Thursday, May 15, 2014
Guess the Plot
Death to All Spies!
1. Cold War espionage absurdities are brought to light in this mostly true story of Russian and American spies. Also, my sensational new theory about who really killed JFK.
2. Nine-year-old King Fredrey hates greens and allspice. When a new cook fixes the royal dinner, Fredrey spits out his food and shouts “Kale? Allspice?” But that is not the way his knights hear it. A purge of nosy people commences.
3. King Travers is sick and tired of all his best take-over-the-world plots being foiled before he's even gotten to the good parts. So, he institutes a "spy execution" program. Sounds great until his son, Prince Flanders, is arrested.
4. Sullivan was making a fair living, turning in his neighbors for their lustful thoughts and coveting. But the new Damchion has decreed that spying is a capital offense. And some of his neighbors are itching for payback.
5. Kayley loves Jason. Jason doesn't know. Bayley starts spying on him in Math to find out if he likes someone else. Turns out, he does. He loves Bayley. How will Kayley take this betrayal by her BFF?
6. From his secret hideout in the Andean volcano Lechugulla, evil mastermind Dr. Death plots the demise of the world's top spies by Tweeting them into insanity. Also, a talking white Persian cat.
Dear Evil Editor,
I hope you will be interested in my historical novel called Death to All Spies!, which takes a wry, offbeat look at the world of Cold War espionage.
In the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, two KGB spies defect separately to the United States. Anatoly Golitsyn and Yuri Nosenko insist they want to help America. The only problem is that both of them say the other one is a fake. [Is that really the "only" problem?] Legendary CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton and his young colleague Pete Bagley have to figure out which one is telling the truth. [It's that old logic problem. Angleton can only ask one question to figure out who's the liar. Frankly, I think if you're gonna build a whole novel around a logic problem it should be the kind where you tell us the spy from Moscow prefers to eat at Borscht Bistro and the spy who drives a Yugo has never been to St. Petersburg, etc.] But the Americans quickly learn there’s more at stake than just feuding defectors. The escaped Russians bring sensational news about the Kennedy assassination and a mole in the CIA. [I'd go with "shocking" rather than "sensational." if you tell me the CIA killed JFK, I'm unlikely to say, "Why . . . that's sensational news!"]
Death to All Spies! explores the true story of a decade-long controversy that tore apart the American intelligence community. Based on extensive research into the work of Carlson and many others, the novel offers a possible solution to the still-unsolved mystery of which defector was lying. [So the defectors and Angleton and Bagley were real people. Are there also fictional characters in the book? Is it a novel rather than nonfiction only because this mystery wasn't solved? Maybe this is alternate history, a story about what might have happened if the solution to the mystery was . . . whatever you hypothesize it was? Novels are fiction. How much of your book is fiction?] By shifting perspective among the Russians and their handlers, the book reveals a tangle of personal motives and misplaced suspicions. What emerges is a quirky spy story about the absurdities of Cold War paranoia.
Anatoly Golitsyn is a hardworking intellectual who feels unappreciated in the KGB of the 1950s. In 1961 he abandons his cover job in Helsinki and flees to the West. Cerebral James Angleton, the spycatcher who quotes T.S. Eliot (and was the first to call espionage a “wilderness of mirrors”), is seduced by Golitsyn’s cabalistic vision of global Soviet deception. [When the KGB stations you in Helsinki, it's a good bet you aren't a good source of information about the KGB or anything else important. It's like if the CIA stationed an agent in . . . Helsinki.] When Golitsyn reveals there is an unidentified mole in the CIA (code-named SASHA), Angleton falls deeper under his spell.
Yuri Nosenko is the hard-drinking womanizer whose influential father got him a job in Soviet intelligence. Working as a security officer at the Geneva disarmament conference of 1962, he secretly contacts the CIA to exchange KGB data for much-needed cash. He returns to the Soviet Union but suddenly defects after the assassination of President Kennedy. He insists he has crucial information about Soviet involvement in the crime. Nosenko’s handler is Pete Bagley, an ambitious CIA man from a proud naval family. He is stunned by the defector’s claim that the Soviet Union was not involved in the assassination. [Wait, the "crucial information" Nosenko has about Soviet involvement in the crime is that the Soviets weren't involved in the crime? Presumably that's what everyone in the Russian government would have been saying, so why does this guy saying it make it crucial information?] [That's like a German spy defecting during WWII and claiming to have crucial information about Hitler: he has no aspirations toward world conquest.] When Nosenko’s story starts to unravel, Bagley fears the Soviets have sent a false defector to spread disinformation.
[Conversation at KGB headquarters:
--We did it. We killed Kennedy.
--But now if the Americans find out we were behind it, it could mean war.
--Hmm. Let's get one of our espionage agents to defect, and tell them we had nothing to do with it.
--Yes, those gullible Americans just might buy it and try to pin it on some chump.]
Golitsyn reinforces suspicions about Nosenko. But some CIA officers suggest the self-aggrandizing Golitsyn, with his complicated conspiracy theories, has an ulterior motive. Is it possible they are both false defectors, part of an elaborate Soviet deception? Angleton, who is revered in the Agency but known to over-indulge in Bourbon, comes to blindly trust the striving Golitsyn [A legendary espionage agent blindly trusts an enemy espionage agent? What was he "legendary" for? His naivete?] and oppose Nosenko. Then Angleton has the shock of his life when his old friend, the infamous Kim Philby, is revealed to be a Soviet double agent. Shattered, Angleton redoubles his efforts to find Golitsyn’s mole SASHA. The search turns into an Agency witch hunt that paralyzes operations for years and puts loyal officers under investigation. As a result, there is a groundswell of opposition to Angleton.
Meanwhile the Warren Commission, which is investigating Kennedy’s death, wants Nosenko’s testimony. But safely in America, Nosenko has once again become an unreliable carouser. Bagley is convinced he is still under Soviet control. The Agency, in large part due to Angleton’s doubts, decides Nosenko is too much of a risk and keeps him from testifying to the Commission. Now certain that Nosenko is on a secret mission from Moscow, Bagley imprisons him indefinitely under conditions of near-solitary confinement. But Nosenko insists he is not a double agent. [If your theory is that Bagley was behind the Kennedy assassination, I'm with you all the way.]
Just when Nosenko seems doomed, a new defector vouches for him.
[Conversation at KGB headquarters:
--The Americans haven't fallen for Nosenko's lies.
--It was a long shot at best.
--Hmm. What if we send over another "defector" to vouch for Nosenko?
--Now that's thinking outside the box. The American fools will never suspect.]
To test the source, and save his career, Angleton mounts a last-ditch espionage operation. The operation backfires [cementing Angleton's "legendary" status] and the hunt for SASHA comes to nothing. Angleton bitterly regrets his faith in the blustering Golitsyn and the damage he has done to the Agency. As a result of Angleton’s weakened position, Bagley loses his battle to break Nosenko. Thanks to new allies in the Agency, Nosenko at last goes free after years in prison. When the dust settles, it appears that the two defectors are not part of a Soviet monster plot; they are simply defectors. Paranoia has led the Cold Warriors to deceive themselves.
The novel is complete at 180,000 words. Though it has an ironic perspective, the espionage plot of Death to All Spies! should appeal to fans of John LeCarre. The historical setting taps into a current revival of interest in the Cold War, as seen in Young Philby by Robert Littel, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathon Lethem. There is a similar trend in popular TV and film projects, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Homeland; and The Americans.
I have an MFA in Film from Columbia College in Chicago. As a film and television editor I have cut several independent films, History Channel documentaries, and the nationally syndicated Judge Mathis Show. I have written a number of screenplays and I adapted a story by Patricia Highsmith, “The Barbarians,” for a short feature which I directed. As the son of Cuban exiles, I have had a lifelong fascination with the political and cultural context of the Cold War.
[Author's note: Here is how I got my title: Smert Shpionam was the Soviet counterintelligence unit during World War II. Usually abbreviated “Smersh,” in English it means “Death to spies.”]
The query reads more like an historical account than a summary of a story. I just finished a novel by David Morrell (The Brotherhood of the Rose) that includes some historical reporting about Kim Philby et al, but the main characters are fictional. The TV show The Americans has some actual people as characters, but not as the main characters. Choosing to tell a fictional story using actual people as the main characters is tricky. We don't know what's fact and what's fiction. (Actually, what's fact is a matter of record, and some readers will call you out if your characters aren't where they were when they were there.) Going to the trouble of getting the facts right and using real people may suggest this isn't a novel so much as somewhat speculative nonfiction.
The query and the book are too long. To shorten the query, choose a main character and focus on what he wants, what he must overcome to get it, what goes wrong, and what he plans to do about it. And what happens if he fails. If this is a novel, you want us to care about the main character, not about Cold War politics. Give yourself ten sentences to set up his situation and tell us his story. First the setup:
At the height of the Cold War, two KGB spies, one a hardworking intellectual who feels unappreciated in the KGB and the other a womanizer whose influential father got him a job in Soviet intelligence, defect separately to the United States. Each claims the other is no true defector, but is working a mission. It falls upon legendary CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton to determine who is lying.
Then your story: how Angleton plans to solve the mystery, what obstacles get in the way (for instance, an underling with the gall to insist Angleton is wrong), keeping the focus on Angleton.
Most of your 3rd paragraph, preceded by "Based on a true story," would work well as a wrapup to the query.
As for the book, if you're spending a lot of words rehashing the work of "Carlson and many others," you can probably dump most of that. An historical novel starring George Washington or Claudius should get the facts about the time and setting right, but if they turn into history books about the American revolution or the Roman Empire, they may lose their appeal to novel readers. If this is all story, and not a ton of info-dumping, try to find a place near the middle that would be a satisfying ending to book 1, and make the 2nd half a sequel.