Spy Classroom and the Art of Deception

The greatest trick any author can pull is deceiving the reader. It’s a core tenet of mystery thrillers and crime books in the Western publishing market, of course; Agatha Christie’s Poirot wouldn’t seem half so clever if the reader could guess the murderer from the first few pages.

We, the readers, want to be as surprised as the characters themselves.

Light novels, by and large, are — as per their name — ‘light.’ Refreshing, easy to digest. Serialized and sometimes predictable, particularly within the isekai or rom-com genres. Most manga and light novels lean heavily on their genre tropes to attract readers and manage expectations. So what happens if you’re trying to write a spy thriller, then? Is it possible to craft layers of plot, distracting the reader as much as the characters?

The answer, if author Takemachi has anything to say about it, is an emphatic “yes.”

Their debut light novel, Supai Kyoushitsu (Spy Classroom), is a masterclass in professional deception. From the opening pages of Volume 1 — quite literally from the under-flap artwork itself — the reader is led down the garden path, happily swallowing the lies we’re told, all for an incredible payoff in the novel's final act.

Join us today on Honey’s Anime as we dissect the carefully-laid plans of Spy Classroom. And beware — spoilers are a necessary danger on this mission!

—Spoilers Ahead—

Phase 1: Believe What You’re Told

There’s an oft-repeated phrase in creative writing — “the suspension of disbelief.” As a concept, it means that readers enter into a fictional work prepared to ignore the parts of the story that counteract the natural laws of daily life. Super-powered fist-fights, classrooms of brainiac children, zombies, vampires, magic; everything that doesn’t exist in the real world can be safely brought to life on the page.

The suspension of disbelief has another, much more convenient, aspect; one that clever authors can use to mislead and eventually surprise their audience. Most readers will accept things at face value — in Spy Classroom, for instance, we readily accept that teenage girls are skilled spies in service to their nation. We suspend our disbelief.

In doing so, we also accept other “facts.” We’re told these girls are spies. We’re told there are seven of them. We’re told that they must retrieve a bioweapon from an enemy nation. We’re told that their former master’s team was entirely destroyed, save him alone.

Simple facts, introduced into the narrative by other characters, become solid truths. After all, what reason could the reader have for doubting the very words they’re reading?

Phase 2: Tropes As A Tool

The second part of Takemachi’s wicked deception plays on the reader’s familiarity with anime, manga, and light novel tropes. Particularly, the unnatural hair colors of the main characters. While this also falls under the “suspension of disbelief” we discussed above, Takemachi goes above and beyond here.

For the vast majority of Spy Classroom’s first volume, we’re told the names of just three characters: Lily, our protagonist; Erna, one of her comrades; and Klaus, their teacher. The remainder of the girls are routinely referred to via their distinctive hair colors, ranging from black, to cerulean, to pink.

Takemachi expertly weaves this trope into the narrative, building up the girls of “Lamplight” — their makeshift spy group — as washout spies desperate to prove themselves. And because the world of Spy Classroom has established the need for behind-the-scenes intelligence warfare, it doesn’t seem odd that the characters are referred to chiefly by their hair color. In a way, it becomes their own moniker, adding another layer of mystery to the story.

What you don’t realize, however, is that blindly accepting this “anime girls have colored hair” trope has allowed the author to set another trap by your feet.

Phase 3: Dead Men Tell No Tales

“X Person Was Actually Alive the Whole Time!” A cliche trope, to be sure, and one that Spy Classroom wheels out in the final act to surprise the reader — and a surprise it is, because Takemachi’s expert feints have led the reader to truly believe in this deceit.

Klaus, the master assassin who seems utterly inept at teaching, lost his former team — including his mentor — in a disastrous mission. Now, the newly-formed Lamplight team have been tasked with following in “Inferno”’s footsteps; yet Klaus’ old team was one of the country’s greatest spy units. By comparison, these seven girls are all washouts with peculiar personalities; their mission truly seems impossible.

Even worse, Klaus still grieves for his lost team. He frequently retires to his bedroom and attempts to paint, struggling to bring to life the concept of “family,” using bold reds that end up splattered across most of the room. The symbolism is clear — red splashed like a blazing inferno, and red splashed like spilled blood. In flashbacks, Klaus reflects on his time with his mentor, and worries that he might never live up to his teacher’s expectations. Klaus feels similar to the titular character in Violet Evergarden, another light novel series (with an excellent anime) that examines the role of spies and killers in wartime, and their lives after the death of their mentors.

Now, most readers can see the “dead” character returning to life pretty easily. “No body, no death” is a common adage among readers; and of course, we the readers never saw Klaus’ mentor die. But by seeing Klaus grieve so openly, seeing him struggle so much to let his old team go and embrace his new “family,” it’s hard to imagine that Klaus’ mentor would still be alive.

Takemachi knows this, too, and now the third trap is ready to spring.

Phase 4: The Prestige

We’re an anime and manga site, so you’ll have to forgive us for briefly ducking into the world of film. In Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige – a mystery thriller about illusionists battling for their pride – the audience is greeted by Michael Caine’s opening monologue. “Every magic trick,” the opening tells us, “is comprised of three parts, or acts.” In the context of the film, these take the form of “The Pledge” — the magician showing you a simple object, promising that it’s ordinary. Then comes “The Turn” — the magician makes the object disappear. And finally, the hardest part of the magic trick — the part where you make the object come back. That, as per the film’s title, is “The Prestige.”

We could write another editorial on the magic of The Prestige (2006), but we reference it here because Spy Classroom’s Takemachi also understands the importance of The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige. Manipulating the reader is difficult because they’re actively trying to follow the plot and the characters, while the characters themselves are pulling off an impossible mission against their enemies.

And yet, the reader doesn’t realize the whole time they’ve been conned.

After all, the reader believes what they’re told: “There are seven girls in Lamplight.”

Through the tropes of colored-hair girls, the reader never forms an attachment to anyone except Lily, Erna, and Klaus.

And through witnessing Klaus’ obvious grief, we accept that his team must truly be gone for good.

So when Klaus’ mentor appears from the dead, having betrayed his own nation, we are adequately shocked. When he defeats the Lamplight girls in combat, we are dismayed. Our heroes are down for the count; and as the enemy dispatches them effortlessly, he even counts down from seven to zero.

That, of course, is when you’re least expecting it. The dramatic reveal, the truth hidden beneath a dozen layers of distraction — Lamplight’s eighth girl.

Debrief: Post-Operation

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In a moment worthy of an award, Spy Classroom reveals to the reader that they’ve been led by the nose the entire time. There were eight girls all along, but of course, you never bothered to count. Even the in-flap artwork of Volume 1 shows only seven girls — another reason to believe such a bald-faced lie.

Klaus, our master spy, knew from the very beginning that he was going to be betrayed. Thus he instructed the girls to “act as seven,” forcing them to always keep one girl silent in conversations since their manor had been bugged. He suspected all along that his mentor had somehow survived the destruction of Inferno, and laid the groundwork for a plan that not only defeated his enemy, but bamboozled us, the readers, in the process.

None of this would have been possible without understanding that readers are gullible (in the best possible way). Our suspension of disbelief, our willingness to accept facts as truth, leads us into the trap just like the story’s traitor. In a jaw-dropping moment, everything we thought we knew comes tumbling down — and yet, we don’t feel cheated.

No, this isn’t some cheap “deus ex machina” where our heroes are saved by a stroke of luck nobody could have predicted. They damn well earned their victory, because for months, they were working and growing and training while knowing their entire purpose was to expose a traitor. Everything that led to this moment was carefully planned, even if the reader was kept in the dark through clever usage of tropes and unreliable narrators.

Final Thoughts

As an author, Takemachi succeeds at their own impossible mission — crafting a watertight plot that manages to thrill and surprise in equal measure, all thanks to the masterful use of deception.

In a meta-textual deconstruction of light novel tropes, Takemachi extends the ruse to their own writing style, to the personification of characters, and to the volume’s artwork; all for the purpose of a staggering plot twist in the novel’s final moments.

In a story all about spies and deception, never would the reader suspect that they, themselves, were the ones being deceived. And that is truly the work of a master spy.

If you haven’t read the light novel or manga adaptation of Spy Classroom, we (obviously) highly recommend picking it up — and no doubt we’ll be seeing this plot twist play out in an anime format too, one day!

Have you read Spy Classroom? What did you think of this twist? Let us know in the comments below!

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Author: Brett Michael Orr

I'm a writer, gamer, and reviewer of manga & light novels, from Melbourne, Australia. When I'm not creating a new world, I'll be absorbed in a good JRPG, watching some anime, or reading up a storm!

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