The author of A Very British Ending talks to Crime Time: How can you write a true and comprehensive history of intelligence operations? With great difficulty. Those planning illegal operations – or treason – don’t usually minute their meetings. The historian delving into intelligence matters is confronted by sanitised files and disinformation at every turn. And the recollections of those involved aren’t to be trusted either. Spies are trained to be professional liars. Deceiving the enemy is just as important as spying on them. The UK’s two most successful intelligence operations, MINCEMEAT and FORTITUDE, were both disinformation exercises. The star of FORTITUDE, Agent Garbo (aka Juan Pujol), created a fictional labyrinth worthy of the Booker Prize to convince the Germans that the D-Day landings were going to take place in the Pas-de-Calais instead of Normandy. We know about these ops because they were successes. But when it comes to blunders, the information gates slam shut and the shredders start whirring.
The cult of official secrecy and deception may be bad for the historian, but it’s great for the spy novelist. The Chilcot Report, for example, continues to be delayed because senior civil servants refuse to release transcripts of telephone conversations between Blair and Bush in the run up to the Iraq War. Will we ever know exactly what was said? Probably not. So who can blame the novelist for stepping in? Hilary Mantel’s imagined conversations between Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell shed more light on Tudor politics than futile searches for vanished documents. Novelists, of course, get it wrong, but the important thing is to engage the reader with plausible explanations.
In order to find out what really happened, the spy novelist has to think like a good detective. The first important line of enquiry is cui bono, who benefited? No one has ever explained how China developed an H-bomb more than twice as quickly as the USA or Russia – and how they did so in the middle of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. These were, of course, the years in which Mao’s China and the Soviet Union were daggers drawn. Now, who would have benefitted from a situation in which the USSR faced the additional threat of nuclear armed China on its very border? I suggest an answer in The Whitehall Mandarin – and so does a US congressional investigation called the Cox Report, but it’s still classified.
Unsolved mysteries tantalise spy novelists as much as they do crime writers. How, for example, did Kim Philby get away with it for so long? The answer may not be traitors covering up in high places, but charm. And Philby had tons of it. A gift for friendship is more important to a spy than the ability to shoot straight. And human relationships are where good novelists should have an advantage over fact-finders. Solving the human mystery often reveals more than breaking a code.
The Holy Grail of spy fiction remains the disappearance of frogman Lionel Crabb in Portsmouth Harbour. The mystery is still unsolved and the secret files are firmly shut until 2056. I had a go at explaining Crabb’s disappearance in The Envoy. But in retrospect, I think it was a mix of incompetence and illegal dirty tricks – followed by friends covering up for friends. Once again, the human factor. The fact that a group of rogue intelligence officers flagrantly disobeyed the Prime Minister’s explicit orders not to spy on the Soviet cruiser that brought Premier Khrushchev to Britain for a summit is still embarrassing.
My latest, A Very British Ending, was inspired by the Army throwing a ring of steel around Heathrow Airport in January 1974. The official justification for the deployment was a report concerning terrorists armed with SAM 7 missiles. But why would they go to Heathrow? The SAM 7 is much more effective at planes at an altitude of 3,000 feet than those landing or taking off. Someone must have twigged, for subsequent deployments were simply called ‘exercises’. We also know there was a meeting about a coup in May, 1968 involving a press baron and a royal, but once again no minutes were taken. An essential ingredient for a conspiracy, however secret, is good PR. The spook term for PR is ‘psy-op’ – and it often takes the form of smears.
I wrote A Very British Ending as a warning about what might have happened in the past – just as Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup is a warning about what may happen in the future. I hope that we are both wrong because I love this country.
The final word goes to George Orwell: He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
A Very British Ending, Arcadia, £14.99