Friday, July 9, 2010

Spies Come in from the Cold

By Chester Campbell

Today's U.S./Russia spy swap took me back to the good old Cold War days. I say "good old" in the context of a spy thriller reader and writer. I was an avid reader of the genre from early Helen Macinnes novels, through John le Carre, Graham Greene, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Jack Higgins, and Nelson DeMille. One I thought did some great writing but haven't heard much of is Campbell Armstrong. His Mazurka had some really vivid descriptions.

News stories about the present spy swap call up memories of years ago when the exchanges took place at the border between East Germany and West Berlin marked on the cold steel of the Glienicke Bridge. Some of the spy novelists used that scene dramatically in their books.

Stories about the present-day Russians living normal lives in U.S. suburbia evoke thoughts of DeMille's 1988 thriller The Charm School. In it, the Soviets are revealed to have built a prototype of an American town where intelligence agents are trained to talk and act like typical Americans. According to one former U.S. official on a radio talk show, nothing was ever unearthed like The Charm School, though less elaborate training was carried out in Moscow suburbs.

I read numerous books on the KGB and espionage in general while researching a novel I wrote back in the 1960s. It involved a professor who had defected from Communist Romania and was teaching at Vanderbilt under an assumed name. He had knowledge of a Soviet device designed to block American radar. When the scopes suddenly went awry at a U.S. radar installation in the Zagros Moutains of Iran that kept tabs on the firing of intercontinental missiles, American agents came looking for the professor, as did the KGB.

The manuscript spent about six months with an editor at Avon in New York before he returned it sadly with word he hadn't been able to sell his colleagues on buying it. That ended my novel writing until I retired in 1989, when I picked up the spy thread post Cold War.

I never got into prisoner swapping. In my spy books, it was mostly take no prisoners. My knowledge of current tradecraft and operations is rather limited, but I enjoyed writing about them back in the nineties. I still have intentions of digging out some of the old stories and juicing them up for another try. The subject still fascinates me.

Mystery Mania


Jaden Terrell said...

The Charm School sounds like an interesting idea--and a chilling one.

I read an account by a World War II veteran who was questioning a German prisoner. The prisoner had an uncanny knowledge about the American soldier's small town in the Dakotas, even down to the smallest detail--like a tiny, little-known tributary the townsfolk used to fish in. When asked how he knew so much about that little town, he said he was to be in charge of that part of the U.S. once Hitler had conquered it.

Truth can be scarier than fiction.

Can't wait to read your spy thrillers, though.

Anonymous said...

I've been following the spy swap story with breathless fascination. So far we haven't been given many juicy details, but what do you bet a reporter or two is writing a book even now? I love those old Cold War spy novels, but my, how spying has changed!