by | Aug 10, 2016 | Gayle Lynds | 8 comments

Glienicke Bridge, Germany — Where secret agents and secret services used to meet.

By Gayle Lynds: From the 1950s until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, one spymaster came to be regarded by friend and foe alike as the Cold War’s most successful espionage chief.  A clue: Western intelligence services dubbed him the Man Without a Face because they had no idea what he looked like.  That’s how good he was.

Know whom I’m describing?  In a moment, I’ll give you more clues, and then the answer.

But first, Blog Alert: This is the beginning of our next series of blogs — fascinating real-life people whom we’ve used as models or inspiration for characters in our espionage novels. 

Back to our clues: Our mystery spymaster was a tall, handsome man, debonaire, athletic, and highly intelligent.  He could exude charm and kindness, and five minutes later order an execution.  His success was rooted in Stalinism, but he was an early supporter of reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.  His heritage was Orthodox Judaism, but sometimes he hid it and other times used it.

Although he was a victim of Nazi persecution, he persecuted others to protect a police state and grind the citizens into submission.  He pimped his spies while discussing Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  He was entrepreneurial — it was his audacious and highly successful plan to introduce long-term “sleeper” agents into the stream of East German refugees escaping to the West.  He goose-stepped with the Soviet Union, but his personal concern for his nearly 4,000 staff officers and spies earned him their unshakable loyalty.

Finally in the summer of 1978, Swedish counterintelligence photographed him in Stockholm where he was secretly meeting one of his sources.  The West already knew his name, now they could see what he looked like.  His life was never quite as easy again.

Retired spymaster Markus Wolf

Do you know the answer now?  If you lived through the Cold War, you have a better chance of deducing that he was Markus Wolf, legendary chief of East Germany’s foreign intelligence and deputy head of the Stasi.

Married three times, he retired from the government in 1986 to focus on writing a book about his brother, Konrad, and growing up in Moscow.  Called Troika, it was a sensation in both East and West Germany, and Wolf was suddenly transformed from bloody-handed spymaster into a historian and literary lion. 

But then the Berlin Wall fell, and Wolf was arrested, tried, and convicted of treason.  It wasn’t long before the German supreme court overturned his sentence.  And finally, in 2006, at age 83, he died in his sleep at his luxurious home in Berlin.

For years, it was said that John le Carré based his famous master spy Karla on Wolf, but le Carré has denied it again and again.  Still, Wolf’s immorality and complexity have influenced writers for years, not that we in the West didn’t also have great spymasters and great spymistresses.  And not that ours weren’t equally complex.  The difference lay for many of us in the kind of nation for which they worked — democracy, dictatorship, or totalitarian regime.

When I was creating The Last Spymaster, I found myself thinking about Wolf a great deal — particularly why he was so successful at recruiting.  Researching him, I discovered several of his psychological tricks, also used by Westerners. . . .

Meet Jay Tice, the last Cold War spymaster, of the title.  From the novel:

Tice had used human manipulation like a subversive weapon, calling his approach the BAR Code — Befriend, Assess, Recruit.

Is that real — the “BAR Code?”  No, I made up the acronym, but it’s an accurate description of what spies do when they target someone they hope to turn.

How did Jay Tice accomplish that it in the novel?

His signature touch was deceptively simple:  When they entered the door for the first meeting, he would already be walking toward them, his hand outstretched, smiling.  He would introduce himself, disarming them and setting the stage for what was to follow: “Let’s dispense with formalities.  My friends call me Jay.”

Tice was unusually persuasive, with a huge talent for displaying warmth and compassion.  When a recruiter reported a potential mole or asset or agent was resistant, Tice would arrange a personal meeting.  By the time the potential arrived, Tice had steeped himself in every detail of his or her life.  Tice asked questions, listened intently, and showed deep interest in the person’s concerns and worries for the future.  Soon the potential began to believe Tice cared. . . .

We authors find inspiration where we can, and from it we build characters and stories.  Markus Wolf was pure gold for me, a gift that continues to give.

Do you have people in your life who inspire you to want to tell a story?  Don’t keep it a secret — please tell!

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Debi Huff

    Fascinating, as always, Gayle!!

  2. S. Lee Manning

    Life imitates fiction, and fiction imitates life.

  3. Gayle Lynds

    Debi Huff & S. Lee Manning … There's debate about whether he was the most successful of course, but it sure seems to me an interesting question. Glad you liked it!

  4. Chris Goff

    Very clever–the BAR code. I bet Marcus Wolf would agree. Great post!

  5. Karna Bodman

    Loved learning about this way too clever spymaster! I look forward to all of the inspirational characters that the "Rogue Women Writers" will be blogging about this week and next. Thanks for this one – super interesting!

  6. KJ Howe

    Absolutely brilliant post, Gayle. I love learning everything I can about spies and what makes them tick. Social engineering is a crucial skill, as you demonstrated so well.

  7. Gayle Lynds

    Thank you, everyone. I should've posted my fave book about him, full of post-it notes and yellow highlighter. We're lucky to work in a field where we get to do interesting research!

  8. Jangrape

    Gayle, Were there any female SPYMASTERS? In fiction or in real life? I know I've read about women spies but don't recall a female Spymaster..