007 meets the occult: why spies and sorcerers are a perfect fit in fiction

Spycraft and magic have always been strange but agreeable bedfellows, and a recent trend for merging both branches of the dark arts is gathering momentum in fiction.

The cold war era of the late 1940s through to the 1980s seems an especially appropriate stage for stories that pepper espionage with something even more shadowy – be that occult magic, the stagecraft of illusionists or investigation into psychic powers.

“Espionage and the supernatural felt like a perfect match to me,” said Nick Setchfield, the author of two supernatural cold war thrillers, The War in the Dark and The Spider Dance. “There’s an obvious parallel in that both of them deal in hidden worlds and shadow realms. They exist on the very border of what’s known and what’s concealed.

“You can make the case that when it comes to tradecraft, the actual day-to-day business of espionage, spies operate with a strict sense of ritual, just like magicians do. You could even argue that codes are just another set of magical runes, a way to pass on secret knowledge. Decrypt a cipher and you’re unlocking a spell,” Setchfield added.

Other books that overtly map the paranormal on to cold war spying include Hannu Rajaniemi’s Summerland, featuring a dead spy who operates via an otherworldly realm, and WL Goodwater’s Breach, which posits a Berlin Wall that is actually a magical barrier between east and west.

Even the twin godfathers of spies – James Bond and George Smiley – have given more than a nod to the marriage of espionage and magic. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published in 1974, John le Carré has Smiley investigating the tangled web weaved by “Source Merlin” and the intelligence he produces, collectively known as “Witchcraft”, while an elite group of spies is referred to as the Magic Circle.

And in the 1973 movie Live and Let Die, Roger Moore’s James Bond employs a little magic to bed his leading lady, Jane Seymour’s tarot-reading mystic Solitaire.

Claiming some magical ability himself, 007 asks Solitaire to pick a card, any card, from her closely guarded tarot deck. It is, of course, the Lovers, and one arched-eyebrow later she has fallen for the secret agent’s charms.

The postscript to the scene, however, reveals Bond’s double-dealing… he is playing with a stacked deck, every card the Lovers, which he casts to one side mid-clinch.

Live and Let Die was the first Bond film seen in the cinema by The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson and his co-writer on the stage and movie hit Ghost Stories, Andy Nyman. Bond’s manipulative trickery – at least with the cards – is echoed in their new novel The Warlock Effect.

Its protagonist is Louis Warlock, a young Jewish-German refugee to Britain during the second world war who grows up to become a famous stage magician and illusionist. And with postwar relations between the superpowers locked into a permafrost state by 1953, Warlock finds himself called upon by Britain’s spymasters to employ his mind-boggling tricks in shadowy service to queen and country.

Nyman and Dyson, who met in Jewish summer camp aged 15 in 1981, had been flirting with the idea for The Warlock Effect before they even started writing Ghost Stories together in 2008.

Spies operate with a strict sense of ritual, just like magicians do. Decrypt a cipher and you’re unlocking a spell

Nick Setchfield, author

“I think the seed was first planted about 20 years ago when a book came out by a magician we both really respect and it lit the fuse of this idea of the transferable skills between magic and spying,” said Dyson.

Nyman worked for 20 years on illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown’s TV specials, which fed into the book, and they wanted to replicate in prose that niggling doubt we all have at the back of our minds where we know what we’re seeing is just a trick … but it seems like actual magic.

Dyson said: “We grew up in an era when you had things like The Amazing World of Kreskin on TV at lunchtimes and Uri Geller, and these things were presented to you as something that was absolutely real.”

Nyman added: “Somewhere back here in our heads we know that the coin has not dematerialised, the laws of science haven’t been rewritten. But with magic of the mind, it seems unfathomable if it’s done well. It can only be real, surely? And one of the joys in the world of Warlock is that you are seeing it from the other side of the mirror – how things that seem impossible are possible.”

The lines between fact and fiction blur even further with documented cases of the real-life intelligence services trying to tap into the paranormal, most famously recounted in Jon Ronson’s book (and then film) The Men Who Stare at Goats, an investigation into how American military tried to tap into and weaponise psychic abilities.

“Back in the cold war, the Americans believed that the Russians were harnessing psychic powers and brainwashing, and they were really scared about that,” said Nyman. “When the US started to get these frazzled soldiers back from the Korean war, they had no idea what was going on and they were racing to catch up, and then you get all the MK Ultra [the CIA using brainwashing techniques and drugs such as LSD as interrogation methods from the 1950s to the 1970s] stuff that grew out of that, which is terrifying.”

Whether prestidigitation, the paranormal, or the grey area between, magic and the cold war thriller seem to go hand in hand. But Ronson’s goat-staring military men aside, surely it’s just fodder for fiction?

“Do I believe the intelligence services are really investigating the occult?” said Setchfield. “I doubt it. I’m sure they have their hands full dealing with the material world these days. But, like Roger Moore, I’m prepared to raise an intrigued eyebrow … ”