top of page

Spycraft in the Dark Talents trilogy

Within intelligence communities, spycraft refers to the techniques used by spies to gather intelligence and remain undercover. The need to manipulate, discover, and remain secret has spawned the time-tested techniques used by spies everywhere.

I used these methods throughout the Dark Talents trilogy, set in England in 1936. Here are some examples culled from Kim Tavistock scenes in Book two, Serpent in the Heather.

In eBook and hardcover. In paperback on Apr. 16.

SIGN OF LIFE. To confirm with handlers or HQ (the “office” in British intelligence service parlance) that one is on duty and pursuing the mission.

In a wool skirt and sweater set Kim made her way down to the castle parlor, where she put in her call to Knightsbridge and Nash Photo Finishing. Someone from the Office answered appropriately and said her photo prints would be ready on Wednesday. Her sign-of-life call complete, she turned to find Powell had entered the drawing room.

THE COVER PERSONA. Obviously, spies wish to remain undetected as such. To that end, they adopt ostensible business and deflecting personal attributes.

“Tread carefully with this Coslett woman, Kim. We’re only allowed a limited operation. You must deploy your witless- American mode to perfection.” She snapped a look at him. “I didn’t know I had one.” “What? Oh, yes, quite a good one. Charging around all innocent and eager. Top-notch.”

HONEY TRAP. Female spies might use sex to disarm targets into revealing important information.

“I would like to kiss you,” Powell said. “If that’s all right. If you wouldn’t mind.” Kim thought it the most awkward proposition she had ever encountered. “Perhaps, given that I’m on assignment, it may not do.” “Surely, that doesn’t matter.” “Well,” she said, “perhaps it’s not a rule.” Powell put his hand on the back of her head and, turning her face up toward him, he kissed her, inexpertly but sincerely. This had been a bad idea. She had now passed a rotten milestone: pretending affection to further her aims.

ALL THE LIES & DECEPTION. Here, Kim is debriefing with her handler, Owen.

“Lady Ellesmere thought she detected my extreme discomfort. It gave me a start, but I don’t think she could identify my . . .duplicity.” “Don’t think of it like that,” Owen said. “It’s not a lie, it’s a cover.” Well. It was both. But it didn’t hurt to use the right words, the ones that helped you live with yourself.


In this snippet, Kim has been trying to manipulate Powell Coslett into revealing secret information.

After a few strides Powell half-turned to her. “What you said . . . I know you’re trying to bolster me. It’s really very good of you.” She had been twisting his hopes in front of his face, hoping to crack his facade, so it was not very good of her. The further she walked down this road, the more deception and manipulation she used, almost effortlessly. It was reassuring to know that she had it in her.

YOU SUSPECT ALMOST EVERYONE. Once you start looking for conspiracies, you see them everywhere, whether real or imaginative.

She checked down the hallway. No one there. The thought came to her: I don’t trust my father. Her discomfort with him had increased since she had been inducted into the service. Julian could not be spying for the Germans. But then why did she feel he had secrets of his own?

CLANDESTINE SIGNALS. Sometimes messages are short and can be conveyed simply while remaining secret.

Owen’s phone call, a wrong number, had by prearranged code terms announced a meeting at Abbey Pond at one o’clock.

PREARRANGED MEETING SPOTS. Here Kim’s father Julian, is meeting with the head of Britain Secret Intelligence Service, called “E.”  They are on the Stone Gallery, a balcony of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Sometimes the best rendezvous places are public ones, where a few words can be exchanged without drawing attention.

“Talon is wounded,” Julian said straight out. E took a long, deep breath. He kept his gaze on the view, those intermittent slices of London seen from 175 feet up through the stone balustrades. Against the massive, darkened sky, the gold spires of St. Paul’s caught the afternoon sun like a flame in a storm.

PASSING DOCUMENTS. Julian needs to get a message to the Polish intelligence service, and does so through an intermediary whom he is meeting by prearrangement.

“Young man,” Elsa said, looking worried, “might you know where they’ve buried Wellington? I’m afraid I’ve lost him.” “He’s over there,” Julian said, pointing. “I say, you can have my guide if you like.” He passed it to her along with his letter to Gustaw Bajek, head of the Polish intelligence service.

Krystyna Skarbek

AND MORE. Read the trilogy for other examples of spy tradecraft such as legends, brush passes, dead drops, dry cleaning (losing a tail), surveillance and disguise. And for real-life spy stories, check out my blog series “Women Spies of the World Wars.”



bottom of page