Suspect Red


By L.M. Elliott

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It’s 1953, and the United States has just executed an American couple convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Everyone is on edge as the Cold War standoff between communism and democracy leads to the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy and his zealous hunt for people he calls subversives or communist sympathizers. Suspicion, loyalty oaths, blacklists, political profiling, hostility to foreigners, and the assumption of guilt by association divide the nation. Richard and his family believe deeply in American values and love of country, especially since Richard’s father works for the FBI. Yet when a family from Czechoslovakia moves in down the street with a son Richard’s age named Vlad, their bold ideas about art and politics bring everything into question.

Richard is quickly drawn to Vlad’s confidence, musical sensibilities, and passion for literature, which Richard shares. But as the nation’s paranoia spirals out of control, Richard longs to prove himself a patriot, and blurred lines between friend and foe could lead to a betrayal that destroys lives.

Punctuated with photos, news headlines, ads, and quotes from the era, this suspenseful and relatable novel by award-winning New York Times best-selling author L.M. Elliott breathes new life into a troubling chapter of our history.


Copyright © 2017 by L. M. Elliott

Cover design by Maria Elias

Cover art © 2017 Michael Cho

All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address New York, New York 10023.

ISBN 978-1-4847-4731-5


For Peter and Megan,
standard-bearers for integrity, eloquence,
and freedom of thought

“Communism…is a malignant and evil way of life…akin to disease…so long as school boards and parents tolerate conditions whereby communists and fellow travelers, under the guise of academic freedom, can teach our youth a way of life that eventually will destroy the sanctity of the home, that undermines faith in God, that causes them to scorn respect for constituted authority.”

—FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover

“This is the time of the Cold War…when all the world is split into two vast, increasingly hostile armed camps…

When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be because of enemies from without but rather because of enemies from within…”

“There are no degrees of loyalty in the United States; a man is either loyal or he is disloyal…”

“We must be sure that those who seek to lead us today are equally dedicated. We cannot survive on half loyalties any more than we can find the facts of…conspiracy with half-truths.”

—Senator Joseph McCarthy

“[McCarthyism] is the corruption of truth, the abandonment of…the due process of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism or security.

“It is the spread of fear.”

—former president Harry S. Truman

RICHARD settled down at the kitchen table. Under his armpit was a book, in his hand a cup of Chase & Sanborn he’d poured himself, curious. He took a sip and made a face at the instant coffee’s bitter taste. Good grief! Why the heck does Dad drink this junk? He shoved the cup aside and put his novel on the table.

School was out, summer was on, and Richard had a stack of books he planned to read. Stuff that would obliterate all the crumb-bum melodrama of junior high school, including the cliques that froze out a kid who liked to read and couldn’t roller-skate; the girls who went steady with dopes who greased their hair into duck butts and who turned their pretty freckled noses up at a guy who talked about the Holy Grail or Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade.

In September, Richard would wade back into that donkey manure. But this summer? Richard was going to escape. He’d travel universes brought to life by his books—no moldy old mush dictated by school wardens. Good stuff—heroes, spy intrigues, quests, underdogs winning the day, private detectives cracking crime cases, and a couple of dames in distress. He’d even squirreled away a copy of that novel all the parents hated, The Catcher in the Rye.

He was reading Salinger’s story in chunks at midnight with a flashlight, knowing it was dangerous stuff. Last night, the sixteen-year-old narrator—Holden Caulfield—ran away from boarding school, after getting his nose busted by a jerk in his dorm. Richard pulled out the pocket-size spiral notebook in which he jotted down things that he really liked. He re-read some Holden truths he’d copied.

“…you can always tell a moron. They never want to discuss anything [intelligent]….

Richard nodded. Exactly.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

Right again. Sometimes books could be better friends than kids. No joking.

Richard ran his hand along the forest-green cover of the novel he’d brought to the kitchen table. Robin Hood. Classic stuff. He’d love to talk to the guy who wrote it. Richard had read the book before, but the story never got old. How could it? A former knight, now outlaw, hanging out with forest desperados, taking down a bully, and winning the prettiest maiden in the land.

Richard smiled down at the cover and its N. C. Wyeth illustration of the legendary Merry Men. Standing among a thick grove of trees, they glowered out menacingly. Robin leaned on a longbow, and a green feather festooned his emerald cap, illuminated by an arrow of light piercing the dense forest canopy. Richard opened to where he’d reluctantly left off the day before, when he’d been called down for dinner. (Tuna casserole. The worst!)

Now it was early morning. Everyone was asleep. No interruptions. Richard began to read. Instantly, he no longer sat in a tidy, perfectly symmetrical brick colonial in northwest Washington, DC. Instead, he stalked the gloam of Sherwood Forest in the age of the Crusades. He came upon an ambush.

“It was a wild spot: and only the notes of the birds and the rush of the falling water disturbed it. But ere they had proceeded a quarter of a mile up the bank of the stream a sudden bend in it brought them the harsh noise of desperate and near fighting….

“‘Our arrows must do duty for us, then,’ muttered Robin, grimly, soon as he understood this. ‘Fit shafts across your bows, friends, and aim with all your hearts in it….’

“They dropped to their knees and…”


Richard flinched. Sherwood Forest vaporized.

His mother stood in the doorway in a hot-pink bathrobe, her blond hair a crown of neatly bobby-pinned swirls. “What in the world are you doing up this early, honey?” Abigail asked. “It’s summer vacation.”

“Reading,” Richard answered without looking up, trying to recapture the forest battle.

“You should have woken me so I could fix you some breakfast.” She went to the stove and pulled out a frying pan. “Scrambled? Fried?”

Richard shrugged to indicate he didn’t care which and tried to focus on the page as she threw bacon into the pan and cracked eggs.

“‘Smite them, Warrenton,’ cried he, suddenly and excitedly. ‘Speedily, instantly—or they will end this fight against us. Now!’

“Their arrows flew together, marvelous shots, each—”

His mother set down silverware. Again, the battle between Robin’s men and the sheriff’s villains disappeared.

“You were drinking coffee? That’ll stunt your growth, silly.” She ruffled his honey-colored hair. “What are you reading? Must be good.”

Keeping his place with his hand, Richard flipped the cover over so she could see.

Abigail gasped. “You can’t read that!” She slammed the book shut on Richard’s fingers and then pulled it off the table.

“What the heck, Mom!” He tried to reach for it, but she turned, cradling the book in her arms.

“What if Mr. Hoover knew you’re reading this?”

Richard’s dad, Don Bradley, was an FBI agent, a G-man—as gangster Machine Gun Kelly had dubbed “government men”—a tough-guy title Richard loved. Mr. Hoover, the agency’s director, lived on the next street. Sometimes Hoover had his driver stop in front of their house so he could talk with Don. His dad always got the weirdest look on his face when that happened, and then he just mysteriously disappeared—no matter what the family was doing. Richard had decided those quick conferences with the director must involve some top secret work to rid the country of bad guys and commies. He’d convinced himself that his dad was a secret agent of some kind, a total hero.

That’s why he was always thrown by his mom’s anxiety about impressing Hoover. He knew Abigail’s concern came from love for his dad, but Richard couldn’t help it—her being such a worrywart annoyed the heck out of him. It made him question his belief that Don Bradley was in good with the director.

“Why would Mr. Hoover care about what I’m reading?” he asked. “Especially Robin Hood?”

“Well…maybe he wouldn’t.” Abigail hesitated, her grip on the book loosening. She looked down at Robin’s face. “I remember reading this when I was about your age. I loved Maid Marian.”

Seeing her soften, Richard reached for the book again. But Abigail stepped back, pulling Robin Hood with her. Her voice had that grating, nervous tremor: “These days, Mr. Hoover seems to agree with everything Senator McCarthy says. And Senator McCarthy says a lot of books are subversive. Hidden commie propaganda. His staff just burned a whole pile of books they found in our Berlin embassy.”

“Like Hitler did?” Richard asked with a twinge of sarcasm. Well, at least his History teacher had taught him something useful last year.

“Don’t give me that flak, honey.” Abby shook her head. “Senator McCarthy is really serious about certain books being dangerous. He’s calling into his congressional hearings all sorts of authors suspected of being Reds, or somewhere in between, left-leaning, liberal-sympathizing pinkos.” She lowered her voice. “I bet they’ll be blacklisted, like all those Hollywood screenwriters were.”

“But what’s that got to do with Robin Hood?” Richard reached for his book a third time. Abigail refused to budge.

“You know how I volunteer at the library? Well, the librarians are all scared silly. A librarian up in Massachusetts refused to take a loyalty oath and a group called Alert Americans raised such a ruckus about it that the county actually fired the poor woman.

“So to be safe, our librarians made a list of books we might have to pull from the shelves. It includes Robin Hood.”

“But why?”

“Because Robin Hood takes from the rich to give to the poor.” She added in a whisper, as if they could be overheard, “That’s a Communist concept.”

“You gotta be kidding me!” Richard’s voice cracked on kidding, adding to his aggravation. Would his voice ever deepen and stay put?

“Hey! That’s no way to talk to your mother.” Richard’s dad entered the kitchen, dressed for work, his ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth. “Is it?” But Don smiled at Richard nonetheless.

“No, sir.” Richard couldn’t help eyeing his dad’s pipe. A few days before, Don had been sharing some pretty wild war stories about FBI cases and divulged that the agency had pipe pistols that could fire a small projectile and kill a person at close range. As soon as he had the chance, Richard was going to pull open his dad’s to see if he had one.

“So, can I negotiate a peace?” Don asked before adding, “I swear I’ll bring home a dozen roses for you, Abby, if I could get a cup of joe right now. I was up late writing a report.” He frowned. “Um, dear, I think those eggs are burning.”

“Oh, for pity’s sake, Abby!” she scolded herself and hurried to the stove, still clutching Richard’s book.

“So, what’s up?” Don looked back and forth between Richard and Abigail.

“It’s nothing, Don, really.” She glanced at Richard, making her eyes big in that look—the look Richard and his sister, Ginny, knew meant to remain silent. That look that kept them from ever saying anything against Hoover.

“Yeah, it’s nothing,” Richard said reluctantly. He hated fibbing to his dad.

“Well, just for the record, I don’t believe you two.” Don pointed at them with his pipe. “But as long as there’s a truce. And…” He grinned. “That coffee?”

When he had his cup of inky, strong brew, Don switched on the new high-fidelity radio that crowded the windowsill. He spun the dial to news. A broadcaster boomed:

“Today, inside Sing Sing prison, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg await their fate. Unless their attorneys win another stay in court or President Eisenhower grants them clemency, they will be executed tonight in the electric chair for their crime of organizing atomic espionage for Russia.”

“So today’s the day,” Abigail said quietly as she cracked new eggs. “I can’t believe it. I thought for sure President Eisenhower would show Mrs. Rosenberg mercy and lower her sentence to jail time.”

Don’s typically upbeat expression turned grim. “Yeaaaahhh, I know, honey.”

“Well, I don’t understand it.” Abigail started beating the eggs with some furor. “My heart just broke when the TV showed her two little boys arriving to visit her for the last time. Honestly, Don, I couldn’t believe how cruel the news announcer was. It was so callous, I remember it word for word. He said, ‘The boys’ suffering is a small price to pay for the irreparable damage done by their Communist spy parents.’ Those boys are only six and ten years old! Not exactly a small price for them.”

Don shifted in his seat. “The evidence of their parents’ espionage is overwhelming, Abby. Her brother worked on the Manhattan Project. He had access to designs for our atom bomb. He gave Julius Rosenberg the drawing of its implosion device. Julius passed on that information to the damn Soviets. And Ethel saw that happen. She typed up letters for Julius.”

“Oh, Don, any good wife would do that.”

Don took a long drink of his coffee like he wanted to be done with the conversation. Richard noted that his father’s hand had begun to tremble as he held the cup—a nervous tic he kept watch for to read his father’s mood. Seeing it told Richard to keep silent. Boy, he’d give just about anything to know what that tendency for Don’s hands to suddenly start shaking was all about.

At the stove, Abigail kept pushing. “But if all the FBI has on her is that she played secretary, why electrocute her? And I think it’s fishy, don’t you, that her brother changed his original testimony? He didn’t give evidence against her at first, did he?”

“No, you’re right. He confessed after we promised him clemency if he cooperated.” Don put down his cup abruptly, with a loud clink, and clasped his hands to still them.

“Well, that sounds pretty coerced to me.”

Don shot her a look—heated with a flash of discomfort or defiance or aggravation, Richard couldn’t decide which. Then Don stared down into his coffee. “Ike can’t let her off, honey. Too many people think the secrets her husband passed on caused the Korean War. And too many of our boys are coming home from Korea in coffins right now for America to be forgiving of two Reds who spied for Stalin.”

With that, Don turned up the radio, signaling he wanted to hear the rest of the news report without further interruption:

“At noon, the Supreme Court hears the Rosenberg arguments. Their supporters parade in front of the White House, singing in protest. Passing cars honk and drivers shout at them to go back to Russia.”

It was only when the commentator broke for a commercial about Tootsie Rolls that Richard dared join the conversation. That was the closest his parents ever came to a squabble.

“Dad.” He hesitated, fearing the question might sound flippant, but he really wanted to know. “How did the Rosenbergs cause the Korean War?” Two fathers he knew had died in the fighting, and their sons, his only real friends at school, had moved away.

“I know it sounds ridiculous to say two people could start a whole war, Rich, but it’s a domino effect. Joseph Stalin was a real sonuvab—”

“Don!” Abigail interrupted. “Language, please!” She nodded toward Richard.

He itched to let his mom in on some of the language Holden Caulfield used. Her hair would pop right out of her bobby pins!

Don laughed. “I think he’s heard that term, hon. He’ll be fourteen in a couple of weeks, you know. I had a paper route and was working a job after school when I was his age. He’s almost a man.” He winked at Richard. “Here’s the deal, son. Stalin sent millions of his countrymen to die in Siberian gulags—their version of labor prison camps—in his purge of disbelievers. Some of those poor people simply had ethnic backgrounds he didn’t like. Frankly, he was as bad as Hitler. And he wanted to spread Communism everywhere.

“But Stalin didn’t take risks. Without an atom bomb of his own to match ours, Stalin would never have dared to give North Korea weapons or train its army. Without Soviet tanks and guns, the North Korean commies never would have invaded South Korea. And the Russkies were able to build their own atomic bomb that set all this in motion because of the secrets the Rosenbergs gave them.”

As Abigail put plates of bacon and eggs on the table, Don reached out and caught her gently by the wrist.

“I love your big heart, honey.” Don looked at her with such a desire to please that Richard could feel it. “The trouble is, the most clear-cut evidence we have against the Rosenbergs is just too top secret to be entered into their trial. You’d be convinced, too, if you knew some of it.”

“Really? Like what, Dad?”

Don turned to Richard. “Well…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you this one little thing. As long as you swear not to tell your friends. I trust you to protect national security, son.”

Richard smiled and sat up taller, proud, although he also thought: Friends? No danger there.

Don nodded in approval. “For starters, the Rosenbergs used all sorts of safe codes to communicate with their spy ring—like passing empty Jell-O boxes as signals.”

“Jell-O boxes?” What the heck?! Richard had read plenty about the tricks of the spy trade, but he’d never heard of that method before.

“Yeah. Isn’t that something?” Don smiled. “I’ll never look at Jell-O the same way again. The KGB also had an official code name for Julius. You see, there was this Soviet codebook that we found near the end of World War II and…” Don stopped himself. “Well…forget what I just said.” He rubbed his hand over his mouth. “Just…believe me. There are things that connect the dots. Also, some of the Rosenbergs’ buddies let the Soviets know that we could decipher their communiqués. Suddenly, overnight, their codes changed. We couldn’t read anything anymore. So when the North Koreans invaded the South, we were caught with our pants down. Thousands of American soldiers have died in Korea because of it.”

He shoved his plate away, his eggs half-eaten. “And God knows what the NKA is doing to our downed pilots they’ve caught.” Don’s voice grew husky. “People don’t understand what happens to POWs in the hands of political fanatics, the people who truly believe in their leader’s demagoguery.” His hands were really shaking now. “They don’t get it at all.”

Abigail sat down by the window, blowing on her cup of tea to cool it and watching Don’s face. After a long pause she shifted the conversation back to the Rosenberg family. “Well, it’s just so scary. The Rosenbergs looked like ordinary, nice enough people. It’s beginning to feel like there’s a commie lurking in every corner, just like Senator McCarthy says!”

“The truth is, Abby, there are spies among us.” Don reached for his pipe and began puffing. A swirl of tobacco mist engulfed him and his hands steadied. “Then again, there are innocent people who simply like Russian music. Spotting the true troublemakers is our job at the FBI. Don’t you worry.”

“How can you tell the difference, Dad?”

But before Don could answer, Richard’s little sister, Ginny, skipped in, trailing her enormous stuffed bear. She plopped down on the bench beside Richard, cramming the bear in between them. “Rufus says good morning.” She grinned up at him, putting the bear’s paw on Richard’s elbow.

When he was younger, Richard had played elaborate hide-and-seek games with Ginny, leaving a string of clues that would lead her to Rufus. But Richard had outgrown that nonsense last year. The four-year difference between them now seemed as wide as the Pacific Ocean.

“Aren’t you kind of old to carry that thing around with you?” he whispered irritably, peeved that the nine-year-old’s entrance ended his man-to-man talk with his dad.

She stuck her tongue out at him.

“Oh, that’s mature. You better not try that in fifth grade, even if you are smart enough to skip ahead a year.”

“As it happens,” Ginny began, “I have an important appointment today. Rufus”—she patted the stuffed bear’s head—“is how I got it.” She raised her left eyebrow meaningfully.

Richard laughed in spite of himself. Ginny’s imitation of Abigail’s official mom voice and expressions was dead-on. She was pretty cool that way. She should become an actress. No kidding.

“And how’s that, sugarplum?” Don asked. He turned off the radio, seeming relieved to have lighter fare to discuss.

“We have an audience at the zoo. Rufus is getting his picture taken with Smokey Bear!”

Smokey Bear had been rescued from a wildfire and become the country’s beloved mascot for forest fire prevention. He received more letters at the National Zoo than President Eisenhower did at the White House a few miles away.

“Why Rufus?” Don asked.

Abigail handed Ginny a plate while saying to Don, “Your daughter wrote a story to grab the zookeepers’ attention—about Rufus saving Smokey’s life in a forest fire that consumes Rock Creek Park.”

“I made it real scary, too, Daddy. A Russian Bear named Stalin started the fire.”

Don’s smile faded. “Where did you get that idea, honey?”

Ginny tossed her ponytail. “Teacher was talking about Russia—oh, the Soviet Union, I mean—and she said they were gobbling up Eastern Europe and dropped a big old iron curtain to divide the people of Berlin from each other and that pretty soon the Russians—I mean Soviets—would want to come here, too. She showed us a map that had a big Russian Bear growling at Uncle Sam.” She sipped her orange juice. “So the idea just came to me. And it worked, too!”

“She’ll be in Congress before you know it,” Don joked, but Richard couldn’t tell if his dad meant it to be funny or not.

“Oh, no, Daddy, I want to be a newspaper reporter.”

“Of course you do, honey,” Abigail said with the same I’ll-humor-her-fantasies look she’d had when Ginny announced as a six-year-old that she was going to grow up to be crowned Queen of England someday.

“Gotta go.” Don stood and kissed Abigail and Ginny on their heads. He pointed his pipe at Richard. “You’re in charge while I’m at work, son. Keep the women safe.”

Richard saluted. “Yes, sir, Dad.” They grinned at each other.

When he was gone, Abigail left the kitchen, taking Robin Hood with her.

She came back with a wrapped package. “I was saving this for your birthday, but I think today’s a better day to give it to you.”

Richard could tell it was a book. Did she really think another book made up for her swiping the one he wanted to read? “Gosh, thanks, Mom.”

Abigail ignored his sarcasm. “Go ahead. Open it.”

With little enthusiasm, Richard ripped off the paper, expecting some totally lame thing like a Hardy Boys mystery. But instead he found I Led 3 Lives, the best-selling memoir of an FBI agent who’d posed as a Communist to root out conspirators. Adman, commie, secret FBI informant—three lives. He’d become quite a celebrity after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee and exposing Communists with whom he’d pretended to work side by side. And it was exactly the life that Richard suspected his dad to be living.

“Wow, Mom, thanks. Seriously.”


  • "A tense, engrossing story that effectively captures the suspicion and paranoia that prevailed during American history's darkest chapters."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Elliot does a masterful job of incorporating fictional people into a historical scenario. Even with the heavy historical references and background, the story of Richard and Vlad shines through... Libraries with or without good historical fiction sections will enhance their collection with this selection."—School Library Connection
  • "This historical novel is filled with Richard's naive, offbeat historical setting...Richard's literature-driven ideas...and his rare friendship with Vladimir make his experiences as memorable as they are painful. The book's formatting is integral to its impact. Each chapter begins with red and black graphic art, articles from the era, and primary source photographs. The red pages add to the ominous paranoia presented in the book."—School Library Journal

On Sale
Sep 18, 2018
Page Count
304 pages

L.M. Elliott

About the Author

L.M. Elliott was an award-winning magazine journalist in Washington, D.C., before becoming a New York Times bestselling author of historical and biographical young adult novels. Her works include Under a War-Torn Sky, Suspect Red, and Hamilton and Peggy.

Learn more about this author