|North by Northwest crop duster scene|
by Jamie Freveletti
When it comes to spies I love the idea of “average person, dangerous situation.” It gives an author the chance to create a story that weaves in thrilling drama into situations that a lot of readers can relate to, because it incorporates something that happens in their daily lives. The train ride run amok, the family member that suddenly reveals a secret, the co worker that lives a double life. All of these things occur in the real world. Thriller writers take the moment and add a “what if?” question. From there the story takes off. A lot of thrillers use this theme, but what makes it so compelling is the way that the stories can be fresh every time. Who hasn’t had that moment in their lives that something unusual happened? That right place/right time that ends up being an interesting story?
I love classic books and movies, and there are quite a few accidental spies that populate them. The movie North by Northwest gave director Alfred Hitchcock the perfect set up for an accidental spy. A Mad Men type advertising executive is mistaken for someone else and soon finds himself running from just about everybody. He’s compelled to solve the puzzle to save his skin. What I also love about the story is how the danger changes him. He becomes a more serious, deeper person after the experience.
The hidden strength theme is present in a lot of accidental spy novels. The spy often masquerades as a dandy, or someone that others overlook as too insubstantial to be worth notice. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, Percy Blakeney is a dandy and a fop, which causes others to overlook his actual substance. Likewise, The Mask of Zorro carries the same theme of a gifted swordsman and spy masquerading as an effete dandy to divert suspicion.
|Richard E Grant|
The “spy in fop clothes” has some parallels in real life. In early France, a famous spy cross dressed as a woman for most of his life. The Chevalier d’Eon was a member of Louis XV’s Secret du Roi, a secret group of spies that infiltrated various governments. D’Eon infiltrated Russia by dressing as a woman, at the time only women were being allowed into the country, and conspired with other French spies to overthrow the Habsburg monarchy. D’Eon spent many years cross dressing and died wearing a dress.
There have been a few tales of actual accidental spies and overlooked meek individuals in American spy history as well. One of the most famous is Quaker woman and spy Lydia Darragh.
When the British occupied Philadelphia, they stationed soldiers in private homes throughout the city. British General William Howe convened a group to discuss an upcoming attack on Whitemarsh on the 4th of December, 1777, and he made the mistake of doing so from Darragh’s living room. While the soldiers listened to the upcoming battle plans Darragh did, too. She made notes, stuffed them into a book, and ran to a nearby pub, where she gave the book to a man in charge of prisons. He discovered her notes and took them to American headquarters. After their defeat, British spy Major Andre said that someone surely had given notice to the Americans and that the “walls must have ears.” Not walls, but women. Howe’s arrogant assumption that women were not worth noticing cost the Brits dearly that day.
Never underestimate the power of a woman!