The Charm School
Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. No, not the wild west, or even The Wild, Wild West, but to the days of East versus West. Around these parts vacation means light reading and nowadays Cold War thrillers seems downright quaint.
This time Mr. DeMille takes us a little farther afield than Long Island, the site of the last Cold War tale we read from him. If you’ve been here before you know that one of my abiding beliefs is that DeMille is strongest in his own backyard. He’s been known to take the backyard with him, though, and that’s what he’s done in this case.
The tale is set in the waning days of the Cold War. A recent college graduate, Gregory Fisher, from Connecticut, is seeing some of the world before settling into adulthood. Western Europe, having offered up its charms, has begun to bore him.
And so he sets his sights to the East. We find ourselves, early on, hurtling along the otherwise deserted Minsk-Moscow (or is it the other way around?) highway in, improbably, a Trans Am.
It’s important at the outset to suspend your disbelief. Like a summertime blockbuster, the facts–the actual ones and the ones that are reasonably imaginable–are just going to get in the way of the entertainment. This is a rollicking yarn. Why should the ability to refuel an American automobile in an, economically-speaking, mostly-closed state matter?
What happens is that Fisher gets lost, stumbles across something he shouldn’t and tries to help make it right when he gets to Moscow. We know it’s got to turn out badly when he starts making phone calls to the American Embassy with nary a thought as to what a police state would do with any telephone in any hotel they owned and operated.
There’s no time for that, though. Because the stumble and the call set off the real action. Fisher’s call is ‘caught’ by the duty officer, a young woman working in the Public Interest (that’s PR to you and me) section. A Slavophile whose family has Russian roots, Lisa Rhodes hails from Sea Cliff, one of the prettier towns on Nassau County‘s North Shore. I told you DeMille liked to bring the neighborhood with him.
Enter our male lead, Colonel Sam Hollis, the Air Force attaché. Such jobs are really spy slots. But you have to love the ingenuity of the name with its echo of Texas and inclusion of a neighborhood in Queens. (It’s actually about two miles west of the neighborhood in which DeMille grew up.) Hollis sets off to rescue Fisher and we’re in Jason Bourne land. In a way I’m surprised this one wasn’t made into a movie since the opening chase sequence alone is worthy of a summer franchise.
What emerges is a battle of wills and wits. And also a battle for the girl. This is typical DeMille. Rhodes is the ex of the CIA station chief, nominally the Political Affairs officer, Seth Alevy. Such types, on film, are often petty bureaucrats–think Henry Czerny in Patriot Games–or mousey, furtive sorts. Alevy is more of a nebbishy Rough Rider, just rogue enough to worry everyone on both sides but also a master of playing his own system. Predictably, Rhodes is drawn to Hollis who has a complicated relationship with his fellow spy.
When Fisher disappears we know how he’ll turn up. Hollis gets the job of claiming him and brings Rhodes with him. Enter the bad guy. Peter Burov is a KGB officer and, it turns out, the Kommandant of a very special sort of camp. He also fits the required mold: arrogant, ruthless, blond, sadistic. In my mind he’s bastard mash-up of Dolph Lundgren and Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. It’s a given that he’s going to mix it up with Hollis.
The pace never lets up in this book and in real terms it might only encompass a two or at most three-week period of time. But who’s counting?
We’re too busy with KGB thugs; Hollis’ Vietnam War backstory, which figures into the facility at the heart of this tale; and wondering whether or not 1980s technology is up to the task of helping our heroes escape. I don’t want to give too much up but the genre requires that bad guys suffer and good guys, at the very least, get by.
There’s more to keep the tale going. Hollis and Avery have many a conversation that fades to black before you know what they’re really talking about only to discover much later that the fix is in. There’s plenty of treachery within both the Soviet and US governments. And you do wonder whether the bad guys are really the Soviets or the diplomats and politicians back in Washington.
That, too, seems to be a genre requirement. Despite their update setting these stories are nothing but reboots of Old West tales, in which the principled character takes a stand because the folks who are supposed to fail. I’m always reminded of Outland, the 1981 Sean Connery film that was nothing but High Noon in outer space.
At the end the improbabilities multiply at an exponential rate. Maybe we’re not supposed to notice. Actors, I’m told, refer to Macbeth–the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays–as the Scottish play. I’m wondering if, for DeMille, this book shouldn’t be called the Russian tale.