The Influence of Memory Erasure in Spy Fiction

From Jason Bourne to Harry Bosch: The Role of Memory Erasure in Popular Spy Fiction

When I set out to write “The Repurposed Spy”, I wasn’t aware of being influenced by any books I had read or films I had seen. It’s not that I am an avid consumer of spy thrillers. But then, the subconscious mind is an amazing thing. Like all writers, I hoped that my plot was original, though fully aware that, with millions of other books out there, somebody somewhere would have had a similar idea. And memory erasure in spy thrillers is a frequent theme.

I certainly couldn’t remember any books that included the idea of erasing or reprogramming someone’s memory. Since “The Repurposed Spy” was published, though, I’ve been asked by readers about who influenced me, and realised that it has long been a topic of fascination in spy thrillers and science fiction.

It didn’t take long to find quite a few best-sellers that feature the concept of spies or captives having their memories erased by intelligence agencies such as the CIA, MI6, SIS, KGB, or Mossad. Except I don’t think I have read most of them!

Robert Ludlum certainly exploits the idea – he has two well-known thrillers based on it. In “The Bourne Identity”, his protagonist, Jason Bourne, is found floating in the Mediterranean Sea with no memory of his past. As he tries to uncover his identity, he discovers that he was a CIA assassin. Then, in “The Sigma Protocol”, Ben Hartman is a former CIA agent targeted by a group of international bankers. With his memory erased by the CIA, Hartman goes on to piece together his past to uncover the truth.

One that I’ve definitely read (and seen the film) – though way back in my student days – is “The Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsyth. I vividly remembered the plot of a professional assassin hired by a group of French generals to assassinate the president of France. The part I’d forgotten (but not through any deliberate action!) is that the assassin has his identity and history erased by a French terrorist organization, the OAS.

One I now intend to read is “The Black Echo” by Michael Connelly. In it, Harry Bosch, a LAPD detective, discovers that he was a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War and had his memory erased by the CIA. I wonder why?

My quick research also identified some books that aren’t from genres that I normally enjoy, but from reading extracts struck me as good examples of fictional memory deletion. “The Mind Parasites” by Colin Wilson features a researcher who discovers that a group of parasitic creatures are erasing people’s memories and taking control of their minds. The researcher teams up with a British intelligence agent to stop them.

Then there’s “The Anomaly” by Michael Rutger, about a group of explorers who discover a mysterious cave system in the Grand Canyon. As they delve deeper, they begin to experience strange phenomena, including memory loss and hallucinations. I’m sure they’re both good books, but not for me.

Although it sounds like science fiction, I might be tempted to try “The Memory Agent” by Matthew B.J. Delaney. This novel features a world in which memory erasure has become a routine part of law enforcement, where the protagonist is tasked with erasing the memories of criminals, but begins to question the ethics of the practice. Hmmm. Would forgetting what you’ve done in the past stop you doing it again?

The Repurposed Spy and the Intriguing Concept of Memory Erasure in Espionage

A hand pulling strings controlling a man

Which leads me back to my own novel, “The Repurposed Spy”. Enforced memory loss is an underlying theme, but it’s definitely considered in a very different way to all the well-known thrillers that I’ve described here.

Is enforced memory erasure just a useful myth peddled by us authors? Or is it really possible? And, if it is, how? Not to mention how we resolve the questions it raises about the ethics of government surveillance and mind control.

That’s a topic that I’ll be exploring in another article/blog post.

Meanwhile, read more about The Repurposed Spy and order a copy here