Nine detectives and nine spies

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 7, 2012

Sir Fitzroy Maclean’s book Nine Spies: True Spy Stories from Mata Hari to Kim Philby provides an interesting comparison with Brilliant Deduction.

Both are nonfiction works describing the lives and careers of nine (or so) figures, who became notable in a field concerned with discovering secret information. Both play out over a limited time period of very roughly a century, with common figures and events tying together the otherwise individual chapters. Both narratives intersect repeatedly with war (primarily the American Civil War in Brilliant Deduction; World Wars I and II in Sir Fitzroy’s book). Most striking of all, to me, both deal with the paradox of people whose fame (or infamy) resulted from affairs that most of the people involved wanted to keep quiet. Sir Fitzroy in the introduction to Nine Spies:

…anyone who attempts to reconstruct a real spy from a handful of mouldering bones in a prison yard or the ramblings of some elderly pensioner in scarcely less mouldy exile or retirement has a far harder task [than the author of fictional tales]. Confused by the duplicity of double agents, forever following carefully planted clues deliberately designed to lead nowhere or false trails which only lead back to the fertile imagination of previous investigators, blinded by smokescreens and baffled by strategems, he faces a far tougher and more frustrating assignment.

[…] All I have done in the present instance is take nine spies, sift through such evidence as I could find about them, discard what seemed to me obvious nonsense, and, from what remained, piece together the sequence of events and attempt some sort of estimate of the personalities involved and of their motives or lack of motives.

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