Trains, planes, cars, and motorcycles

by | Aug 12, 2018 | The Writer's Life | 9 comments

S. Lee Manning: Gayle Lynds’ excellent quiz on her last post made me think about spies and transportation. In international thrillers, spies travel – a lot. They have to get from one country to another. Once there, they use transportation to do surveillance – to ditch tails – to meet up with assets. What modes of transportation would a spy be likely to use? Would Bond really drive around in an Aston Martin? 
For the aspiring writer or the aspiring spy, I hereby present my guide to safely and secretly getting around town. 
Me with my husband’s motorcycle. 

Yes, spies ride motorcycles – definitely in fiction. There are motorcycles in Bond movies, Mission Impossible, the Bourne movies.  Both sides ride them. Bond, Bourne, and Hunt ride motorcycles, and gangs of villainous minions ride motorcycles to chase them down. Unsuccessfully of course. 

Motorcycles have also been used in real operations. Israeli agents allegedly assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists by launching attacks from motorcycles.

Pros.They are very fast and very maneuverable. Easy to conceal one’s identity with the appropriate helmet and visor. Great for areas in the world where motorcycles are much more common than the United States for everyday transportation. Great for European cities with narrow streets, or any city with heavy traffic that a motorcycle can evade. They’re also sexy, which is great for fiction, but not the point for real secret agents – unless they’re trying to seduce someone who might have information. It happens – but is a motorcycle really essential for seduction?
Jim on his motorcycle

Cons.They’re dangerous. Well, they are. It takes some skill to ride a motorcycle – and not everyone can do it. If you’ve never driven one and you just jump on one to get away, good chance of crashing. I know this from personal experience. Nine years ago, while revisiting my youth, I thought it would be fun to ride my own motorcycle. I bought a small Suzuki. My husband tried patiently to teach me how to ride. After I nearly crashed into a curb, we sold the motorcycle. I bought a new guitar and wrote a song about the experience. Now I sometimes ride on the back of my husband’s bike – but only on country roads in Vermont.

Other cons. motorcycles can be conspicuous. Chasing on a motorcycle might work, but if an agent wants to conduct surveillance – she might be noticed. 
Conclusion: Motorcycles are cool. They can work for espionage, real or fictional. In fact, now that I’ve discussed the topic, going to try to work one into the next book.
Sports cars – and cars in general
(If you haven’t taken Gayle’s quiz, skip this section.)
Generally, we use cars to get around, especially in America. What kind of car would a spy use? Spies in fiction often have very cool cars. Who could forget Bond’s Aston Martin? (Apparently Bond could – because in other movies he drove a sunbeam Alphine, BMWs, a Ford Mustang, and a Lotus.) On the other hand, I’ll bet that George Smiley doesn’t even own a car.
Pros for sports cars. Fast. Of course. If engaging in high speed chases, it’s good to have a car that can accelerate quickly and corner sharply. And if an agent is going under cover in Cannes – or Monte Carlo – it would be a great prop to back up the legend. Further, like motorcycles, sports cars are sexy, which would be of some utility in seduction, and therefore also great for the fictional spies, because sexy sells books and movies.
Cons. More cons than pros – for real agents, that is. Much too conspicuous. No one would use a sports car for surveillance. Much too expensive. No government agency is going to approve the purchase of a sports car. One of my operatives has a very cool car – an Acura NSX that costs around $150,000 – but he has a trust fund from his grandfather. Kolya, my protagonist, who lives on the salary of a federal employee, owns a 20-year-old Volvo.
Conclusion: Sports cars do not work for your average operative – but sports cars are fun. If you’re writing an espionage thriller, choose whether your agent leans toward James Bond or George Smiley.
Trains, subways, buses
Lumping them all together under public transportation. Very important for the secret agent to use – except perhaps in Vermont – since in Europe, Asia, and some American cities, the mass of people get around by public transportation.

Pros of public transportation. Most secret operatives want to blend in and look inconspicuous. No better way to do that than on public transportation. The competent agent will learn routes and schedules for buses and subways of the city he’s operating in – and not just so he can get around. Public transportation is a great way to spot surveillance and to ditch surveillance.
Cons. Uncomfortable. Slower. Limited bathrooms. And you can be trapped. If you’re on a train or subway with the villain, you have fewer options to get away. Think of all the scenes of bad guys following people from subway car to subway car. It’s enough to make you willing to pay for an Uber. 
Conclusion: Trains, subways, and buses are definitely part of your transportation plan – either if you are a spy – or you’re just writing an espionage thriller.
You’re in America, and your assignment is in Poland. You take a plane. 
Pros. It’s a long swim across the Atlantic.
Cons. It’s a plane. They can crash. The seats are ridiculously small. The food is overpriced and terrible. They can crash. (I hate flying. Did you guess?)
Conclusion: If you have to cross an ocean or a continent, you take a plane – unless you have enough time for a really long road trip or boat ride. Different kind of book.
So, my friends, this concludes my tour of the possibilities for spy transport. I did leave out a few options: horses, camels, bicycles – all of which have pros and cons –but alas, I am out of time and words – so you get to decide if you want your spy to use any of the aforementioned. Just think carefully before you stick your protagonist on a horse in the middle of Manhattan. 
What mode of transportation do you think works best for spies? Or yourself – for that matter?
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    What a terrific idea for a post, S. Lee, and so chock full of intel for the thinking spy! A new Rogue motto: Happy secret Trails!

  2. Robin Burcell

    Ha! I was thinking that I'd blend in as my car is very common in our streets. Maybe not so much elsewhere. Back when I worked undercover, the choice of car in town could make a difference on being seen. The whole idea is that if the bad guy looks, they'll dismiss it, barely even see it. That leaves out all the sports cars, for sure!

  3. S. Lee Manning

    I like that. And we can even make it into a song.

  4. S. Lee Manning

    Personally, I'd do my surveillance in a mini-van. Lots of room to stretch out – and nobody pays attention to them. Except in Vermont, where mini-vans tend to get stuck in snowbanks and in mud.

  5. Karna Bodman

    Terrific post…which give authors a slew of ideas to use in the next thriller. As for motorcycle-type conveyances, don't know if a "scooter" would qualify for a spy to use. But one place she shouldn't use one (unless she's very adept) is in Bermuda. A friend who served as our Consul General there said that his biggest problem was the 10 calls he got PER DAY about Americans who had accidents on scooters there (left-side driving, narrow roads, inexperience)….and had to be medivacked out for treatment. Thanks for a great blog!

  6. Jamie Freveletti

    I've used only two of these in my books–trains and cars. And you're right-a sports car is too obvious, so I had the protagonist ache to drive the Jaguar, but end up with an uninteresting small car with an engine described as a "sewing machine." Book was THE GENEVA STRATEGY. I give you credit for trying the motorcycle! I've driven one, but enjoyed the Vespa I drove so much more. Nice post!

  7. S. Lee Manning

    I love riding on the back of a motorcycle – but somehow the combination of shifting gears with my foot while keeping the bike up and moving was a little too much for me. Hence almost hitting the curb. I got my license using a scooter that had automatic transmission. Might have been a Vespa.

  8. S. Lee Manning

    I think a capable spy would therefore want to use one in Bermuda – and blend in.

  9. Chris Goff

    I tend to agree with the other Rogues that a real spy has to blend in. Of course, this is fiction we're writing so no holds barred. A Jag has a lot more sex appeal than a Vespa, just sayin'.