Monday, January 10, 2011

Old West vs East Espionage - Fact and Fiction

Currently, I am working on an adaptation of a new spy novel at the author's request. First, of course, I had to read the book to decide if I wanted to adapt it to screen. It took a while because I've been very busy, but I finally got it done. I responded to the author that I enjoyed the read, and that I accepted doing the adaptation.

I won't yet say what the book was, I'd prefer to wait until I have the screenplay completed.

Today I received an email asking for a more complete consideration of what I thought about the book. We writers like to hear what our readers are actually thinking, or else, one is not really a writer, is one? And so I responded with the words below. I have changed them a bit to make them better fit this format but they are essentially the same. As my email included various other quite possibly interesting addenda, I thought I would include it here for your pleasure and edification. Yes, I got off on a bit of a tangent, but I thought it was relevant.


I found the book very fun to read; cathartic even, as it was supposed to be in the "guy finds interesting girl" arena. I do like that kind of story from time to time, though in the spy realm, I’m mostly used to reading non-fiction espionage information; like from ex CIA officers, or KGB (or FSB now, but I've seen none of those around yet); or occasionally some in the know politician or some such entity. The character in the book, Caroline reminded me of my ex in some ways, though more educated than my Carin was (see, it was a little strange for me to read, but there were enough differences that it wasn’t too strange); but very attractive and a few other things.

See, as I’ve alluded to in the past, I studied KGB/CIA histories years ago and was afraid for some years, to even read fiction spy novels in fear of mucking up my mental catalog of events and all that. I did read a few fiction authors though, Len Deighton especially, being my favorite; especially his Game, Set, Match series (Berlin Game, then Mexico Set, then London Match; then later on, three more books, Spy Hook, Spy Line, Spy Sinker; then later still, Faith, Hope, and Charity to conclude the monumental trilogy of a trilogy which captured very well, life in the Cold War as an operative, albeit, a British one in this case).

If you want to know what it can really be like to be a spy, at least before advanced technology; or in the mere human aspects of it, Game, Set, Match is very good on that account. Although these are very good books, they are quite dated, being involved in KGB, Berlin as front lines, and such, and way back when. I have read the infamous espionage writer extraordinaire, John le CarrĂ© who is good in my mind, but too much the Hollywood spy writer, really (however, he did have a lot of real spy friends, but some of his fiction was just too much fiction for me), and there were a few others, but none of them ever really did it for me as well as Deighton. They always seemed to be lacking something, or perhaps they had too much(?), or worse, they just annoyed me. It’s easy for spy novels to do that to me. Strangely enough, spy fiction movies don't bother me quite in the same way, perhaps because in the beginning, I know, I've accepted, I've suspended reality in the knowing that it is film.

I have an interesting, personal story about when I read the Game, Set, Match trilogy.

You see, I hadn’t seen my real father in seventeen years. It was his choice when he married a woman (strangely, not physically that different from the main character in the book I'm adapting now). She already had ten kids from two previous marriages. My dad, having left us in 1958 Franco Era Spain, when I was three, by way of a rather violent outburst because of an final argument with my mother that required my Grandfather (mom's dad), who got my dad that job, to expel him from the country.
That's my Grandfather in his diesel injector shop, this one, probably from SouthEast Asia, however.
Below is my esteemed self and our maid. The arrow points to where my dad was chasing my mom in that villa, my Grandfather's. 
Before photo of gate
The story goes that my mother was running to her Dad's villa, we were in a village on the ocean (Atlantic side of the south of Spain. She was yelling for her Dad ("Daddy, Daddy, he's going to kill me!") and my dad, according to her, in chasing her, got hit in the legs rapped hard by the swinging gates from her entry. She said she turned and saw that it really hurt him. So, pissed off, he grabbed the gates and literally ripped them from their brackets, which destroyed most of the posts they were attached to. I can understand her being scared. Strong dude. I have the photo somewhere, it looks like a grenade went off.
After photo of gate
Years later, when my dad died, I went to the funeral. My understanding was that due to his being an electrician and all those years of working around PCBs and other toxic elements all those years before the knew how toxic they were, lead to a bad ending for him. My dad's new wife and family invited people over to their house, and so I went, with my mother, who attended the funeral with me. There at the house, I saw my younger half brother, who is a genius artist by the way, for the first time since he was eleven and here now, he was, at twenty-eight; and we got reacquainted. It was great for us to see one another.

Before I left, he wanted to give me a few of our dad’s things. This is where we see the relevancy of my bringing all this up. One of the things I was given, was "Berlin Game", the first of the series and the last book our dad read before he died of cancer. My brother told me that our dad was really into the book. I too was really into the story.

See, what was so very strange was that I had just recently finished watching the British miniseries with Ian Holm as the main character, Bernard (accent on the BERN, not the American way on the NARD, which really annoys the main character). Anyway, I dearly loved the story. I was as fascinated by it as my dad had been. Also, strangely enough, My brother and I found that even though we'd hardly ever seen one another, our thought patterns, were eerily close in how we processed things.

It seems that Len Deighton hated that BBC series and had actually tried to ban it. When I heard that, it became a passion to find a video copy, and it was Hell to do so until a few years ago when I finally found a DVD set in Australia. Even better, as up to that point, if I found a copy at all it was stated to be a bad recording and only on VHS tape. What I purchased was perfect either, but at least it was on DVD.

So I took my dad's book home and read it and thus, learned about Len Deighton, who wrote many books;  many of which had been turned into hit movies in the 60s and 70s mostly, like "The Ipcress File", with one of my all time favorite actors, Michael Caine. Caine had played in the role of my favorite spy of the 60s, Harry Palmer, whom Deighton also created. Its all just rather odd. Honestly, its a toss up between Sean Connery as Bond, and Caine as Palmer. Okay, then there was Patrick McNee and Patric MacGoohan and Robert Vaughan and Bill Cosby and Robert Culp and, oh, nevermind. You get the idea.

To put my comments on the novel I'm adapting to screen in a better perspective, allow me now to give you some background on my history related to espionage. Well, at least some of it.

I was in the Air Force. At the end of my first term in, I joined the OSI. That in and of itself, is an entirely other story in that I had to risk my life to even talk to the OSI.

The Office of Special Investigations is the AF's FBI. In fact, I've read "FBI Magazine", while sitting in the offices of the Spokane, Washington Fairchild AFB's Strategic Air Command's OSI (yes, there IS, or was, an FBI Magazine, I've seen it, I've read it). I went in the service to serve as a Law Enforcement officer as a way to end up in the CIA. Hey, at the time it seemed like a plan, like the thing to do. But I got kicked because of my flat, bad feet. Actually, they tried to kick me out completely, but I fought back and they let me choose another job.

So I chose something else. Finally, after four years, I was getting out and thought I’d try to get back on course. I walked into the office of the OSI and presented my case. The Commanding Officer of that local OSI office, after many interviews and testing, etc., told me that I had the highest rating he’d ever seen on their entrance exam. That made my day.

So I took a slot that was newly opened in Berlin; no one seemed to be jumping on it. It seems it was replacing an agent that was blown up when he got in his car one day at work, to go home for the night. In asking who did that to him, the CO (Commanding Officer for the local OSI office who I was strickly interviewing with through the entire process), would only allude to the fact that the KGB didn’t like that guy very much and it was they who made him, go away.

Hey, it happens. Well, he must have been poking around somewhere he shouldn’t be. That sounds funny but it happens. To kill another agent, you have to have a good reason. Otherwise, you have to find the new one, learn his habits, etc., etc., and its a pain in the ass. But if you were say, doing some black market work, something your bosses didn't know about (I'm merely conjecturing here), it might be worth it at some point, to simply eliminate the opposition.

So then, I was to replace him. See, I wanted to go where I could learn the most, the fastest, then move on, and they said that at that time, in 1979, that was the best place in the world to learn and the front lines of this ongoing battle between democracy and communism, and other things (again, check out Game, Set, Match). In a brief aside, at first I said I want to learn the most the fastest and I as told to go to the base in the Philippines. Which surprised me. When I asked why, he said it was because the most theft in the world happened their and you learn detective work as well as filling out forms (oh yea). When I said, that wasn't what I mean, then he understood and said that there was a slot open in Berlin, expecting me to shoot that down.

Anyway, as it turned out, I never made it there to Berlin. Again, that’s another story all unto itself. Had I gone though, I would have been nearly in, the Len Deighton Game, Set, Match book's world, in a way. Why I instead left the service, among other things, I had a disagreement with the OSI tactics and code, and so instead I got out, got my degree and spent the ensuing years instead, reading on the history of the clandestine services.

Its all secret. Right? Civilians can never know the truth about what spies do, right?

But guess what? If you read the right books, sometimes, if you talk to the right people, you can actually piece things together. Between what ex KGB officers wrote about publicly after leaving USSR, or those of whom we "turned", or things like that. Then also, there's information available from ex CIA men who wrote, and ex British agents who are great, or Japanese agents, or other people and things. By comparing what both (all actually) sides say, you can pretty much ferret out the truth. Its pretty much what these agencies do themselves, really. Anyway, I found it pretty interesting.

This history search took me all the way back in history to before the CIA began, and into the history of the OSS (no not the OSI, the OSS: Office of Strategic Services), and then even before them, to the ABC, which few know about. William J. Donovan, was the first head of the OSS, whom they called, "Wild Bill" and is now known as the father of Central Intelligence.

"'Wild Bill' deserves his sobriquet mainly for two reasons. First, he permitted the "wildest," loosest kind of administrative and procedural chaos to develop while he concentrated on recruiting talent wherever he could find it - in universities, businesses, law firms, in the armed services, at Georgetown cocktail parties, in fact, anywhere he happened to meet or hear about bright and eager men and women who wanted to help. His immediate lieutenants and their assistants were all at work on the same task, and it was a long time before any systematic method of structuring the polyglot staff complement was worked out.

"Donovan really did not care. He counted on some able young men from his law firm in New York to straighten out the worst administrative messes, arguing that the record would justify his agency if it was good and excuse all waste and confusion. If the agency was a failure, the United States would probably lose the war and the bookkeeping would not matter. In this approach he was probably right.

"In any case, Donovan did manage during the war to create a legend about his work and that of OSS that conveyed overtones of glamour, innovation, and daring. This infuriated the regular bureaucrats but created a cult of romanticism about intelligence that persisted and helped win popular support for continuation of an intelligence organization. It also, of course, created the myths about intelligence-the cloak-and-dagger exploits-that have made it so hard to persuade the aficionados of spy fiction that the heart of intelligence work consists of properly evaluated information from all sources, however collected.

"The second way in which Donovan deserved the term "Wild' was his own personal fascination with bravery and derring-do. He empathized most with the men behind enemy lines. He was constantly traveling to faraway theaters of war to be as near them as possible, and he left to his subordinates the more humdrum business of processing secret intelligence reports in Washington and preparing analytical studies for the President or the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

"Fortunately Donovan had good sense about choosing subordinates. Some were undoubtedly freaks, but the quotient of talent was high and for the most part it rose to the top of the agency. One of Donovan's greatest achievements was setting in motion a train of events that drew to him and to intelligence work a host of able men and women who imparted to intellectual life in the foreign field some of the verve and drive that New Deal lawyers and political scientists had given to domestic affairs under Roosevelt in the 1930s."

The previous quoted material was from Ray S. Cline, Secrets, Spies and Scholars: Blueprint of the Essential CIA - 1976.

Donovan learned how to set the OSS up from the Brits, while secretly working on the ABC (America, Britain, Canada), a group that worked clandestinely prior to WWII gearing up completely, meaning, before America joined in; and as Canada was associated with Britain, so too, obviously, America wanted to be included.

The Brits had learned a lot from the KGB in all those years of being so close to Soviet antics in Europe and so then we learned a lot from the Brits; really, we have a lot to be grateful for to them. KGB invented disinformation tactics and so much more. And the had cooler gadgets. Many of James Bond's gadgetry was born in the old KGB offices in Old Lubyanka building (affiliated prison on Lubyanka Square in Moscow).
Obviously, things have changed from back then.
Now a days, as the book I'm adapting is all about, we have drug cartels as the new bad guys, as well as other groups, terrorists and such. Of course we still have the KGB in the form of the newer FSB (headquartered in the same building), and really, not much has changed there; orientation perhaps, things are more corporate oriented now than national security; or, more like national security has become corporate concerns. Even terrorists are going corporate. The corporations are one way or another, running so many things in our country and around the world.

So, that’s my orientation related to spy novels, to some degree; I go deeper into other things, but I’d just as soon skip all that. I’m actually working up a novel myself in this area, but I have to tread the difference between realism as in Deighton’s books, and fantasy, adventure novels (which sadly sell better). All of which are great fun, but one does have to find one’s focus before doing. So I’ve been biding my time, and right now I have other works to deal with like the screenplay (I so need to get rid of my day job!).

In the end, I felt it was a good book to adapt to screen and I am working on it. And having a good time with it.

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