All of the writers mentioned so far are men, but a number of women are staking a claim as spy novelists.
Francine Mathews grew up in Washington, attended Georgetown Visitation and Princeton, and became a CIA analyst at age 26. She spent four years with the agency and says she loved her work but left in 1993 to write fiction. She has published four well-crafted spy novels, including The Alibi Club and The Cutout, but has devoted more time to her ten Jane Austen mysteries.
Susan Hasler worked for the CIA for 21 years, much of that time as a speechwriter and counterterrorism analyst. She retired in frustration in 2004 and this year published a blistering—and delightful—satire of the agency called Intelligence. Her book makes clear she feels that the Bush White House ignored evidence provided by analysts such as her that Saddam Hussein was neither complicit in the 9/11 attacks nor possessed of weapons of mass destruction and that the United States invaded the wrong country.
As the plot unfolds, Maddie James and her fellow analysts fear that a second major attack—intended to kill thousands in Washington—is coming and they’re scrambling to prevent it without much support from higher-ups. At one point, Maddie rails against her bosses: “What do these people have for brains? ‘Intelligence community?’ What intelligence? I tell them something’s going to blow up and they look at me like I’m hallucinating.”
Hasler lived in Reston during her CIA years and now lives in tiny Singers Glen in Virginia’s Rockingham County, where life is almost certainly more serene than at Langley. She says her novel was inspired by satires such as Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22, that the CIA’s Publications Review Board didn’t change a word of her manuscript, and that she has written a new novel with some of the same characters.
Other writers could be mentioned, including Barry Eisler, whose series about John Rain, a professional assassin, draws on his three years with the CIA. Former Washington Post movie critic Stephen Hunter’s peerless sniper, Bob Lee Swagger, sometimes clashes with intelligence agencies, but Hunter’s are not really spy novels. Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent Dan Fesperman has written seven very good spy novels, including The Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Prisoner of Guantánamo.
What’s the bottom line in this outpouring of spy tales?
First, a high-minded one: The CIA is a powerful, mysterious agency that has done much good but has also dabbled in secret wars, assassinations, and other dark deeds. It behooves Washingtonians to know what the country’s spies are up to, and good spy fiction can, along with aggressive journalism and congressional oversight, inform us and be a check on the agency’s excesses. These novels offer different portraits of the agency but, taken together, probably add up to something like the truth.
In more selfish terms, it’s a delight for lovers of fiction to have this profusion of excellent spy novels appearing, and to have so many of them set in the city we know best.
This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.