What’s the Point of Espionage in a Spy Novel?

Espionage is conducted by nations to shape policy. Pretty simple. One country gathers information about another country, analyzes it, and then makes policy decisions based on the analysis of the information. The policy result is national in scope, although it is often not made public for a variety of reasons. Those policy choices can include reallocating assets, refocusing training, undertaking new initiatives or retooling existing ones, shifting political and economic relationships, changing priorities, or, and this is rarely thought of as “policy-making,” doing nothing at all. The point is that at the national level, policy formulation and implementation in response to intelligence gathering, including espionage, usually involves significant numbers of people from start to finish.

The famous checkpoint between East and West Berlin during the Cold War
Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin – 1985
In the world of the spy novel, the retail implementation of a policy formulation in response to intelligence gathering usually depends on one person, the protagonist, someone to root for, someone whose special gifts, including the ability to overcome ridiculous odds, decisively tilt the scales in favor of the good guys. That model of storytelling, with a hero at its center, is more satisfying than spreading the credit or blame around. In other words, the “espionage” drives the action of one person, or perhaps a small team of people, in a spy novel rather than an entire government bureaucracy as it usually does in the real world of geopolitics.

The hero in a spy novel isn’t necessarily the man or woman who figures out the plan the evil country or evil genius is hatching. Although at times the protagonist will be involved in that process, he or she will usually be part of a larger apparatus – think MI6 or CIA here – unravelling a riddle that has come its way. In point of fact, once the riddle is unraveled by some institutional actor, as noted above, the policy response will most often be one that involves a number of other institutional actors working, hopefully, in coordination to devise and implement a responsive or proactive policy. In a spy novel, the policy response will fall almost entirely on one person. The response itself is usually the eradication of the threat, and that task is given to the hero. The hero is supported in that task by gadgetry, by advice, by logistics, and so forth, but the ultimate task of implementing the policy to remove the threat is left to the hero. Some heroes are at the center of a small team that is incapable of functioning properly without the hero. Other heroes work alone, unencumbered by the burden of non-heroes. Sometimes the hero is an amateur, adding a level of challenge to policy implementation not present when the hero is a professional and the tip of an agency spear.

The model I’ve chosen for my five Nick Temple Files is the hero at the center of a small, supportive team that can function only as well as the hero is functioning. The team members’ job, including Nick Temple, is initially to assist a larger bureaucracy in figuring out the problem, or the actual espionage portion of my spy novels. Once the problem is identified, it is up to the hero and his team to implement the policy of eliminating the problem. At that point, intelligence gathering is for the most part complete, and the action/resolution begins. By using a team, I can bring a number of skills to bear on the problem, whatever it is. Were I to put the entire burden of solving the problem on Nick Temple, I’d have to load him up with, in my view, an unrealistic number of skills. That’s certainly one approach, and I’m not criticizing it. There are plenty of people out there who want a hero who can do everything, who doesn’t need any help, and that model is a highly successful one for many authors. That’s just not my preference. At the end of the day, at least with the Nick Temple Files, I want the reader to view the hero as exceptional, but believable. And although the model of policy implementation in a Nick Temple File is not generally accurate, the reader can believe that it too is possible if policymakers were to go that route.

Espionage, then, in a spy novel, drives the action in the resolution, at least in the model I employ. The big action scenes that embody the novel’s resolution rely on the collective intelligence gathering, or espionage, leading up to that moment. After all, figuring out the riddle is at least half the fun, and the action that follows, that’s the rest of the fun!