On occasion, I find myself agreeing with the Washington Post. About The Charm School, they wrote, "Contemporary Cold War fiction doesn't get much better than this."
But the Cold War is over, so is The Charm School still relevant? That would be like asking if any war novel or historical fiction is relevant. One of the first war novels ever written, The Iliad, is still read almost 3,000 years after it first appeared, yet some recent novels about the Vietnam War and the Cold War have passed into oblivion, while others are still read and enjoyed. Obviously the question of relevance is not the right question. The question is, What makes for a good, timeless read? The answer, as we all know, is good writing, believable plot, interesting characters, realistic dialogue, suspense, mystery, romance, the battle between good and evil, and sometimes even a happy ending.
We also know that war spawns hundreds of novels, most of them written after the last shot is fired. But the Cold War, for some reason, has not inspired any major retrospective novels since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It's as though whatever was written contemporaneously, such as The Charm School, or Le Carré's novels and Tom Clancy's earlier books, or the thousands of other East versus West spy novels and nuclear Armageddon thrillers published between 1945 and 1989 are, and will be, the sum total of Cold War literature. The same can be said of motion pictures; with very few exceptions, Hollywood has not touched the subject in any significant way.
To be sure, tomes of nonfiction books, school texts, and film documentaries have been written and produced about the Cold War since it ended, but as an art form, the subject seems dead.
In any case, even if novelists don't want to write about the Cold War, and movie producers don't want to deal with the subject, what was written and filmed still has the ability to entertain and to educate.
The Charm School is set in the old Soviet Union. The time period is about 1988, and the premise, in a nutshell, is this: American Embassy personnel in Moscow learn of the existence of a Soviet spy school (the Charm School) that trains KGB agents to talk, act, look, and think like Americans. The reluctant instructors at the school are Americans—military pilots shot down and captured over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. These pilots have all been listed as missing in action and their fate has been unknown for over a decade when the story opens.
I won't give any more of the plot away, but I will say how I came upon this premise. I was an infantry officer in Vietnam in 1968. In April of that year, I was passing through Hue-Phu Bai Air Base and stopped in the Officer's Club for a cold beer. The jet jockeys in the bar had rarely seen an infantry officer and I had rarely seen fighter-bomber pilots up close. They were interested in the life of a ground soldier, and I was interested in the life of jet pilots who dodged surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft fire between beers. Ironically, they thought my job was more dangerous than theirs, and I thought they must be suicidal to fly through Missile Alley on the way to Hanoi and Haiphong. In any event, during the conversation, one of the pilots remarked offhandedly about "the guys who were winding up in Moscow." When I asked him what he meant, he explained, saying something like, "You know, the pilots who were seen bailing out safely and not showing up on POW lists or in Hanoi's propaganda films."
I replied, "The North Vietnamese aren't necessarily giving out all the names of the guys they capture."
This pilot replied, "No, because they're sending some of them to Moscow. That's the payoff for the Soviets giving them the SAM missiles."
I recall being somewhat amazed by this statement.
The pilot continued, "The Red Air Force is using these guys to train their pilots in American tactics and in equipment capabilities."
It made sense and I nodded.
Another pilot added, "Those guys will never come home." He made a cutting motion across his throat.
This exchange stayed with me and when the controversy concerning American missing in action grew throughout the 1970s and '80s, I made a point of watching for anything that resembled what I'd heard at Hue-Phu Bai in 1968. But I never saw anything written and never heard anything said about this possibility. Still, it haunted me, and this idea became the central premise of The Charm School.
The book was well received when it was published in 1988, and became a bestseller. The publication of the book also added some fuel to the fire of the MIA controversy, raising this new possibility of the Soviets being part of a conspiracy.
I received hundreds of letters asking me where I'd gotten this idea, what further information I had, and if I had any solid proof of what I'd written. Some of these letters were from families of MIAs and they were heartbreaking to read.
I worked for a while with some POW/MIA groups, and without going into agonizing detail, we made little headway in discovering anything concerning the fate of the MIAs. But I, like others, was convinced that there were at least some MIAs being held in the Soviet Union.
Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the aftermath, there were some hints that Americans—not only from Vietnam, but from Korea as well—had been kept prisoner in the Soviet Union. But these sketchy reports from the former Soviet Union did not seem to pan out.
I would have to say that after all this time since the collapse of Russian communism, and the relatively open society that now exists, that if a significant number of U.S. servicemen had been imprisoned or are still imprisoned in the former Soviet Republic, we would have known about it by now. Or would we?
So, once again, is The Charm School relevant? I think, yes, if only because it accurately reflects those dark times when we all thought we were on the brink of nuclear annihilation. It is an insight into how we thought about the Evil Empire and how paranoid both sides were about the intentions of the other.
In 1986, I went to the Soviet Union to do research for The Charm School. After spending all my life living under this real or imagined threat—air raid drills in grade school, Civil Defense shelters, Dr. Strangelove-type movies, and so forth—I had no idea what to expect.
The reception at Moscow Airport was every bit as bad as I'd expected—too many questions, bag searches, bureaucracy, and general unpleasantness. I felt like I was in a Grade B Cold War movie.
But after about a week in Moscow, I realized that the people and the system were more to be pitied than hated. I remembered an expression I'd heard or read that went something like, "Russia is a Third World country with first-class weapons." The theoretical danger of a world war was real, but the actual possibility that the Russians were willing to roll the dice seemed somehow remote.
By week two, in Leningrad, I became an instant expert on the Soviet Union and decided—either presciently as my reviewers would later say, or optimistically—that the Soviet Union had about ten years left before it imploded. I even made references to this in my novel, and without giving any page numbers where I said so, you can read for yourself where some of my characters make this prediction. As it turned out, the Soviet Union in 1986 had less than three years left to live. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Republics and eastern Europe sort of surprised me, but I wasn't shocked.
In retrospect, we can all be experts now and say we saw a wave of freedom sweeping the globe in the late 1980s—a new era of global information and communication and economic codependence, an unacceptable spiraling of weapons costs and an unwillingness of the people on both sides of the Iron Curtain to die in a needless war.
We can spend the next decade analyzing the reasons for the sudden collapse of the Soviet empire, but that may not be as important as trying to figure out where we're all going from here.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, I'd written only two Cold War novels—The Charm School and The Talbot Odyssey—and my career and reputation weren't tied closely to the continuance of the Cold War. Yet among some writers and some Cold Warriors, there is a certain nostalgia for the good old days when their services were needed and appreciated.
And maybe, on a certain level, the old Us versus Them thrillers can be enjoyed and appreciated as nostalgia. On another more important level, a book like The Charm School can be read and appreciated as a warning that the past is often prologue to the future—because if we forget what we all went through between 1945 and 1989, we are likely to repeat it some time in the not-too-distant future.
In any case, there must be something about this book that appeals to the reader because it's been in continuous print since its publication and its sales have remained strong long past the demise of the system it portrays.
I've taken the opportunity to replace some material that was deleted in the original hardcover edition and also deleted in earlier paperback editions. Most of this material can be found in Chapters 3 and 23.
In Chapter 3, the deleted and replaced material is at the beginning of the chapter and was originally removed because it was felt that the scene gave away too much, too soon. I don't think it does, and the reader can be the judge.
The material in Chapter 23 is an exchange between Colonel Sam Hollis and Lisa Rhodes, both of the American Embassy, and two American tourists, a man and his wife, both Brown University professors favorably disposed toward the Soviet system. Hollis and Rhodes, on the other hand, are on the run from the KGB. The dialogue among these four is amusing in that the American tourists are totally clueless about the predicament that their compatriots are in, and while the tourists are praising life in Russia, Hollis and Rhodes are expecting the KGB to show up and whisk them away. The original editor of The Charm School found something about this scene that she didn't like—too political, I think she said. We argued; she won. But I've replaced the scene and again, the reader can be the judge.
When speaking of the old Soviet Union, it seems always appropriate to quote George Orwell's 1984, and as he said so brilliantly in that book, "Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." What I did not do, however, is to change anything I'd written in the past in order to make me look more clever about predicting what was to come in 1989. Other than replacing what had been deleted, and making a few grammatical and technical corrections, and the addition of this Author's Foreword, the book in your hands is what I wrote in 1987–88.
I have heard from college instructors that they offer The Charm School as optional or required reading in English or Contemporary History classes, and in fact, an English teacher in my local high school assigns it every spring semester. This has caused my son and daughter, who've both taken the class, the extreme embarrassment of having one of their father's books discussed aloud by their peers. They survived the experience and are both now in college where they can avoid a repeat of this trauma by carefully reading the course catalogue for any references to The Charm School.
In 1994, I published Spencerville, which I describe as a post-Cold War novel. My purpose was to examine the life of a former Cold Warrior, Keith Landry, the book's hero. Landry was a fairly typical product of his age—drafted into the army in the 1960s, fought in Vietnam, stayed in the service, and eventually wound up in the Pentagon doing intelligence work. As the book opens, Landry has been pushed into early retirement because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. His unique occupation is no longer relevant and he finds himself in his Saab on the road to his hometown, Spencerville, in rural Ohio. He's going home, but home has changed and so has he and so has his country. This is a sort of nostalgic, bittersweet story of love lost and love found, of trying to rediscover roots, and trying to make sense of the past three decades, especially the turbulence of the 1960s.
The book worked the way most good postwar stories work, and I suppose I meant it to be a companion to The Charm School the way The Odyssey is a companion to The Iliad. The story of a returning soldier is obviously not new, but most novelists will tell you honestly that the war story is more interesting than the coming home story. The Charm School, then, written in the waning days of the Cold War, may have predicted the end of that era, but for all that any of us knew at the time, history could easily have gone the other way.
But enough about the present and the future—put yourself back in about 1988, pretend that the nuclear missiles are still targeting Moscow and Washington, New York and Leningrad, Peoria and Smolensk, and think about what James Kirkwood, author of Good Times/Bad Times and Some Kind of Hero, said: "The Charm School grabs hold of you, drags you off to the scariest Russia imaginable… and doesn't let you out until the last page."
Welcome to The Charm School.
Long Island, New York
Seth Alevy said to Charles Banks, "John Uhlman from the consular section is headed for Sheremetyevo to take care of the business that Colonel Hollis did not complete."
Hollis noticed that Alevy was talking mostly to Banks, ignoring him and Lisa.
Hollis saw that Banks was wearing his Sunday best, though since it was Sunday in Moscow, everyone else was dressed casually. Hollis had showered and put on jeans and a flannel shirt. Alevy wore pleated slacks and a V-necked sweater. Lisa, he thought, looked good in a white turtleneck and tight jeans, though she was somewhat cool to him. Hollis sat at the far end of the conference table in the ambassador's safe room; Banks sat at the opposite end, and Lisa and Alevy sat in the center facing each other. Hollis noticed for the first time a framed piece of calligraphy hanging on the wall and read it:
The issues of diplomacy are of ever greater importance, since a stupid move could destroy all of us in a few minutes.
LORD HUMPHRY TREVEYAN, 1973
Hollis thought that Banks and the ambassador would probably prove that true in the next few weeks.
Alevy continued, "Obviously we can't retrieve the rented Zhiguli, so we called the Intourist Hotel and told them it was broken down at Gagarin railroad station. We'll get a hell of a bill for that."
Hollis knew that Alevy was not in the least interested in these petty administrative matters, but Charles Banks was. It was the nature of the diplomat to never break a local rule or offend a host country. Even if you were handing the foreign minister a note with a declaration of war on it, you were polite about it. Hollis perceived that Alevy was trying to make points with Banks at Hollis' expense, so Hollis thought he'd be helpful for a change. He said, "The car needs a lot of body work too."
Banks turned to him. "Body work?"
"Just hit a tree. Damage to the tree was minimal."
"Good." Banks cleared his throat and said, "So…" He looked at Lisa, then back to Hollis, and he put a stern tone in his voice. "Neither of you returned to your quarters last night, and neither of you informed this embassy of your whereabouts. That is contrary to regulations as well as a dangerous breach of security, not to mention the element of personal danger to yourselves." Banks looked from one to the other. "Do either of you have an explanation for this? Miss Rhodes?"
Lisa replied, "We were together obviously. We were unable to finish our business in Mozhaisk by nightfall. There was no room at the inn—actually there was no inn—so we spent the night on a kolhoz—that's a collective farm, Charles. There was no telephone there."
Banks said, "I appreciate the special conditions that exist in the countryside here. But it is your obligation to keep in contact with this embassy, not vice versa."
Hollis spoke. "As the senior person, I'll take responsibility for the breach."
Banks nodded, satisfied.
Alevy said, "I don't quite understand how you two got such a late start and failed to complete this routine assignment before dark."
Hollis replied, "Lot of paperwork involved, Seth. Drop it."
But Alevy continued, "How did you wind up on a collective? Why didn't you call from Mozhaisk?"
Hollis looked directly at Alevy. "I don't think Mr. Banks wants to be bored with those details."
Alevy nodded. "Right. Perhaps later you can bore me." He looked at Lisa a moment, then turned back to Banks. "Sir?"
Banks addressed Lisa. "The ambassador is writing an official letter of condolence to Mr. Fisher's parents. I would like you to write a personal note indicating that you were involved with the disposition of the remains and the personal effects and so forth. And that the Soviet authorities assured you that Gregory Fisher died instantly and suffered no pain and so forth. There are sample letters on file."
"Sample letters of personal notes from me?"
"No," Banks replied coolly. "Sample personal condolence notes… ." Banks seemed to grasp the contradiction in that, so he said, "Personalize the sample."
Lisa tapped her fingers on the table, then replied, "Shall I tell them I spoke to their son before his death? That he called this embassy from the Rossiya Hotel and asked for help?"
"Certainly not. I just told you what to write, Miss Rhodes." Banks added, "Perhaps Colonel Hollis will write a similar letter to the deceased's parents."
Hollis replied, "I'll study the samples."
Lisa looked at Hollis, then at Alevy and Banks. She said, "I have phone messages on my desk from Peter Stills of The New York Times, Faith Lowry of The Washington Post, Mike Salerno of the Pacific News Bureau, and four or five other news agencies. Apparently in my absence someone in my department issued a press release regarding Gregory Fisher. Apparently, too, some journalists smell a bigger story."
Banks leaned toward her. "There is no story beyond the fact that an American tourist died in an automobile accident."
"If the auto accident had happened in France or England that would not be news," Lisa said. "But in the Soviet Union, people get curious. This is a curious country, Charles. You may have noticed." She added, "That's why we sit in windowless rooms like this when we talk. It's not paranoia; it's reality, though no one in the West would believe half of it."
At length Charles Banks responded, "Your office has indeed issued a press release. They may issue another if new facts warrant it. Kay is handling the press on this. You are not assigned to this story."
Lisa drew a deep breath. "Why didn't the press release give all the facts? The call from the Rossiya—"
Alevy cut in. "We may reveal that in time. For now, we're not going to. We're as aware as you are that there is more to this. But we're trying to get the facts before we make any accusations. You appreciate the current diplomatic thaw. Trust us."
Lisa nodded reluctantly.
Hollis took a piece of paper from his pocket, a decoded radio message. "I sent a query to Defense yesterday asking if a Major Jack or John Dodson was on the Vietnam MIA list. They replied in the negative." He threw the paper on the table.
Charles Banks said, "We made the same inquiry of State and also received a negative. So right there we have to wonder about Mr. Fisher's story."
"Do you?" Hollis continued, "We were talking about trust. In my business, as in Seth's, rule number one is trust no one, including your own people." Hollis poured himself a glass of mineral water and added, "So I went to our library here yesterday and found a book written by a former Navy flier who was a POW in Vietnam. In the book was an appendix listing some one thousand men who are still unaccounted for. Among them is an Air Force major, named Jack Dodson."
No one spoke.
Hollis said, "I know my query elicited a negative, but I don't know if yours did. I think someone is playing games."
Alevy said, "Sam, leave it alone."
Charles Banks added, "Colonel, we are conducting an official investigation through diplomatic and other channels. In the meantime, neither you nor Miss Rhodes are to concern yourselves with this unless requested to give testimony. This is obviously beyond your respective duties." He added, "The ambassador would like a written report of your activities and whereabouts from the time you left Moscow yesterday afternoon. Thank you for taking care of the remains."
Hollis stood. "Mr. Banks, please tell the ambassador that unless or until I receive orders from my superiors to the contrary, I will pursue my own line of investigation into this matter."
Lisa stood also. "Charles, an American citizen named Gregory Fisher died under mysterious circumstances in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Gregory Fisher told me on the telephone of another American citizen whom he met in a pine forest north of Borodino and who was apparently on the run from Soviet authorities—"
Seth Alevy interrupted. "I recall on the tape that Mr. Fisher mentioned the woods, but I don't recall him saying anything about a pine forest." He tilted his chair forward and looked at her, then at Hollis. "What pine forest?"
Hollis replied, "We must compare notes one of these days." Hollis left.
He waited for Lisa at the elevator. He gave it two minutes, then five, then took the elevator down alone.