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Do real spies write the best spy novels?

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John le Carre
English writer and spy novelist John le Carre, pictured in 1965. And no, that's not his real name.
Terry Fincher | Getty Images

For Literary Mysteries, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: Do former intelligence officers write the best spy novels?

Do you have to be a spy to write about spies? Or can imagination and research rival experience? 

The spy genre does have its roots in good, old-fashioned experience. Ian Fleming kicked off the modern spy novel as we know it with James Bond — and his books were heavily inspired by his own time in British Naval Intelligence.

Fleming spent much of the 1940s heading up a covert unit dedicated to infiltrating German territory to learn about the country's nuclear program. He was also integral in smuggling Nazi officials and academics from Germany to the United Kingdom. 

In 1943, he flew to Jamaica to track down rumors of a secret submarine base near Nassau. It was there that he picked up a book on birds — written by one James Bond. Ten years later, when Fleming decided to channel his time in intelligence into fiction, he pilfered the name "James Bond" for his new hero in "Casino Royale."

Deep cover

'Call for the Dead' by John le Carre
'Call for the Dead' by John le Carre
Courtesy of Penguin

John le Carre picked up the "spy-turned-novelist" mantle from there. Le Carre is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, born in Dorset, England, in 1931. He spent the '50s and '60s working for MI5 and MI6, Britain's national intelligence agencies. 

He infiltrated leftist groups in England in a quest to unmask potential Soviet agents. Later, he was assigned to various cities in Germany on covert missions. While working in Hamburg, he began his career in fiction. Foreign officers were forbidden to publish under their real names, so adopted the name le Carre.

Le Carre's career in intelligence then came to an end with a novel-worthy twist: His cover was blown by a British double agent working for the Soviet Union. The agent was one of the Cambridge Five, a group of Brits recruited by the Soviets during their time at the University of Cambridge. (Only four of the five were ever identified.)

His career over, le Carre devoted himself to writing full-time. He turned the agent's betrayal into the plot of the bestselling novel "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," where George Smiley hunts for a KGB mole. (In the 2011 film adaptation, le Carre has a cameo at the spy agency's Christmas party.)

New faces

'Blowback' by Valerie Plame
'Blowback' by Valerie Plame
Courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Covert missions and spy novels are not all a man's game.

CIA agent Valerie Plame followed a similar path to le Carre, nearly 50 years after he put pen to paper. When your cover is blown, what else is there to do but write books? 

After she was outed as a spy in a 2003 Washington Post column, Plame first wrote a tell-all about her experiences in the agency: "Fair Game: How a Top CIA Agent Was Betrayed by Her Own Government." Then, she turned to fiction. 

In 2013, she teamed up with mystery writer Sarah Lovett to write the first in a series of spy novels starring Vanessa Pierson — a fictional alter ego for Plame. The first book, "Blowback," centered on the Iranian nuclear project, which Plame had once investigated for the CIA. 

Fittingly, The Washington Post — the same paper that once exposed her cover — called the books "James Bond in high heels."

The secrets of British intelligence

Another author known for turning secrets into spy novels is Stella Rimington. 

Rimington made history in 1992 when she became the first woman to lead MI5. She was also the first director general of the agency to have her name publicized when she took the role, and to be openly photographed. The position had previously been cloaked in secrecy. 

After retiring in 1996, she channeled her years of intelligence experience into a memoir, and then, as with so many spies before her, she turned to fiction.   

Experience or imagination?

The list of authors with intelligence experience on their resume is deep: Fleming, le Carre, Graham Greene, William F. Buckley, Dashiell Hammett, W. Somerset Maugham, Charles McCarry, Plame, Rimington and more. Even Jason Matthews, a modern bestselling author known for "Red Sparrow," put in 30 years at the CIA.

(The most mysterious line from Matthews' bio may be that he and his wife "raised two daughters in countries they aren't allowed to name.")

But experience isn't everything. Some writers have managed to break through without insider knowledge of the gadgets and spy craft that have shaped previous bestsellers.

Robert Ludlum crafted "The Bourne Identity" series without the CIA on his resume — though he was once a Marine.

And Olen Steinhauer, the man behind the Yalta Boulevard books and "The Tourist," has never been a spy — as far as we know.

Daniel Silva, who has a string of bestselling spy novels, is also not spy, but he put in his time traveling the world as a journalist, often reporting from the Middle East. Those experiences have shaped the international intrigue he brings to life in his books. 

In these cases, research and imagination have inspired the authors' tales of espionage. But it's hard to deny the benefits of insider knowledge. 

Perhaps when people read the most outlandish stories of jet-setting, high-stakes spy tales, they like knowing that deep down, under all the false identities and double-crossing, it's rooted somewhere in reality.