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The Literary Spy Novel

First posted in Electric Literature:

Family tragedy drew me to Cold War literary fiction.

My uncle Frank Olson died sometime around 2:30 am on November 28, 1953 when he “jumped or fell” from his room on the thirteenth floor of the Statler Hotel in New York City. The New York Medical Examiner’s report contained that ambiguous description of how Frank came to land on the sidewalk early that morning. Frank Olson was a highly skilled Army scientist who worked at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, a top secret U.S. Army facility that researched biological warfare agents. He had gone to New York to see a psychiatrist in the company of a CIA escort, Robert Lashbrook. This was all the family knew about Frank’s death for twenty-two years.

Then, in June 1975, one bit of new information came to light. Buried inside a report by The Rockefeller Commission, which had been established by President Ford to investigate allegations of illegal CIA activity within the U.S., was a two-paragraph account of an army scientist who had been unwittingly given LSD and died in a fall from a hotel window in New York. To the conflicting theories that Frank Olson “jumped or fell” another possibility was added: he was dropped. Frank Olson’s death came to embody our collective fascination with the Cold War’s dark secrets, and it shined light on the dubious privileges men in the CIA gave themselves in the name of national security.

Frank Olson left behind his wife, Alice, my aunt, and three young children, Eric, Lisa, and Nils. Their lives went on, but were never the same, and Frank’s death traumatized each of them in deeply personal ways. Eric, the eldest, dedicated his life to unpacking the mystery of his father’s death.

I observed this tragedy over the years from within the tenuous intimacy of our family connection. I witnessed how my cousin Eric’s search was frustrated by an agency clinging to it secrets. None of the volumes of books on the CIA and biochemical warfare dug deeply into the minds of the men who inhabited Frank’s world – and even today questions about his death remain unanswered.

I was curious about the men who were responsible, but they remained hidden, opaque, masked. I believe that is why, some years ago, I was drawn to the literary spy novel. It put a human face on the Cold War by focusing on the psychological burdens of its characters rather than on Byzantine plot, or high politics. Doubt and paranoia bred in a culture of secrecy characterize these novels, as does a sophisticated amorality of men at the top of intelligence bureaucracies, and above all there is the strain put on family, friends, and faith. Men who work in covert operations inevitably bring some of that darkness into themselves, suffering the moral hazards of a line of work that sanctions lying, deceit, and murder – as was the case with my uncle. The interplay of state secrets and individual lives is the trademark of the genre.
We were able to measure things in the Cold War – borders, hope, annihilation. Today the enemy is stateless and violence seemingly random, which I believe, makes us nostalgic for the measurable dangers of the Cold War. The resurgence of Cold War fiction coincides with the enormous popularity of Cold War movies, notably Bridge of Spies, and television series like The Americans. Readers can look to the literary spy novel to glide beneath the noise of headlines and see a complex world through the knowing eyes of empathetic characters. The age of surveillance in which we live makes the genre, born in the middle of the last century, feel contemporary.

Here are five literary spy novels that stand out:

1. A Coffin for Dimitrios, Eric Ambler

2. The Human Factor, Graham Greene

3. Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon

4. A Delicate Truth, John Le Carré

5. Agent in Place, Helen MacInnes

6 Comments

  1. Patricia O'Hanlon on April 10, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    Inspiration hits at the oddest times, but when it does you can be sure a good read will follow. Congrats on writing a book that will become a classic. “An Innocent Man” is packed with believable characters and all too real scenarios of the Cold War. Loved it. I thought writing was an easy way to earn a living until I won several national and regional awards for short stories. It’s hard work, but it’s life blood to the writer. For me, it’s the only way to go. I wonder if you would allow me to send you a galley copy of my debut novel ? It will be awhile. I don’t have a publisher yet, but I’m optimistic. It follows a young female doctor from the United States who works in a thimble-sized village in Mali Africa. She gets caught in the crosshairs of a rebel uprising. Her options? Become a rebel slave, die or run. She, a female friend, and a boy (16) take on the Sahara. It’s 800 miles to safety. But man and nature combine to do them in. I think you’d like it. Hope your schedule will allow a yes. Best Regards, Pat O

    • Paul Vidich on June 5, 2016 at 8:15 am

      Thanks for the comments Pat, and writing is hard work. Happy to look at an electronic copy of the manuscript. Send me the first 50 pages to [email protected].

  2. Linda Fraley on June 5, 2016 at 4:19 am

    I reread both Eric Ambler and Helen McInnes in-between finding other spy novels of merit. I love Ross Thomas as well. Smiley remains my favorite spy.

    • Paul Vidich on June 5, 2016 at 8:13 am

      I don’t know Ross Thomas, but I will check him out.

  3. Steven Jager on July 3, 2016 at 11:35 am

    Charles McCarry does a remarkable job of characterization, the key, I suppose to all great novels of any genre. Just saw your reviews in the WSJ yesterday and looking forward to reading your work.

    • Paul Vidich on July 3, 2016 at 1:31 pm

      I agree. Characters with depth, that evoke empathy from the reader, are the key to any great novel. Add a compelling plot and a moral perspective, and the read can be wonderful. Charles McCarry is a wonderful writer.

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