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.

While I had a somewhat easier time of it in many cases, the above does apply to a good deal of my experience with this project. “Paddington” Pollaky, among the most private of private investigators ever, still feels as elusive as any of the men or women in Nine Spies. And Vidocq, of course, was a master of misdirection and “strategems,” who scarcely needed the additional rumors intentionally planted by his foes, though they were plentiful all the same.

In fact, once one goes back as far as Vidocq the profession of detection seems like an offshoot of espionage, itself. Later detectives dabbled in the world of spies, including Pollaky, Pinkerton and William Burns. But in reading about the earliest figures in Nine Spies, and how they improvised systems and roles toward the end of the 19th century, I was regularly reminded of how Vidocq gradually built his networks and negotiated a role with authorities toward the beginning of Europe’s same “long nineteenth century.” The connection is logical enough too, I suppose; both spying and detection involve trading on an ability to find out things which someone wants to know.

And that, in turn, probably explains much of why both remain fascinating in fiction long after their real-life golden age (however real it was) has long since come and gone. Detection has lost much of its scope for producing famous individuals through bureaucratization, and technology; something of the same may apply to post-Cold-War espionage as well.

Nonetheless, in the imaginary world of novels and film, where “the writer of fiction is at an advantage,” the great game(s) can continue.

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