~ Posted by Jeremy Duns, November 14th 2012

"But where’s the twist?" As new information about the resignation of CIA director David Petraeus emerges, this is the thought uppermost in my mind. As someone who writes about espionage for a living the episode seems both bizarre and unsatisfying. In my own spy novels, I would never dare to write such a story—my readers wouldn’t stand for it.

There have been several twists to the Petraeus scandal, of course, from the news of another woman being involved, to an FBI officer emailing bare-chested pictures of himself, to the emergence today—this was almost too much—of one of the women involved having an identical twin. But none of this would pass muster as fiction, except perhaps as a light spoof. As screenwriter Zack Stentz tweeted: "Really, General Petraeus? Paula Broadwell? The Roger Moore-era Bond girl name wasn't a tipoff that this was a bad idea?" The spy chief with his trousers around his ankles is less "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", more "Spy Hard". Many photographs of Broadwell show her in elegant gowns the likes of which are usually saved for that scene in which the secret agent and his accomplice infiltrate a swanky cocktail party—all she’s missing is the tiny earpiece with which she can communicate with Tom Cruise while he sips a vodka martini and furtively looks around for the villain.

In fictional terms, "The Petraeus File" is not just clichéd, but poorly written. Events that only occur as a result of characters’ ineptitude frustrate readers—especially if, as in Petraeus’ case, they are a senior official. As head of the CIA, he will have been extremely familiar with the concept of men being compromised by sexual attraction. As a "reader" of the story, the revelation that he and Broadwell communicated by draft emails in a joint account they set up has a satisfying irony, in that Al Qaeda has used the same technique, but it is still staggeringly naïve. If this had happened in a novel, readers would have flung the book across the room: "Come on! The head of the CIA doesn’t even encrypt his own emails?"

The episode points to a truth not usually acknowledged by real life spies: yes, fiction often makes them seem more exciting, but it also makes them look better at their jobs. Novelists need unpredictable twists to keep readers guessing, and characters need to be clever to engage attention. Petraeus’s foolishness foils the
attractive notion in both fiction and real life that intelligence officers are detached
masterminds playing with the rest of the world like pawns. When the film of this
is made, as it inevitably will be, the scriptwriters will have a mountain to climb to make it seem more believable.

Jeremy Duns is author of the Paul Dark spy novels, and the forthcoming non-fiction book "Dead Drop", about Oleg Penkovsky