What’s at the heart of an espionage thriller?

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I USED TO SAY I was “writing my way around the genre.” True enough: I’ve written an amateur sleuth series, a PI series, thrillers, hard-boiled, historical thrillers, romantic suspense, even a cozy. I like the challenge of trying new things. But when I first started reading crime fiction, I read espionage thrillers. Particularly what I call the four “L’s: Le Carré, Ludlum, Len Deighton, and Ken FoLLett… (Okay, Follett is a stretch) By the way, most of the authors writing espionage then were men, but that’s another story. Or blogpost.

Add to that years of watching “24,” “MI5,” and “Homeland,” and it’s not surprising that I eventually wanted to write espionage thrillers. My first novel, AN EYE FOR MURDER, did incorporate espionage from World War Two, but it wasn’t the focus of the plot.

Libby Fischer Hellmann
Libby Fischer Hellmann

At the heart of an espionage thriller are two issues: trust and power. Who can a spy trust? How do they know their asset isn’t a double or even triple agent? What happens when they realize you can’t trust anyone? As for power, usually it’s the power of information. What decisions come from a spymaster who has more information than their target? How far do they go? And what happens when an individual with practically unlimited power is in charge? Vladimir Putin rose through the espionage ranks of the KGB and has survived by becoming cynical, suspicious, and cunning. Imagine him sifting through all intelligence available to him. How does he make decisions? What kind of leader does that make him?

Actually, I believe spies start out with the best intentions, to protect their homeland or stop an enemy. But it’s easy for a spy to become untethered. Many spies become paranoid, and while that paranoia might save lives in the short term, where does it end? How do those individuals square what they do with the kind of world the rest of us live in? Is it ever possible to be normal? The more thoughtful espionage novels explore these questions. And I find the exploration fascinating, because they dig deep into the core of what makes us human.

When you layer on the effect of technology on our privacy as citizens, we realize that espionage is now possible on a mass level. In the past, spies had their toys and “Bond-ian” gadgets. Today entire armies—heck—entire governments can spy on their citizens. As well as each other. The ability to call up information instantly has complicated intelligence operations, and we are only beginning to see the repercussions.

For me the challenge was creating a story that explores these issues but doesn’t beat readers over the head with them. So I did my research. I visited The Spy Museum in DC. And Bletchley Park in the UK. I read voraciously, both fiction and nonfiction. Then, as is my pattern, I tested the waters with a short novella. THE INCIDENTAL SPY came out in September and focused on espionage during the early years of the Manhattan Project in Chicago. It turned out pretty well, so I took a deep breath and moved on to modern espionage, taking into account everything I discussed above. JUMP CUT is the result.

It was apparent early on that it would be an Ellie Foreman story. Ellie, a Chicago video producer, is the protagonist of my 1st series, but after four novels, she went on an extended (ten year) hiatus. But I always intended to bring her back, and this was tailor-made for her. I knew she would be producing a video for a large aviation manufacturer, which, among other things, produces drones. Have you heard of one headquartered in Chicago? Of course… it’s Delcroft Aviation.

I wanted Ellie to get caught up in a situation beyond her control. She would be powerless at first, but slowly she would recognize the players, the stakes, and the forces at work. Ultimately, she would need to act in order to protect herself and her family. Along the way new characters were introduced. Some turned out to be heroes; others are cowards. And of course, there’s a good amount of misdirection. Spies often don’t know whom to trust, I wanted readers (along with Ellie) to share the same uncertainty.

Curiously, is the shortest book I’ve written—in a subgenre that tends to be long. That gave me pause and made me wonder if I succeeded. I hope you’ll let me know.

About Libby Fischer Hellmann:

Libby Fischer Hellmann is a critically acclaimed crime writer loved by readers the world over for her compulsively readable thrillers and strong female characters. Her fast-paced crime fiction spans twelve novels and over twenty short stories. She has also edited a popular crime fiction anthology called Chicago Blues. Her newest novel, (the first Ellie Foreman book in ten years), JUMP CUT, was released by Poisoned Pen Press in March, 2016.

With critics describing her work as “masterful” and “meticulously researched”, it’s not hard to see why Libby’s thrilling and richly varied crime novels have won numerous awards. Libby is exceptionally committed to her work, and in 2005-2006 she was the National President of Sisters in Crime, a 3,400+ member organization dedicated to strengthening the voice of female mystery writers.

You can keep up to date with all Libby’s news and views over at her blog, http://libbyhellmann.com/blog.

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  • Maryann Miller

    Great post, Libby, and I really like Jump Cut.

  • Maryann Miller

    I read most of the Ludlum books, too. Do you like the Bourne movies? I think they have been done in a way that honors the intent of the books.

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