An Honorable Man
Published by: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Release Date: April 12, 2016
A debut espionage novel in the style of Alan Furst and John le Carré, An Honorable Man is a chilling Cold War spy thriller set in 1950s Washington, D.C.
Washington D.C., 1953. The Cold War is heating up: McCarthyism, with all its fear and demagoguery, is raging in the nation’s capital, and Joseph Stalin’s death has left a dangerous power vacuum in the Soviet Union.
The CIA, meanwhile, is reeling from a double agent within their midst. Someone is selling secrets to the Soviets, compromising missions around the globe. Undercover agents have been assassinated, and anti-Communist plots are being cut short in ruthlessly efficient fashion. The CIA director knows any news of the traitor, whose code name is Protocol, would be a national embarrassment and compromise the entire agency.
George Mueller seems to be the perfect man to help find the mole: Yale-educated; extensive experience running missions in Eastern Europe; an operative so dedicated to his job that it left his marriage in tatters. The Director trusts him. Mueller, though, has secrets of his own, and as he digs deeper into the case, making contact with a Soviet agent, suspicion begins to fall on him as well. Until Protocol is found, no one can be trusted, and everyone is at risk.
“Cold War spy fiction in the grand tradition—neatly plotted betrayals in that shadow world where no one can be trusted and agents are haunted by their own moral compromises.”
—Joseph Kanon, New York Times bestselling author of Leaving Berlin and Istanbul Passage
“A cool, knowing, and quietly devastating thriller that vaults Paul Vidich into the ranks of such thinking-man’s spy novelists as Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst. Like them, Vidich conjures not only a riveting mystery but a poignant cast of characters, a vibrant evocation of time and place, and a rich excavation of human paradox.”
—Stephen Schiff, Co-Producer and writer, The Americans
“As I read An Honorable Man, I kept coming back to George Smiley and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. That’s how good this book is. Much like John le Carre and Eric Ambler before him, Vidich writes with a confidence that allows him to draw his characters in clean, simple strokes, creating dialogue that speaks volumes in a few spare lines while leaving even more for the reader to fathom in what’s not said at all. At the center of the novel is George Mueller, a man who walks in the considerable shadow of Smiley but with his own unique footprint, his own demons and a quiet, inner strength that sustains and defines him in endless shades of cloak and dagger gray. Pick up this book. You’ll love it.”
—Michael Harvey, New York Times bestselling author of The Chicago Way
“An Honorable Man is wonderful — an unputdownable mole hunt written in terse, noirish prose, driving us inexorably forward. In George Mueller, Paul Vidich has created a perfectly stoic companion to guide us through the intrigues of the red-baiting Fifties. And the story itself has the comforting feel of a classic of the genre, rediscovered in some dusty attic, a wonderful gift from the past.”
—Olen Steinhauer, New York Times Bestselling author of The Tourist and All the Old Knives
“Paul Vidich’s tense, muscular thriller delivers suspense and intelligence circa 1953: Korea, Stalin, the cold war, rage brilliantly, and the hall of mirrors confronting reluctant agent George Mueller reflects myriad questions. Just how personal is the political? Is the past ever past? An Honorable Man asks universal questions whose shadows linger even now. Paul Vidich’s immensely assured debut, a requiem to a time, is intensely alive, dark, silken with facts, replete with promise.”
—Jayne Anne Phillips, New York Times Bestselling author of Lark and Terminte and Machine Dreams
“AN HONORABLE MAN is that rare beast: a good, old fashioned spy novel. But like the best of its kind, it understands that the genre is about something more: betrayal, paranoia, unease, and sacrifice. For a book about the Cold War, it left me with a warm, satisfied glow.” — John Connolly, New York Times Bestselling author of Every Dead Thing.
On the morning of April 1, 1953 James Speyer Kronthal was found dead in the upstairs bedroom of his brick townhouse in Georgetown by Metropolitan Police who had been summoned by his longtime housekeeper when she arrived at 8:30 and found the home suspiciously quiet. He was fully clothed, sprawled on the floor, an apparent suicide. In many respects my character is based on the sad, troubled life of James Speyer Kronthal.
Kronthal was a brilliant young deputy of Allen Dulles who had worked in the OSS with Dulles in the Bern Station during the World War II. He was one of the original 60 or so people who Dulles brought to the CIA. Those initial recruits were not required to take a polygraph test as would later be the case with all new agency employees. Kronthal came from a wealthy banking family, attended Yale and then Harvard, where he earned a graduate degree in Art History. CIA investigators would later discover that Kronthal led a questionable life in the art world, working with the Nazi regime brokering art stolen from Jews. It was during this period that German intelligence caught him in a homosexual act with an underage German boy. Kronthal, through his banking relationships, and his art interests, was acquainted with Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, which kept him from arrest and scandal.
When the NKVD followed Soviets troops into Berlin in 1945 they found Goering’s private files, including the file on Kronthal. Kronthal had replaced Dulles as the Bern Station Chief in 1945, a key intelligence position, and the NKVD prepared another trap for him, filming him with a young boy. The Soviets blackmailed Kronthal and he became the first Soviet mole in the CIA. He worked for Dulles and during this time reported his meetings at the highest level of the CIA to Moscow.
Kronthal’s homosexuality came to light in Washington within the inner circles of the Agency at the time that Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting witch hunts for homosexuals in the State Department. Dulles treated what amounted to an intelligence catastrophe as a political problem, not as a counterintelligence problem. Dulles was a sharp student of history, and in his memoir he referenced the case of Alfred Redl, counterespionage chief in the Austro Hungarian Empire’s military uncovered as a Russian spy, who was ‘invited’ to commit suicide as an honorable way out of an intelligence mess – and to prevent the political embarrassment that would follow if the incident came to light.
Dulles invited Kronthal to dinner when the betrayal was discovered. He gave Kronthal a speech about honor and duty, and how compulsions destroyed careers. Kronthal walked home to his townhouse in Georgetown where the next morning the police discovered him on the floor of his bedroom, an empty vial on the floor. The note he left for his sister talked about the difficulty his homosexuality posed for his career. The entire episode was hushed up and didn’t come to light for many years.
The hostile political environment in Washington DC required that the episode be kept secret to prevent a McCarthy witch hunt of the CIA, which Dulles, and even Eisenhower, knew would jeopardize the effectiveness of the Agency at a time when the Cold War was at its height. I happened upon the incident while reading Joseph J. Trento’s The Secret History of the CIA. I was intrigued by the idea of an Ivy League-educated young man who lived a secret life within a secret career. If you worked for the CIA you couldn’t tell anyone, even your wife, what you did for a living, or even where you worked, and being a closeted homosexual compounded the layers of secrecy. I wondered how Kronthal managed all this in his mind.
From Chapter 2
The call to meet the Director came early in the morning. Dense fog rolled in from the cold Potomac and low visibility in the back of the taxi deepened Mueller’s gloomy mood. It reminded him of winter in Vienna. Dampness that penetrated the soul.
Mueller was just shy of six feet, and on the thin side, which made him appear lanky, and he slumped in the back seat. His face was slightly oval, hair parted on the left, and combed straight back, and he wore clear plastic eyeglass that made him look inconspicuous, a man who could sit in a restaurant and not catch a waiter’s eye.
He dressed practically in gabardine suits that held their form one day to the next and let him keep his trips to the cleaners to a minimum. He used a simple knot for his necktie because it was fast, easy to tie and quick to remove, and it matched the narrow-spread collar he preferred. His leather shoes needed a shine and their soles were wearing thin, but since his divorce he hadn’t found a comfortable rhythm to his personal life.
He had long, delicate fingers with nails that almost looked manicured. His were not hands that could strangle a man. They lacked the strength for that. The grip of a tennis racket had helped, but tennis was the sport he took up only when he wasn’t near a boathouse with sculls to put in the river. They were the hands of a man with a desk job, hands of a thinker. A callus on his finger came from after-action reports he wrote in a cramped style with fountain pen. No one would look at Mueller and think he was the type to pick a fight in a bar.
“On the right,” Mueller said. He leaned forward to the driver and cocked his head at an angle that was always the same degree off center when he took an interest in the person he was addressing. “Drop me there at the guard house.”
Mueller flashed his badge to the military policeman at the locked gate, near the sign that identified the red brick building as the United State Government Printing Office. It was a silly holdover from the Agency’s early days, but taxi drivers weren’t fooled, and even tour bus guides took pleasure in pointing out what really went on inside the three-story Federal-style building. Who were they kidding? To Mueller the printing office sign fit into the larger pattern of being out of touch, the Agency believing the myths about itself.
Mueller was shown into the corner office by Rose, the Director’s long-time secretary, who put Mueller on a leather sofa that anchored a sitting arrangement at one end of the room, across from a ponderous wood desk. There was no clutter of paper, only stacked file folders, and the Director was absorbed in reading a letter. A cold draft filled the room, carrying with it the musty odor of a stodgy Ivy League club. Mounted antelope and mountain lion heads hung on one wall above a shelf of stuffed game birds, and an antique double barrel shotgun was cocked open on the coffee table by the sofa. Everywhere were framed photos of the Director with smiling dignitaries and elegant women. Mueller knew it was unusual to be in the Director’s office. An invitation meant a rare commendation or a private dressing down. One never knew which.
“You hunt?” the Director said, crossing the room letter in hand.
“Good man. We should go one day. I know a spot on the bay. Before the season opens.”
The Director sat opposite Mueller in a high-backed wing chair covered in chintz and tatted antimacassars on the arms. He wore a crimson house robe open at the neck to show necktie, and tan slippers adorned at the toes with floppy dog ears. His hair was thinning, gray, eyes a keen blue, cheeks flush with drinker’s weight, and his snaggletooth bit on a pipe, which he removed and tapped on an ash tray, and said, almost to himself as much as to Mueller, “You have to have a few martyrs. Some people have to get killed. It’s part of this business. I wouldn’t worry about Leisz. He knew what he was getting into when he signed up with us.”
He waved his hand in the air at nothing, like a Pope. “He’s not on my conscience. None of them are. We are not in the conscience business. The Soviets don’t play the game that way.”
The Director added fresh tobacco to his pipe and applied a match, drawing air to brighten the coals. He looked over his rimless spectacles perched on the end of his thick nose. “I need you to see this through to the end.” He drew on the pipe, releasing quick puffs. Hints of licorice reached Mueller.
“Take some time off if you need to see your son. If you think it’s important. I believe in letting the mind rest so it doesn’t fight against the will….This is a grubby business we’re in. Someday we’ll both get back to the classroom, you and I. It’s that fondness for thinking that makes us good at what we do here. The professor finds satisfaction in sorting through details and he feels superior when he passes along knowledge. The spy is the same. The daily grind, the mounds of information, the hours of boredom poking around the mounds of information, then punctuated by ecstatic moments of discovery. Good researchers hold no beliefs, make no judgments. Evidence declares itself. Am I lecturing too much?”
Mueller shook his head.
“Kind of you, George, but I know when I’m going on. People sit on that sofa and say nothing because I’m the man in charge, but sometimes I see they’re bored. I saw it with my students. Well, to finish the thought. We use intelligence to solve problems and when we look at evidence against our colleagues, our friends, we need to be rigorous and neutral, so our feelings about the men don’t corrupt our judgment. Yes?”
The Director rose. He stretched with a grimace. “Gout is a terrible thing. Awful. I don’t know what I did in my past life to deserve this disease.” He bent over his thick girth and sent his outstretched fingers toward his slipper’s toes. His face flushed purple and he let out a great heave of effort. “I’m not embarrassing you am I? Sitting cuts the circulation. I need to move around to get the blood flowing.”
The Director walked to his desk and lifted a bronze statuette replica of the Nathan Hale statue from the commons at Yale. “He was the first American spy. His last quoted words are often misquoted. He didn’t say ‘I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.’ He said ‘I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’ It’s an important distinction. Lose or give. The distinction between the passive and active verbs is the difference between a patriotic spy, the role history has given Nathan Hale, and a man arrested in the course of a poorly planned mission who was hanged when he got caught. We want to believe in honor and sacrifice, and when it doesn’t exist we invent it.”
The Director returned to his chair. “Look,” he said, sitting. “Do you wonder why I asked you here?”
“I saw your report on the incident at Lincoln Park the other night. You didn’t mention the reporter’s name. I assume he was from the Star. That’s who the FBI is close to, and the Republicans in the Senate. They would like nothing more than to publicly embarrass us. You read the papers. I don’t have to spell it out. They’ve made the State Department into a goddamn haven for effeminate intellectuals. Sonofabitch. There is a madness in this country. I can’t bear the name calling, the outbursts of hatred and vilification, the repulsive spectacle of red baiting, and the way good men’s reputations are tarnished with innuendo.” The Director looked hard at Mueller. “They are jealous of our mission here and they don’t like that I can call up the White House and get the President on the phone.”