Gareth Williams: the sad, fascinating death of a spy
When the intelligence services are involved in a death, we relish glimpsing a world that usually remains hidden
by Jonathan Freedland | August 26, 2010
As I write this, the top story on the Guardian website is that of the sad, strange death of Gareth Williams, the spy whose body was found in a sports holdall in the bath of his flat in Pimlico, south London, just a few minutes away from MI6 headquarters.
The degree of interest is hardly surprising. When, nearly four years ago, Russian journalist Alexander Litvinenko lay dying in a London hospital, poisoned, perhaps at a sushi restaurant, that too became the tale du jour, with readers clamouring for details amid a widespread assumption that the culprits were agents of Moscow's security services. A generation earlier, in 1978, the focus was Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident slain on a London street, who, it was believed, had fallen victim to an ingeniously customised umbrella wielded by a passerby – probably an agent of the Bulgarian secret police – who had used it to fire a ricin-containing pellet into Markov's leg.
It's not difficult to see why such episodes first appal, then intrigue. Initially there is the straightforward mystery. How exactly did Litvinenko's killers get polonium into his bloodstream? How did Markov come to be killed by a man he had merely passed in the street? How did Williams end up folded into a bag, perhaps for as long as two weeks?
But the real fascination lies in the common element to all these stories: the involvement of the intelligence services. You don't have to know your MI5 from your MI6 or your KGB from your FSB to be drawn in. As purveyors of popular entertainment from John Buchan to the producers of Spooks have understood, there are few more surefire subjects than spies and spying.
This applies even to those who might have no interest in, say, a regular action adventure or a war movie. The appeal of espionage goes wider and deeper. (Spooks is said to have as many female fans as male ones.) The key, and obvious, ingredient is secrecy. It touches on a basic fact about human nature: if you want someone to listen to you, begin a conversation with "Shall I let you into a secret?"
In my own double-life as a writer of thrillers – under the pseudonym Sam Bourne – I have not yet told a spy story (my latest, The Chosen One, is more a tale of political conspiracy, set in Washington). But most thrillers, including mine, aim to supply the reader with that same sense of revelation, as if exposing an aspect of the world that usually remains hidden – whether it's the Catholic church in Dan Brown or modern science in Michael Crichton. We experience the same sensation when we read of Litvinenko, Markov or, sadly, Williams: that a crack of light has appeared in a realm that would otherwise be dark.
What's more, we bring the habits acquired from fiction to the real world. When we hear the outline of the latest story – a spy found dead in a London flat – we immediately start doing what we would at the movies, making our own deductions, trying to work out what's going on. The Williams case has provided an opening scene that would not be out of place in a novel: a phone and sim cards laid out in what's been described as a "ritual" manner.
There is a last source of fascination – the residual glamour we attach to matters of espionage. James Bond – all white dinner-jacket, sleek gadgets and Martinis – is to blame for that habit, one whose enduring power could be seen in the alacrity with which newspaper picture editors pounced on this summer's story of the "suburban spy ring", running shots of the photogenic Russian spy Anna Chapman whenever they could get away with it.
The reality is much shabbier, the solitary life led by Gareth Williams surely more typical. John Le Carré has spent half a century conveying this greyer, tougher truth: he does it again magnificently in his new book, Our Kind of Traitor. Even Bond has been trying to show the rough edges recently, with Daniel Craig a determinedly grittier 007.
But the mythology, and the fascination, lives on. The Williams story is actually deeply sad – the tale of a man who lived a lonely life and died a lonely death. But with two former home secretaries among the dead man's neighbours, and the company which owned his flat called New Rodina – which means "new homeland" in Russian – don't expect the interest level to drop. Some habits are too hard to break.