The Modern Rules of Espionage

Our catalog has a couple of smart, modern spy thrillers by former top-level French intelligence officer and award-winning thriller writer Bernard Besson. His team of freelance operatives must unravel the consequences of global warming on the geopolitical landscape and discover the intricacy of high-frequency online trading. They struggle to maintain their independence where the loyalties of official agencies are not so clear and corruption and political machinations are everywhere.

I’m fascinated with this world of espionage and recently took a moment to review my conversations with Bernard to come up with a list of some modern rules of espionage.

  • Ninety-five percent of an intelligence officer’s assignments consist of gathering information and verifying it. Computers and software, along with general knowledge and conversational skills are more useful in this area than guns.
  • In today’s world, technology allows everyone to intercept everyone else’s communications. Official intelligence circles are only part of the problem. The greatest threat comes from the uncontrolled private espionage.
  • Intelligence professionals must do more than intercept communications and messages. They have to analyze and understand the conversations they hear and the images they see.
  • Information is not a spy’s only target. Another real strategic objective is to understand the other’s intentions and way of thinking. In June 1944, Hitler had a large reserve of SS Panzers in Belgium. The Allies knew this, but was Hitler’s intention to send them to Normandy? If he had done it right away, he would have held off the Allies. Fortunately, he did not and lost the battle. The Allies did not need to chase cars through the streets of Berlin to find out this kind of information. A spy needs to be in the trust of well-informed people.
  • Classic techniques are still useful, such as using knowledge of the other’s methods to your own advantage. French national security agents have been using it at least as far back as the Hundred Years’ war that pit France against England in the fourteenth and fifteenth century.
  • Gadgets and technology can come in handy, but since the times of Julius Caesar, King Louis XIV and Alexander the Great, spies have worked with their minds. The human brain has no equal as far as software goes, because of its capacity for emotion and its power of conviction. Spies are trying to guess the opponent’s strategy, confidence, personality, and beliefs.
  • A good intelligence service is one that asks the right questions. Information itself is not hard to come by. What is difficult is knowing what you actually are looking for.
  • A good spy is discreet, polite, attentive and has real common sense. He or she has to listen to the silence, what is not said, and notice the hesitations. A good spy is armed with patience and good general knowledge.
  • Today, keeping things top secret is less important than being quick to think and to gather information. 

Thanks, Bernard, for these insights. 

Recommended reading

Ben Macintyre wrote a fantastic book about the real-world spycraft, which I highly recommend: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory.

In our world of rapid climate change, The Greenland Breach gives you an entirely different perspective on how we are all being impacted. The blood splattered on the ice sheets of Greenland belongs to shadow fighters, mercenaries fighting battles we don’t learn about on the evening news.

What about technological disruption? In The Rare Earth Exchange, you get a heart-pounding story that could have been ripped from the headlines. What happens when a grain of sand throws off the well-oiled international finance machine?

New Spy Thriller from Former Top Spy and Award-Winning Thriller Writer

We are happy to announce the release of The Rare Earth Exchange, a chilling story of real-world corruption and cyberterrorism. Award-winning author Bernard Besson comes from a long career in the French intelligence service.

This new financial espionage thriller offers an unsettling perspective on finance and corruption in the world today. Besson has  a sharp sense of what is at stake in today's world of espionage and global economic warfare. 

As a specialist in economic intelligence, spy novels are an entertaining way to tell truths about geopolitics and about operatives who risk their lives for their country. “It’s fiction, but the geostrategic stakes and the way the players think and act are all pulled from reality,” he explains.

Besson's books have been described as "prescient" and “intelligent and literate” spy thrillers.

The same team of operatives found in The Greenland Breach are back in this disturbing look at a post-Panama Papers world, spanning the world from Paris to Malaysia. In it, they get caught up in a web of corruption and terrorism in a struggle to control rare minerals key to today’s technology.

This title is for readers who love spies and action, smart escapist fiction, and political intrigue. It was shortlisted for the 2015 Quais du Polar series award.


  • “From Paris to Malaysia, once again Besson’s fast-paced prose uncovers the deepest, darkest and most violent realities of our times.” —Le Monde
  • “A scary book about a globe-spanning confrontation that seems altogether plausible.” —Big Thrill Magazine
  • “Bernard Besson has written a fast-paced, intelligent and entirely plausible thriller.” —Bookseller review

Big Thrill interviews Sophie on Rare Earth Exchange

Financial espionage thriller - post Panama Papers

We're gearing up for the release of Bernard Besson's new financial espionage thriller The Rare Earth Exchange.

Translator Sophie Weiner talked with writer Kay Kendall in this month's issue of Big Thrill. Check out her interview to find out her answers to these questions.


  • How challenging was working with a text that is dense with geopolitical corruption, international high finance, and cyberwarfare?
  • Was there anything that you learned in this novel that surprised or shocked you?
  • Is there a difference in how American and French readers respond to mysteries and thrillers? Do different aspects of these books appeal to one culture more than another?
  • As the translator of this thriller written for a French audience, you are responsible for bringing it successfully across the Atlantic to American readers. What are the challenges you faced in bridging the two cultures in your translation?
  • If a plot element is changed, what is the process you use to find out if the author approves?
  • Can you share with us one tip—or trick—you learned when translating and adapting this and other fast-paced thrillers from French to English? Something perhaps that your teachers at the Sorbonne never taught you?
  • What was the first thriller you ever read, and what made it memorable?

What is spooking today's spooks?

Bernard Besson, a former top-level French intelligence officer and the award-winning author of The Greenland Breach, shares some thoughts about spying in today's world. This list first appeared on Strand Magazine's blog. Click here to see the original article: The Top Ten Things Today's Spies Worry About. 

  1. The “democratization” of spying. Intrusive technology used to eavesdrop, film, and track people and connected objects are for sale everywhere. Anybody can become a spy and set up surveillance at a very low cost. My neighbor, or my competitor, can do what the CIA, the MI6, or the French DGSE can do.
  2. Multispecialization. To stay on top of intelligence gathering today, spies need to be specialists in sound, images, big data, social engineering, shadowing, ghost surveillance, profiling, rare languages, and so much more. Selective knowledge is no longer enough.
  3. Stress. Levels of stress in the intelligence community have never been higher. Everyone wants to know if they are being fooled, followed, or listened to. Companies and agencies that employ spies are more and more demanding and know more than they did before. Corporations want to know about their competitors; consumer groups want to know about their car engines; athletes want to know if their opponents are doping.
  4. Robots. Big data has made robotization, or automation, a necessity. Algorithms are becoming the spies of the twenty-first century, while bipedal spies are being laid off. There are even machines to spy on other machines spying. Let’s hope the robots understand what is going on.
  5. Transparency. As citizens and consumers demand more transparency, governments and intelligence agencies face pressure to make data available to everyone. There are no more secrets. Nearly everything is public.
  6. Decision making. Power in the hands of a few causes anxiety. Political and economic decision-makers no longer know where the world is going. They no longer have time to read the massive amounts of information available and the contradictory interpretations of that information. They are looking for “hidden intentions” lurking in big data, and the experts contradict each other. Here, spies play a role akin to that of an ancient priest, or diviner, helping to make sense of the information. The role is therapeutic.
  7. The thirst for truth. As the general public becomes better and better informed, it no longer pardons the powers-that-be when the latter don’t know when a bomb is going to go off, if corrupt officials had certified the ship that sank, or if crooks manage the bank. Prior to disaster, forecasts are generally optimistic, but it is always the unforeseen that occurs. The unforeseen, which causes terror in business leaders and politicians, is the bread and butter of spies.
  8. The meaninglessness of information. In and of itself, information means nothing. It is the reader who can tell us something. Facing the competition from robots, spies survive because they are human and have personal experience. These qualities make it possible to perceive what is not said. The twenty-first-century spy is the one who hears the silences, who sees what is absent, who perceives the underlying signals, and who uncovers lies that are wrapped in truths.
  9. What we don’t know. Secrets are not found in information or in big data, but in what we don’t know, when we transform that into a question. Efficient spies do not look for information: they look for the answer to a question. The more skillfully crafted the question, the more strategic or decisive the response. A good spy can spend nine hours figuring out what he’s looking for, and an hour finding it.
  10. Collective intelligence. Today’s spy is someone who can lead a community of analysts and watchers.

Explore numbers 8 and 9 in The Greenland BreachAnd later this year, Bernard will bring us The Rare Earth Exchange for another look at number 4.