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It is a fairly common trope to have a "master spy" who feeds information to people. She or he gathers this information from an unspecified army of "birds" or "sparrows" or "eyes-and-ears" or whatever label the specific source cares to name it. The details change across genres and sources. But the trope remains: This unassuming person has connections with some vast network of people, all of whom feed him/her their juice gossip.

But in each, this master spy is an established character, already at the center of their web of connections and sources.

How did they build that network? How does one go from being a normal person to having that vast network of sources?

Are there real-world people who have done this? Or is it a purely fictional trope? (I don't mean CIA or KGB agents who have a few sources that they work over years, but the fiction trope of the true master of spies, knowing almost everything and everyone...)

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  • $\begingroup$ Consider the Roman Catholic Church. The priest encouraging you to come for confession is also encouraging a dozen others...hundreds of priests in the country, covering all walks of life... $\endgroup$ – nzaman Mar 9 '18 at 17:11
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  • Help people out. Make them owe you.

  • Get some dirt on someone really important. And their spy network is yours.

  • Bribery.

  • Lure street urchins with candies and stuff. Children are easy to convince and are difficult to suspect.

  • Have friends in high places.

  • Establish contacts and rapproachments in the underworld. The thugs always know what's going on.

  • Bribe, intimidate or threaten the law enforcement.

  • Get Customs officials in your pocket.

  • Government officials make for primary targets.

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  • $\begingroup$ that is exactly right. IRL, networking is a much more important aspect of spy work than sneaking around or busting doors. In fact, RL spies typically use a visiting professional for "action" missions, precisely so that that there is no threat to local agents (or rather the networks that they have established) $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Mar 9 '18 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ The two examples I thought of were Sherlock Holmes and The Shadow, and this set of tactics encompasses theirs perfectly. $\endgroup$ – VBartilucci Mar 9 '18 at 16:47

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