Light on plot, spy story still intrigues

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / July 18, 2010

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As spies go, the 10 Russian agents rounded up on American soil last month have not impressed many novelists who make their living by spinning tales of international espionage.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, they were a zero,’’ said Alex Berenson, a Manhattan writer whose debut book, “The Faithful Spy,’’ won a 2007 Edgar Award for best first novel. “I think this will be forgotten more quickly than people realize.’’

But the story of the sleepers and their rude awakening does contain some literary grist, according to Berenson and other spy novelists: plenty of comic elements, a window into a few current tools of the cloak-and-dagger trade, and a potential springboard for a much better story.

“I really have a problem with, why now?’’ said Gayle Lynds, a best-selling spy novelist living in Buxton, Maine, who once held a top security clearance with a government-linked think tank. “They didn’t steal any state secrets, and they didn’t harm anyone in the United States. They sort of stumbled and bumbled around and took public information.’’

Peter Steiner, whose new novel “The Terrorist’’ features a retired CIA agent, an Al Qaeda operative, and a secret prison, echoed that head-scratching curiosity.

“The story raised more questions than it really answered,’’ said Steiner, a former cartoonist for the New Yorker who lives in Sharon, Conn. “Apparently, they weren’t at all successful at what they were doing. What was the big hurry to arrest them, and what was the big hurry to swap them?’’

There are indications the sudden roundup occurred because US counterespionage officials feared some of the Russians were about to travel home, and would have been beyond American reach; also, the US government was anxious to win the release of four appar ently high-value “assets’’ serving jail terms in Russia for allegedly spying for the West. The resulting prisoner swap, on the tarmac of the Vienna airport, itself is worth at least a novella.

The stories of the longtime Russian spies, who lived seemingly wholesome American lives under false identities in communities from Cambridge to Washington, are glaringly short on fast cars, big money, and the kind of action adventure that typifies the fictional genre.

Indeed, the most interesting items seized from the Harvard Square townhouse of Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova (known locally as Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley) might have been a Dr. Pepper can with a fake lid and a Coke container with a false bottom.

Aside from the media’s temporary diversion from the oil spill, and titillating tabloid revelations about Anna Chandler, the 28-year-old redhead living in New York who seems to be the ring’s only candidate for a James Bond novel, these were characters who appeared more interested in American comforts than penetrating the inner sanctums of business and government.

“These Russians sound like people who were looking for a free meal ticket, and the spying was not all that interesting to them,’’ Steiner said. “They might have thought, ‘If we discover somebody who is actually going to start giving us information, life will get much messier for us. Let’s continue to be generally incompetent.’ ’’

To Lynds, clumsiness and laziness don’t make a good spy story — unless they are a decoy meant to mask the activities of another, powerful, and insidiously effective spy ring. If she were to create a novel from the facts at hand, Lynds said, that would be an intriguing option.

“The first thing that came to mind was to have them cover for another network that is much more dangerous to us,’’ said Lynds, whose newest novel, “The Book of Spies,’’ manages to link Ivan the Terrible, the CIA, and a terrorist bank account. “I really do like that idea. We are aware that the Soviets left a number of sleepers in this country when they collapsed. As far as I know, they’re still here.’’

Berenson, a former New York Times reporter, said these spies strike him as good fodder for a farcical novel.

“It would have to be comical, and underlying the comedy would be this question about whether these Russians ever want to go home,’’ Berenson said. “In the serious version, you would have this network and it would be exposed, but there would be some secondary network.’’

Despite his low opinion of the spies, Berenson said he did take notice of how they communicated with their masters in Moscow Center. “They’re sort of moving away from dead drops to encrypted wireless connections,’’ said Berenson, whose latest mystery, “The Midnight House,’’ draws its title from a fictional US interrogation center. “It’s interesting that this is a transition they are using.’’

Steiner sees potential in the unnerving speculation that some children of the spies were unaware of clandestine activities.

“The most interesting part is the personal stuff, the idea that somebody would go to another country and secretly try to become like the people who live there, and would become sort of fake Americans and also, kind of tragically, fake parents,’’ Steiner said. “The novelistic idea that popped into my head is what would become of a child who grew up with parents who were not in any way what you believed they were.’’

One tale, Steiner said, would follow the child back to Russia with his parents. There, apparently living normally, he would extract revenge by performing counter-espionage for the United States.

“I like this idea better as I think about it,’’ Steiner said with a chuckle. “I may make some notes.’’

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at

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