Monday, July 16, 2012

Moles over Murder: Why Write Espionage?

As a voracious reader, I've read a lot of romantic suspense and thriller novels. One thing I've noticed is that there seems to be a formula. Stories usually began with a dead body and the rest of the book took the reader on a journey to find out how the body got that way. And it's a formula that works and has worked for years with good reason. But when plotting my upcoming J.J. McCall series, I had to figure out something different because I discovered an aversion that would make the usual formula difficult for me to follow.

When I first started working at the FBI in 1991 (right before the what could be termed "The Decade of the Spy Catcher" in which the likes of convicted spies Ames, Hanssen, Nicholson, and others were arrested), I served a short stint in the unit that covered a potpourri of jurisdictions--everything from air plane crashes to violations under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. If you Google RICO and La Cosa Nostra you will see that it was a very powerful tool in bringing a lot of mafia-types to justice.

In both types of investigations, the files contained lots of pictures from the various crime scenes. Of course in air plane crashes, you can imagine the gruesome pictures. And in RICO, well, lets just say they didn't get much better. It was then I realized I have an aversion to death, especially gruesome ones. I hated to see people die horrible deaths. I didn't want to explore that or think about it. It's even tough for me to read or see in movies. I really internalize deaths  (real or imagined) far more than a normal person should. I couldn't even imagine working in units conducted murder investigations. Ugh.

So, I went in search of a kinder gentler kind of crime, where people didn't much.

A year or so later I ended up in the Intelligence Division (later known as the Counterintelligence Division, National Security Division, and now known as the Directorate of Intelligence) where I started working espionage cases. What a relief! We didn't deal in dead people. We dealt with live people. They started out alive and left alive--even if they ended up dying when returned to their own countries. And as a certified "Geek" what I loved most about counterintelligence and espionage is that every case was a like a puzzle that you built ambiguous piece by ambiguous piece until you compiled enough of a picture that you could employ more aggressive investigative tactics and hopefully get less ambiguous pieces that would eventually lead to an arrest. Only after an arrest did you get a full picture--or at least you hoped a plea deal with the suspect would result in debriefings that would get you a fuller picture if not the whole enchilada. .

These cases require LOTS of analysis--Geek heaven! I really enjoyed this work.

Most new agents hated CI because they'd never have an opportunity to fire their guns. Older agents loved CI because they'd never have to fire their guns. 

Anyway, for my J.J. McCall stories, I had to figure out something a little different...because of my aversion to death and all.I didn't want to spend an entire book exploring how someone died. Or creating really gruesome deaths in my head all the time. No, those would've been short books. Over in chapter one. 

Now this is not to say there are no deaths in my novels, or the game of espionage. Of course there are. In classic espionage, when sources are compromised by moles (i.e., an FBI or CIA employee working on behalf of a foreign intelligence service while still employed in their govie position), sources are murdered. Has happened more times than I care to even think about. And some foreign intelligence services have been particularly torturous and brutal. Brutal in a way that a shot to the back of the head or poison seemed kind. So, you can't get past these kinds of deaths and they do help raise the stakes in the novels. Because real or imagined, espionage puts real lives at risk in addition to the security of our nation.

But the plots focus on finding the SOB mole who sold out his country--which is HARD. For example, an FBI mole often has the same training, access to systems, and access to files as his colleagues who are trained to find him. They know FBI methods of operation, they know how to cover their tracks. How do you find one of your own? Not an easy task at all. But one explored in the first installment of the series--The Seven Year Itch.

Will my plots be based on real cases? Nope. I signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Bureau when I left so I can't speak on specific cases on which I worked. However, that does not mean I cannot draw on my 12 years of experience and make up stuff. This is why we love fiction. And trust me, working in the Bureau during the "Decade of the Spy" I have some experiences that will hopefully translate into great stories for the readers.

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  1. Hi, Mr Skye - I started out writing puzzle mysteries but my next one is turning out to be an espionage/political thriller. It really is a different animal. Thanks for your insights here.

  2. You're welcome and I'm glad they were informative. (Although that's Ms. Skye) Yes, it is a very different animal. The story structure is much more complex than the straight romances that I've written in the past. And the plots more intricate. But they do make for fascinating reads if done well. I'm still learning and hope I get it right.


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