Why Spy?

By Adam Hall

It all began officially, I suppose when the Lord told Moses to "spy out the land of Canaan." That was the briefing.
     Today we can't lawfully cross the parking lot outside the supermarket without being picked up by a dozen KGB satellites. We can't even extract a fistful of dollars from our own bank's electronic teller without copping a surreptitious mug shot.
     We're used to it, yet the word spy, in print, continues to intrigue us. Why?
     Because we were children, once. We're still turned on, deep down, by secrets, keyholes, whispers, shadows, voices in the next room. When we chance to get a crossed line and hear two strangers talking, long distance, how many of us hang up — right away? Damned few. What mightn't we learn? My God, one of those voices could be Deep Throat's! Just by not hanging up, we could find ourselves, on this miserable, wet, Tuesday afternoon, in a position to overturn a government!
     Power, yes, is part of this thing, too. The power of knowing something we're not supposed to know. The power to bend others to our will — if we will. Blackmail, yes. Nobody has ever seriously thought that spying is nice. After all, it began in the nursery, where Freud dug up enough scandal to stop a summit conference right in its tracks.
     As children we had to have secrets, so that we could do all those things we couldn't possibly admit to doing — or even wanting to do. We also needed, desperately, a world of our very own where we could establish an individual and sacrosanct personhood outside the familial and social structure forced on us for the sin of being born. And this lingers, in most of us.
     In what we like to think of as the adult world, the "real world," the motivation for espionage has broadened. Most do it for the money; some because there are subtler and more frightening qualities of the spy's life in a classified job, — it's much easier than robbing a bank. Some do it, like Philby, Burgess, Maclean and others, for the shining cause of communism — though in Philby and his contemporaries there was a certain intellectual hate of their class and country. (Yet who among us, asks Graham Greene, has not at some time betrayed something more important than a country?)
     But the major reasons for our fascination with espionage can range from the deep to the banal. We could simply feel bored with what we are and who we are, and where. Seeking vicarious relief, we can imagine the sublime satisfaction a man might feel on the evening of the day his boss has chosen once again to put his ego through the office shredder, when on his way home he slips into a phone booth and calls Ivan to promise another photocopy!
     With my man Quiller, we're straight into a case of neurosis. God knows what happened to him at his English prep school but if it was anything like what happened to me, that can pin down his raison d'être in one go. He needs to work outside his society, to be a lone wolf, baying at the brink of danger.
     "Why don't you go home?" Ferris asks him once in Seoul, when Quiller is mission-fatigued and near breaking-point.
     "This is home," he tells Ferris.
     "Where the brink is?"
     Under my alias as Hall, I have certain rules. Quiller has never tortured, or been tortured, physically. I also eschew gratuitous gore, simply that I try to explore: mind-warping suspense, shock and hair-fine closeness to death, with the delicate scent in the air of a rose for Moira. Nor will I allow Quiller to carry a gun. (In Bangkok, of course, he used a Husquvarna, but that wasn’t a side-arm for his own protection; it was a telescopic rifle, the tool for the mission.) It's with a certain dark glee that I teach my karate students the limitless capabilities of the bare hands, fine-tuned for work at close quarters and in deadly silence. They won't get mugged — and Quiller doesn't like loud bangs.
     Nor is he macho, and this may explain why more than half the people who write me are women. In Murmansk, where Liz is applying Tiger Balm to our bruised and bloodied espion, she asks him if he doesn't find it irksome to have his wounds licked for him by a mere woman. He scarcely understands her. "Where else would a man go, but to the earth mother?"
     For these sundry reasons, Quiller has sometimes been called the "intellectual spy," but what does that mean? Compared to Bond, yes, but Le Carre, no. Making comparisons is like spitting into the wind. I much prefer Kirkus: "Quiller has by now become a primary reflex." Yes, that's my errand — to steal up on my gentle reader and catch him before he can put the bloody thing down.
     It's said, of course, and with much truth, that there aren't any real espions left. "Spy out the land of Canaan," said the Lord, and lo, there appeared a satellite on the horizon, no bigger than a man's hand; today we are inundated by a flood of electronic and computer intelligence. Yet there are few flesh-and-blood operators still around, in situations where access can be made only on foot, and working with the unpredictable and constantly-changing kind of data that can be understood only by the right hemisphere of a human brain.
     Hence Quiller.

  The September 1987 issue of Espionage Magazine

Last modified: Saturday, July 21, 2001

"Why Spy?" was originally published in the September 1987 issue of Espionage Magazine [Volume 3, Issue 2].