Hollywood loves its shootouts, car chases, and explosions. And to some extent these have a basis in real life: who hasn’t watched one or more “breaking news” high-speed chases live on TV? (Not to mention the OJ Simpson “low-speed” chase seared into everyone’s memory.) And escalating gang violence has inured us to the shock and outrage we should feel when gunshots ring out on our city streets.
Yet when it comes to espionage in books or on the silver screen, writers often get it wrong. Either from a desire to sate the audience’s lust for violence, or out of sheer ignorance of the subject, writers often depict gun-wielding spies stalking one another in dark alleys, engaging in at least one shootout or car chase at regular intervals. This is far from reality.
The very nature of intelligence gathering—the primary activity of a spy—means operating below the radar. That’s what “clandestine” means: “hidden, or sub-rosa.” A shootout in broad daylight or a high-speed car chase is almost unheard of. The rare exception might have been extractions (assisted escapes) from Berlin in the days of the Wall, when an operation was blown or exposed at a checkpoint. But by and large, a good spy novel has none of these cheap Hollywood devices.
In my political thriller By A Thread, the young Mormon missionary Kevin “Red” Davis is recruited by the CIA for a “one-off” intelligence-gathering assignment. While it doesn’t go as planned—and therein lies the excitement—our protagonist never even owns a gun. And although there are men in cars hurrying to catch opponents fleeing on foot, there are no dramatic crashes, explosions, or shootouts. They aren’t realistic and they aren’t necessary to sustain the drama. The stakes of the action, coupled with the character arc that occurs throughout the story, are sufficient to do that. (Just ask the numerous reviewers who were riveted by the story!)
Look at Jason Bourne: he lives by his wits, not by weapons. Sure, he blows someone up in Munich, he kills some people in unusual ways, and he engages in far too many extended vehicle chases to be realistic, but gunfights are not a part of daily life for the clandestine operative. The last thing you want to do when you’re seeking secrets in a foreign country is to draw attention to yourself. Brandishing a weapon is the quickest way to do that!
And while there seems to be a morbid fascination with death in all facets of our popular culture, it isn’t always necessary in a good spy novel. Sure, a few people die in By A Thread. But the audience is not present for those deaths. Knowledge of them is sufficient to drive the well-crafted plot. Check it out for yourself, if you don’t believe me!