Life Meets Art in Thriller World Through the Ages
The act of concealing one’s identity to do the job of an undercover operative can be as simple as using a throw-away alias for a onetime meeting, or as complex as developing a full-on Jason Borne fake identity with enough backstory and backstopping to fool the agent’s own mother. Clandestine operations are, and will continue to be, a bedrock of books and film in the thriller genre for one simple reason—the tension is already built-into the story. The premise begins with a lie, the terrifying reality in that whoever is involved in the risky scheme will at very least be exposed, and maybe even tortured and killed. Add in a flashy mission name like Eagle Claw, Wrath of God, or Valkyrie, with consequences as dire as the assassination a world leader or global annihilation, and you’ve got yourself pure entertainment gold.
One of the best examples of life meeting art happens in the adaptation of the nonfiction book turned popular feature film Argo, which was based on the daring true account of the Canadian Caper, an operation detailing a wild CIA ruse involving undercover officers posing as a film crew to rescue six Americans from Tehran in 1979. With all the elements of a rip-roaring action thriller, it leaves screenwriters and authors struggling to top the real-life suspense that made the movie such a hit. But one need not look to Hollywood filmmakers or New York publishers to find some of the best covert operative stories ever told, as the genesis for the suspense genre is actually…Genesis. The first book of the Bible details the account of an apostate angel, working undercover in the Garden of Eden to orchestrate the fall of man. Talk about your high stakes!
The Old Testament goes on to highlight a story in the book of Joshua, where two Israelite spies are sent into Jericho on a reconnaissance mission before a military invasion. There’s treason, a blood oath, and a harrowing escape—all the elements a wonderful nail-biting thriller. While the world has changed drastically since then, the basics of a good undercover story remain the same. At the end of the day, it all boils down to one main objective. Don’t. Get. Caught. Known for their daring undercover exploits and no stranger to fiction is the world-renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency, which orchestrated the harrowing infiltration of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish American coal miners. The cagey operative, James McParlan, who subverted the gang of deadly assassins in the late 1800s, was likely a heavy influence on Sir Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear, first published in The Strand Magazine.
While it’s hard to go wrong writing about cults and secret agents, it was Pinkerton’s barrier-shattering first female detective in another case, Kate Warne, that really sparks the writer’s imagination due to her undercover exploits. Posing as a Southern belle to expose a group of radical secessionists in Baltimore, she discovered and helped foil an early plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Warne went on to work undercover throughout out her career, chasing bank robbers and murderers, and even posing as fortune teller to lure a potential killer’s confession. Is there any wonder why readers and moviegoers are fascinated by Allan Pinkerton and his cadre of spies?
A hundred and fifty years later, the world is no safer and evildoers are no fewer. For this reason, cloak-and-dagger operations will be a mainstay in the intelligence community and in law enforcement. And with this continuation will come successes, failures, and the inevitable controversies that will no doubt find their way into the pages of books. While the technologies and techniques in covert missions may evolve, one thing never will. As long as there are bad guys, there will be those willing to go undercover to stop them. And as long as those intrepid secret agents exist, thriller fans are going to want to hear their amazing stories.
Taylor Moore is a sixth-generation Texan who grew up on a farm and ranch northwest of Houston. He is a former CIA Intelligence Officer who worked in both analysis and operations and later consulted for the Department of Defense in Theater Security Cooperation, Force Protection, and Counternarcotics. He now lives in the Texas Panhandle with his wife and two children, where he is a full-time author and speaker. This is Taylor’s debut novel, and the first in a series featuring Garrett Kohl.