Private Spies, Porky Pies, and Government Lies
Could it be ten years ago that I found myself walking down Bond Street in Mayfair, London looking for a certain discreet office advertised only by its street address and tucked in between a “wonderful art gallery and a perfectly awful rug merchant?” (My host’s words, not mine.)
At the time, I was in England doing research for the second in my “Rules” series, the novel that became “Rules of Vengeance.” I’d spent the past week meeting with officials from both, appointments set up by friends in the law enforcement community back home in the USA. I’d spent a day at Scotland Yard and a day at the “murder center” in north London. The one anecdote I remember from my afternoon with the homicide police came after I’d asked if they were ever horrified by what they discovered. In films and movies, one so often sees a detective rush outside to empty his stomach after finding a particularly grisly corpse. One older policeman gave me a side glance and shook his head. “Get sick? At the scene? You kidding me? We tend to take a look and have a laugh. Mostly criminals killing each other anyway. Always amusing to see how they do each other in.” So much for the movies!
The first half of the story took place in London and involved MI5, the British domestic security service (similar to the FBI) and Scotland Yard.
As for MI5, authors don’t get invited into the headquarters proper, so I’d met with two of their agents in an Indian restaurant not far from Harrods. I think I filled two notebooks with all the fascinating information they imparted. Anyway, as we left the restaurant, my tongue still burning from the five-alarm curry, one of the officers from “Box” (which is the inside baseball term for what they themselves call MI5) offered to introduce me to a colleague who’d gone over to the dark side…the private sector. His friend had joined a small group of former MI5, MI6 (the British Spy Service…think James Bond), and Scotland Yard officers who’d set up shop as freelance investigators. He called them “private spies.”
And so it was that one rainy fall afternoon in London, I was admitted into the offices of “Grosvenor Associates” on the second floor of a building tucked in between an art gallery and a rug shop. The man I was to interview was named Tony, and for the life of me I can neither remember his last name or find his business card. Tony was in his fifties and looked as if he’d been sent over straight from central casting. Tall, slim, dignified, gray-haired, quiet with an air of steely strength. I’m a John LeCarre fan and Tony looked exactly as I’d pictured the character of Peter Guillam, George Smiley’s acolyte. His offices were spare and modern, gray carpets, sleek desks, hardly a soul to be found. It was Tony who told me not only what he did presently, but all about his time in MI5. Apparently, you can’t talk too much about the job when you’re still working there, but once you’ve left, you’re free to let loose…to an extent.
But while Tony’s career at MI5 was of great interest, (domestic counterterrorism investigations), it was his job as a private spy that really captured my attention, mostly because I’d never heard about the profession. Who exactly did he spy on?
Tony told me his job was to “collect information” for his clients. I had two questions. Who were his clients and what kind of information? His answers were “everyone” and “everything.” But primarily, he admitted after a prolonged silence, he worked for banks, politicians and political parties, and large corporations. If you suspected your wife was cheating on you, Tony was not the man to contact. His bag of tricks did not include a camera with a large telephoto lens. He did, however, have contacts with all the major banks and insurance companies, with his former colleagues at Box and MI6, as well as across the pond, and with his counterparts on the continent. Of course, Tony spoke fluent French, German, and Arabic. We talked for three hours straight.
Flash forward ten years and the whole world knows about private spying and one private spy in particular. His name is Christopher Steele and he is the author of the so-called “Russia dossier” which is certainly in the news today. Whatever Steele collected and put in that dossier, my sense is that the information came from sources he’d vetted over a long career. Steele was a collector, not a creator. He was an archaeologist digging up bones, and as devoted to his craft as Richard Leakey.
And so, it was because of Tony, and, later, Christopher Steele, that I created my own private spy to star in my new series of books. His name is Simon Riske. He’s an American living in London, a former banker, secretly an ex-con, who runs an automotive repair shop restoring Italian sports cars in between doing jobs for banks, politicians, and large corporations. And, of course, the odd intelligence agency that can’t be seen to be getting its hands dirty. By the way, the title of the book is “The Take.” Good fun!
This new thriller, The Take, will be out January 16 featuring that Simon Riske character who has been described as “One part James Bond, one part Jack Reacher.” I’ve already pre-ordered my copy…hope you will too as I’m sure it will be a great read. Now, thanks, Chris, for being our guest here on Rogue Women Writers! ….. Karna Small Bodman