Why Spies Lie, and Why They End Up As Fiction Writers

It’s so true: Spies Lie. The business of espionage is concealing truths and spreading disinformation. Being able to lie is the single most important skill for any spy.

Early in my techno-thriller, Bloodridge, Book 1 of the Spies Lie Series, I have a scene where a grizzled spymaster explains to a spy he is training how important is the ability to lie while sounding absolutely convincing:

“Another lie. At this rate you’ll be a bag of broken bones before we even begin slicing off your toes.” The big man’s face was inches from Jon’s and his breath was rancid. “Please, we can let you have a painless death if you tell us what we’ve been sent to find out. Otherwise…” He motioned to the third man who held a hammer. “Break his hand.”
Jon shivered. Was this real or a test? He’d thought it a test from the midrasa’s instructors, but if terrorists had managed to spirit him off the campus, and if this was real, what should he do? What would happen if he lied? What would happen if he told the truth? He closed his eyes and envisioned a stream of mathematical equations. It was noise and didn’t help. He’d have to decide based on his gut.
Two of them wrapped his hand around a wooden two-by-four and rewrapped his bindings there. They held his hand on the plank in front of him so he could see what they were about to do. The third man drew the hammer back and prepared to strike.
Lisa’s voice babbled so loud in the back of his head, he could no longer think. He felt his stomach drop like an elevator with a broken cable. “Wait. I’ll talk.”
The man holding the hammer stopped in mid-swing. They all removed their masks. The door to the room opened and Yigdal Ben-Levy entered.
As the terror subsided, Jon felt disappointment. He’d failed. As if he could read Jon’s thoughts, “Mother” shook his head. “Don’t be ashamed, Jon. Everyone breaks, sooner or later. No one can withstand the horrors of being caught. You haven’t failed us. But you have failed yourself. If you must die to serve us, so be it.”
The others left Jon alone with Mother. “We taught you to lie, and that’s where you failed tonight. Your lies must convince your captors to look no further for the truth. Nothing obvious like you tried tonight. Lead your captors to believe you know truths worth preserving you for. And then, deliver subtle lies and half-truths that lead them from us. Otherwise you’ll end up yielding your secrets, and still you’ll die in any case. Understand?”
Jon nodded.
Ben-Levy smiled. “Weapons, disguises, poisons, and assassinations are all forms of lying. Another part of lying is to make the lie fit with the environment. The hidden handgun and armored clothing are about making clothes lie to the observer. Choosing a poison that fits into the environment is a lie to make the death look accidental or at least innocent. Assassination is about lying to the victim: I am harmless.  Only then can a well-placed shot kill your target.  A gun can only be used as a scalpel by an accomplished liar.”
Jon thought about how Lisa had lied to him. He thought about his parents, how they’d lied to him. And tonight, when he felt comfortable in the lie of a safe night walk, he was taken.
He’d joined a group whose ability to lie was its greatest asset. It made him feel dirty. But now he knew this skill would be necessary if he was to achieve his goals.

When I was active as a covert operative, every time I unearthed some vital bit of intelligence, what ran through my head was, “Is this the type of thing that could get me terminated if I told my handler? Is this information above my pay-grade?” After a decade working as a covert operative, I could easily pass a lie detector test. No wonder spies end up working as novelists when they leave the field.
John Lecarre, Barry Eisler, Brad Thor, all were “in the life” before they wrote novels. I’m just another in a long line.

To be an effective fiction writer, one needs to know how to build expectations of the reader so that the lie, the subtext, can be delivered without revealing any more than is necessary. The battle between reader and writer is a dance of subterfuge and misdirection. So much like being a spy. Some days, I feel as if I’m still “in the life.” What’s missing is the adrenaline rush of imminent danger. And that’s something I can live without.

The art in writing a spy series is to keep all the balls in the air while the reader gleans bits of the theme across each book. I’d originally preferred writing a memoir, but my former handler wouldn’t hear of it. So, my task is to deliver the message in bits and pieces until, at the end of the series, the reader will have learned the major lessons I had always wanted to deliver, without my having violated the Espionage Act. The original series is six stories. Three are available, one is about to be released, and one is going through polishing right now. I’m drafting out the sixth. Oh, and yes, there will be more. Other stories. The evening news is the most fertile source of fiction. Spies aren’t the only ones who lie…

D. S. Kane worked as a covert operative for over a decade, traveling globally. Now, he's a former spy, still writing fiction that exposes the way intelligence agencies craft lies to sway and manipulate their national policy, driving countries into dangerous conflicts. 

Kane can be found at:


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  1. What an entertaining guest post! Always good to hear an insider's point of view on the story behind the story. Thanks so much for sharing!


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