“Espionage” By C. A. Brown (Noir Christmas Short Stories – #6)

Stay tuned for the next story tomorrow evening at 9:30pm GMT 🙂

Thanks to a certain vermouth-swilling international incident on legs, spies get all of the glory. Which is great! We private detectives get to enjoy sneaking around too, but at least we get to advertise our services.

And, ever since some trendy new “gig economy” app had made everyone think that, yes, they could be a P.I. too – I’d found quite a profitable sideline in being a consulting detective for those who found themselves out of their depth. Which was pretty much all of them.

And that is never a good thing. Case in point, my latest client.

With a crisp handshake, he introduced himself as ‘Maximilian Redfort-Lowbury‘ before plucking a shiny new smartphone from the pocket of his designer jacket.

Tapping the screen twice, he said: ‘I signed up to GUMS4U as a bit of a lark. But, this latest case has got me stumped. Someone wants me to get hold of some documents from an encrypted government mainframe in Berlin. Within the week too.

I shrugged: ‘That’s illegal. Refuse the job. I’m sure there’s an option on the app for that.

Oh, come on!‘ He said ‘Where’s your sense of adventure? If you don’t help me out, I’ll be the laughing stock of… the office Christmas party.

Adventure? Do you know how busy the airports are at this time of year? Plus, I don’t sprechen sie Deutsch.‘ I sighed.

But, you just did. Just then. Your grammar was a bit off though.

Which just goes to prove my point.‘ I said.

Ah!‘ He said, as if he’d suddenly discovered the meaning of life ‘But you won’t really be talking to anyone! Surely you can just sneak in there and do whatever computer wizardry you detectives do. In fact…‘ He gestured at my computer ‘You could probably hack in from here, right?

That old thing? It’s been on a ten-year go slow protest. I can’t even log on to my e-mail without waiting five minutes. I think it wants me to oil it or something. I don’t speak computer either‘.

So, you’re useless?‘ He sighed sharply. ‘You know, I could have you investigated for false advertising. My friends could make your life..

Very easy if you walk out of the door right now.‘ I said ‘What would they think about you hiring a private detective so that you could bunk off for an unofficial Christmas holiday? And.. Maximilian Redfort-Lowbury… A word to the wise, false names work best when they don’t stand out a mile away.

After he stormed off in a huff, I poured myself a large scotch and watched the snow falling outside my office window. That’s the other problem with spies, they’re all a bit too taken with the idea of casinos, beautiful lovers and fancy hotels. Again, I blame the movies.

The Joy Of…. Spy Fiction

2014 Artwork Joy Of Spy Fiction sketch

Whilst I haven’t really read that many spy-themed novels (I can only think of about four or five off of the top of my head), I’ve read more than my fair share of detective and thriller novels and the spy novels that I’ve read aren’t too different from these in terms of plot, plot structure and atmosphere.

So, why am I writing about spy fiction in particular today?

Well, it’s because I love the genre when I see it in other formats – I love TV shows like “Bugs”, “Alias” and “Burn Notice”. I also quite like the “James Bond” movies, even though I absolutely hate playing computer and video games that revolve around sneaking around places. In fact, the only spy-themed video game that I actually like is “Goldeneye” for the Nintendo 64.

So, although I have a relatively limited experience of this genre, why is the spy genre so awesome?

Well, I can think of at least three reasons – the first one is that it gives us a fascinating (albeit fictionalised) glimpse into a world that is, by definition, hidden from us most of the time.

People are, by our very nature, curious and spy fiction can help us feel that our curiosity about the things that our governments do in secret has been satisfied. Of course, when details of what spies actually do are leaked to the media (like with Edward Snowden’s shocking revelations last year), it’s usually nowhere near as glamourous as spy fiction makes it out to be.

In fact, far from being glamourous, it’s usually slightly creepy and dystopic. I mean, the idea that faceless officials can be snooping on everyone’s personal data for no reason whatsoever is straight out of a George Orwell novel. So, shouldn’t this mean that spy fiction is inherently dishonest and – dare I say it – even a form of pro-Government propaganda? Possibly, but I’d argue otherwise.

Spy fiction gives us the comforting illusion that spies are actually principled people who use their skills and resources purely to stop nefarious criminal and/or terrorist plots and not to snoop on everyone’s e-mails, nude photos, phone records etc.. just because they can. Call me naive but, for the sake of my sanity, I prefer to think about the illusion rather than the reality.

In fact, whilst spy fiction might show governmental agents in a mostly positive way, I’d argue that this is more of a psychological coping mechanism for writers and readers who live in a dystopic world than anything to do with propaganda.

Secondly, spy fiction is a genre of fiction that relies entirely on intellect and resourcefulness. Although spy-themed TV shows, novels etc… might feature the occasional car chase, gunfight etc.. it isn’t really as much of a macho genre as the “James Bond” movies might make it out to be.

After all, the whole point of a spy is someone who can do things in secret in a way that the bad guys won’t notice. In other words, a good spy story is actually a story about a battle of intellects between the good guys and the bad guys. So, if you’re slightly nerdy in any way – then you’ll probably relish the chance to see someone solve problems using their brain rather than their fists.

If action movies are uplifting power fantasies for people who like to think of themselves as “tough”, then spy stories are uplifting power fantasies for people who like to think of themselves as “intelligent”.

Finally (and sorry for shoehorning yet another LGBT metaphor into one of these “the joy of…” articles), spy fiction can also be a very cathartic genre if you are LGBT in any way.

Why? Well, because it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ve had to spend at least part of your life hiding who you are from everyone around you (and you possibly still do). You’ve probably had to assume a “cover identity” as a straight person, a non-transgender person etc… in order to survive socially.

And, yes, this is nowhere near as glamourous as the secret identities that spies assume in spy fiction might seem to the uninformed reader. In fact, it can be terrifying and downright soul-destroying. So, seeing stories where this kind of thing is presented as “heroic” and “dramatic” can be incredibly comforting.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

How To Add Some Trickery To Your Thriller, Detective and/or Spy Story

...and a few household stationery supplies.

…and a few household stationery supplies.

Even though this is an article about writing thriller fiction, I’m going to start by talking about TV shows for a while. Trust me, there’s a reason for this.

Anyway, I was watching a TV series called “Burn Notice” on DVD recently and it made me realise something interesting about storytelling, particularly in thriller stories.

Although some of the stuff I’m going to talk about here is similar to an article about sci-fi/fantasy fiction I wrote last May, I’ll be looking at more “realistic” types of fiction in this article.

Anyway, “Burn Notice” is a show about an ex-spy who is trying to track down whoever mysteriously fired him from his job – he also solves crimes, helps people and/or outwits criminals in every episode too. It’s a really cool show, but this isn’t a review of it.

But, one of the interesting things about the show which could be useful to thriller writers is the fact that whenever the main character does something sneaky – he’ll usually explain what he’s doing in a voiceover. In other words, we get the illusion that we’re learning super cool secret spy tricks and this vicariously makes us feel like super-cool secret agents.

Sprinkling your story with cool-sounding “information” is a perfect way to keep your readers fascinated. But, since you’re probably not a spy or a detective, then how do you do do this?

For starters, you don’t actually need to talk to any real spies, detectives etc… about how they do their jobs and what tricks they use. Although if you somehow can do this, then this is probably a bonus.

Likewise, you should NOT look up information on the internet about exactly how people carry out activities that would be dangerous and/or illegal. Even though it might seem like an obvious way to do background research for your story, it is a really stupid idea! And, in some cases, it may even land you in legal trouble. So, don’t do this!

In other words, you don’t really have to know anything – since not knowing anything doesn’t mean that you can’t write about it in your story. The trick is to trick your readers into thinking that you know what you’re talking about. Still with me?

The best way to trick your readers into thinking that you know as much as a trained spy, detective etc… does is to start small. In other words, show your main character using a couple of small (non-illegal and non-dangerous) tricks that actually work in real life.

These can be spy/detective-related things (eg: like the main character finding a good place to hide a piece of paper). But they can also be totally random unrelated things that most people don’t know about (like how to extend the life of a marker pen).

As long as it isn’t illegal, violent or dangerous and it sounds like something that most people don’t know and would probably like to learn, then do your research and add it to your story.

A good place to start for researching cool obscure things is a site like Wikihow or, for more directly spy/detective-related things, then check out online articles about things like computer security, home security etc..

Showing you main character protecting himself or herself against the bad guys by using a realistic non-violent security technique that anyone can use is a great way to impress your readers.

For a good literary example, check out the first chapter of Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow” (an excerpt can be found here). In this chapter, the main character (an ex-military policeman) is able to spot a suicide bomber because he’s memorised a list of warning signs that tell him what to look out for.

Now, once your readers see these small realistic things, then they’ll probably assume that you know what you’re talking about. So, when it comes to the really dramatic stuff – you can just make it up or, even more sneakily, leave a few details tantalisingly vague. As long as it doesn’t sound blatantly unrealistic, most of your readers will probably believe you.

But what if they don’t? Well, this isn’t as much of an issue as you might think.

Chances are, any actual detectives, spies etc.. that read your story will probably be glad that you aren’t actually teaching the general public anything dangerous or secret.

Not only that, most people are smart enough not to imitate things that they read in thriller novels – so they’ll probably never check. At worst, if your story becomes extremely popular, then any films based on it might eventually appear in a segment of “Mythbusters” or something like that (and, let’s face it, having something based on your work appearing on a major TV show is hardly a bad thing).

So, remember, if you make sure that the small stuff is realistic, then you can just make the big stuff up and most of your readers will probably believe you.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂