Tag Archives: writing spies

Hi! I was just reading Alex Rider and came across a part that mentioned Alex beating up a group of bullies and it got me wondering. If trained child combatant who was going to a normal public school how would the school as a whole (faculty, parents and students) react to of a story circulating regarding a kid taking on five and going to the ex-special forces levee of brutality to win? How could it be covered up?

Looking at the real world, if you have a kid who’s been
getting training from their parent… look, this shouldn’t happen. Most
responsible adults with advanced combat  training won’t teach it to their kids. Most. But, it does happen. You will
occasionally run across kids who’ve had police or military hand to hand
training. They have a parent who’s a cop, or spent tours oversees. The kid may
be responsible with this information. Or, something like this could (and does)
happen. Maybe it was some misguided, “teaching them to fight,” machismo by
their parent. Maybe the kid just wasn’t quite stable, or simply made a
miscalculation. There’s a lot of potential factors.

The result is pretty messy, however. Criminal investigations,
of both the parent and the child.
Depending on the severity of whatever they meted out, you may be looking
at criminal charges, potentially being charged as an adult. A kid snaps, gouges
out the eyes of an opponent, and kills another by crushing their trachea, and
you could easily see a kid in modern America sentenced to +25 years in prison.
This can easily spill over onto their parents. It’s not hard to see a situation
where an older kid could get their younger siblings taken by CPS in order to, “protect,”
them from the parent responsible for this training in the first place.

There’s also a real liability issue for the school and the
kid’s parents. If you’re wondering about the idea of a cover-up in the real
world, that would be stopped dead by civil litigation. Say whatever you want
about America being overly litigious, but things like this are why tort law
exists. This would also become a factor regardless of the bullies being alive
after the encounter. Someone trained this kid; they’re responsible. Someone let
this kid wander around free, waiting for something like this to happen (even if
they didn’t know); they’re responsible. This means, even if he kills all the
bullies, and there’s no witnesses, you still couldn’t bury this thing fast
enough.

The irony here is, even if the bullies provoked this
response, it’s still indefensible, and in the eyes of everyone the kid who went too far, and started turning people into
meat origami, and they will be held responsible.

This is something every martial artist lives with’ the more
training you have, the less force you’re allowed to use to defend yourself. The
thought process goes (accurately) that you need to apply less force to ensure
your safety, and that of others. It becomes far easier to become the aggressor,
legally. This still applies to your kid. Age really isn’t a factor in that. It
doesn’t matter if it’s a teen or an adult, with advanced hand to hand training.
They go off and start killing people, even in self defense, it’s going to be
viewed far more carefully than if a white belt screwed up and accidentally
killed a mugger.

So, yeah, that’s not going to be fun.

There’s another factor here worth remembering, bullies are
looking for easy victims. They don’t always succeed in finding them, and they
probably couldn’t tell you how they identify their potential victims. Normally,
bullies will avoid someone with combat training. This isn’t intentional
behavior, so much as a subconscious response. Martial training builds
self-confidence. In turn, this makes them look less like ideal victims to a
bully. Somewhat obviously, it’s not 100%. Some people really are too stupid to
live, but that tends to be a self-solving issue.

So, let’s put this back in its intended perspective for a
minute. Or at least, as much as I can, having never read the Alex Rider books.

You’re an intelligence agency that just took complete leave
of its senses and trained a teenager to be a superspy. They then took that
training and used it on civilians? Your next phone call is to get a cleaner on
site to bullet the kid in the back of the head, and dump them in a landfill,
hog farm, or whatever’s nearby, then pretend that kid never existed in the first place. Let everything after that become
one more mystery, because really who’ll notice?

After all, if you couldn’t trust them to keep their training
secret, what hope do you have that they won’t flip and start spewing classified
information to anyone with a badge or a gun? You can’t afford that. No one can.

Worst case, leaving the body where it landed won’t really
lead back to your doorstep. There’s an awkward truth to homicide
investigations: If the killer and victim are total strangers, it can become
damn near impossible to identify them. A cleaner with an unregistered .44 can
leave your teen spy in a pool of their own blood, and slip the perimeter before
the local PD figures out what happened. They’re used to giving authoritarian
regimes the slip; what are the NYPD going to do? Seal Manhattan over one
homicide? Yeah, right.

Not killing the kid and just turning them loose will result
in a psychologically unstable rogue agent who may have information you really don’t want in the wild, and their
cover is now blown. So any rival groups could potentially make a play for them,
or try to disappear them for their own use. That’s another big problem, but
hey, it’s a tough world. Hell, even M threatened to have James Bond killed at
least once, right?

Also, having a kid flip out like this is a training failure for your agency. I mean, it’s one thing when
we’re talking about some guy who was teaching their kid Krav Maga in their
basement,  but if you’re supposed to be a
respectable intelligence agency, you really needed to make sure your spy would
actually be able to operate in the field. That doesn’t mean shirking the issue
of bullies, but it does mean finding other, more creative, ways to neutralize
them. Not necessarily non-violent means, though those would be preferable.
Planting evidence, framing them for crimes, or just straight up blackmailing
them into public confessions are all on the table, but taking the direct
approach for no substantive gain? No, that’s just bad tradecraft. It exposes
the kid, it exposes your agency, and it does this for no benefit.

If there’s a lesson for your writing, it’s that no one is too important to kill if they
become a big enough problem. I realize this kind of flips the script on the
superspy genre. But, given the provided scenario, there’s no compelling reason
not to snuff them. Any cover-up needs to start with tying up loose ends. That
means the kid and anyone he confided in. Best case, just him. Worst case, it’s
time to dig out the tarps and deep six a few friends and acquaintances. Just be
quick, clean, and make sure there’s nothing left that can tie back to you, and
you’re golden.

Now, this doesn’t mean that assassinating the kid needs to
be successful. The odds aren’t in their favor, but they could find a way to survive.
I mean, the entire Bourne film franchise is based off a rogue agent working
against his old handlers (the novels are slightly
different). But, it is the reasonable response, especially when working in a genre
that goes through supporting characters like popcorn. It’s easy to sit back and
think, “well, that doesn’t apply to this character, because they’re one of the
main characters.” Splat. Not so much, it seems.

One of the best ways to keep your audience engaged (in genre
fiction) is to find ways to subtly violate the conventions of your genre by
remaining true to the nature of your characters. Especially if those characters are baked into the genre itself. The
superspy genre is (usually) very lethal, selectively. It kills off characters
who aren’t important to the narrative. It will wax the mentor, the old friend,
people your protagonist cares about, because it’s expected. But, it rarely
turns around and puts a bullet in the protagonist because they became too much
of a problem… unless you’re Sean Bean.

It’s probably worth saying, in closing, you really can’t
train a teenager as a spy. Maybe for sigint, but not spies like you think of
them. Working in human intelligence includes a staggering amount of
psychological pressure. Most adults can’t handle it. Part of the training
process is about screening out recruits that simply wouldn’t be able to survive
the job. While you could subject a teenager to this, their chances of coming
out the side as a functional operative, or even alive, are extremely low. It’s
one thing to wave this for because you’re looking at the superspy genre, but that
operates with a comfortable disconnection from reality. When you start asking, “but,
how would this actually work?” Everything starts to come apart at the seams.

-Starke

Since I didn’t work a reference in along the way, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is still a fantastic look at spies, and absolutely worth your time. Amusingly, it’s not the first novel in the series, but is an excellent book.

Also, I’ll say it again, the first couple seasons of Burn Notice are a fantastic tradecraft primer. They’re not perfect, but the narrator offers a lot of excellent insight into how to exploit human nature.

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How DARE you say that about Sam Fisher! It’s made clear in Pandora Tomorrow that he uses Subsonic Ammunition, and his FN2000 and FN5.7 Suppressors are custom made too!

muesliforbreakfast

I realize this was probably a joke, (and also that it’s now been several
months since it was posted; I’m working on clearing out the draft pile), but
it’s probably worth fleshing this out a little. Also, if it sounds like I’m
being a little harsh on Splinter Cell
here… there’s actually a reason.

Tom Clancy was an American novelist who died in 2013. He wrote thrillers
focused on the US intelligence community, starting in the early 80s, and on
through the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of
terrorism. Politically, his material leaned hard conservative, with an almost
fetishistic obsession on the American Military Industrial Complex.

I’m just going to say it; I don’t like Tom Clancy’s writing, on an aesthetic
level. It’s not to my taste at all. However, if you’re writing about the US
special forces (and can get past his politics), he is a fantastic place to
start. Just, be careful, even before his death, his name was slapped on a lot
of books he wasn’t involved with. This includes almost all of the tie in series
like Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, Netforce, and a bunch of others I’ve
forgotten.

The games? …not so much. The first game based on Clancy’s novels (that I’m
aware of) was Red Storm Rising, a detailed strategic simulator of a potential
Third World War between the US/NATO and the Soviet Union.

The second (again, that I’m aware of) was Rainbow Six, a first person
shooter that focused on controlling an entire team of hostage rescue/counter
terrorist operators, and featured combat with (in the context of contemporary
games) very fragile combatants. (One or two shots was enough to down any
combatant.)

Splinter Cell was probably the first game that really started wandering off
the reservation, and the second that wasn’t based on one of Clancy’s novels
(Ghost Recon was the first).

By 2002, Tom Clancy’s name had become a brand which expanded beyond just his
novels. There were multiple video games, a TV movie that failed to launch a
show, and multiple adaptations of the original novels to film.

Almost immediately, Splinter Cell gets into the exact kind of world building
problems that Clancy’s work tried to avoid.

While I like Fisher as a character, he does not fit within the flavor of
Clancy’s setting. His personality is right, having someone who engages in that
kind of ghosting infiltration isn’t the problem (not really). It’s the
skin-tight wetsuit, the thermal goggles, a pistol and rifle that weren’t
available to civilian purchasers (at the time). All of this screams,
“government sponsored,” which is the last thing you want when you’re sending a
cyberninja into a foreign country.

As I’ve said before, the idea of sending someone in, to sneak around and
hang from ceilings isn’t exactly how infiltration actually works. Being
invisible 100% of the time is an unrealistic goal. Dressing up in a black
bodysuit, with a massive array of high end hardware means that when someone
does notice you, they’ll notice, and remember. Once spotted, there’s no option
to escape, no way to blend into a crowd, no way to disappear. Aside from
leaving a huge trail of bodies in your wake.

Also, the Five-Seven really is the wrong gun to give him. It’s a neat,
high-tech pistol, but for what Fisher is doing, it’s the wrong tool for the
job.

The FN Five-Seven is a modern semi-auto pistol. It entered production in
2000, and is one weird handgun. The strange part is the 5.7mm round that gives
it its name. These were originally developed for the FN P90, and are much
closer to a rifle round than something you’d usually consider loading into a
pistol.

I’ve joked that the only reason for the Five-Seven to exist is to classify
the P90 as a submachine gun instead of an assault rifle. Though, I’m honestly
uncertain that’s not the real reason.

Unfortunately, the reality is, you really can’t silence a handgun by simply
attaching a suppressor to it. The gunshot you hear is caused by ignited gasses
expanding and escaping into the atmosphere. In order to fully silence a gunshot
you need to capture all (or nearly all) of the escaping gas. With most
semi-automatic pistols, one of the venues for that is when the slide cycles
open. You can deaden the gasses venting down the barrel, but you’ll still hear
a noticeable gunshot. A suppressed handgun will make, roughly, the same amount
of noise as an airsoft pistol. Something you’ll hear if you’re in the room with
it, but might not notice on the other side of the building. The gentle “fipping”
noise from Sam’s Five-Seven… and most media, really, it’s a standard sound
sample, just doesn’t occur. (If I remember correctly, the common sound sample
comes from a .22 with a locked bolt.)

There’s also a second problem with the Five-Seven that most pistols don’t
have to deal with, 5.7mm is a hypersonic round, though that’s something that
Splinter Cell directly addresses, it does make Fisher’s weapon choice a little
odd. Especially in a setting where .45s are easily available. (And, I want to
say Conviction defaults to giving him a USP an H&K Mk23 fairly
early in the campaign.)

Most rifles (and some pistols) fire rounds that are hypersonic. Meaning they
have a velocity above 343 meters per second. When you hear a rifle from a
significant distance, you’re not hearing the escaping gasses, the crack you
hear is actually a sonic boom created by the bullet. For most applications,
this isn’t really something anyone cares about. But, when you’re trying to
suppress a gun, you will want to find a way to remove that sound. The only way
(I’m aware of) to deal with this is by using what are called “subsonic rounds.”

These are low velocity cartridges designed to keep the speed of the round
under 343m/s. The problem with this is that you’re now trading a whole lot of
ballistic factors, including accuracy and flatness, to keep the gun quiet. On a
pistol, there’s really no reason to do this.

The reason being all .45 ammo is subsonic. This stuff has a muzzle velocity
of around 260 to 300 m/s.

When the first game came out, the Five-Seven was still new, the first game
is set in 2004. It’s (from what I know) a fairly solid service pistol. But it
is a bad gun to be giving to your NSA cyberninja. The Five-Seven is a
Government and Law Enforcement only item. Fabrique Nationale doesn’t sell to
private buyers or retailers. (There are a number of used guns on the market
now, but that wasn’t true 13 years ago.) So, if you’re writing a character
who’s supposed to be some kind of clandestine and deniable agent, giving them a
gun that says they work for a government somewhere is probably a bad idea.

Also, the entire “custom suppressors” line bugs me. I can’t remember if
that’s exactly what the games call them, but I think you’re remembering
correctly. The problem is, commercially produced suppressors exist for both
weapons. Again, a Five-Seven suppressor is going to be more traceable than an
aftermarket .45 one. A high end 5.56mm suppressor can run you over a grand,
but, it’s aftermarket, and easy enough to hide if you’re part of a clandestine
operation.

Incidentally, factory produced Five-Seven threaded barrels are exceedingly
rare on the secondary market. Not many of these were produced. Giving someone a
Five-Seven today wouldn’t say nearly as much as it did back then, but giving
them one designed to accept a suppressor would still be pretty suspicious. An
aftermarket modded one, with a replacement barrel would raise fewer eyebrows
(but that’s the kind of detail people wouldn’t catch until they were picking
over your character’s corpse.)

That said, pointing out that you’d need to use subsonic ammo for his weapons
is the kind of attention to detail that the Tom Clancy games (and Clancy’s
books) really nail. This is also really important if your character wants to
suppress a rifle. Arguably, if your character is a sniper, and intending to
fire from long ranges, subsonic ammo is actually more important than sticking a
suppressor on the gun. However, this isn’t a panacea, subsonic ammo suffers from
severe drop, to the point that it’s noticeable at medium range. For a sniper,
this is a really serious consideration. They need to decide between having far
less range and power, or having the bullet produce a massive cracking noise
when fired.

The entire Five-Seven thing probably bugs me more because this is a solved issue. Pistols designed for
clandestine use exist, including some of the weapons that show up in the series.
Hell, give Sam something like a Makarov PB while operating in Europe, and no
one would suspect that he’s an American if he was caught and killed.

In contrast to the pistol, the FN F2000 is a much better pick. It’s a solid
assault rifle that entered service in the 80s, though there’s not really that
much special about it except the appearance. It has a rubber seal in the
magazine well, which would help a little with suppressing it, but the benefit
is basically trivial. What it’s actually there to do is keep dust and debris
out of the action, but it also means that you might have issues loading
aftermarket magazines in it. (This is all second hand, by the way. I’ve never
handled a F2000 personally.) There may have been better choices available, but
it’s a legitimate choice. Unfortunately, as with the Five-Seven, there were no
civilian versions available, (a semi-auto only version hit the market in 2006),
so we’ve still got that, “my cyberninja is government sponsored,“ problem.

Ironically, I know the game doesn’t get a lot of love, but Conviction’s
approach to Sam’s loadout is probably more realistic. It’s (mostly) a mix of
commercially available weapons and street clothes.

If you’re writing a character who’s supposed to be this kind of a sneak in,
and hang from the ceiling kind of black ops agent. The best options are to put
them in locally purchased clothes (this will help them blend in, even if they’re
from a different ethnicity). Weapons that are readily available on the local
market (or black market). Hardware that can be easily adapted from commercial
products. If you absolutely need a PDA or something similar, use a smart phone.
For a hands free unit, get a bluetooth headset. If the phone needs custom
software, then that’s something your character’s agency can produce.
(Preferably with some kind of remote kill switch, because forensic analysis of
software can provide clues to its origin.) What you don’t want to do is gear
them up with a lot of very specialized equipment that says, “hey, this guy
worked for a foreign government.”

-Starke

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Hi there! I love your blog! I’ve seen you mention a few TV shows and movies for research, and I was wondering what your opinion is on the show Leverage and it’s accuracy for social engineering in potentially violent situations. I remember one character saying that “Thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them.” They’ll often use approaches like this to avoid violence.

If the question is: can you use social engineering in order to defuse or avoid violent situations? The answer is yes.

Grifters are conmen, and like spies, they don’t want to fight unless it is absolutely necessary. Whether they can fight or know how isn’t really the point: combat makes messes, big messes, and draws the kind of attention they don’t want/can’t afford.

As for the line, “thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them” the point of it is that grifters focus on people as the exploitative aspect to get what they want. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your security system is if your infiltrator is expected to be there. When someone opens the door for them, they didn’t have to break in.

It is worth pointing out though, being able to stop, defuse, avoid, or redirect violence via social engineering (especially when the character is the target) is very difficult and requires someone who excels at rapidly changing their story/manipulating under life or death pressure while also maintaining their consistency/re-establishing their innocence/regaining their target’s trust.

That’s masterclass social engineering. The average person, even the average grifter can’t do it. When we see Nate Ford, Sophie Devereaux, or Michael Westen on Burn Notice socially engineer their way out of potentially explosive and violent scenarios, we’re supposed to understand this level of manipulation is very difficult. You need a solid ability to read people, predict their behavior patterns, understand how to shift your role so you suddenly seem trustworthy, confuse them, and then redirect their anger somewhere away from you.

You can see another variant of this kind of social engineering on display in The Negotiator. Samuel L. Jackson’s character is a hostage negotiator. Deliberately maneuvering a man who’s taken a child captive around his apartment so he can be taken out. You can see him joking with the target, gaining his trust, distracting him, and guiding him off topic until he’s in a position to be neutralized.

The Grifter is not a fighter, they are a talker and their trick is getting people to move however they want. A skilled grifter can slip in, turn the best of friends against each other, and walk away without a care. Grifters don’t punch. They trick other people into doing the punching for them. When sitting down to write a Grifter, remember: their first instinct is getting others to act in their place, to create the openings they need, and be their fall guy.

On the whole, I’ve liked Leverage ever since the episode where Eliot pointed out that guns are ranged weapons, and the most common mistake people make is giving up the distance advantage by getting in too close. However, I’ve only watched the first season. I liked what I saw, it’s an enjoyable caper show in a similar vein to The Equalizer, Person of Interest, or Ocean’s Eleven. Not quite in there with the original Law & Order when it comes to accuracy (in this case for cops) but certainly better than White Collar, which uses similar techniques (though never, ever pay attention to White Collar’s usage of the FBI… ever). The X-Files, meanwhile, fudges a bit but it’s pretty good when you’re wanting to get a grasp of the FBI’s culture and what happens to someone who doesn’t come from a military/law enforcement background.

Of course, the patient zero for these types of shows is the original Mission: Impossible. The television show, not the Tom Cruise movies. Mission: Impossible is all about flipping people and manipulating them into positions to do what you want. The A-Team is its slightly more pulpy counterpart, but its a similar (though far less subtle) deal.

On the whole, Leverage tends to explain itself better, which is helpful when you’re trying to learn or take techniques from a television show rather than just absorb.

The reason why I often suggest Burn Notice and Spy Game is not necessarily just because they’re good, but also because they teach. The narrator on Burn Notice, especially in the first season will offer up a lot of helpful/beginner tradecraft for a variety of situations. This, ultimately, will help you more for taking pieces and creating your own characters than a show that’s trying for smoke and mirrors like White Collar. The same situation is there with Spy Game, where Robert Redford’s character is teaching Brad Pitt’s on how to be a spy. Ultimately, more helpful in the long run than just watching The Recruit. The Michael Mann films like Heat and Collateral are exceptionally good for learning tradecraft, but you have to know that’s what you’re watching/looking for. You’ll learn more by watching them together, rather than separately. The Borne Identity novels are also very good at showing the tradecraft, while the Le Carre ones tend to be a little more hit and miss.

When you’re new, you want sources that are free with their information. Who are good at getting you to think, to take what you’re seeing and apply it to new settings. You may not ever figure out how to build a car bomb, but learning about how the thought process of a spy, criminal, or conman works will serve you better for your writing than a hundred other movies that only show.

After you’ve drawn back the curtain then you can turn to those other shows, novels, and narratives with new eyes. Once you see what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why when they don’t explain you’ll get more out of those other sources than you did before.

When you’re watching a well put together show like Leverage, start questioning character motivations. Not just whether the social engineering there works, but why the characters are choosing to go that route or which routes they prefer. Leverage gives you five characters with different specialties, four thieves and the guy who made a career catching them. They all think in different ways and have different approaches when it comes to problem solving. Leverage offers up a heist per episode, so you have lots of opportunities to see the characters in action. Evaluate their problem solving methods and you’ll come away with more than just questioning whether or not it works.

How and Why.

Then, go find a good video on YouTube where a professional magician explains pickpocketing. It’s the art of misdirection.

Once you understand basic theoretical underpinnings (whether or not you could ever actually pull the real thing off) then you can apply it to many different situations in a fictional context.

When it comes back to applying this to the combat arts, learning to see the big picture is the first major difference between trained and untrained. The untrained only copy surface level, singular techniques, while trained delves deeper to understand how these techniques work together.

My advice for when you’re wanting to pick and choose television shows for accuracy is to check who their consultants are/were, and what experts in the show’s chosen field say about it. That doesn’t always guarantee accuracy, but it will help you flip through the rave reviews.

If you want to watch more fun shows with Timothy Hutton or just like detective shows, I recommend Nero Wolfe.

-Michi

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Do you have any advice for writing characters undercover? Thanks!

So, we’ve covered this topic a lot in the past. Undercover operatives, intelligence agents, black ops, assassins, and spies I’d start with a spies search on our website, as that’ll get you started. The really good references will be there. My
big advice for writing any kind of spy fiction is to have a clear idea
of what you want and which genre you’re chasing. Do want James Bond or George Smiley? You can blend these genres, but it’s a good idea to have a clear idea as that’ll define your narrative.

The first thing to understand about spies and any sort of shadow operative is the Burn Notice quote: “A spy is just a criminal with a government paycheck.”

Take a look at this passage. This is a character (Thirteen) trained as
an undercover operative exiting a bad situation. What do you see?

Limping down the hall, I forced one foot before the other. Slowly, my stride lengthened. The silver door at the end didn’t open, so I pushed it, and stumbled out onto the launch pad. My gaze fell on a string of oval automatic airstreams parked all in a row. No, I frowned, eyes sweeping to street and the vehicles winging by in the air overhead. No self-respecting AI would let me drive in this condition. Robots always insisted on hospital, and I had no time to hack. To get out fast, I needed a human. A cabbie. Older, preferably female. Fingers to my neck, I tapped twice. Up came the ODS, my thoughts linking to: call a cab. Human.

A string of numbers and faces appeared before my eyes, the oldworld men and women working a dying industry. Better for No Questions Asked rides in our digital world, no one else called when they could pay a corporate run robot for half the cost.

I picked the first female face that flashed across my dash.

Time to pick up… thirty seconds.

I gripped my injured arm, and ran an analysis. Tucked out of sight, Sixteen’s pistol rested against my ribs. Ammunition at less than half a magazine, so seven rounds. Eight, if I counted the one in the chamber. The Uplink already registered the irreparable damage and severed the blood flow to the damaged limb. So, no more bleeding out. My upper lip curled. A bad trade off for no more arm. Damn, Sixteen.

Fifteen seconds.

I couldn’t hide in the shadows. Needed to seem desperate, distraught. Call up tears.

Ten seconds.

My blurred gaze flicked to the skyline, watching for black. The Ghosts wouldn’t appear in the datastream. Still, NIS hadn’t cut my access. Not yet.

Five.

A beat up airstream in ruby red dropped out of the sky to the left, pulling up to the curb. They were early. From the shabby state of their car, probably desperate. Good.

I limped over quickly. Even if they weren’t my ride, they were human and sitting in the driver’s seat. A car enthusiast who needed no AI systems to handle the steering. Likely to have built in cameras. More likely to possess a slow Uplink. Slow data received poor police service. My fingers seized the handle, flung open the door, and threw myself inside.

“Need a ride?” the voice was sympathetic, unfamiliar.

I slid across the bench into the seat behind the driver. My free hand tight on my damaged limb, couldn’t do much about my nose. So, instead, I tilted my head and caught her reflection in the mirror. Younger. Mid-thirties. Red hair worn short with one gray streak, tied back in a severe bun. Clear hazel eyes. Talk like you’re in pain, scared, but putting on a brave face. Tears. I wiped the blood from underneath my nose, sniffling. “Y-y-yeah.” I cleared my throat. “Yeah. Thanks.” I tried for a half-smile, half-grimace, and leaned on the window. “Just looking to get away. The address should be—”

“You don’t need to worry, I have it,” the driver said. “Came in with your order. Grace, right? You want to go downbelow, the Rep Shop.”

“Yeah.” Resting my cheek against the glass, I closed my eyes; Uplink sizing up her car’s systems. Automatic turned off, but easy enough to hijack. My free hand drifted off my injury, and moved near the pistol hilt jabbing my ribs.

“I’m Marla, I’ll be your driver today.” A pause followed. “You sure a pretty girl like you wants the Rep Shop? Not a hospital? You look pretty banged up.”

“No,” I replied. I got what she suggested, this was a nice neighborhood. “I just need… need to go…”

“Boyfriend trouble?”

I grimaced, eyes squeezing shut, and wished I felt a twinge of guilt. It’s like the Overseer always says, love is just a cover.

“Don’t worry, no need to say it,” Marla said as the engine revved, the floorplates shook, and the airstream lifted skyward. “Shipped enough victims out of here to know.”

Notice, she pays attention to her surroundings and makes choices based on her condition in service of her needs. She needs to get out quickly, but would run into more trouble stealing a car so she calls up a cab driven by a human. Human’s are easier to manipulate in short order than code cracking. She specifically aims for a female cab driver, one preferably older than she is.

Why?

She’s female. Another woman is more likely to assume her injuries are because of a man, and a cab driver will have encountered this scenario often enough to not pry too deeply into it. An older woman is likelier to be maternal and protective, but not so protective that she’ll stay beyond when Thirteen needs her too. However, pay attention to the fact that Thirteen never verbally confirms it was a man who caused her injuries. She lets Marla assume, and fill in the blanks herself. This gives her an out later if she needs to change her story and place the blame on Marla’s shoulders for misunderstanding.

This is an example of what’s called social engineering.
Deliberately manipulating the people in your environment to divulge
confidential information or getting them to do what you want.

Notice also: After getting into the vehicle, Thirteen’s hand goes to the gun she stole. As she is playing to Marla’s sympathies, she is also assessing the possibility of killing this woman and taking control of the car if things don’t go the way she’s planned. Thirteen would prefer to exit by the easiest means possible, but a good spy always has a contingency. She won’t compromise her safety, and civilian lives mean next to nothing. A dead body is one more problem to deal with, one more attention getter that she doesn’t want, but she’ll go there. Violence is messy, and sometimes necessary.

There’s no real difference between a spy and a conman. Still, if you want to trick people there’s a few rules to follow.

What a spy isn’t:

A compulsive liar, an overseller, or lies all the time. An undercover operative needs to maintain their identity, that is one identity, singular. While a spy can create many false personalities, they should only be using one at a time with the goal of giving away as little information in trade as possible.

Notice: Thirteen does not tell Marla a story, she lets Marla create the story and then plays along. It is easier to convince someone of a lie when they’ll craft it themselves. Why say something when you can get just as much by saying nothing at all?

“You’ve told her three lies. Suppose she’s an asset, now you have to make all three lies true.” – Spy Game

Your character can’t just lie, a liar will be caught after a prolonged period of time. They need to manipulate the truth by creating a fiction. A cover is a fictional person with a fictional job who people think really exists when they check the character’s identity. Assume their identity will be checked, re-checked, and checked again. They are not maintaining a cover to a singular individual, but multiple ones. Their assets are the locals they are manipulating in order gain access to information, and who often run the jobs for them. These assets will, most of the time, not know the truth or not know the whole truth about who the spy really is.

Assets can be friends, business associates, girlfriends/boyfriends, wives/husbands, disgruntled employees, janitors, etc.

Your character can’t enter a business or government agency as a pretend janitor if they’re also going there everyday as a reporter or contractor or some other job. They must maintain the fiction of their identity.

This is the biggest problem most authors will get into when writing spy fiction. The concept of telling lies is something that comes easily to most of us, the problem comes in with keeping up a fiction over a prolonged period of time. The next step is to be able to lie without guilt and throw over people who help you without remorse. Crafting that dual identity of a person who genuinely cares about their friends and allies versus the real one who… really doesn’t.

You need a solid grasp of social functions, mores, and conventions in order to write a spy because a spy is manipulating all those points to gain access. You also need to understand these rules change based on what society your character is entering. Social rules change based on social groups, be it economic or cultural. The expectations for a man or woman in Mexico City versus Seattle are vast, and your character needs to be versed in the world they’re walking into. They need a cover identity to suit their work. Someone who has the freedom to go many places without being questioned, but unimportant enough to be neither needed nor remembered.

A spy is always looking for a way in, to slide into your confidences or sympathies however they can. They are going to use you to get where they need to go. They are very convincing actors and they are changing, modifying themselves slightly for each person they encounter. Not so much though that their falseness becomes obvious to the other people who know them.

When we’re working with a female spy, for example, all the “bad woman” societal traits you’re inclined to throw away are exactly what she needs to succeed. She will flirt, and flatter, and seduce, and manipulate the men (and women) around her to gain entry. She may rotate between being a gorgeous woman and an unremarkable one by the use of fashion and makeup. She is exactly what so many men are afraid of, a social climber who is manipulating their feelings and her attractiveness in order to get what she wants because it is the most expedient method to get what she needs. The one who is manipulating society’s view of women as nonentities, nonthreatening/replaceable objects in order to do her job.

Don’t be afraid of these characters. Don’t be afraid of “unlikeable” characters.

Spies are bad people who do bad things. They are often cold, calculating, impersonal manipulators looking for the most expedient method to get what they need. Your spy’s cover is just a cover. Never forget the real person underneath, especially when they’re lying to themselves.

-Michi

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Hey friends! I just wanted to say that your posts on spies have been so useful to me. Anyway, I have a character who is an ex-soldier (infantry). For various plot reasons, he needs to infiltrate a very secretive group and gain info on them. He has a mentor, who is an intel agent. Question is: what would a crash course on infiltration look like? They don’t have much time, and my solider is a very straightforward person and has some problems with deception. What does he need to know?

Well, one thing he really should not know, under any
circumstances, is that his handler is setting him up as a sacrificial lamb for
the other guys to capture and interrogate. A “spy,” who is bad at deception,
and very straightforward? He has “doomed spy,” written all over him.

The Doomed Spy is a concept from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. This
is a spy you send in, explicitly, to be captured. They don’t know it, but their
real job is to feed misinformation to the enemy, either through shoddy
tradecraft or under direct interrogation. This could range from something as
simple as a false flag operation, where the spy is told and believes they’re
working for one nation or faction, when in fact, that entity has no knowledge
of their actions, and their handler’s loyalties actually belong elsewhere. Or,
it could be as complex as an entire operation, designed to provide the targets
with false intelligence.

So, your ex-soldier, who’s bad at lying, and thinks he’s
working for one group is, in fact, working for a completely different group that
wants to provoke action against the people he’s (probably) loyal to. This may
go a step further, where his handler recruits him, specifically because of his
prior ties to the faction the handler claims to represent.

Something else that’s kind of important to understand about
intelligence work, or at least direct human intelligence work. As a spy, your
job isn’t to sneak into an office, or even talk your way in. Sometimes you need
to be there personally, but most of the time, you can get someone else to do it
for you. Why sneak into an office building, when you can pay a member of the
cleaning staff to pass paperwork to the trash, where you can get someone to
pick it up later?

At that point, there isn’t a lot of reason to train assets
(the people a spy uses as intermediaries to get their information). In theory,
they already know how to act in their native environment.

Getting someone into some kind of secret society is going to
be a lot trickier, but at that point,
your spy’s best cover may be going in as themselves. Okay, up front, this one’s
a kind of weird situation, so let’s parse apart how this works.

Normally, a spy’s best option is to get other people to work
for them. It creates a layer of insulation, so if something goes wrong, they
can get out, and take any intelligence they’ve obtained, before the authorities
manage to close in on them. This doesn’t always work, but, the separation
between an actual spy and their assets is vital to effective tradecraft. It
also means that the spy’s identity isn’t immediately known. There’s a huge jump
between walking into a place, and having your face on security cameras, and
getting some poor schmuck no one knows to do it for you. This also leads to a paradoxical
situation with intelligence work. Spies tend to deal with their most
immediately critical cases early in their careers, when no one knows who they
are, and then spend the rest of their career working on much less important
cases, when getting exposed would be less harmful.

What we have here sounds like a slightly different situation
that doesn’t really pop up in the real world, where a spy’s anonymity wouldn’t
work.

If we’re talking about some supervillain’s secret society,
where they already have intelligence gathering on par with some nations, and
have moles in your spy’s intelligence agency, then, as I said a minute ago, the
answer may be to go in, “as themselves.”

With one exception, you wouldn’t likely see this in the real
world, but a veteran spy, looking to infiltrate some kind of Illuminati/Majestic
12 style, “secret rulers of the world,” type conspiracy, may be better off poking
them with a stick and asking for a job. They’d already know who the spy is,
there’s no real point in pretending to be someone else. Their own skill set
wouldn’t raise any questions when that’s who
they’re supposed to be anyway
. Once they’re in, they’d probably act as a
sleeper (an agent who does not engage in any intelligence activities) to build
up their cover, increase their access, and only act when they have the opportunity
to fully achieve their goals, (which could take years).

Just to be clear, you could shove an entire series in here,
about a spy who infiltrated some conspiracy, and is building their cover and
working their way up through the ranks while wrestling with their ethics and
what they’re having to do.

In that context, it’s possible they may pick an ex-soldier
off the street to send in, in order to get the organization’s people knocking
on their door.

In general, you’re not going to see this with national
intelligence services, because no one trusts defectors. But, if you’re talking
about an extra-national service, they don’t really have the option of producing
their own talent (at least, not at first). They’d also be more likely to poach
members of their host nations’ intelligence communities.

The one real world example where you might see a spy walking
in the front door without a cover would be in dealing with businesses. Companies
who are concerned about corporate espionage have a real incentive to hire former
intelligence officers as security consultants and advisors. At the same time, this
isn’t an extremely likely outcome for a couple reasons. First, private sector
jobs like this are a very lucrative gig for ex-civil servants, meaning going
after one would be biting the hand that (would have) fed them. Second, they’d
still be in competition with other ex-intelligence officers for the position,
people with the same kinds of training they received, which would make getting
in tricky. Finally, when it comes to the business world, you rarely need a spy;
it’s overkill. Most of the things a business gets into would be better suited for
investigation by normal law enforcement channels.

Come up with a situation where a spy would need to tear into
a company’s actions, and they’d benefit more from directing police action
against it, rather than going in directly.

In all of this, I don’t think I’ve answered the direct
question. The kind of videogame, sneaking in through the vents, infiltration
approach doesn’t (usually) work. Infiltration, in the real world, is more about
walking in and looking like you belong there, not hiding behind crates and
climbing the drainpipes. (Somewhat obviously, this isn’t going to work out for
your straightforward ex-soldier who has hang-ups about lying to people.) The
biggest lessons are in social engineering. Learning how people function
(psychologically), and exploiting inherent vulnerabilities in “normal” social
structures.

Social Engineering often gets broken down into individual
tricks, that play with expectations, for example: using a business card as
false identification when making an introduction. This would never get you
through a security checkpoint, but it might get you in the building to talk
with someone, and give you access to information they normally wouldn’t.

As a gestalt, social engineering is fairly complex, but the
basics are looking for ways to get people to give you information they really
shouldn’t, by making them think you’re someone who is supposed to have access.

But, that’s what a spy’s job is, getting people to tell you
things they shouldn’t, usually by misdirection and deception.

– Starke

Two films that come to mind in this specific genre which may be worth watching are The Recruit, and Spy Game.

The Recruit (2003) focuses on a programmer (Colin Farrell) who is tapped by the CIA to become an agent, and the film spends a lot of time working through the training of prospective CIA Officers.

Spy Game (2001) focuses on a retiring CIA Officer (Robert Redford) discussing the training and career of his

protégée

(Brad Pitt). To a degree, this is probably the most on point to what you’re after, so if you’ve never seen it, it should be part of your lit review.

As always, Burn Notice’s, “when you’re a spy” routines may also be useful. The show spends a lot of time on social engineering (though it rarely uses the term). The discussions on how people normally behave, and how to work around, or exploit, their expectations are what you’re looking for.

You may also want to pick up and watch Ronin (1998). This is more about veteran spies interacting, but it has a very slick approach to tradecraft that may be useful.

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What kinds of martial arts or any form of fighting does the CIA or FBI train in?

The FBI uses an adapted form of Judo that was brought over from Japan after WWII. It’s evolved considerably since then, but some elements are still recognizable, particularly the throws.

It’s probably worth pointing out that this is what we’re referring to when talking about Police hand to hand. FBI instructors adapted Judo to fit the Bureau’s needs, and then shared that with the American law enforcement community.

I’m less certain what the CIA trains in. I suspect they receive training in one of the military forms (like MCMAP), but I don’t know specifically what The Farm trains CIA officers in.

For a spy, ideally, you’d learn local martial arts to assist in blending and protecting your cover identity. But, the CIA doesn’t really do that as much these days. They still maintain the concept of the Non-Official Cover (NOC) (a cover without diplomatic immunity), but The Agency as a whole is far more interested in signals intelligence than traditional tradecraft. Your more likely to see a CIA officer who is formally attached to the State Department, rather than an expat working as a tailor or running a restaurant. (Joking aside, service industry positions like those are very good places for spies to work undetected.)

The other thing worth remembering about the CIA is, when it’s planning operations that would be better suited to special forces units, they will actually use the appropriate units (like Delta or Navy SEALS), depending on what they need for the task at hand.

I’m sorry I can’t be more precise with the CIA, but they are a little evasive about exactly what they train their personnel in.

-Starke

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Should the advice the narrator gives on burn notice be taken seriously?

The advice given on Burn Notice by the narrator is helpful as a starting primer. One of the great things about Burn Notice is that you can watch it and then go back to other spy fiction where they use similar techniques but don’t explain what they’re doing to get a better grasp of what’s going on.

It also walks the viewer through a lot of social engineering and various manipulation techniques.

You can take the advice for what it is. It’s better and more comprehensive that what you’ll get on most similar shows, but you should check it against other sources.

It is television, it’s primary goal is to create an enjoyable experience. It won’t be 100% accurate, but it is a great way to start getting your brain thinking in the right direction. If he’s to be believed, the series creator Matt Nix was/is friendly with an agent who worked in intelligence before becoming an consulting producer on the show proper. His name is Michael Wilson. (source via Hollywood Reporter.) Most of the show’s spy advice comes directly from him.

The effects on the show are all practical i.e. real rather than CGI based and, for fun mostly, their tech guy built and tested all the devices the show uses to see if the solutions would actually work. Like most of Hollywood, they leave out some key ingredients needed to make functional bombs.

A lot of effort, especially in the early seasons, went into making the entire show plausible. Basically, Burn Notice is to spies what old school Law & Order is to cops. Is it close? Eh, it’s close enough.

-Michi

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How useful are the cops to spies? If it’s a big organization, I’m assuming they’d be more useful,because the spy organization has more resources and money to grease palms with,but what about compared to a lone spy,or even just a few spies?Let’s say they have similar goals, but not much money-are the cops a help,or a hindrance?Is staying in one city a bad idea, or a good one? (I’d assume a bad idea, but let’s say they’re stuck or they need to keep that city theirs.)How much does being a spy cost?

How useful? For the spy, it depends on what they’re doing and where they are. For the police? No.

For a spy, local police can be useful, because they’re gathering information as part of their natural activities. If the spy can gain access to that information, then that’s free legwork. They can also be useful as an environmental hazard, for dealing with other spies or criminals. Simply pumping a couple rounds into the street and calling in the gunshots can get the police crawling all over a place. Which is one way to make life very unpleasant for a hostile agent.

That said, a spy has nothing to offer the police. In the US, anything a spy turned up would be inadmissible in a civilian court. Spies, by nature of their job, break the law on a regular basis. After all, this is their job.

Criminal investigations are highly scrutinized as part of the trial. You can’t just sneak in a, “and then a spy broke into his place, stole all this relevant evidence and gave it to us.” You need to establish a clear chain of evidence, from how the police learned of the evidence’s existence, to how they obtained it,and a physical record of everyone who handled it while in department custody.

A spy can break into his place, steal evidence, and then use it blackmail him. That’s different. But that doesn’t help the police at all.

Also, generally speaking, the cops aren’t going to be bribing people. While there is such a thing as a paid informant, these aren’t particularly valuable, and are prone to inventing information to get paid, rather than actually reporting what they see.

But, police, as part of an investigation? They’re not going to offer bribes. Threats and intimidation? Those are still on the table, and if they want to get someone talking they have a lot of coercive options. The courts frown on some of these, but ultimately, they have far cheaper means of getting people to open up than coughing up cash.

They might accept bribes to look the other way, depending on the officers, and where you’re talking about. But, that’s an entirely different situation.

A spy on the other hand, might have to resort to bribery to get the access they need. This is highly contextual, based on exactly who they’re interacting with, and what they’re trying to get. This can even include police. A spy might know a cop, who for $200 will plant drugs on a hostile agent, or give them a copy of the police report for the shooting last night. It really depends on what they need, and who can get them that.

As for mobility? That depends on the spy’s cover and what they’re doing. A spy who spends their days working as a foreign corespondent for a major media network, or as a consultant for a financial NGO could spend a lot of time on the road. One that runs a restaurant downtown, across the street from a foreign embassy might never leave town.

A spy who’s cover is working for the state department as a “security adviser” with diplomatic immunity could be anywhere in the world on any given day. 

How much it will cost is also going to be highly dependent on what your spy is doing. Really, there’s no way to generalize this. The monthly expenses of someone who is running a barber shop, with a surveillance suite upstairs is completely inconsistent with someone who has been in 15 different countries in the last 60 days for the WHO.

-Starke

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Hello! Say a spy was sent to operate in a country and gather information, and that that spy was successful. Though the spy interacted personally with many people and many people saw their face, the spy was under an alias and their actual identity was never revealed. Could that spy be redeployed back into the same country again?

If the spy was successful, why were they recalled?

Or, think about it this way; if you’re spending the time to build a credible cover identity, the agent is able to use that and doesn’t blow it, how do you decide that they have nothing more to offer, and yank them out.

Usually, it’s better to just leave them there, pretending to be a normal person, you know the kind of person who doesn’t wander the streets hiding their face or pretending to be a ninja in their off hours. Gathering information and feeding it back to their handlers.

Pulling them out, when their job is to collect intelligence, is a waste of resources. If you do, you’ll just have to set someone else up to take their place. At that point you’re literally just making work for yourself.

This is especially true if your spy managed to get into a position where they have direct access to classified materials. At that point suddenly disappearing would be more suspicious than quitting their job and making table candles.

Creating a non-official cover identity requires a fair amount of work, so it’s not something you’d want to abandon unless you had reason to believe it was exposed.

If a cover is intact, and was abandoned for some reason, it could be picked up and reused, if the task at hand supports it. A cover your spy has been using will be inherently less suspicious than a new one, because you can point back to their past and say, “yes, that is a real person, and not a fiction that Legends and Missives cooked up last week.”

In this sense, cover identities actually become more valuable as they’re used. A spy creates a paper trail supporting the idea that their cover identity is a real person and not a spy’s masque.

Of course, once someone’s exposed as a spy, that identity is done, and you’re probably going to need to yank them out, and everything they’ve done under that identity is blown. At that point your best bet is to quietly shuffle them off somewhere, give them an official cover (assistant to an ambassador, a diplomatic security adviser, or something else that provides diplomatic immunity, and keeping them as far from anything they used to do.

What you wouldn’t want to do is give a spy a cover identity, recall them, give them a new cover, and then send them out to someplace where they’re likely to encounter people from their earlier cover. That’s a recipe for disaster, with a real risk that both covers would be exposed. You’d use a different spy, or use the same cover (if it applied).

Also, something that is probably worth saying about spies that jump between covers: The most significant work will usually be at the beginning of their careers. Being a spy isn’t like flipping burgers. While you do learn as you go, the more you’ve done, the greater your reputation, the less useful you are in the field. So, when assigning spies for very high profile or high risk assignments, it’s far better to grab recruits who have just finished training than someone with 30 or 40 years of experience. Because with the newbies, other intelligence agencies won’t already have an open file on them. So, while your veteran will have more technical experience and proficiency, the newbie will be more effective, and better able to actually do their job.

This is less of an issue with an agent that simply sits in one place collecting information for years, or sleeping, but if you’re looking at the James Bond, Jason Bourne, Michael Westen, or Robert McCall style spy, those are all characters who are dangerously close (or well past the point) where they can actually contribute anything meaningful in the field.

-Starke

What would be the appropriate fighting gear or outfit for a female agent/spy? Most of the ones I’ve seen in movies seem unlikely/uncomfortable to move or fight in, especially if the woman is flexible or acrobatic

You know the phrase, “dress for the job you want”? Kind of like that. Spies need to dress appropriately for whatever their current cover is.

If that’s an official cover (someone who enjoys diplomatic immunity) then it’s probably going to be normal business attire.

For a non-official cover (someone who is not stationed in an embassy) it’s going to depend on exactly what their day job is. For someone who’s working as a lobbyist or corporate head hunter, then you’re still looking at business attire.

Also, forget about skin tight cat suits. Those are just about the worst thing a spy could wear. Nothing screams, “I don’t belong here” like an outfit that makes you look like a D-grade superhero reject. (Obviously, if you’re actually aiming for the superspy genre, then your character is a D-grade superhero, so you should plan accordingly.)

There are few things as embarrassing for a government as getting caught spying. Wearing an outfit that advertises covert action is a fantastic way to destroy your government’s soft power.

Usually, the justification given is that the spy/infiltrator/whatever is engaging in behavior that’s so dangerous, it won’t matter if they’re caught. But, that’s just an excuse to give a character cool toys. If your character is caught breaking into a government office in a turtleneck and jeans, the assumption will be that they’re a common criminal. If they’re breaking in with high tech IR goggles that can scan through walls, a three thousand dollar assault rifle, and a black cyberninja jumpsuit that blocks their own thermal signature, building security will know they just caught someone with serious backing. And the police have a lot more incentive to start peeling your character’s life apart until they find who sponsored them.

The other side of this is, a spy who has to revert to violence is doomed. (Not in the Sun Tzu sense; but they are not long for this earth.) Violence attracts attention. Attention makes it impossible for a spy to do their job effectively. Their job is social engineering, not playing James Bond.

Incidentally, even non-violent attention can also make your spy’s life a lot harder. A character who dresses to be the most attractive person in the room will find it much harder to slip away unnoticed. Especially if they’re trying to get away from someone determined to get in their pants. (Which we can add onto the pile of ways that James Bond as a wish fulfillment character sabotages his ability to function as a spy.)

Best case; your spy’s job is to get other people to break the law for them. Worst case; it’s to break the law in ways that will look innocuous until the last possible moment, and get out without anyone realizing something is off.

If you haven’t checked it yet, we’ve already written a fair amount on spies; some of that might be useful to you. Granted, our spy fiction recommendations do start to look fairly consistent over time. Also, given that the question started with (I assume) spy catsuits, you might also want to look at our stealth tag, it’s a lot shorter, but it might give you more useful information.

Burn Notice is still a really good primer on basic tradecraft. Pay more attention to the narration, Jeffery Donovan is, effectively, playing two different characters, and the Narrator is the one dispensing useful information.

The Sandbaggers is a little dated, and unfortunately expensive, but worth watching, for a more realistic look at spies. The show is based pretty heavily on the CIA’s special operation structure, rather than MI6′s. But, otherwise it is still worth watching.

Queen & Country by Greg Rucka is a modern homage to The Sandbaggers. The comic loses a lot once you’ve actually viewed the source material Rucka was pulling from. But, it is also a lot cheaper and easier to find.

In spite of (basically) being a James Bond fanfic, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum actually has a surprising amount of useful observations buried in there. Ludlum takes pains to explain the ways Bourne blends into his environment. Some of this is fairly obvious, but it’s worth seeing in action anyway. The films are entertaining, but not particularly useful, however. Also, I could never really get into Supremacy, so I don’t know if the later books are worth looking at.

John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the opposite of Bourne (and Bond, for that matter). If you’re wanting to write a spy that actually manipulates the people around them, Le Carré’s work is something that needs to be on your radar.

-Starke