Truth is way Better than Fiction

bu Clare Langley-Hawthorne

The recent Edward Snowden affair reaffirms my belief that a) nothing in fiction is any where near as strange as reality and b) a good spy/traitor (is he/isn’t he) story is even more compelling in real life as it is in a story. As a mystery writer I love contemplating ‘what if’ scenarios and recent events such as these always make me look back at history and consider how I would craft a story based on some of the key events and people involved in ‘exposing’ state secrets or engaging in various levels of subterfuge or espionage. 

No matter what you might think of the current Edward Snowden affair, it’s hard not to argue that it doesn’t have thriller appeal. It has a potentially unreliable narrator, the disclosure of secret and classified material, a desperate flight to an old cold war enemy, and the likely involvement along the way of various secret service agencies. It reads just like a thriller – no?

And with all this going on, I got to thinking about some of the more notorious spies and potential traitors in history and how it would be interesting to explore their stories. Indeed the inspiration for my third Ursula Marlow novel, Unlikely Traitors (due out in late fall – more on that later in the summer!), was Roger Casement, who was hanged as a traitor in 1916 for inciting rebellion in Ireland (and involving a possible collusion with Germany). I would also love to explore the story of another spy of the same era, Sidney Reilly, the so called “Ace of Spies”, because the ‘truth’ behind both these stories are so elusive. 

So for all you thriller writers, which spy (or alleged spy) would you most like to write about and why? What era/personalities intrigue you the most? Is there any real life story that you are itching to tell because, as with Edward Snowden, the truth is even more bizarre than fiction?

11 thoughts on “Truth is way Better than Fiction

  1. I am fascinated with medieval England,and recently have been researching Richard III and his alleged murder of his nephews. I have read everything about him that I could get my hands on, both fiction and scholarly works, and it appears that no one has written about him in first person since Shakespeare. The Bard would be a hard act to follow, but I am considering giving it a try.

  2. Fun topic, Clare. You’d have to work really hard to make Snowden’s story appealing, fiction-wise. It’s turned almost comical now. Stuck in a Russian airport so the Russians can deny he’s in the country? Then his dad is trying to negotiate his return to the US, after said airport debacle. Really, dad? What spy has his dad involved like he’s being sent to the principal’s office? Janet Evanovich could write this.

  3. Or Lisa Lutz! And it looks like he’s likely to be stuck in Russian airport limbo for a while – hardly great thriller material!

    • It’s like he’s now Tom Hanks…or Jack Flack. Oh, and he wanted to be a model. Pulleeezzz! Maybe when this whole spy thing doesn’t pan out, he can try that again. A male model would be popular in prison.

  4. I’m fascinated by John Wilkes Booth, a man who threw away a career as an actor to kill Lincoln. What star gives up his career to become an assassin? Booth did it to avenge the south, but by killing Lincoln, who wanted mercy for the south, he made their lot much worse.

  5. Reilly intrigued me ever since I watched a BBC series on him in the 80s. There are two real life stories I want to do something with as well. One from the turn of the previous century and one from the just a few years ago.

    The latter comes from something a co-worker told me. While he was a Navy Corpsman aboard an aircraft carrier during the Iraq war he said they were treating a number of Marines and SEALs who’d been injured in combat when these half a dozen guys came in wearing uniforms he’d not seen before. They were all Americans based on their accents, but none said their names or any personal data. Some were very badly shot up but they were extraordinarily calm while being treated. The crazy thing in his eyes was that where the name tape was on the other guy’s uniforms, these guys had only a cloth strip stitched with their blood type. That was their only ID.

    The other story I want to find more about is that of my own maternal Great-Great-Grandfather. He and his wife and three children emigrated from Denmark in haste in the late 1890s or early 1900s. While they came from Denmark, they all spoke Swedish natively as well as very good Danish and German. G.G.Grandpa never spoke about why they moved in such a hurry, and forbade any of them from speaking Swedish once they settled in the wild wilderness of North Dakota. He became very wealthy during WW1, selling wheat to the US government. After he died in the late 1920s the children opened a trunk that had previously been forbidden territory. In it they found birth certificates, passports and ‘papers’ all with his name and/or picture on them from Sweden, Lithuania, Russia, Finland and Denmark. Apparently my Triple G was a real life Jason Bourne or Reilly Ace of Spies back in the day.

    So, yeah, one of these days…

  6. It would have been a better story if the Russians arrested him because they discovered in order for him to obtain the US secrets, he would have had to obtain information from their KGB, then they intercept him at the airport, he tries to bribe them with information he’s already fed half to China indicating that Iran is obtaining nuke materials from South Korea in exchange for information on North Korean economic woes.

    Okay, I don’t know how feasible any of it is, but the Snowden news is boring to me, just like the Paula Deen stuff. WHO CARES?! Politics, racial inequality, gender inequality, sexual orientation inequality…all making me sick these days.

    Can we find something that’s not so boring and over done? GAH!!!

  7. My WIP has a small section about chatter picked up by the NSA that drew attention to my law firm owned by the MC’s father. And that was plotted long before Snowden. Clancy anchored one of his books on it. To me, Snowden’s reveal was the non-story of the century. However, the overall story is appealing and could be made into some real intrigue.

    In his first interview he said something that struck me as so odd. First he talked about all the precautions he was taking, including putting a hood over his computer so a fiber-optic camera couldn’t capture his keystrokes.

    Then he said he was staying in a major hotel near a CIA station in Hong Kong. Um, isn’t that like intern level spycraft, using a phonebook?

    So far, to me, this is reading like a poorly researched, unedited, self-pubbed thriller.


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