For spy novelists, Trump-Russia allegations are a potential gold mine, but also a minefield
Trump controversy proving both a rich vein of inspiration and frustration for writers challenged, amused and angered by the cloud of suspicion hanging over US president and his team
Jason Matthews is a retired CIA officer who now writes spy novels focused on Russia. He was working on a book last year that ordinarily would seem a little far-fetched, but which proved too close to current events.
“The plot line was an American presidential candidate who has a secret that’s so bad it would ensure his or her impeachment, and the only person who would know the secret is Vladimir Putin,” says Matthews, a prize-winning author best known for his Red Sparrow thrillers.
Matthews set the novel aside, but he’s in no danger of running out of ideas.
With US law enforcement and the US Congress looking into possible ties between Trump advisers and Russians during the 2016 campaign, spy novelists have been challenged, amused, angered and inspired. The cold war ended decades ago, but writers now see a new wave of possible plot twists and plots to avoid, whether the reported Russian contacts of such former Trump campaign officials as Paul Manafort and Carter Page, the Trump dossier compiled by British intelligence or the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn over phone conversations with the Russian ambassador.
“I wake up every morning and I think, ‘Thank heavens for Vladimir Putin’,” says Matthews, whose next book, The Kremlin’s Candidate, will centre on the “tried and true” story of a Russian asset in the CIA. “He’s a great character and his national goals are the stuff for spy novels: weaken Nato, dissolve the Atlantic alliance, break up the European Union.”
Charles Cumming, known for such novels as A Divided Spy and A Colder War, is working on a thriller that touches upon Brexit and Trump’s election, including “the idea that collusion could take place between the Russian and American intelligence services is no longer the stuff of fiction”.
Michael Davidson, another former CIA agent who writes novels, also found the story of Trump and Russia overlapping with fiction. He and writing partner Kseniya Kirillova had been working since early 2016 on Successor, a thriller about the Russians attempting to get a mole in the White House who will push the Americans to lift sanctions.
“We had it mostly completed by late summer. But as Kseniya writes only in Russian, I had a lot of translating and editing to do and did not finish until November,” Davidson says. “All the while we were increasingly bemused and concerned by the Russian contacts of Paul Manafort and Carter Page, not to mention Flynn, but it was a case of fiction becoming reality.”
David Downing, whose novels include Lenin’s Roller Coaster and One Man’s Flag, said he finds the Trump-Russia reports more a political story than a spy story. But he did find some details in common with his novel Stettin Station, about an American businessman caught up with Nazi Germany during the second world war.
“This is what you get for electing a self-defining businessman/deal-maker as president – someone who can’t be relied on to put the national interest first, while, of course, loudly insisting that that’s exactly what he’s doing,” he says of Trump.
Best-selling novelist Joseph Kanon, who has written the cold war thrillers Los Alamos and The Prodigal Spy, says for now the Trump-Russia stories are more like a Carl Hiaasen farce than a John le Carré drama. He notes some of the necessary elements for a spy novel: both sides are doing it, espionage is serious and ideology is the primary motive.
“The current mess is really a gangster story, part farce, but ultimately dismaying,” he says. “The characters involved seem to come out of pulp novels, without any of the gravitas a good spy novel would give them. Of course this may change as we learn more.
“What was [Trump business associate] Felix Sater up to? Where has the [British intelligence] MI6 source gone to ground? So, yes, we may have the elements for a good spy story but at the moment all we have is a national disgrace.”