‘No professional in the intelligence world smokes or drinks,’ says James Barrington, author of the popular ‘Richter’ spy thriller series. ‘If you want to knock somebody out, spiking a cigarette or a drink is easy to do.
You can’t spike coffee or tea or water the same way you can spike something shaken, not stirred.’ He laughs. ‘James Bond is a great character, but a secret agent who’s recognised by every hotel maître d’ in the world? Where’s the secret bit?’
Barrington – real name Peter Smith – should know. The author was a military pilot before a detached retina put him out of action; faced with leaving the services altogether, he moved into air traffic control and wound up on navy ships that engaged in espionage missions. Barrington tells Time Out that the hero of his novels, Paul Richter, is based ‘not on me, but on a guy I knew in the services who would often go off and work with the SAS – on secondment, if you like.’ Richter’s latest mission in new book Payback takes him to Dubai, where he uncovers a planned terrorist attack on the city. Considering Barrington’s real-life knowledge of these things, should we be worried?
The author won’t be drawn on how susceptible Dubai is to an attack – ‘I can’t give you a definitive answer to that,’ he insists – but the seemingly fantastical, conspiracy-riddled plots of his thrillers aren’t so far from the truth. Though bound by the Official Secrets Act not to reveal anything classified about his own missions, Barrington can at least base his stories in what he knows to be fact.
His leading man, Richter, works for an invented organisation, the Foreign Operations Executive, which is modelled on a real British initiative called The Increment. According to Barrington, The Increment recruits people who are ‘off the books’ to do ‘dirty work’ but allow ‘political deniability’. ‘It fools nobody in the intelligence world, but it works with politicians, who aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed,’ he adds.
Barrington’s hero spends many a book unravelling some sort of terrorist cell’s plans to launch an attack with a secret nuclear arsenal, and the chances of that happening are also perhaps not as unlikely as we’d like to believe. ‘There was a case when a Russian national security adviser, Alexander Lebed, admitted that Russia had built something like 250 nuclear weapons and had no idea where 83 of them were,’ Barrington points out (Lebed in fact claimed that more than 100 weapons were unaccounted for during an interview on TV show 60 Minutes in 1997). And according to Barrington, there are real-life Bond villains. ‘There are rogue scientists around the world who have been known to take part in designing nuclear weapons provided they’re paid enough,’ he says. ‘There’s an Indian scientist who’s notorious for that.’
It’s probably the thinly veiled fact behind the fiction that keeps people reading the espionage genre, which has enjoyed consistent popularity from early secret agents like The Scarlet Pimpernel, through James Bond to the modern-day likes of Jason Bourne. And it’s true that in the wake of 9/11, fiction around the politics of the world abroad – in books and film – has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity. ‘The more uncertain a world we live in, the more popular this kind of thing is,’ Barrington agrees.
Still, it seems the dose of fiction is larger than that of fact in these stories. ‘Espionage work can actually be incredibly dull,’ says Barrington. ‘The planning part is exciting, and then nothing happens for four-and-a-half hours. It’s short bursts of excitement, followed by long periods of waiting around for something to happen.’
Payback is published by Pan Books.
Dame Stella Rimington: fact or fiction?
The spy thriller genre is a largely male-dominated world, but one of its most intriguing writers is Rimington, who was director-general of MI5 from 1992 until 1996. She has written five spy novels, with a female intelligence officer taking the lead. If ever there was an author that should know their stuff, it’s Rimington.