When Two Tribes Go to War

The Talbot Odyssey
Nelson DeMille

Demille_OdysseyRemember the 1980s? To me they seem like yesterday. But a 35-year old has only childhood memories of the second half of that decade. So I had to ask.

It’s an especially relevant question about a not especially important book. But the whole plot of this political thriller will make more sense if you can remember that we used to worry about nuclear extinction more than random acts of terror.

I’ve written before about my flirtations with Nelson DeMille. He’s quite the brand name writer  with a few ‘series,’ if that’s the right term for the same characters turning up in two or three titles and referencing the events of the earlier books. It’s only natural that DeMille’s publishers would push his entire corpus to maximize sales. Publishing is, after all, a profit game.

The Talbot Odyssey is set firmly within the previously mentioned nuclear tensions of the early 1980s. Like Tom Clancy‘s books of the same era, the characters are folks  a few rungs from the top of the ladder. They know the broad context better than mere foot soldiers, but they’re not principals either.


Yuri Andropov
The Forgotten Man Between
Brezhnev and Gorbachev

What they are, on the American side, is a bunch of OSS veterans. This group of World War II vets, populating some of New York‘s more rarefied legal precincts, are sexa- and septuagenarians still fighting the good fight. But because this is a spy story the good fight has a tendency to swing back and forth enough to keep you interested in seeing what happens.

A lot of the action takes place in and around Kilenworth. That’s the name of a house in Glen Cove, a town on what is known as the North Shore of Long Island. It’s also dead smack in the middle of a strip that ran from Great Neck out to Lloyd’s Neck, which is probably 30 or so miles east, and is referred to (or was) as the Gold Coast. As the name implies, the Gold Coast is the kind of place where houses have names, resemble baronial estates and are sometimes called cottages.

As in Newport, the coming of income tax made keeping these piles up too expensive. So nowadays residents of and visitors to Nassau County can enjoy  parks, preserves, museums and arboretums that once were private homes. Among the rest still standing are a school for the deaf, some college buildings and a conference centers  And for many years one of them, the aforementioned Kilenworth, has been the weekend retreat for the staff of the Russian/USSR delegation to the United Nations.

Kilenworth Formerly the Home of George PrattMore Recently Owned by the Government Centered in Moscow

Formerly the Home of George Pratt
More Recently Owned by the Government Centered in Moscow

Back in the early 80s  Glen Cove had a mayor who was incensed at the very presence of a Soviet outpost in his town and led protesters in making a fuss. Those protesters, with a little help from one of the OSS crowd who just happens to live next door to the Russians in his own manse, appear in this book. DeMille is a Nassau County native and his at his best on his home turf where the nuances are recognized as pitch perfect by fellow natives.

The book is a thriller and I don’t want to spoil too much of the tale. But essentially, something is up with the Russians based in Glen Cove. This goes beyond merely spying on the American defense industry, which until very recently had a huge footprint on Long Island . Our OSS friends, it seems, have cottoned to these doings and have no intention of letting Ivan have his way. (That’s the way we used to talk about our enemies: in the Cold War it was Ivan, in Vietnam, Charlie, in WWII, Jerry.) The stakes are high because there’s a mole. or more than one mole, in the American intelligence family and that mole is up to his ears in whatever is going on at Kenilworth.

So the battle is joined. There seems to be an unwritten rule that books such as these include an amateur. Or at least someone capable of being in the action but new to the whole scene. I suppose that allows more things to be explained than would be necessary if all the characters were already in the know. In this case, our amateur is only such as a spy. He’s really a veteran of the NYPD completing a law degree, whose parents were famous Russian-émigré communist organizers in the garment industry.

Ronald W. Regan 1911-2004 The USSR's Chief Tormentor

Ronald W. Regan
The USSR’s Chief Tormentor

Did I mention that our amateur is also our hero and Jewish? He is. It’s a lovely ethnic twist that juxtaposes him to the ultra-WASPy  OSS crowd and adds a little bit of a challenge to the mandatory love interest subplot. Similarly, everything in his background makes him perfect for this job.

The first Nelson DeMille novel I read was, in fact, The Gold Coast–a tale of lust and betrayal set off when a John Gotti-like mobster moves in where the neighbors believe he doesn’t belong. Having read a number of his books since then  it’s apparent that from his earliest days  DeMille has had only one main character of each sex in him.

The names change. Sometimes they’re Jewish, sometimes Irish or Italian even, once, a WASP. The males crack-wise in a manner New York natives–especially from the boros and satellite communities in the close-in burbs–will recognize as being the lingua franca of the hood. Heck, even a character who gets killed off in a later book shows up in a minor role in this one.

Of course it’s formulaic but I’m not complaining. I needed brain candy and found it. You could do worse.

There’s a way to get a glimpse of some of what these big houses and their inhabitants were all about. In 1954 Paramount released  Sabrina,  a Cinderella-like tale about a girl who grew up “above the garage” in one of those cottages and winds up in the main house.

Sabrina was one of the first films to shoot on location. So while the film used lots of sets, there are plenty of real shots, too, including Audrey Hepburn waiting at the old Glen Cove LIRR station. The station shot isn’t in this trailer but you can  a sense of these places and the life that went with them.

(And by the way, I heartily recommend this original, black-and-white version of the film. Even the improbable pairing of Humphrey Bogart and William Holden as brothers works.)




4 thoughts on “When Two Tribes Go to War

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