The year is 1949. In the bombed-out ruins of Cologne, Hanno Dasch is king. Director of the most successful black market operation in post-war Germany, Dasch has kept his clients supplied with goods so extravagant and rare that they were almost impossible to find even at the height of Germany’s conquests. Nobody but Dasch, his enigmatic daughter and the war criminal he keeps as his bodyguard know how he does it.

None of this has escaped the attention of Allied Intelligence, who face not only the systemic corruption of a country where everything is in short supply, but the growing threat of Stalin’s KGB. Fearing that Dasch will soon expand his business to include dealings with Russia, and invite the further meddling of Russian agents in the west, the CIA sets in motion an undercover operation to infiltrate and, ultimately, destroy Dasch’s empire. A disgraced American Army officer, Nathan Carter, is recruited to approach Dasch and to ingratiate himself with promises of stolen army supplies. 

As Carter moves further and further into the labyrinth of Dasch’s world, it soon becomes clear that the black market ring has already been compromised, but by someone even more dangerous than the Russians.

Carter stumbles upon a counterfeiting ring, with whom Dasch has unwittingly gone into business, which seems to have been created with the sole purpose of destroying the Soviet economy, something it could easily do with the superlative quality of the forged bills it is producing. With Carter caught in the middle, and facing the danger that his cover might be blown at any moment, a race begins between the Russian and American spy agencies to uncover who is responsible, before the situation escalates to war.

After reading and reviewing The Elegant Lie, “a highly literary spy story set at the beginning of the Cold War”, Paul Burke had a number of questions for author Sam Eastland:

Paul Burke: Sam Eastland is a pen name; what does an ‘alter ego’ give you the freedom to express as a writer? Has Sam Eastland, thriller writer, supplanted Paul Watkins, contemporary novelist?

Sam Eastland: It was my long-time editor at Faber, Walter Donohue, who suggested that I write the Pekkala series under a pseudonym, in order that those stories would not conflict with the work I was doing under my own name. At first, the idea was a little unnerving. After working all these years to make a name for myself, the idea of hiding away behind an alter ego felt, at least in the beginning, like the exact opposite of what I should be doing. I soon learned that it doesn’t just affect your own appraisal of yourself, but also how others react. If you’re in a situation, as I was initially, where you can’t tell people that you’ve gone undercover, you find yourself enduring not only the genuine sympathy of those who think you’ve given up, but also the schadenfreude of those who have been waiting for you to stumble in your career. So that was hard. But it didn’t last. I soon learned that having a pen name allowed me to avoid the one part of writing I have never really enjoyed, and that is going on the road for publicity tours. If you don’t exist, you can’t show up, especially if you have already been doing tours for many years and a lot of people know what you look like. There have been some strange exceptions to that rule, however. On a few occasions, when I have been sent out as the avatar of Sam Eastland, mostly to sign books in those early morning hours before the bookshop is open for business, I have run into people whom I recognised, and whom I know would recognise me if they’d been told my real name, but they didn’t. When people aren’t looking for you, you sort of become invisible, even if you’re standing right in front of them. Although I now have to travel with two sets of business cards, one that says Paul Watkins and the other Sam Eastland, one has not supplanted the other. Since I began writing the Pekkala stories, I have worked on a few books under the Watkins name. One is finished, and another two I am just polishing off. I am in no rush to send them out. Thanks to Pekkala, I have something I’d never had before, and honestly thought was permanently beyond my reach, and that is the luxury of time.

PB: In a similar vein, what is it about The Elegant Lie that makes it a Sam Eastland novel? It’s a thriller but the themes are reminiscent of Paul Watkins’ novels, such as The Forger and Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn.

SE: Writing as Sam Eastland, I found myself inhabiting a different place in my head than when working as Paul Watkins. I was curious to find out what would happen if I bridged those two hemispheres of my brain, and The Elegant Lie is the result of that. I had the option to publish it as Paul Watkins, but I chose Eastland instead, because I think it belongs more to the genre of the Eastland books than to the novels I have written as myself.

PB: The new novel follows the very successful “Red” series featuring The Emerald Eye, Pekkala’s last outing was Berlin Red in 2017. Do you move on with a tinge of sadness or do you just move on? Readers tend to get attached and Pekkala is a memorable and likeable creation.

SE: Pekkala is not gone! I simply had to give him a leave of absence. Here is why – Ever since I started writing the books, I have had interest from various directors and producers who want to turn it into a television series. The larger the body of work from which you plan to build a series, the more important it becomes to have clearly defined arcs of narrative and plot. You can’t go to all the trouble of creating a televisions series only to have new novels branch off in a direction that either contradicts or confuses what’s happening on the screen. I had to manufacture a ‘Reichenbach Falls’ (readers of Sherlock Holmes will understand what I am saying here), in which the narrative could be, but is not necessarily complete. The way Berlin Red is structured, Pekkala can return any time. The series is now under option and was showcased both at the MIPCON in Cannes and also at the C21 in London this past year. At the moment, thankfully, it is not a question of whether it will be picked up but which company the producers will choose to collaborate with. I do miss Pekkala and Kirov and even Stalin, sometimes, but we will see them again, soon enough.

PB: The Elegant Lie is set in 1949 at the beginning of the Cold War with American characters at its heart. Is this a continuum of the historical themes, the time line, set out in the Pekkala novels or is that just coincidence?

SE: The continuum of the time line and historical themes played a large role in my decision to publish the book under the Eastland name. There is a logical progression to the narratives, and it is not a coincidence, when I set out to write another book, that my thoughts should have wandered beyond the Second World War and into the murky world of post-war Europe. I liked the idea of working with an American character, and in the head space of an undercover operative, as opposed to a detective. Those are very different creatures, even if they sometimes live in the same world.

PB: The Elegant Lie is a standalone novel; does that present different challenges or freedoms for a writer? Was it a conscious decision or just an organic process? 

SE: I did set out to write it as a stand alone, although it has since been pointed out to me that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case and I feel like I have the option to return to that world, and that character, if I want to. I don’t know, though. It was gruelling to see the world through the eyes of Nathan Carter, never trusting anyone, living in the shell of another person. One of the by-products of having chosen writing as a career is that I end up spending more time with people I have invented than with people who are real. That is not always a bad thing, but it can lead you into some strange places. When you write fiction, you live inside the scaffolding of another human being, who becomes as real and as temperamental as any flesh and blood companion. To write from the perspective of a person going through that same experience – as Carter does in his undercover job – means that you are, in fact, living in two different shells. If I add the pseudonym to that, it creates yet another layer of shadows. There were days when I felt like I had so many masks to put on before I could begin my work that I felt like a one-man Kabuki theatre.

PB: The Elegant Lie is much darker than the “Red” series. I’m curious where that came from; was it the story? Or a tone you wanted to set? This novel seems driven, it’s energetic and intense. Did it feel like that as you created it?

SE: It is darker, but the world of undercover agents is dark. Every emotion is structured. Every reaction is vetted to conform with an illusion. Every story, even if it jibes with the truth, is still housed within a catacomb of lies. One mistake, one word out of place, and the whole thing falls apart. And then you die. I would guess that someone is reading these words, right now, for whom what I am saying is not entertainment but reality, and the one thing they can’t do is what, to the rest of us, would seem perfectly natural, and that is to turn to the person sitting next to them and say – yes, this is true – because it would shatter the lie that is keeping them alive.

PB: The novel pivots on the elegant lies people spin, what is an elegant lie?

SE: An Elegant Lie is one that people accept, not because they are unaware of any alternative story – most people are – but because the lie reinforces what they want to believe. Lies are like parasites. The good ones you can live with. The bad ones just ruin your world.

PB: Why are lies such an important theme in this novel and across much of your work? The lies we tell ourselves, the lies within lies, the deceptions, the omissions, the “good” lies and The Elegant Lie.

SE: Who controls the narrative controls the universe. Storytellers have the ability to unite people, to give them hope, to renew their faith in progress and in the inevitability of change. Or they can riddle you with fear, and suspicion and force you into an imagined realm from which, once you have entered it, you have no means of escape. These are the true dark arts. I am not just talking about writers, obviously, but writers can do more than most to dismantle the darkness, because they know exactly how it is created. I do find it fascinating, and I never grow tired of that fight.

PB: The irony is that a lie often turns out to be more virtuous than the truth, maintaining it can be moral and necessary, is that the way Carter sees it? He perpetuates two big lies in the novel for his own sake and to protect others. 

SE: The most powerful lies are the ones people choose to believe, because facing the truth would mean restructuring the reality they have created for themselves. It requires lying not only to others, but also to yourself. Sometimes, the bravest thing you can do is to refuse to accept the lie, in which case maybe your identity implodes, but at least it is no longer based on something false. Other times, and this is what happens to Carter, the deception becomes a matter, not just of emotional balance, but of survival. Without giving away the plot, perhaps it is enough for me to say that, sometimes, the things which are most precious to us cannot endure in the black and white universe of right and wrong. To be happy, we must make our peace with living in the grey.

PB: Do you feel that the black market/smuggling is a problem for the CIA not because of what it is, but because of what they fear it could become within the context of the Cold War? A conduit to the West for Russia.

SE: Yes. Absolutely. When you are fighting a conventional war – one with tanks and planes and guns – brute force becomes your method. But the Cold War wasn’t like that. It was about destabilisation, about crippling your enemies’ ability to think straight or to trust those around them. Smuggling and black marketeering are a powerful way of draining your opponent’s energy and resources, mostly because it causes him to engage in a war against his own people.

PB: Is there a paradox with the black market because it has been supplying people and feeding the population in the absence of organised government and a legitimate economy? In fact, doing some good.

SE: It provides some respite from the dreariness of rationing, and the incompetency of government, but does a huge amount of damage socially. I was once told that, in Europe, in the closing stages of WWII, you could do more damage to the enemy with a truckload of chocolate than with a whole squadron of B17s.

PB: Is simplification a lie? Is memory a lie? As we lose our grasp on detail and nuance. The novel explores the story from a 360° perspective.

SE: Yes, and I appreciate you pointing it out. That took a lot of work! In terms of memory being a lie, I ran into that when I wrote a book called Stand Before Your God, which was about the time I spent at boarding schools in England. I had to navigate the line between autobiography, which is the past as it was, and memoir, which is the past as we remember it. It’s strange that we have to rely on a French word to encapsulate that distinction, as if our Anglo-Saxon language is too blunt to embrace the art of faulty memory.

PB: The Elegant Lie has a panoramic scope, from pre-war America to the Cold War via the Battle of the Bulge and concentration camps during the war. Do you enjoy building a comprehensive picture where asides and peripheral details can become important to the story?

SE: Oh, yes! I always do a lot of this. I love slipping backwards and forwards through time to create a narrative. It allows you to withhold information from the reader until the precise moment it needs to appear, and to explain why some characters behave as they do in ways that other characters don’t understand. I love sharing those secrets with the reader.

PB: The novel addresses the secrets we keep in war, the things people at home are not supposed to know about how dirty and degrading things get. Did this ignorance of WWII help to perpetuate the folly of the Cold War?

SE: At no time in our history, both in the West and in the East, did we more enthusiastically embrace an illusion, not only of ourselves, but of our enemies. That forgery of good and evil – because once you start thinking in those terms, you have already gone down the rabbit hole – relied entirely on fear. The war that preceded it had more than enough fear of its own but, in the Cold War, the fear of what might be lurking in the shadows became a nightmare tailor-made for each person who lived through it. Storytellers built that nightmare and, eventually, storytellers tore it down.

PB: What are you currently reading? Is there a novel you would recommend for readers?

SE: I am currently re-reading Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. It is for research I am doing on a new book – this one under my real name. As a recommendation – Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy.

The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland is published by Faber & Faber in February (£8.99 paperback)