A MYSTERY MINUTE
By ZJ Czupor
And They Were Spies
In a sense all mystery writers function as spies. We observe people around us, we study character types, we create plots and then we uncover them. Even the most boring luncheons can be fodder for our craft. I think it’s interesting to note that several successful mystery and thriller writers were at one time also spies.
English novelist Henry Graham Greene, better known as Graham Greene (1904-1991), author of The Third Man, The Heart of the Matter, Our Man in Havana and more, said, “Champagne, if you are seeking the truth, is better than a lie detector. It encourages a man to be expansive, even reckless, while lie detectors are only a challenge to tell lies more successfully.”
Greene would know. When he was wasn’t writing, he worked as an agent for MI6, the British intelligence service in Sierra Leone under the famous Soviet mole, Kim Philby. Greene’s sister, Elizabeth, worked for MI6 in Cairo. Greene was short listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966 and 1967.
English author Fredrick Forsyth (1938 – ) is famous for writing The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Fourth Protocol and more. For 20 years, he covertly passed along information and packages for MI6 but claims he was never paid. As a journalist, he covered French affairs and the attempted assassination of French President Charles de Gaulle, hence the novel, The Day of the Jackal, which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel in 1972.
English author Ian Fleming (1908 – 1964) is best known for his James Bond series of spy novels and the children’s story Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. He worked for British naval intelligence in WWII and helped plot several espionage missions against Nazi Germany. He held an encyclopedic knowledge of guns, geography, trees, flowers, wine, food, clothes, and women. And he spoke English, French, German and Russian.
David John Moore Cornwell, better known by his pen name John le Carré
(1931 – ), is the British author of such successful spy novels as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and more was MI5 and MI6 during the Cold War. Soviet mole Kim Philby blew his cover, so Cornwell left the service and became a full-time author. He once said, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”
Peter Matthiessen (1927 – 2014) joined the CIA out of Yale University. He won the National Book Award three times and founded the Paris Review, literary magazine, as a cover for his intelligence duties. While he was writing his first novel and checking on certain Americans in Paris, his contact man said, “Anything else you can do while you’re here?” That precipitated his founding of the Paris Review. His most famous novels are The Snow Leopard, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Shadow Country and more.
American Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961), noted for The Old Man and The Sea, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and more, is reported to have spied for the Soviet Union’s NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB. Recruited in 1941, he patrolled the Caribbean in search of German submarines, but rather unsuccessfully. The Soviets codenamed him “Argo,” and hoped he might influence public opinion through his writing. Alas, they decided his information was useless and lost interest in him by 1950.
British playwright and novelist William Somerset Maugham better known as W. Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965), authored Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, The Moon and Sixpence and more. He worked for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service in Switzerland in 1915-16 and again during WWII. His first boss told him, “If you do well, you’ll get no thanks…and if you get into trouble, you’ll get no help.” He used his spy experiences to write Ashenden: Or the British Agent, as a collection of short stories. This character is considered to have influenced Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels.
There are many more authors who didn’t necessarily write spy thrillers who served in intelligence work, i.e. Roald Dahl (children’s author) and Julia Child (cookbooks). In today’s modern world, there’s a larger handful of authors writing mysteries and thrillers who did intelligence work for agencies known only by their initials.
So, look around. Beware. The author you’re having wine with might be a spy.
And that’s your mystery minute.
Forensic linguistics is an investigative technique which helps experts determine authorship by identifying quirks in a writer’s style. Thanks to advances in computer technology, forensic linguists can now analyze text with finer accuracy.
Some analyses can be completed in about half an hour. Amazing when you consider that in the early 1960s it took a team of two statisticians and a high-speed computer at MIT three years to figure out who wrote twelve unsigned Federalist Papers. Turns out they were written by James Madison who rarely used the word “while” but instead used “whilst,” and rarely used the word “upon” but rather “on.”
According to a 2014 article in Smithsonian.com (March 2014), Robert Leonard, director of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra University, has been an expert witness in 13 states and six Federal District Courts and in U.S. District Courts (including Denver). He worked on the JonBenet Ramsey case, where he eliminated John Mark Karr as the killer after Karr falsely confessed to the murder. Leonard also presented evidence in cases like that of Christopher Coleman, who was arrested in 2009 for murdering his family in Waterloo, Illinois.
Leonard testified that Coleman’s writing style matched threats he had spray-painted at his family’s home. Coleman was convicted and is serving a life sentence.
Side note: While working on his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Leonard sang in the rock ‘n roll band Sha Na Na and performed at Woodstock.
Interestingly, it was forensics linguistics in 2013 that outed an internationally famous author who also writes mysteries under a pen name. The test, conducted by Patrick Juola, a Duquesne University computer scientist, examined sequences of tens of thousands of adjacent words, while another zeroed in on sequences of characters. A third test tallied the most common words, while a fourth examined the author’s preferences for long or short words. The results revealed a linguistic fingerprint—or in other words, the author’s stylistic quirks.
This particular author is the ninth best-selling fiction author of all time (estimated 500 million copies sold). Writing under a pen name, this author has also written four acclaimed mystery novels: The Cuckoo’s Calling, Career of Evil, The Silkworm and the newest, Lethal White, all which feature private detective Cormoran Strike.
Who is this famous author of four acclaimed mystery novels? The forensic linguistic tests revealed that it was Robert Galbraith, better known by her real name—J.K. Rowling—author of the Harry Potter series.
After consulting with Peter Millican, an Oxford University linguist, and receiving a concurring opinion, England’s Sunday Times confronted Rowling, who confessed.
Juola said in his computer analysis some of the giveaways were Rowling’s fondness for Latin quotes and her distinctly feminine way of describing women’s clothing.
When it became public that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, her mystery novel rose from 4,709th in position on the Amazon sales chart to number one.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.