Alice Lowe ~ Armchair Spy

Spy (n.): agent, asset, informer, infil­tra­tor, scout, sleeper,
snoop, scout, mole, mule, oper­a­tive, ghost

Spy (v.): 13th c., from Old French espi­er “espy,” expi­ier “to watch secretively”

Secret (n.): late 14c., from Latin secre­tus “set apart, con­cealed, private”

Secretary (n): from Medieval Latin sec­re­tar­ius, “a per­son entrust­ed with secrets”

I’m breath­less at the con­clu­sion of Homeland, gid­dy from the cli­mac­tic scene. I gripped my chair and paced the room, gasped at times and held my breath at oth­ers, through the eight tur­bu­lent sea­sons that chart the chaot­ic bipo­lar life of some­times agent/sometimes mav­er­ick Carrie Mathison. I binge, for the sec­ond time, on the 78 episodes of The Americans, a Cold War saga of KGB sleep­er agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. Elizabeth (Russian name Nadezhda) is steely and unflinch­ing, the more stead­fast of the two; she keeps Philip from going soft.

I rewatch favorites—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Cambridge Spies—and con­sume nov­els that fea­ture female spies, includ­ing Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, and William Boyd’s Restless. Real events are as enthralling as fic­tion­al ones, if not more so. Recent mem­oirs by for­mer CIA agents Lindsay Moran and Amaryllis Fox recount har­row­ing ordeals with the CIA along with the toll on their per­son­al lives, rela­tion­ships sac­ri­ficed to duty. Unlike much of the male-dom­i­nat­ed spy genre, we’re remind­ed by these women, as well as the fic­tion­al Carrie and Elizabeth, that when spies aren’t spy­ing, they have lives. A review­er wrote that Fox’s Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA read “as if a John Le Carré char­ac­ter land­ed in Eat, Pray, Love.” A for­mer agent found it verg­ing in the realm of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. Well, yes, that’s the allure: both spy­ing and fic­tion are pred­i­cat­ed on artifice.


As a child, Lindsay Moran spied on her neigh­bors, rifled through her par­ents’ things, com­mu­ni­cat­ed with friends in secret code, lied with alacrity. She con­sid­ered her­self “nat­u­ral­ly sub­ver­sive” and always want­ed to be a spy—getting into the CIA would ful­fill her cloak-and-dag­ger birthright. I was a secre­tive and cun­ning child, but fear­ful, inhib­it­ed. I nev­er enter­tained fan­tasies or had aspi­ra­tions of adven­ture and dan­ger. Over-cau­tious, even in my mod­est­ly rebel­lious teens, my risk-tak­ing now is lim­it­ed to jay­walk­ing, eat­ing raw fish, and skip­ping an occa­sion­al flossing.

I’m not a thrill seek­er, an ide­al­ist or polit­i­cal extrem­ist. In Why Spy? Espionage in an Age of Uncertainty, a for­mer CIA direc­tor sug­gests sev­en pos­si­ble rea­sons: ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment, mon­ey, revenge, black­mail, friend­ship, eth­nic or reli­gious sol­i­dar­i­ty, and the game itself. A speak­er at the International Spy Museum used the acronym MICE: mon­ey, ide­ol­o­gy, com­pro­mise, ego. Lucas Romer, the dou­ble agent in William Boyd’s Restless, boiled it down to three: mon­ey, black­mail, and revenge.

I rule out these incen­tives. An illu­so­ry attrac­tion to “the game itself” is mit­i­gat­ed by the knowl­edge that I don’t have what it takes to play. My fas­ci­na­tion comes out of nowhere, and I’m not sure what it sug­gests: vic­ar­i­ous adven­ture or escape from every­day life; yearn­ing for the dan­ger and decep­tion, glam­our and excite­ment of these fic­tion­al heroes and vil­lains and their real-life coun­ter­parts. The sleuth in me needs to dig deep­er, to explore the objec­tive and idio­syn­crat­ic aspects of my puz­zling proclivity.


Online resources are abun­dant, but I opt for the print­ed page when pos­si­ble. From 327.1247 through 327.1273, from Christopher Andrew’s KGB: The Inside Story to Giles Whittell’s Bridge of Spies, I scan six wide shelves of books about spies and spy­ing in the San Diego Central Library’s sec­ond floor Political Science sec­tion. Biographies and mem­oirs would yield hun­dreds more, nov­els innu­mer­able. My focus on female spies from World War I to present nar­rows the field sub­stan­tial­ly, and I leave with a list of titles and ref­er­ences, and just one book—a title in the new fic­tion stacks that catch­es my eye.

The women in the CIA cler­i­cal pool in Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept speak as one, a Greek cho­rus: “We typed a hun­dred words per minute and nev­er missed a syl­la­ble. Our fin­gers flew across the keys. We came to the agency by way of Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith. Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some could fly planes. Some of us could han­dle a Colt 1873 bet­ter than John Wayne. But all we were asked when inter­viewed was ‘Can you type?’”

A few were sin­gled out for extra duties after their reg­u­la­tion days at the type­writer. One spoke of “the pow­er that came from being a keep­er of secrets … more intox­i­cat­ing than any drug, sex, or oth­er means of quick­en­ing one’s heart­beat.” Another learned how to take a pack­age from a passer­by dur­ing rush hour, to leave a hol­low book under a park bench, to slip a piece of paper into the pock­et of some­one sit­ting next to her, all sur­rep­ti­tious­ly. The excite­ment of her first couri­er assign­ment must be like hav­ing an affair, she thinks, and it nev­er ceased to thrill, “like the moment when a roller coast­er crests at the top of a hill and paus­es just before it lets grav­i­ty pull it down.”

A sec­re­tary for the first decade of my work­ing life, not too many years after the novel’s time­line, I was a key­board whiz, exceed­ing a hun­dred words a minute. Seeing myself in this sce­nario adds a new dimen­sion to my pri­vate fantasy.


Women can be arm­chair explor­ers, war­riors, or quar­ter­backs, but, lack­ing role mod­els, they’ve had to put them­selves in the shoes of leg­endary men, real and fic­tion­al. It’s nev­er worked for me; I nev­er was able to imag­ine myself an Ernest Shackleton or Robinson Crusoe. As a bud­ding arm­chair spy, nei­ther Kim Philby nor James Bond cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion. I sought mus­es and men­tors for my flights of fancy.

Louise de Bettignies, aka Alice Dubois, aka Lili, aka the queen of spies, ran the most suc­cess­ful spy ring in Occupied France dur­ing World War I. They crossed bor­ders, duped guards, switched iden­ti­ties, hid mes­sages, smug­gled sol­diers, all at hor­ren­dous risk. Bettignies was cap­tured and died in a German forced labor camp; oth­ers were exe­cut­ed, but they saved the lives of more than a thou­sand British sol­diers in 1915. Their sto­ry was revived and recount­ed in 2017 as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn.

The Gestapo called Virginia Hall “the most dan­ger­ous of all Allied Spies.” Hall, an American with one leg and a pros­thet­ic named Cuthbert, served with both the OSS (now the CIA) and British Special Ops (SOE) and worked with the French Resistance dur­ing World War II. Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for her hero­ic actions, then con­signed to obscu­ri­ty after the war, Hall has been exhumed by mul­ti­ple biogra­phies, the lat­est—A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell—being made into a movie.

Indian-born British agent Noor Inayat-Khan, aka Nora Baker, aka Madeleine, became the first female wire­less oper­a­tor to be sent into occu­pied France to aid the French Resistance. Betrayed and cap­tured, she didn’t break even under the extreme tor­ture and was exe­cut­ed at Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp. She too has been resus­ci­tat­ed by his­to­ry, most recent­ly in Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris.

I find these women and more. They’ve always been there, numer­ous and note­wor­thy through­out hot and cold wars, but their sto­ries have been buried under lay­ers of neglect like for­got­ten ves­tiges of an ear­li­er civ­i­liza­tion, await­ing the exca­va­tion that at last is tak­ing place. Viewed as anom­alies, rare and exot­ic, they were patron­ized and sub­ject­ed to dou­ble stan­dards until they stood out in some excep­tion­al way (the old “back­wards and in high heels” dilem­ma), good and bad. Say “women spies” and the first who comes to mind is Mata Hari. A Dutch exot­ic dancer in Paris, she was recruit­ed with a mil­lion-franc bribe to spy for France dur­ing World War I, then lured by more rich­es to sell secrets to Germany. She got caught and was exe­cut­ed by French fir­ing squad in 1917. She became the stan­dard bear­er of what’s become known as “sex­pi­onage,” using seduc­tion to gain infor­ma­tion. The tit­il­la­tion fac­tor and the lore, both fact and fic­tion, have over­shad­owed the intel­li­gence work of female spies. In pop­u­lar cul­ture we’ve had the “Bond girls” and oth­ers who are inevitably com­pro­mised, neu­tral­ized, or killed off. Some say the sex­ism that his­tor­i­cal­ly sat­u­rat­ed the field con­tributed to mak­ing women so suc­cess­ful at it—they were fly­ing under the radar, less like­ly to be noticed and suspected.


FBI agent Kate Burroughs, por­trayed by Laura Linney in the 2007 movie Breach, was a high-rank­ing oper­a­tive on the mole hunt that land­ed infa­mous dou­ble agent Robert Hanssen in 2001. Burroughs was “one bad-ass, rock­ing Fed” accord­ing to Girl Spy, an online com­pendi­um, sad­ly now defunct, of both fic­tion­al and real, on-screen and in-print, good and bad “dames” and “skirts” in the intel­li­gence game and mod­ern-day exem­plars. Aldrich Ames—Hanssen’s mole coun­ter­part in the CIA—was tracked down relent­less­ly over the course of sev­er­al years by agents Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, their deeds dra­ma­tized in The Assets.

Valerie Plame was a CIA covert oper­a­tive out­ed by the Bush admin­is­tra­tion in retal­i­a­tion for her husband’s oppo­si­tion to the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq. A mem­oir and sub­se­quent film, Fair Game, cement­ed her place in the pan­theon. Now she writes spy nov­els. As does for­mer British Security Service Director General Stella Rimington, draw­ing on her 25-year MI‑5 career. Since her retire­ment she’s authored ten nov­els fea­tur­ing intel­li­gence offi­cer Liz Carlyle (I’ve just com­plet­ed the eighth in the series) and an autobiography.

Girl Spy sums it up: “No one ever said that the CIA [or the FBI, MI‑5 or 6] was a bas­tion of female empow­er­ment, in fact, sad­ly, after so many years, it is still quite the oppo­site, but the skirts who have had the for­ti­tude to stick it out and carve out a place for them­selves inside the Agency must be admired.”


The British Secret Service of John Le Carré’s Karla Trilogy was a male bas­tion, but an impor­tant minor char­ac­ter was Connie Sachs—based on leg­endary MI‑5 Soviet watch­er Millicent Bagot—whose work in Soviet intel­li­gence and whose recall of peo­ple and events, even dur­ing the embit­tered alco­holic haze of her forced retire­ment, help George Smiley save the day. There again, in an imag­i­nary life go I. My research skills and mem­o­ry for detail sure­ly would have passed muster and earned me a place in this oth­er­wise unap­proach­able world.

Surrounded by crea­ture com­forts and pro­tect­ed by real­i­ty, I cre­ate a clan­des­tine life in an alter­nate universe—time trav­el to an ear­li­er, imag­ined lifetime—in which I’m recruit­ed out of uni­ver­si­ty because of my intu­itive intel­li­gence, like Amaryllis Fox, or by a crafty lover, like Serena Frome in Sweet Tooth. Or from behind a type­writer, like Irina in The Secrets We Kept and Juliet in Transcription, a sce­nario in which an under­cov­er stock­bro­ker, engi­neer, or foot­ball coach (I’ve been sec­re­tary for all three) woos me into the secret ser­vices, where my per­cep­tive­ness and pro­fi­cien­cy sep­a­rate me from the pack.

Elevated from cler­i­cal duties I sail through the rig­or­ous train­ing that weeds out the weak of spir­it and sinew. My skills have pre­pared me well for trade­craft: I excel at sur­veil­lance and counter-sur­veil­lance, tail­ing, recog­ni­tion, eva­sion, mem­o­riza­tion, dead drops, lock pick­ing, trans­mis­sion, cryp­tog­ra­phy. I learn steganog­ra­phy, con­ceal­ing a file, mes­sage, or image with­in anoth­er. In Mission Impossible III an oper­a­tive hides a microdot con­tain­ing a mag­net­i­cal­ly stored video file on the back of a postage stamp. Mata Hari was said to write between the lines of books. Josephine Baker, spy­ing for the French Resistance, hid mes­sages writ­ten in invis­i­ble ink on her sheet music.


Homeland’s Carrie Mathison is Wonder Woman incar­nate while at the same time an often unre­li­able and unsym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter. Despite her errat­ic bipo­lar behav­ior, her freak­ish highs and jagged rock-bot­tom lows, she’s intu­itive and coura­geous, and excels at stealth. I like her ruth­less streak too. Claire Danes, who inhab­it­ed the role, ini­tial­ly was intim­i­dat­ed by Carrie’s dark­ness and her con­di­tion but came to admire her intel­li­gence, strength, and pow­er. “I grew to real­ly love her,” she said. So did I. I mar­vel at these fierce women, the chutz­pah of Carrie and the oth­ers, in fic­tion and espe­cial­ly in real life—alter-egos of my sub­merged persona.

My fan­tasies are sur­passed by admi­ra­tion and awe as I con­tem­plate the roles these women assumed and the chal­lenges they rose to, the per­ils they met and over­came in the face of count­less obsta­cles. They didn’t grow up want­i­ng to be spies, but they reached for more than tra­di­tion­al paths allowed. It’s a world that wasn’t des­tined for me, but it’s one I can enter in my wildest visions, from the com­fort of my arm­chair. It’s nev­er too late to adopt role models.


Alice Lowe writes about life and lan­guage, food and fam­i­ly. Her essays have been pub­lished in numer­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals, this year in Bacopa, Change Seven, Drunk Monkeys, ellip­sis, Epiphany, Burningword, (mac)ro(mic), Superstition Review, and Whale Road Review. Her work has been cit­ed twice in Best American Essays “Notables” and nom­i­nat­ed for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Alice is the author of essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, and she recent­ly served as guest non­fic­tion edi­tor for Hobart. She lives in San Diego, California and posts at