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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Regular Guy

Lately for some reason I seem to be sniffing out spy stories that reflect the humdrum, human aspects of life as an international man of mystery.  I wondered for a while why I, a librarian who rarely ventures more than 25 miles from home, might be attracted to these stories, but soon remembered how similar the public perception of librarians and spies actually is.  “Mysterious”, “dangerous”, and “sexy” are all adjectives commonly used to describe us by a general public who knows little about either profession, but which trusts us to use our cleverness, physical prowess, and behind-the-scenes machinations to combat sinister forces in protection their very way of life.  Most are unaware that those of us who work in the so-called “glamour professions”—spies, moviestars, professional athletes, librarians—often deal with the same down-to-earth struggles as the rest of the world.  In the field of espionage, perhaps no two works illustrate this more powerfully than Graham Greene’s 1978 novel The Human Factor, and a 2011 documentary, The Man Nobody Knew, about the life of former CIA Director William Colby. 

Greene, who worked for the British Secret Service in Sierra Leone during WWII, endeavored with The Human Factor to depict the life of an MI6 agent as he knew it, “free from the conventional violence, which has not, in spite of James Bond, been a feature of the British Secret Service.”  The novel does just that, as we see its protagonist, the middle-aged Maurice Castle, commute from a bedroom community each day into London, where he pushes papers in an African section of MI6.The professional loneliness of a spy is palpable in Maurice’s life—unable to speak about his work to friends, family, or even his wife, a career change for someone in his situation would be next to impossible.  As in many of Greene’s tales, divided loyalties—in this case between family and profession and country—form the thematic heart of the story, for we soon discover that Maurice is a double agent, and has been leaking secrets to the Russians for years, motivated by gratitude for help his family received a decade earlier.  While posted to South Africa early in his career, he fell in love with a black South African woman who eventually became his wife, but not before a tense period in which he was expelled from the country for violating its race laws, and his pregnant wife avoided a harsh imprisonment only through the assistance of one of the veryCommunists Maurice had been monitoring.As events unfold, Maurice must decide what to do when his superiorsmistakenly trace the leak to his subordinate, who better fits the profile of a double agent, and whose life the top brass deems expendable.  Then, given the opportunity to leak new information Maurice feels could help millions of people like his wife, who remain in South Africa suffering under apartheid, he must make another torturous choice that could cost him his own life.

A devout Catholic who struggled to steer the dubious work of espionage with a moral compass, William Colby, who worked for the CIA from its creation and served as the agency’s director from 1973 to 1976, could have stepped right out of Graham Greene novel.  The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby is a documentary homage to Colby by his son Carl, whose audio narration of the film describes his own unusual childhood in Italy and South Vietnam, where he played in the homes of U.S.- supported Presidents Alcide De Gasperi and Ngo Dinh Diem, while his father orchestrated the fight against Communism in those countries.  Carl Colby highlights the striking division between family and career in the life of his father, who, while a fixture at the dinner table and Sunday morning Mass, revealed very little to his family about his work, much of which is disclosed in the film’s archival footage and interviews with contemporaries such as Brent Scowcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, and Bob Woodward.  As the camera closes on William Colby’s inscrutable face time and again, we learn of his disappointment with Diem’s murder and Vietnam’s descent into war, and his subsequent leadership of the Phoenix Program, a bloody anti-insurgency effort.  By the time Watergate had ravaged what was left of the public’s toleration of secrecy, Colby was called to testify before Congress, where he boldly revealed many of the CIA’s darkest secrets of the previous decades in an effort to preserve the very existence of the agency.The film paints a portrait of a truly “tortured soul” (as several interviewees describe Colby in summarizing his life), whose struggle to balance secrecy and transparency in his professional and family life transformed him into an enigma whom, in the end, “nobody knew.”

Now that I think about it, being a spy is a bit more difficult than being a librarian.  For that matter, both Maurice Castle and William Colby would have made very good librarians: the closest thing Castle has to a kindred spirit in the Human Factor is an antiquarian bookseller, and Colby amazingly dresses the part of a stereotypical librarian of his era in almost every image of him we see, donning spectacles, a suit, and tie even as he is photographed helping train South Vietnamese counter-insurgents in the field.  Had they been librarians, Castle and Colby as characters admittedly wouldn’t have been quite as intriguing, but I think it’s safe to suppose that eachwould have been much happier. - Dan C, Collection Development


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