August 21 – 27: “Could an accountant, librarian or nurse be a spy?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Must spies be flexible – or career-specific? Or could an accountant, librarian or nurse be a spy? This week ITW Members Martin Roy Hill, J. B. Manas, Connie DiMarco, Diana Deverrel, Arthur Kerns and Barry Ozeroff discuss spies in thrillers. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow this thrilling discussion!


Barry W. Ozeroff retired in 2014 after a 28-year career as a police officer, both in La Mesa, CA and Gresham, OR. During his police career, Barry spent 4 years as a school resource officer, 6 years as a traffic motorcycle officer and member of the Vehicular Crimes Team, 5 years as a SWAT sniper, and 12 years as a hostage negotiator. Barry, who was also a field training officer and public information officer, is the recipient of numerous citizen and supervisor commendations, the Oregon Peace Officer’s Lifesaving Award, and the Gresham Police Department Medal of Valor. Bad Apple is Barry’s 4th novel, following Sniper Shot, Return Fire, and The Dying of Mortimer Post. The sequel to Bad Apple, Relative Justice, is under contract and will be released sometime in 2018. Barry has 5 children and 4 grandchildren, and lives with his wife in the Pacific Northwest.


Martin Roy Hill is the author of the military mystery thriller The Killing Depths, the mystery thriller Empty Places, the award-winning DUTY: Suspense and Mystery Stories from the Cold War and Beyond, a collection of new and previously published short stories and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. His latest mystery thriller, The Last Refuge, was published in March 2016.


J. B. Manas is a Philadelphia-based author of fiction and nonfiction. He is the author of the new sci-fi thriller, ATTICUS, and co-author of The Kronos Interference, named to the “Best of 2012” by Kirkus Reviews, which gave the book a starred review, calling it “impressively original” and “[a] tour de force.” His nonfiction books (written as Jerry Manas) on leadership lessons from history, science, and the arts have been translated into eight languages and course-adopted in universities worldwide.


Connie di Marco is the author of the Zodiac Mysteries from Midnight Ink featuring San Francisco astrologer Julia Bonatti, who never thought murder would be part of her practice. All Signs Point to Murder, the second in the series, will be released on August 8, 2017. Writing as Connie Archer, she’s the national bestselling author of the Soup Lover’s mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime. You can find her excerpts and recipes in both The Cozy Cookbook and The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook. She is a member of International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.


In March 2013 Diversion Books Inc. released the acclaimed espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract followed by the sequel, The African Contract. The Yemen Contract was released in June 2016. Arthur Kerns joined the FBI with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. On retirement, he became a consultant with a number of US agencies, including the Department of State. His lengthy assignments took him to over 65 countries.


Diana Deverell was born in Oregon when it was not a trendy place. She fled at age eighteen and earned her living as a long-haul trucker, beef farmer, youth worker, beer taster, and hot/cold war diplomat. Those adventures took place in 48 states, two Canadian provinces, El Salvador, and Poland. After she gathered enough novel material, she moved to Denmark to write full time. She is best known for her legal thrillers, which are set in Spokane, and her spy thrillers, which are not. Diana lives in the Danish countryside with her husband, Mogens Pedersen. She’s also written and published many short stories. “Con Artist in Copenhagen” is the newest.


  1. In his novel Our Man in Havana the writer Graham Greene, a former British spy, cast his main character as an inept vacuum cleaner salesman. Perhaps, this was an inside joke as the conventional wisdom back in the fifties was the British posted their intelligence officers overseas as bookstore proprietors. Why not a salesman?
    Spies come in various forms and using the former Russian KGB organization as an example may help. The KGB’s “Legal Line” was composed of Russian intelligence officers posted at diplomatic establishments, enjoying diplomatic immunity. They developed and ran agents in the country they were assigned in from the safety of their offices. Their agents were local or third world citizens who spied on the host country. Being “ordinary citizens” these agents who became spies would already have lives as doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs.
    Then came a parallel line of spies, the “Illegals,” the KGB intelligence officers working in the target country without diplomatic immunity. They would slip in the country and assume a legitimate profession as a cover. They may be writers, actors, plumbers, real estate professionals, etc. Working a cover profession and also doing one’s intelligence tasks is demanding and nerve wracking. It can also contribute to mistakes, slipups that the host country’s counterespionage officers are always looking for.
    So could an accountant, librarian, or nurse be a spy? Yes.

      1. Martin, in that context I think of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean. LeCarré’s masterful rendering of multi-level deception has a field day depicting an intelligence service that recruited British spies from Cambridge, only to have them end their careers in Moscow.

        1. Diana, it was Philby’s betrayal that brought LeCarre’s intelligence career to an end. He later based one of his antagonists in the George Smiley books on Philby.

  2. We visited the Spy Museum in Berlin recently. There were some incredibly successful spies in the most innocuous jobs who went undetected for years and years, quietly copying material and passing it on. One woman worked as a secretary and spied for twenty years!

    The Washington Spy Museum is great fun too.

  3. Real life stories of the second oldest profession are fascinating. Equally fascinating are the motives for espionage – ideological beliefs, but often money, perhaps sex and even revenge. Spies must be flexible of course to evade discovery and capture, perhaps changing identities and even professions, but the most important criterion for a career in espionage is access to information, information which could conceivably come from any quarter. Espionage need not be career specific, although in most instances, convicted American spies (the ones we know about at least) have had access through their employment to high level or top secret information as agents of the FBI, NSA or CIA and willingly volunteered their services.

    On the other hand, early operatives for the OSS in World War II found that German society pages were a goldmine of information – engagements, marriages, officers’ military rankings and future postings were openly detailed. In World War I, Mata Hari (Margaretha Zelle), was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan executed as a (supposedly) German spy. Edith Piaf sang for the Germans and as a reward was allowed to pose with French war prisoners who were then able to use their photos to forge identity papers and escape.

    The Russian Ten, swapped in Vienna in 2010, never held military or intelligence positions. They were sleepers, living quiet lives in the suburbs for decades. Anna Chapman had been a Barclay’s Bank employee and a real estate agent. Tracey Foley and Donald Heathfield (Yelena Vavilova and Andrei Bezrukov), held civilian jobs with ties to academia and the defense industry. Their only mission was to scout for talent, identifying Americans in sensitive positions who might be recruited to spill secrets. Fortunately for the U.S., none of them ever provided any useful intelligence to Russia – that’s if the news reports are true. And they probably could have gone on for decades more if they hadn’t been betrayed by their Russian handler.

    I think virtually anyone in any profession could stumble upon sensitive information – political, military or otherwise. A waiter eavesdropping in an officers’ club, a housewife noticing ship movements from her kitchen window. The question is how motivated would they be to sell it or pass it on?

  4. Admittedly, I don’t write a lot of spies into my police thrillers, but a thriller is a thriller, right?

    To answer the question, no, I don’t think a spy has to be a career spy. In fact, If I was writing about a spy I’d make fiction mimic reality. I’d have an ordinary person who happens to work in the right place to access something someone else wants, be it information, death star plans, a business strategy, or whatever. I’d add some kind of vulnerability, such as a debt or other reason to need or want money, or the need to get out of some kind of trouble, or perhaps the inability to resist sexual temptation (to blackmail the person into being an unwitting spy), and I’d already have most of what’s necessary to make an effective spy out of an ordinary person. It certainly wouldn’t be the first spy novel to be written like that.

    Another set of circumstances might arise when the person knows he is in possession of something someone else needs or wants, and simply auctions it off to the highest bidder. In any event, I think whether he’s the protagonist or the antagonist, a spy character probably isn’t any more difficult to create than the type of character I’m used to writing, which is a regular person thrown into the type of situation that forces him to do extraordinary things in order to get himself out of it.

      1. Yes they are. I retired from the Gresham Police Department, which is a suburb of Portland, and chose the Portland Police Bureau because I am familiar with its radio codes, precincts, policies, etc, and Portland is large enough metropolitan area to handle this type of book. I have a lot of friends in the Bureau, and I’ve actually taken some guff from them when I first released the cover. All they could see was the PPB badge on the cover, and combined with the title and the jail picture, they just assumed it put the Bureau in a bad light. I had to remind them not to judge a book by its cover!

          1. Awesome, Diana. And when you’re done with Bad Apple, if you’re still jonesing for Portland, I might suggest some of the earlier books by Alafair Burke. She has a series set there with a female deputy district attorney lead named Samantha Kinkaid that’s worth reading. But Bad Apple first! 🙂

  5. A stalker is a spy. Is it worse to spy on an ordinary person for twisted personal reasons rather than for stealing state secrets? Are governments and businesses more like fair game? Less creepy.

  6. I ran into this question in 1983 when I was in DC getting ready to head out as a new Foreign Service Officer. During our Langley briefing, I met the CIA station chief at my future post. He mentioned that folks from my shop sometimes helped his people out. Suggested we talk more when I got to post.

    The second chat never happened. Still, the idea sparked my imagination. Fueled later that year when LeCarré published THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL. To entrap a Palestinian terrorist, Israeli intelligence recruits British actress Charlie as a double agent.

    LeCarré’s detailed description of how a non-spy is seduced and readied for a critical mission makes a terrific story. Multi-layered deception and Charlie’s anguish over her choices drive the plot.

    So, yes, we non-spies can spy, but I’d rather write about the job.

  7. In my day job, I am a U.S. Navy analyst in combat casualty care. As such, I hold a security clearance and must attend regular security and counter-intelligence (CI) trainings and briefings. So, my answer will be focused on the banality of real-life espionage rather than the excitement of the fictional spy.

    Professional spies are called intelligence officers (IO), with many additional subtitles according to their expertise. IOs work for agencies like the American CIA, Britain’s MI6, and the Russian and Chinese intelligence services. There are also spies of opportunity who are either recruited by IOs or who decide to become spies on their own for assorted reasons.

    IOs usually work under official covers, such as embassy employees, or under nonofficial covers (NOC) such as business people. Valerie Plame, the covert CIA agent who was exposed by the Bush White House, worked under a NOC cover as an energy analyst for the CIA front company Brewster Jennings & Associates. In that role, she established a network of spies with knowledge of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

    IOs attempt to identify and recruit informants who work in jobs where they might have access to needed information. These spies are not necessarily professionally trained and they don’t need to be highly placed to have valuable information. An accountant in a company that provides material for Iran’s nuclear program would be of use to an IO like Plame. A librarian working for the Library of Congress could provide information on who in Congress is researching what topics. A nurse in a military hospital could provide information on combat casualties and the effectiveness of certain weapons. Just this year, Kun Shan Chun, an electronics technician with the New York FBI field office, was convicted of acting as a Chinese agent by providing his IO handlers with sensitive FBI information.

    Insider threats are a big source of information for IOs. Insider threats are disgruntled or troubled employees who turn to espionage as a means of revenge or for simple greed. Christopher Boyce and Andrew Lee, of the so-called “Falcon and the Snowman” espionage case, fall into this category. Boyce was a code clerk with TRW who had access to classified information. For his own reasons, Boyce decided to sell information to the Soviet Union, using Lee as his go-between. A nonfiction book on this case was later made into a movie featuring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn.

    Another category of spy is the sleeper agent, a professionally trained agent who enters a foreign country under deep cover, perhaps lying dormant for years until activated. While living under deep cover, these spies live otherwise normal lives. The TV show “The Americans” is a good example of sleeper agents.

    Real life espionage activities may not have the splash and glamor of some fictional spies, but for the right author—such John Le Carré, who was an intelligence officer—they’re all you need.

  8. A great topic. I spent many years in this business, catching spies more so than being one. Most anyone can be a spy. Intelligence agencies have collection requirements and it is up to those services to determine how best to meet these requirements. A barber, a cook, a trash collector, etc., can all observe and report to their handlers. Anyone with access to an area of interest can take pictures, install listening devices, report on people’s misconduct, etc. It only takes the imagination of the intelligence service, or in our case the author to come up with the right characters for our plots.

  9. A fascinating topic, and such a wealth of great information in this thread!

    From a pure storytelling standpoint, Alfred Hitchcock practically made a living having regular, everyday people thrown into international intrigue and espionage, from Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, an ad executive, to mining engineer Richard Hannay in The 39 steps. These “accidental” spies brought the audience closer to the story and raised the tension, similar to what Barry describes.

    As for actual spies, I’d echo what others here with far more direct exposure have said in that anyone can be a spy. Over the years, intelligence agencies have made some clever use of strategic civilian positions, including shopkeepers or corporations, which would sometimes serve as an accommodation address for transmitting and receiving messages. I read where the KGB used such an avenue for years in the 60s, not realizing that the supposed owner was really with U.S. Intelligence.

    As others have said as well, there are also agents of influence outside of the intelligence community but “officially unofficially” working on the agency’s behalf. These people could be in any position, as long as it’s useful. I have a story outlined where a paparazzo gets in over his head when he gets caught up in international intrigue. Even back in the 60s, it wasn’t unheard of for paparazzi to assist the intelligence community, in the U.S. and abroad.

  10. I don’t write spy thrillers, but I have enjoyed reading the information from all of you. While I have included an FBI agent in my next novel, At The Edge of Never, he is limited, leaving most of the intel up to the local police.

    A librarian as a spy, however, is very intriguing. Even more intriguing for me is how one of my aunts worked for the CIA as a spy during WWII, and another worked on the Committee for the Bomb. Stories yet to write.

    1. D. J., that would be the OSS – Office of Strategic Services – your aunt worked for during WWII. The CIA came later. But many famous and unusual people worked for the OSS during the world. Julia Child and her husband, instance. The actor Sterling Hayward left Hollywood and served as an OSS operative in the Mediterranean where he ran a fleet of Greek fishing trawlers that supplied weapons and supplies to Greek and Yugoslavian resistance fighters. John D. MacDonald, of Travis McGee fame, served with the OSS in the CBI theater.

  11. Some wonderful novel and film references here! I can see we’re all entranced by the subject. I loved Our Man in Havana that Arthur mentioned! And Diana’s reference to The Little Drummer Girl too. In fact, it stands out in my mind as one of the best examples of a writer crossing the gender line.

    It is astounding how long it took to unmask some professionals like Robert Hansen, the FBI agent who operated for years and is immortalized in the film Breach or Richard Miller (also FBI) who, when caught tried to convince the FBI that he was attempting to set himself up as a double agent. Apparently the ‘club’ couldn’t conceive that one of their own had voluntarily offered services to the other side.

    1. Connie, making real life into credible fiction is a challenge! Hansen and Breach are great examples of the slow unmasking of turncoats. Don’t forget CIA Agent Aldrich Ames–he walked into the Soviet embassy in DC and volunteered to spy for them in 1985. He collected $2.5 million from the Soviets and Russia before he was caught in 1994.

      1. Let’s remember that once spies are detected, they often are simply observed so the counter-intelligence folks can get more information on with whom they are working. When I was an investigative journalist, I did a lot of reporting on espionage activities in San Diego, CA, then hot bed for spying. I remember FBI agents describing to me how they would follow known Soviet spies out to Point Loma where they would openly photograph warships as they moved in and out of the harbor.

        1. That’s fascinating work, Martin! And thanks for the breakdown of categories — IO and NOC and so on.
          I’d love to hear any stories you’re free to talk about now. (I too am a fan of ‘The Americans.’)

      2. He did, Diana ~ and I believe he’s credited with being the cause of compromising every agent the US had in Russia, all of whom were executed by the KGB. Supposedly he came under suspicion because of his sudden wealth. You have to wonder why he couldn’t be more discreet about all that money!

        1. Connie, you hit the CI nail on the head. In our counter-intel training, we’re taught to look for certain indications of an insider threat. Sudden, unexplained wealth or spending is one of those. Another is just the opposite – signs of financial problems. Others include an unusual interest in data outside of their job purview, indications of being disgruntled, evidence of addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gambling, or working unusual hours.

          1. Too bad there wasn’t a handy recently-deceased wealthy aunt to point to!
            And re Richard Miller – I think I remember reading he became disgruntled with the FBI after being chastised about his weight and selling Amway products from the trunk of his car. Those Amway sales might have been an early giveaway.

  12. Thank you, Diana, for the invite to the Roundtable discussion. I am just writing my first “thriller”. It has a paranormal bent. So I hope to learn from you experts. I don’t have much to add here. My sense is that spies in the real world are some of the most boring people on the planet. Policy wonks, low-level assistants in very pedestrian jobs, but with access to information. In other words, people that fly way under the radar. They are uninteresting and unimaginative, but they live and work in a dangerous world. And the stress must be incredible.

    Just some thoughts.

    1. Great to see you here, Nick. Look forward to getting your special take on the genre! Yes, as personnel officer for everyone (wink, wink) in the Warsaw embassy, I saw the massive bureaucracy in all US government agencies–boring to the nth degree despite being on the interesting side of the iron curtain!

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