The woman's place in spy fiction

A highly regarded figure in the British publishing establishment did me the kindness of reading an early draft of my new spy novel, Rogue Elements.  He was complimentary, but he worried that some of it was a bit clichéd: in particular, “a Mossad killer, a female boss”.  Perhaps he was right about my assassin (although I’m struggling to recall other spy novels with an Israeli finger on the trigger).  But his suggestion that having a woman in charge of an espionage operation was some kind of failure of originality did shock me.

Presumably he was thinking of Judy Dench playing M in the Bond movies.  Yes, that was quite an innovation twenty years ago when she first took the role.  But now?  Should we still think it’s remarkable to see a woman in charge?  Shouldn’t we in fact start from the position that fifty percent of fictitious spies ought to have a female boss?

I’m being slightly disingenuous.  The gender of my spymaster, Madeleine Wraye, does have some bearing on the plot, at least in her own mind.  She sees it as a contributory factor in her downfall.  For unlike Dench’s magisterial M, Wraye is not in charge of the Secret Intelligence Service; she’s no longer even employed by the organisation better known as MI6.  She’s out, an ex-spook, ousted by a cabal of male colleagues who – she believes – feared she was getting a little too close to the top.  As a freelancer marshalling other freelancers, she’s remarkably successful; as a former government servant with dashed hopes of a place in SIS history, she’s a little bitter.

No one could claim that women are adequately represented in the upper echelons of most organisations, and this is undoubtedly as true for intelligence agencies as it is for our banks, supermarket chains and governments.  But if a novelist were to include a female commissioning editor or marketing director in a manuscript, would anyone bat an eyelid?  What’s so special about female spymasters?

Admittedly, the Secret Intelligence Service has never had a female Chief, and we know almost nothing about its other senior officers.  High-ranking SIS women never get featured in “How does she do it?” columns in the Sunday papers.  But the Security Service (MI5) has had two female Directors General: Stella Rimington held the top job from 1992 to 1996, and Eliza Manningham-Buller took charge from 2002 to 2007. 

Things are even more progressive across the Atlantic.  The Deputy Director of the CIA is a woman, and a young one at that: Avril Haines is just 44.  Following the Snowden revelations last year, Frances Fleisch was given the unenviable job of Acting Deputy Director at the National Security Agency.  And the next Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency – the CIA’s military counterpart – is expected to be Lieutenant General Mary Legere.  The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and National Reconnaissance Office, both key members of the US Intelligence Community, are run by women.

None of which should surprise anyone with a passing understanding of what intelligence agencies actually do.  Forget the breakneck excitements of Bond and Bourne, or even the occasional bursts of action in Rogue Elements.  The job of the spy is to collect pertinent information that others would rather keep from them.  Mostly, these days, that is achieved by electronic means.  Sometimes it is still done by talking to people with access to secrets.  There is little call for machismo in espionage, as celebrated practitioners from Violette Szabo and Daphne Park to Valerie Plame and the marvellous fictional Carrie Mathison have all shown.

So I’ve kept my female boss.  She’s without doubt the most interesting character in the book.  But in no way should anyone consider her gender remarkable.