The Dangerous Trade

Robert Hutchinson reviews a fascinating look at early modern spies

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Reviewed by: Robert Hutchinson
Author: Daniel Szechi (editor)
Publisher: Dundee University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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In the 1920s, an official of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service claimed there was nothing
in the duties of a spy that demanded “censure, or [would] cause a gentleman to think
twice before enlisting”. It was not always thus.

The Dangerous Trade is a fascinating and readable academic study of six spies in early modern Europe, revealing some as unlucky, down-at-heel reprobates.

Giacomo Casanova, familiar for other vices, was ashamed to be a piece-work informer for the Venetian secret services. Sir Robert Walsh, a soldier of fortune, was an unsuccessful double agent inside the royalist exile community and within Oliver Cromwell’s intelligence organisation. In contrast, Nathaniel Hooke served multiple masters at different times in various kingdoms and died both wealthy and honoured.

Editor Daniel Szechi maintains that today’s spies are “much less important” than hi-tech eavesdropping on hostile communications “because [human intelligence] is so variable in quantity and so subject to human failings”. Not so. Despite all the signals intelligence at their disposal, the CIA and MI6 would have given their eye teeth to have had a proactive network of agents in Iraq (remember the ‘dodgy dossier!’) and in Afghanistan.

What price an agent within the inner councils of Al Qaeda, alongside bin Laden? No, the modern spy has as much relevance as did his disreputable ancestors – and the stakes are just as high.

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Robert Hutchinson is the author of Young Henry (W&N, 2011)