It depends. When it comes to the real world, spies are much easier to get solid information on. There’s a fair number of autobiographies, and interviews, to say nothing of confirmed former intelligence officers like John Le Carre and (ironically) Ian Flemming, who went on to become published authors.
But, assassins? Not so much.
A couple months ago, The Howard Journal of Criminal Science published a fairly interesting analysis of assassins in the UK. And, this is honestly the best source I’ve found to date.
They break assassins down into four groups. The Novice, Dilettante, Journeyman, and Master.
Novices make up the bulk of contract killers. These guys aren’t really assassins. They like the idea of getting paid for killing someone, but that’s their only claim to the title. In reality, we’re just talking about petty criminals here. They have no specialized training, and tend to be hires of convenience. They also, usually, strike targets in their own community. For police, this makes them very easy to identify.
Dilettantes are another variety of amateur assassin. These are older individuals, who will take a contract opportunistically. They’re not, nominally, criminals, and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. We’re talking about the Walter White of contract killers here… only, again, these guys aren’t very successful. There’s actually an example, where a dilettante was unable to carry out the hit after he spoke to the intended victim. As with novices, there’s no specialized training, and they tend to stay close to home.
Journeymen are getting into actual assassin territory. These are professional, methodical killers. They’re more likely to make repeated hits successfully, but they’re also likely to get caught. They come from a mix of backgrounds including ex-military, and career criminals. As with Novices, they rarely travel for a hit, so police can usually find them during the course of their investigation.
Masters are the assassins you’re probably thinking of, and, like I said at the beginning of the post, there isn’t actually a lot to go on. They do exist, but they’re contracted, travel to a location, execute a hit, and leave. Which makes them very hard to identify for a criminal investigation. The assumption is these guys are ex-military or career criminals, but a lot of this is supposition and guesswork. Ideally, this means you’re looking at normal ex-military personality types, with a bent towards the kind of goal oriented ex-special forces outlook.
Unfortunately, as the article points out, a lot of research into assassins is built off of failure, and the master specifically exploits weakness in law enforcement investigation techniques to avoid detection. I’m actually making this sound more dramatic than it really is; if there’s no connection between the victim and their killer, any criminal investigation is going to be dependent on the killer making some forensic mistake, or being identified by other means. When we’re talking about masters, there is no local connection, so there’s no real way to identify them.
So, ex-special forces: I know I’ve talked about these guys before, but the most common personality is very disciplined and goal oriented. While ex-military can encompass a wide array of personality types, special forces programs demand soldiers who can operate autonomously for extended periods of time. Without exception, we’re talking about people who can set goals, determine the best means to achieve them, and then formulate and execute a plan. The ones I’ve met that I know actually were special forces were extremely laid back and reserved individuals, (the ones I’ve met, that I’m not sure about, weren’t.)
If your assassin is a master, then you’re not going to be looking at an unstable psychokiller. These are people who kill someone for their job, and go home.
The article excludes state sanctioned assassins and political assassins, and I get why. They were looking at killers for hire.
With state sanctioned, we’re talking about the exact same kind of special forces outlook that you get from masters, so that much is easy. With political assassins, we actually are talking about zealots and fanatics, some of the time.
Unfortunately, a lot of state sanctioned assassinations are politically motivated, so you have a professional targeting someone for a political foe.
There’s a fair amount of material on fanatics targeting political figures, from Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan’s life because he wanted to impress Jodie Foster… no, seriously, that was why, to the assassination of Lincoln, there is a massive range for the psychologically unstable to the politically radicalized, with a little bit of everything in between.
These guys are pretty easy to research, they get a lot of attention regardless of success or failure. I’d caution against using a master in that role, simply because the attention the hit would generate isn’t in their best interests.