9 Things Covert Ops Books Get Right About Undercover Operations—And One Thing They Didn’t—from Two Navy Veterans Who’ve Actually Been There

tier-one_bookcover-2As Navy veterans turned thriller writers, we’re regularly asked questions about the authenticity of covert operations portrayed in popular books and movies. Questions such as: “Do nuclear submarines really chase each other through underwater canyons like in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER?” or “Did the Navy SEALs really take out Osama Bin Laden as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty?”

These questions speak to the very curiosity that attracts fans and writers to the genre in the first place and are examples of the topic of this article: the many things covert ops books get right about undercover operations, and one thing they didn’t.

1. Hardware: It’s a cold fact: authors who write covert operations novels love hardware—gear, weapons, vehicles, technology. If it’s high speed, low drag we’re going to find a way to work it into the novel. But get a detail wrong, and God help you, the critical comments are sure to pile up in the review column. Consequently, our peers in this genre tend conduct exhaustive research and get the facts right. Ben Coes is lauded by fans for his knowledge of hardware in Power Down.

2. Tradecraft: Just as medieval knights lived and died by the sword, thriller authors live and die by their ability to portray undercover operations with authenticity. Working undercover means tradecraft, and savvy readers crave authenticity. In recent years, some excellent tradecraft can be found in the genre. A noteworthy example is Jason Matthews’s debut novel Red Sparrow, which is loaded with authentic CIA tradecraft from beginning to end.

3. Politics: Often overlooked by readers and critics alike, real-world politics inform and influence every good covert ops thriller. Most authors have political opinions and those opinions find a way into the narrative. Readers might not agree, but that’s okay. Actually, it’s more than okay—disagreement is the nature of politics! Don’t believe us? Check out reader comments on the political narrative woven through Daniel Silva’s latest The Black Widow.

4. Stakes: Creating compelling stakes is one area where great thriller writers excel. Stakes drive the characters’ actions, and no place are the stakes higher than in undercover operations. Sometimes the stakes are personal, sometimes they’re global, but they always matter. In our latest covert ops thriller, Tier One, our hero John Dempsey faces a crisis in which the stakes are both highly personal and globally significant, keeping him battling to the very last page.

5. Conflict: When a reader says a book is a real “page-turner,” what she really means is the author has excelled at weaving conflict throughout the narrative. Conflict—more specifically the path to conflict resolution—is what keeps a reader’s interest. Brad Thor’s latest thriller, Foreign Agent is a shining example of conflict at its best.

6. Motive: Motive is the engine that drives every character’s behavior, and no place is this more evident than in the dueling chess game between hero and villain. Sometimes a character’s true motive is obscured from the reader, and sometimes it is advertised loudly. Looking for a showcase example of motive? Check out The Night Manager by master of the genre John le Carré.

7. OPSEC: OPSEC is an acronym for Operational Security. OPSEC might not be something that civilian authors worry about, but it is something that current and former military and intelligence community members take very seriously. Sometimes, the information communicated about hardware, tradecraft, or tactics in a covert operations thriller might need to be tempered to protect the security and effectiveness of the real-life men and women operating in denied areas and safeguarding our country. So the next time you’re tempted to call out a “mistake” or type up that 1-star review because you know better, consider taking a step back and giving the author the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a case of obscurantism for sake of OPSEC.

8. Subtext: Subtext is the art of the unspoken. In covert ops thrillers, subtext is the author’s undercover operation being conducted against you, the unwitting reader. The unarticulated theme of the book, the foreshadowing of things to come, the emotional undertow dragging your heart through the wringer—this is subtext at work. For subtext at its best, read Nelson DeMille’s Radiant Angel.

9. Relationships: You don’t have to be a former CIA agent or Navy SEAL to understand the power of human relationships. The relationships between characters are what draw us into a thriller and hook us into a series for the long haul. Want to see a master at work in creating compelling interpersonal dynamics? Check out Spectrum in Alan Jacobsen’s Karen Vail series.

Before signing off, we’ll address the cliffhanger in the title. In the classic, New York Times bestselling novel The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy had submarines playing cat and mouse while navigating blind turns in underwater canyons with a stopwatch… As a former nuclear submarine officer, Brian can definitively confirm that this is one case where the late, great Mr. Clancy got it wrong!


brianandrews_authorphoto-2jeffwilson_headshot-2Brian Andrews & Jeffrey Wilson, co-authors of the #1 Amazon best-selling military thriller series, TIER ONE, published by Thomas & Mercer. They also pen the Nick Foley series of international thrillers, BEIJING RED, under the pseudonym Alex Ryan.