Diving into the Spy's Psyche: Background information when reading A Colder War

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

A Colder War

by Charles Cumming

A Colder War by Charles Cumming X
A Colder War by Charles Cumming
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Aug 2014, 400 pages
    Jun 2015, 400 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

Buy This Book

About this Book

Diving into the Spy's Psyche

This article relates to A Colder War

Print Review

Top SecretInasmuch as most of the spies that have been interviewed, researched, quantified and statistically charted are those that have been caught, perhaps the psyche of a good spy is as elusive as spies themselves. Not to mention the fact that a "good spy" is not so easily defined. There are many types of spies and many reasons for becoming one. In a 2012 article in the Daily Beast, Dr. Ursula M. Wilder, a clinical psychologist with 16 years of Federal service in the Intelligence Community, said:

"Intelligence officers who handle espionage sources - variously called informants, assets, or agents, to distinguish them from the professionals - and the psychologists they consult with study the motives of agents closely. These motivations are often self-serving. Some want money, or the excitement of a James Bond adventure, or to believe they are playing dramatic, if hidden, roles in historical events. Some are aggrieved and seek revenge. Some agents spy as a kind of sport. They like sneaking around and manipulating others, and feel superior to their oblivious targets drawn into hidden games of secrecy and deception. Heroic spies are an entirely different type of human being, set apart from ordinary clandestine players not by the tradecraft they use - which is universal - but by their fundamental values. Their motives are not self-serving - the risks of espionage in the contexts they serve in are too high to draw in selfish people. They are morally revolted by their targets' conduct and dismayed at the future they're intent on building or have already actualized."

These heroic spies – resistance fighters, native speakers recruited to liaise with the enemy, and countless others – are especially difficult to define as one group, but since sovereign nations rely upon spies to inform their international policy decisions, an understanding of the qualities of what constitutes a reliable spy is important. We are talking about "career" spies here; the Kim Philbys and Robert Hanssens of the world.

Scholars on the topic have concluded that spies and espionage agents, informants and "assets," as they are called, share many of the same qualities. First and foremost they must be antisocial. That is, not avoiding social contact, but they must be able to live outside the constraints and mores of society. Social rules do not apply to them; they see themselves either above or beyond the bounds of society. By varying degrees they are sociopaths, living by and for themselves and their own goals, regardless of what others – family, friends, even colleagues – think.

Microphone shoeIf they are going to be successful they must lead a double life. Family and friends must be kept in the dark as to their real occupation. Thus they must be able to not just lie well but also to live with themselves as liars, to let no one into their confidence. Not an expectation for the faint of heart. And that is just the beginning.

Spies must also be able to play a role that makes it seem as though they fit in with a social group or culture with which they have nothing in common. Indeed they may have deeply hostile personal feelings for a group or person from whom they must extract information. But in the espionage game there is no room for personal sentiment. They are expected to be able to woo an enemy into believing, trusting and opening up secrets even – especially – when it is against the enemy's best interests. In her The Daily Beast article, Wilder said: "One particularly self-aware agent described his psychological situation while deployed as a form of solitary confinement, with his own skull his prison cell."

Spying also takes a powerful ego. Thrill-seeking and self-importance are strong motivators and handy traits for anyone who wishes the life of an espionage agent. Spies enjoy a high opinion of themselves. Rather than cogs in a wheel, their self-image is a gear able to ramp up situations, have a significant effect on outcomes, and wield considerable influence.

Spy vs. SpyWhether they do their job for money, revenge or personal/professional prestige, whether they are ideologues or are coerced into service by superiors, the profession takes a heavy toll. Even after the job is done and they have returned to whatever semblance of a normal life they can fashion, spies often suffer debilitating psychological effects. Years, maybe decades, of deceiving and manipulating others for their clandestine purposes cause many to lose all feelings of empathy – if they ever had any. They can become caricatures of themselves.

Top Secret from SkyScanner.net
Shoe with heel microphone and transmitter, courtesy of The International Spy Museum
Spy vs. Spy, from Mad Magazine, courtesy of ru.wikipedia.org

This "beyond the book article" relates to A Colder War. It originally ran in September 2014 and has been updated for the June 2015 paperback edition.

This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: In Extremis
    In Extremis
    by Lindsey Hilsum
    Marie ColvinInternational journalist Marie Colvin pushed the limits in her work and her personal life. Widely ...
  • Book Jacket: Vita Nostra
    Vita Nostra
    by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
    Vita Nostra by Ukrainian authors Sergey and Marina Dyachenko is one of those novels that defies ...
  • Book Jacket: And The Ocean Was Our Sky
    And The Ocean Was Our Sky
    by Patrick Ness
    Patrick Ness has developed a reputation for experimental literature executed well, and his latest, ...
  • Book Jacket: Let It Bang
    Let It Bang
    by RJ Young
    Every interracial love story is an exercise in complications. R.J. Young and Lizzie Stafford's ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
by Barbara Kingsolver

A timely novel that explores the human capacity for resiliency and compassion.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Paris Echo
    by Sebastian Faulks

    A story of resistance, complicity, and an unlikely, transformative friendship.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Kinship of Secrets
    by Eugenia Kim

    Two sisters grow up bound by family but separated by war; inspired by a true story.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Severance

Severance by Ling Ma

An offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic satire that is featured on more than twenty 2018 "Must Read" lists!


Word Play

Solve this clue:

I Ain't O U T F L S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.