SPIES AND LIES
While this may be the third entry in Stuart Woods’ Will Lee series, Will himself is not a primary character in the novel. This tense and detailed espionage tale centers, instead, around two others. First is Katharine Rule, who is a highly placed CIA agent specializing in Soviet intelligence and who is also Will Lee’s girlfriend. The second major character is Jan Helder, an Estonian native in the service of the Soviet navy as a submarine captain. Will’s job, at this point, is aide to and legal counsel for Senator Carr of Georgia, who chairs the Senate committee for intelligence network oversight.
As our story begins, three things happen at roughly the same time. They are not only the beginning scenes; they are the beginning of the end. First, the trawl net of Oskar Oskarsson’s fishing boat snags a submarine submerged inside the restricted waters of a Swedish naval base near Stockholm. Oskar shouldn’t have been there either, but he was, with his teenage grandson aboard as mate. By the time the trawl breaks loose from the moving sub and his boat is swamped, Oskar has lost most of his left hand and the snapped cable assembly has killed his grandson.
Secondly, Jan Helder docks his sub at his home base in Murmansk after a tour in the North Atlantic. Just as the last line is made fast, he is relieved of command, treated just shy of a prisoner scheduled for court-martial, and taken to staff headquarters in Leningrad. Helder is summarily ordered to report to a special brigade in Liepaja, across from Stockholm. Within a few hours he finds himself at a well-disguised training facility called Malibu. There he is thrust into an American culture immersion program and placed in command of a specialized minisub by the base commander, Colonel Viktor Majorov.
Thirdly, Katharine Rule, as head of the CIA’s Office of Soviet Analysis, attends a high-level fact-sharing session. At this meeting, she presents information on one Roy Firsov, previously assigned in low-level positions to various Soviet embassies, including that in Stockholm. It seems Firsov had then suddenly advanced to a high rank within the KGB but dropped out of sight upon the death of his mentor instead of taking the mentor’s place. Now it appears that Firsov has re-surfaced, living richly and largely, and in charge of a major project. And Firsov now goes by the name of Viktor Majorov.
Rule wants Firsov/Majorov investigated and gets agency approval. Then, after Rule puts the unearthed pieces together, she voices to her superiors that these pieces indicate a possible plan for a Soviet invasion of Sweden. Suddenly Katharine is shut down, denied access to files and satellites, and ordered to cease the Majorov/Sweden investigation upon penalty of demotion, then job termination and criminal charges. With her life and career on the line, as well as the lives of 8 million Swedes, Katharine Rule goes quietly rogue.
Basically, as the book progresses, the chapters alternate between Rule and Helder. However, since the book is written in third person, there is never any confusion as to whose actions or dialog we are experiencing. Also, there are chapters interspersed that are devoted to the current situations of Will Lee and Oskar Oskarsson. The one problem in this technique is that Woods does not give us a clear knowledge of the passage of time. It is often difficult to tell whether the alternating chapters are concurrent or consecutive in timing. And it is also difficult to determine how much time has elapsed between events.
This tale of intrigue is a page-turner, one that can make you forego chores and sleep. There are spies and lies, espionage and betrayals, whistleblowers and moles, handguns and nukes. And regardless of the fact that Rule and Helder are facing the problem from opposite sides of the fence, so to speak, you want desperately for each to be left standing on the last page.
At this point, I offer two caveats as you read, both based on the fact that this book has a copyright date of 1986 and is fictionalizing events that take place in the early and mid 1980’s. First, there is considerable cultural, social and sexual bias shown by several male characters toward women in the workplace, regardless of the woman’s career position. Rule, though highly placed in the CIA and considered both intelligent and capable, is still thought of and tolerated only as the token woman required by Federal guidelines. Woods has portrayed this part about women in the workplace accurately, but it can still grate on the current reader’s nerves.
For the second caveat, there is substantial mention, practically bragging, in regards to the computer technology available at the time, particularly as it is both important to the problem and the solution. However, in that time frame, computers ran on MS-DOS and UNIX, not Windows and HTML. So when you find a character extoling the magnificence of his 900-baud modem and his 25-megabyte hard drive, don’t put your head in your hands and scream. Just keep reminding yourself of the time frame, enjoy the plot, and thank your lucky stars for what we have to work with now.
Cover Art from Goodreads