The Coldest Warrior
Published by: Pegasus Books
Release Date: February 4, 2020
The new novel by acclaimed espionage author Paul Vidich explores the dark side of intelligence, when a CIA officer delves into a cold case from the 1950s—with fatal consequences.
In 1953, at the end of the Korean War, Dr. Charles Wilson, an Army bio-weapons scientist, died when he “jumped or fell” from the ninth floor of a Washington hotel. As his wife and children grieve, the details of his death remain buried for twenty-two years.
With the release of the Rockefeller Commission report on illegal CIA activities in 1975, LSD is linked to Wilson’s death, and suddenly the Wilson case becomes news again. Wilson’s family and the press are demanding answers, suspecting the CIA of foul play, and men in the CIA, FBI, and White House conspire to make sure the truth doesn’t get out.
Enter agent Jack Gabriel, an old friend of the Wilson family who is instructed by the CIA director to find out what really happened to Wilson. It’s Gabriel’s last mission before he retires from the agency, and his most perilous as he finds a continuing cover-up that reaches to the highest levels of government. Key witnesses connected to the case die from suspicious causes, and Gabriel realizes that the closer he gets to the truth, the more he puts himself and his family at risk.
Following in the footsteps of spy fiction greats such as Graham Green, John Le Carré, and Alan Furst, Paul Vidich presents a tale—based on the unbelievable true story told in Netflix’s Wormwood—that doesn’t shy away from the true darkness in the shadows of espionage. Doubt and paranoia bred in a culture of secrecy characterize the story, as does the sophisticated amorality of the men at the top of the intelligence bureaucracy, 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. The interplay of state secrets and individual lives is central to the novel.
“With The Coldest Warrior, Vidich enters the upper ranks of espionage thriller writers.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"A terse and convincing thriller. This standalone work reaches a new level of moral complexity and brings into stark relief the often contradictory nature of spycraft."
— Wall Street Journal, Tom Noland
“Trench coats and fedoras abound in this old-school spy novel exploring one of the most infamous incidents in CIA history..”
— The Times [London], Jeremy Duns
“The inner workings of the US’s actual deep state during the cold war — most of all, the CIA — is evocatively portrayed in The Coldest Warrior, a finely written, taut novel."
— Financial Times [read full review]
“In Paul Vidich’s page-turning and well-written latest novel of espionage, he takes a hard look at how far people will go and which lines will be crossed in defense of the Holy Grail known as national security. Filled with action, haunting details and compelling characters. Highly recommended.”
—Brendan DuBois, award-winning and New York Times bestselling author
“If we’re going to choose a 21st century Graham Greene, I nominate Paul Vidich. Mysterioso, funny, elegant, noir . . . you name it, Greene wrote it. And so does Vidich. If you like your narrator-cum-investigator to throw in a few quotes from Shakespeare in the middle of his hardboiled take on American realpolitik, Vidich is your man.”
—Mitch Silver, author of The Bookworm and In Secret Service
“The tale Paul Vidich tells in The Coldest Warrior―based on true events―could not be more chilling. Though the action of the book takes place nearly half a century ago, it reads as an allegory and a reminder for our time, a story about what is possible for bad people to accomplish if good people look away.”
—S. J. Rozan, bestselling author of Paper Son
“The Coldest Warrior takes a true story of political/espionage intrigue and fictionalizes it in such a way that it reads like a deadly serious spy novel from the Cold War era. Taut, tense, and fascinating.”
—Raymond Benson, author of Blues in the Dark and the five-book The Black Stiletto serial
“Spring 1975: The once-invincible CIA cringes as its long-buried secrets are exhumed and denounced by the public, press and Congress. Inspired by real CIA malfeasance, Vidich memorably and vividly depicts the agency's inner circle, implacable men blind to the consequences of their pitiless actions, past and present, to wage the Cold War. A spy novel of the highest caliber, The Coldest Warrior could well be shelved in the history section, so masterful is Vidich's blending of fact and fiction.”
—David Krugler, author of the Ellis Voigt Thrillers
“Inspired by the true story of the death of Frank Olson, The Coldest Warrior is at once a breathless Cold War thriller in the mode of John le Carré, a cold-case mystery, and a tale of moral accountability. Although historical―set in the ’50s and the ’70s―its central theme is strikingly relevant: the personal suffering that results when our government agencies and politicians conceal their crimes, when political self-preservation outweighs public interest. A chilling read, indeed.”
—John Copenhaver, author of Dodging and Burning
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. 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 thrown out. Frank Olson’s death came to embody our collective fascination with the Cold War’s dark secrets, and it has 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 Franks’ 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, and the secrets were hidden inside an obfuscating mist. I believe that is why, some years ago, I decided to put the story inside a novel.
My account of the case is told from within the CIA – an inside-out approach – not the outside-in view of Errol Morris’s documentary on the subject, Wormwood, which recalls the frustrating effort of my cousin Eric to penetrate the opaque barrier that hides everything inside the Agency. The Coldest Warrior is not an effort to recreate the past, but rather, characters and a plot are grafted onto the original incident, and it imagines an outcome. Albert Camus said it well: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
My novel puts 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 the novel, as does a sophisticated amorality of men at the top of intelligence bureaucracy, 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. The interplay of state secrets and individual lives is central to the novel.