russia, his mission was to persuade the Khan to redirect caravan routes towards the Russian port at Krasnovodsk, as well as to gather intelligence on the Khan’s military capacity

Nikolay Nikolaevich Muravev. Путешествие в Туркмению и Хиву в 1819 и 1820 годах. 1822. £8,000.

He also attempted to negotiate the release of as many as 3,000 Russian slaves of the Khanate. The Khan was hostile to Muravev’s arrival, yet surprisingly he returned alive. Received by the Tsar on returning, he published Journey to Khiva through the Turkoman Country, the only work published in his lifetime and a bestseller in Russia.

We couldn’t wax lyrical about the exploits of the players in The Great Game, without including the book that arguably popularised the term.

Rudyard Kipling. Kim. 1930. £9,500.

Rudyard Kipling was never involved in spying, yet Kim, the author’s greatest novel and a key element in his winning the 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature is set amongst the political pressures and derring-do of The Great Game

Introducing the theme of great power, rivalry and intrigue, the titular character is very much a player, stealing secrets from two agents of the Russian Empire in the mountains of Asia.

Kipling romanticised the idea of The Great Game in the minds of a Victorian public hungry for tales of adventure –  even the term invokes images of rugby on the playing fields of English public schools.

Inspiring, thrilling and best of all fun, we couldn’t explore Writers and Spies without looking into a number of classics from the genre alongside a rather curious work (secret agents infiltrating a communist devil-worshiping cult…. Dennis Wheatley, I’m looking at you!)

Whilst the following writers can’t be said to have been spies themselves, their impact and contribution to the Spy Fiction genre definitely earns them a seat at this table.

For those that like their Spy Fiction peppered with a healthy dash of satanic ritual and occultism, look no further than Dennis Wheatley!

Secret agents infiltrating communist devil-worshiping cults, businessmen making deals with a satanic clergymen, a daughter baptised into Satan’s church, and a character that was one of the main inspirations for Fleming’s James Bond stories, Wheatley is ‘the Prince of Thriller Writers’.

Dennis Wheatley. The Satanist. 1960. £275.
John Buchan. The Thirty-Nine Steps. 1937. £220.

The archetypal English Spy thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps has gripped and enthralled readers since its publication – often earning a place in critics greatest lists.

With the stark landscape of Scotland serving as a backdrop, the narrative sees a man on the run accused of murder, all the while trying to uncover and stop an assassination plot. Ironically, with a plot dealing in an awful lot of running, Buchan penned the book from bed whilst recovering from a duodenal ulcer.

Set in the 1920s and based on an actual event, Liam O’Flaherty’s The Assassin provides a snapshot of Dublin life in a way that no other fiction writer has succeeded in doing. Michael McDara, the assassin, together with fanatical revolutionary Kitty Mellett, and Fetch, a brutal thug with a conscience, plan an execution and a daring escape.

Stemming from O’Flaherty’s own political-activist experiences, this novel is an investigation of the mind and motives of a political murderer.

Liam O'Flaherty. The Assassin. 1928. £975.