Working with an agency like MI5, the FBI, or NZIS takes years of training. Many people who apply for those sorts of jobs don’t even make it through the training. And it’s not hard to see why. Ordinary people would likely not do very well – if they even stayed alive – with some of the dangerous work those agencies do. And yet, there are several examples in crime fiction of ‘everyday people’ who get drawn into one or another CIA case, or CSIA case, or some other covert sort of operation. It’s not easy to make that sort of story work, since it requires a certain amount of disbelief. But when it’s done effectively, that plot point can make for an interesting, even suspenseful, story.
Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresfords make their debut in The Secret Adversary. It’s just after WW I, and neither of the Beresfords has any money. So, they decide to start their own business, The Young Adventurers, Ltd. Before long, they are hired to find a woman who disappeared after surviving the sinking of the Lusitania. She took with her an important secret international treaty, and that’s the real goal. Fans of this couple know that, several times over the course of the years, they are called upon by one or another intelligence group. They may have been ordinary citizens to start, but they certainly have their share of espionage adventures!
So does Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax. When we first meet her, in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, she is a widow living quietly in suburban New Jersey. She doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life tending her garden, but she’s not sure exactly what she will do. Then, she sees an advertisement for a position with the CIA, and decides to apply. At first, she’s not taken seriously. But she doesn’t give up easily, and a mission is offered to her as a sort of ‘working interview.’ She is pick up a package in Mexico and deliver it. There’s no real danger attached to this job, and it’s unlikely that anyone will even pay attention to a ‘grandmother tourist.’ But it turns out that this job is much riskier and more complex than anyone thought, and Mrs. Pollifax ends up proving her worth. And she ends up being drawn into several international cases.
Aaron Elkins’ Dr. Gideon Oliver makes his debut in Fellowship of Fear. Oliver is a physical anthropologist who travels to Europe to give a series of guest lectures at the United States Overseas College (USOC). The plan is for him to stay for two months and travel to a few of the college’s branches in different European cities. Before long, though, he is drawn into a case of espionage. It seems that someone from UCOS is passing information to the Soviet Union (the book was published in 1982). Tom Marks and Hilaire Delvaux, two leaders in the NATO Security Directorate (NSD)’s counterespionage bureau, want Oliver to help them find out who it is. He has no real interest in this sort of international intrigue, but he’s been followed and attacked a few times, so he is highly motivated to find out what’s going on as soon as possible. Reluctantly, he works with his ‘handlers,’ and starts putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
And then there’s Jessica Mann’s Funeral Sites. Architect Rosamond Sholto goes to Geneva to attend the funeral of her sister Phoebe. The official story is that Phoebe and her husband, UK Deputy Prime Minister Aidan Britton, were visiting their Swiss chalet when Phoebe had a tragic fall from a mountain. Rosamund soon becomes convinced, though, that Phoebe was murdered. And she suspects that Aidan is somehow responsible. So, she starts to ask some questions to try to get to the truth. In the meantime, Ian Barnes is on special assignment from the UK government. Some very high-level people in government believe that Aidan Britton is a dangerous person who will bring tragedy to the country if he becomes Prime Minister. Barnes wants to bring Britton down, and Rosamund Sholto could be just the person to help him do it. He sets out to find Rosamund and get her cooperation. Rosamund is equally determined to avoid being stopped as she searches for her sister’s killer. She has no interest in working with the government, especially since her brother-in-law has a lot of power and every reason to go after her. It makes for an interesting source of tension as the story goes on.
Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins gets drawn into working as a sort of government operative in A Red Death. As the story begins, he gets a letter from the IRS saying that he owes thousands of dollars in taxes – money he can’t possibly pay. He’s mentally preparing himself for prison when he is offered a way out of his troubles. FBI Agent Darryl Craxton offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if Rawlins cooperates with an FBI operation. Craxton wants to bring down Chaim Wenzler, an ex-pat Jewish Pole he suspects of being a communist. The story takes place in the early 1950’s, when McCarthyism is at its height, so such an accusation is a very serious matter. He knows that Wenzler volunteers at a local church, and he wants Rawlins to volunteer there, too, and get close to Wenzler. Then, he can get the information Craxton needs. Rawlins doesn’t see any other option, so he agrees. As he gets to know Wenzler, though, he finds that he likes the man. He still has his tax troubles though, so he’s not sure what he should do. Then, there are two murders at the church, and Rawlins finds himself framed for them. Now, he has to clear his name as well as deal with the FBI.
As a rule, intelligence groups don’t usually use ‘regular’ citizens in their work, except as witnesses or informants. But sometimes it’s necessary. And when that plot point is done well in a novel, it can add a solid layer of suspense to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s Dirty Work.
13 thoughts on “So You Find Yourself Somebody Who Can Do the Job For Free*”
Thanks for the reminder of Rawlins and Walter Mosley. I really ought to dust off some of his books. I’m pretty sure I read A Red Death years back but recall anything about it.
I think it’s a great series, Col, and Rawlins is a well-developed character. It’s so hard to keep up with everything you want to read, isn’t it? I couldn’t even come close!
I appreciated your fine examples. I thought of Maisie Dobbs in the series by Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie is mentored by Maurice Blanche who has many intelligence connections. In Journey to Munich she is actually recruited by the British Secret Service for a specific mission to Nazi Germany. With her skills as an investigator and a psychologist she is a credible agent though I was disappointed by some of her actions at the end.
Thanks, Bill. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’m glad you added Maisie Dobbs, too. I agree that she makes a credible agent; that falls out naturally from her background and skills, so it works. Your last comment has got me thinking about characters who do things that are disappointing, given what we know about them. Hmm….lots to think about, so thanks.
Always a good plotline for a thriller, but I often wonder how true to life it is. I’d imagine that the rules around using civilians are incredibly strict to avoid scandals and lawsuits, which means that, a bit like the amateur detective, I find it works better in older novels or ones with a historical setting. But maybe if there’s a big heist on a chocolate factory MI5 will bring me in on the case, since it’s my field of expertise… 😉
Oh, I expect MI5 is already well aware of your expertise, FictionFan, and is planning to involve you the minute the Great Chocolate Robbery happens! I can see it now… 😉
In general, I think you’re quite right that there are lots of rules and regulations when it comes to using civilians for operations. It’s dangerous and could, as you say, leave an agency open to all sorts of trouble. And my guess is, agencies want their operations to succeed. It’s less likely that will happen if an untrained civilian gets involved. You make a good point about older novels, too. I was thinking about that subconsciously as I was putting the post together, and it does seem there are more of those cases in GA or GA-set novels than there are in more contemporary stories. Hmmm….. I suppose it’s one of the many changes that have happened to the genre as the world has changed.
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Margot, that FictionFan is a bit of a sort, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if all the evidence went missing!
Hahaha! I wouldn’t be, either, Col! But then, who could blame her – all that lovely chocolate….
Margot, I think I prefer espionage fiction where the characters are not amateurs, but on the other hand I like all the examples here (that I have read) so maybe not. Depends on the writing, as usual, I guess.
I loved the Dorothy Gilman books, especially the earlier ones, and even got some free copies of a few of the books from my next door neighbor to try rereading them. I want to read more books by both Aaron Elkins and Walter Mosley. I found A Red Death a bit more violent and gritty than the earlier books in the series, but still want to keep going with it.
I know what you mean, Tracy, about wanting espionage characters to be professionals. For one thing, that’s more realistic. For another thing, I think it gives the character more resources to deal with an antagonist. Still, as you say, there are some cases where an amateur can work well in a story.
I like the Dorothy Gilman books, too. I think Emily Pollifax is a great character, and especially appealing now that I’m no longer – er – 20. I do recommend both Elkins (Have you read Loot?) and Mosley. Mosley’s work can, as you say, get gritty. But I think he tells compelling stories.
Margot, I have read Loot, and also another standalone book by Elkins, The Turncoat. I loved both of them.
I’m glad to hear it, Tracy. I think Elkins is really a talented writer, and his standalones deserve more attention.