Unlike most other intelligence organizations, the British Secret Service has a long history of attracting and employing writers for clandestine work in support of the nation.
16th Century: Christopher Marlowe, poet and dramatist, was recruited while still a student at Cambridge (sound familiar?) He was enlisted by Sir Francis Walsingham for his counter-espionage campaign against the Catholics. Marlowe was stabbed to death at the age of 26 at the Deptford tavern. Although suspected, it was never proven that his secret profession was the cause. Some historians think that William Shakespeare, a contemporary peer of Marlowe, was approached by the same spy master, but he deftly managed to stick with his day job.
18th Century: Leonard McNally, an Irish lawyer and playwright, was a reputed informer for the British Secret Service. He betrayed associates and clients for cash.
19th Century: Sir Richard Burton was an eccentric at a time when the Secret Service employed “capable amateurs” throughout the empire because they wanted inexpensive or free intelligence. Financially secure Britons were quite welcome. Burton made many journeys under many guises to Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He relayed useful information from every sojourn.
20th Century: Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene both worked for the Secret Service, Maugham in the First World War and Greene in the second. Both men wrote top-tier fiction, and are still widely read today. Maugham depicted spy craft brilliantly in his Ashenden stories. Greene referred to his novels about espionage and political intrigue as “entertainments”.
It’s still early days in the 21st century, but I have no doubt that readers decades from now will be delighted or dismayed to learn of their favourite author’s secret life – whenever the ministry sees fit to declassify it.