I loved conspiracy theories long before I wrote them. I thought of myself as a connoisseur, chasing a revelatory rush as new possibilities emerged and the world became surprising again. They needed to walk the line between plausibility and astonishment, piling up enough arguments that you found yourself involuntarily steered into the realms of just maybe. But I also loved them in the way I loved big airport thrillers—stories expanding to consume all, interweaving what had been disconnected. Both seemed to be attempts to do justice to the complexity of events, and to expose hidden worlds barely touched by the news.
That was the kind of justification I used. Isn’t it our duty as citizens to question the narratives that underpin power? I didn’t pay too much attention to the name: conspiracy—conspire—literally to breathe together, with its hint of an original fixation on small groups. The first conspiracy novel set in a European present was Friedrich Schiller’s The Ghost Seer (1789), arriving just after the church banned Masonic Lodges, feeding off the curiosity about the organization that this inspired. By the end of the century the German reading public was hooked to the Bundesroman or lodge novel, and writers have been exploiting our interest in secret societies ever since. But a text with a far darker history hangs over the genre, of course. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in Russia in 1903, a forgery which purports to show a Jewish plan for global domination; the template for a thousand subsequent conspiracy theories and still one of the most effective recruiting sergeants for antisemitism.
I never forgot that, but I wasn’t convinced it rendered all conspiracy theories taboo. Some, after all, turned out to be correct. Perhaps there was naivety in my outlook born of growing up in the UK under Thatcher when a lot of the information about a militarily-aggressive establishment only emerged as the result of dogged investigation. I thought of conspiracy theories as left-leaning: it was the left, after all, that seemed most concerned with undemocratic concentrations of power, with probing big money, unpacking foreign policy. But conspiracy has always had a different inflection in the US, where it’s the right that distrusts government most venomously. In his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter was one of the first to tie this ideology to the conspiracy theory itself, tracing “movements of suspicious discontent” throughout American history, all bound by a tendency towards “heated exaggeration” and “conspiratorial fantasy.”
On December 4, 2016, a 28-year-old man arrived at Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, DC armed with an AR-15-style rifle. He was there to save child sex slaves from a pedophile ring connected to high-ranking Democrats. It was not good times for conspiracy theory. As Jane Coaston notes in her Vox article “Why Conspiracy Theories Matter,” the form seems less entertaining when you have a conspiracy theorist in the White House (birther, anti-vax, climate change denial etc). Conspiracy theories were now seen to degrade politics, muddying true and false, allowing toxic arguments to gain prominence while undermining genuine issues. Most of all, they divide people—you disagreed not just on what was right but what was real. The Red Pill grants you access to a higher truth (Amazon places books about conspiracy in the category of religion and spirituality). Everyone else is dumb or complicit. 9/11 Truthers (a phenomenon that originally seemed, in part, a reaction to the news media’s own over-simplifications) slid into the grotesque spectacle of people claiming high school massacres as false flags. Politics became the assertion of your right to believe whatever you wanted, to stand firm against the oppression of reality. Suddenly a genre that I saw challenging the edifice of establishment power became very clearly a tool for maintaining it.
Where does this leave the conspiracy thriller? Are novels dealing with political conspiracy part of the problem? The question became personal as I carried out research for my first spy novel, A Shadow Intelligence. I’d written detective novels previously, attracted to them as a way of exploring society’s intersecting power games. I wanted to maintain a sense of verisimilitude when it came to spies. One of the paradoxes of genre writing is that it has to perpetually self-correct against a veer towards fantasy, which means finding ways to re-engineer a frisson of realism. I wanted my spy novel to pose difficult questions. I wanted to get close to the truth, without personal affiliation (is it ‘conspiratorial’ to wonder if all the former-spies who contribute to the genre grant us the full access that they claim?). The question was how to do that.
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Researching contemporary espionage is hard. When they say it’s secret, they mean it. The first official history of MI6 was published in 2010, and takes us up to 1949. There’s no sequel in the pipeline. Others tip-toe into the 1990s, a new era of supposed transparency, before devoting a few pages to the “dodgy dossier” that steered Britain into the Iraq war, but the extended timespan only highlights what small fragments we’re granted. And, much to the chagrin of spooks, it’s a truism that we only get glimpses of the intelligence world when something goes wrong. If much of the genre concentrates on the Cold War, and exists on a border with historical fiction, it’s not just because this was the golden era of espionage, but because it’s a challenge to find out what’s been going on more recently.
Thrillers, like conspiracy theories, respond to this space excluded from public record, and thrillers about spies are always going to be in some ways conspiratorial.
But I felt justified in probing. While we might doubt the scheming, or even existence, of the Illuminati and Opus Dei, there’s no doubt that certain groups of men and women do get together in secret and make plans, and these intelligence officers are paid for by us. We vote in the individuals who purportedly, in a functioning democracy, have some degree of oversight. Yet we learn hardly anything about this corner of the state. In the US, the “black budget” (purposes masked from the public) is over fifty billion dollars per year, more than twice the size of the one we’re allowed to scrutinize. In his brilliant Blank Spots on the Map, Trevor Paglen traces how this has grown from the infrastructure created for the Manhattan Project. Once you have this vast, classified category of governmental activity, you can place anything there: black ops, renditions, space war. This is the vein from which so many conspiracy theories draw their viability. MI6 really did arrange a coup against a democratically-elected Iranian government for the sake of oil. CIA did run arms to the Taliban as it fought the Red Army. Project MKUltra experimented with all manner of mind-control techniques in those wild decades of the twentieth century when faking a moon landing would be far from the weirdest thing going on. UFO conspiracies are one way of talking about the clandestine outer reaches of defense research. Thrillers, like conspiracy theories, respond to this space excluded from public record, and thrillers about spies are always going to be in some ways conspiratorial.
But if you want to research, you have to hunt. I spoke to people on the fringes, trawled the (under-exploited) Wikileaks archive; I bought samizdat works by disgruntled former MI6 employees. Richard Tomlinson’s The Big Breach, written after he’d been dismissed from the service and refused an employment tribunal, is one of the few to give a glimpse into the workings of Vauxhall Cross (MI6’s HQ) and the details he describes have turned up across spy fiction ever since.
I wanted to know about the most ruthless, cynical stratagems, for the sense of realism demands moral complexity. So I fixated on gaps in the news, moments when official narratives began to fray. How did Salman Abedi, who killed twenty-two people in a suicide attack at an Ariana Grande concert in 2017, fly from Libya to the UK when he was on a terrorism watchlist? Whether conspiracy or cock-up, the question exposed British government collusion with the Libyan Islamic Fighter Group, to whom Abedi belonged, in the fight against Gadaffi. Likewise, the Senate hearings into the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi fed Clinton-baiting Trump supporters but also (once a classified annex to the report was leaked) revealed that the CIA and MI6 were involved in running a ‘ratline’ of weapons from Libya to Syria. Politicians know the calculations you have to make but the public aren’t often trusted with the full story. Yet it felt right that these stories did turn out to be more complicated than one of evil foreigners and white liberators. So I pursued the leads. It was around June 2016 that I found myself writing Russian propaganda.
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One of the most informative websites when it came to MI6 activity—and the one I found myself directed towards most often—turned out to be funded by the Kremlin. Russia Today (now known more opaquely as RT) was set up in 2005 to improve perceptions of Russia abroad but also, quite clearly, to sow mischief. Its tagline: “Question More.” I had been searching for my novel’s McGuffin—the top-secret weapon at the heart of the plot—and it turned out I was looking at it. By the end of 2016 it became clear that the internet had been a gift to the Russians when it came to a field in which they led: psychological operations. And one of the main weapons in their armory was the conspiracy theory. Because the goal was not persuasion in the way we might have previously associated with propaganda, but the instilling of doubt, distrust, and a general chaos.
The skepticism that I treasured—seeing the other side of any news story—was now termed “whataboutism.” Every criticism of Russia or China was met in the comments with: “but what about the West?” This was the politics of the bot and the troll. And while they were often right (the seed of successful psychological operations is always a grain of truth) the effect was to muddy debate and forestall moral judgment. Naturally this itself intrigued me. Eventually, inevitably, I came across claims that this idea of Russian psychological supremacy was itself a theory designed to deflect attention from the West’s own capabilities. Certainly, the West had longstanding PsyOps units of its own, and it was setting up more (see the UK’s new 77th Brigade of social media warriors). But the real innovators in the US and Europe, unsurprisingly perhaps, came from the private sector.
In 1990, a man called Nigel Oakes, with a background in TV and advertising, founded the Behavioural Dynamics Institute in order to research mass behavior and how to change it. The facility’s success led him to establish Strategic Communication Laboratories on the principle that the insights they’d gained through psychologists and anthropologists would be more successful than traditional advertising methods when it came to influencing populations. It wasn’t long before SCL expanded into military and political arenas. They advertized their services at arms fairs alongside the drones and missiles, subsequently becoming involved in more than 100 election campaigns in thirty countries before setting up an offshoot, Cambridge Analytica, for the sake of involvement in the US elections of 2016.
Cambridge Analytica’s role in both Trump’s victory and the Brexit referendum has now been well documented. I was particular interested in the fact that this was a private company. You find yourself on conspiratorial territory when you write about the intelligence services, but also when you explore the political role of private entities. Because conspiracy theories are so often about external pressures on the overtly political; this is why they thrive in liberal democracies, where we expect better. And as I looked deeper I became increasingly interested in how much of the world of espionage itself had become privatized. A revolving door between state and private sectors is the way of the world now but it raises distinct questions when it comes to military and intelligence personnel. The Defence division of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company was run by a former head of the British Army’s 15 Psychological Operations Group. The 1990s saw London awash with boutique outfits of former spooks offering their services for hire. Alongside Private Military Contractors, they now form part of a huge industry. Each year the Pentagon commits hundreds of billions of dollars to federal contracts—more money than all other government agencies receive; three times Britain’s entire defense budget. A lot of these contracts are for services such as cyber-security, intelligence work and heavily-armed muscle. At the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq there were approximately three private contractors for every army soldier. And it’s not just a Western phenomenon: Russia’s mysterious Wagner Group pops up in Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela and beyond—highly skilled mercenaries, highly convenient in an era of proxy wars and what Russia calls maskirovka—masking. I couldn’t see many thrillers dealing with this new reality. The effectiveness of Cambridge Analytica seemed to herald an era in which the most powerful military and intelligence resources belonged not to any one state but potentially anyone with the money to spend.
The value of thrillers is shown by the difficulty of non-fiction to get cut-through. The truth, it seems, is too much, too detailed, too diffuse.
Yet, as much as Cambridge Analytica provided a fascinating subplot to 2016, it never became more than that, in spite of the heroic work of journalists like Carole Cadwalladr. Other thoroughly-researched exposés such as Jane Mayer’s Dark Money revealed the billionaires funding radical right-wing politics, but this is still not how the news is told. The value of thrillers is shown by the difficulty of non-fiction to get cut-through. The truth, it seems, is too much, too detailed, too diffuse.
There is an anecdote I think of quite often. Before his untimely death in 2000, the artist Mark Lombardi created canvasses involving vast, handwritten constellations of names and companies and transactions, each telling the story of real-life events: the collapse of the Vatican bank, the Iran-Contra scandal, links between global finance and international terrorism. They look like elegant versions of the “crazy walls” compiled by obsessive investigators in film and TV (a trope popular enough to have its own Tumblr page) but he compared them to modern history paintings in their scale and muted drama. A few days after 9/11, a posthumous show of his work was visited by two FBI agents to study the intersection of banks and terrorist groups that he’d drawn, because it was the only place where you could start to see what was going on.
So much evil is protected by complexity—by being boring, faceless and carefully layered: sprawling webs of banks and law firms and think tanks and lobbyists and very discrete espionage. A conspiracy theory is enticing because it is a story. It finds human faces and assigns agency. Conspiracy stories— maybe that’s what we should call them. Strip them of their authority but acknowledge their power. We can acknowledge that, like fiction, they can lead us narratively through murky labyrinths. And, like fiction, we could allow them to provide a brief refuge from lies.