“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sure you’re doing good things. Protecting us from free speech.” [Gabriel’s daughter on finding out he is CIA]
The Coldest Warrior is a fictional exploration of a personal family tragedy for author Paul Vidich. Details surrounding the death of his uncle, Dr. Frank Olson, who ‘fell’ from a window of a New York hotel in 1953, only began to emerge twenty-two years after the event, in that time America and it’s attitudes to Olsen’s employers, CIA, had changed, become more questioning of authority. The assassination of JFK, Vietnam War, Bay of Pigs, civil rights movement, Nixon’s fall from grace all factored into perceptions of the abuse of power. The Rockefeller commission, set up to investigate illegal CIA activity on American soil, first disclosed that Olson was a part of the CIA covert war, its psychological programmes, of which MKUltra is perhaps most notorious. Vidich uses the fictional story of Dr. Wilson and the investigation into his death two decades later to examine the human cost of the secret war. Even as the Rockefeller commission is in full swing the Cold War overshadowed everything. In the novel every step towards the light seems to be accompanied by an encroaching darkness, the siege mentality is inescapable. The desire to maintain secrets and hide criminality and protect reputations, (the cover up), versus a desire to know the truth, however, painful or embarrassing, this is the battleground of this novel.
The Coldest Warrior delves into the dark recesses of American history but the Rockefeller commission is a sign that bad as things get there is always a desire within the American soul for truth:
“This Jack, is the American paradox. We are a nation that sets a high ethical standard, but we lapse into cycles of disclosure, umbrage, outrage and mea culpa, followed by recidivist behaviour that brings on another cycle of outrage and mea culpa.”
In Britain there never would have been a public enquiry in the 1970s, no investigation of Porton Down, no disclosure of the death of a scientist. There are always bad patriots but the cover-up is the worse crime because it stains the nation and America always has dissenting voices, whether that gets to the truth may be another story:
“The French, the Soviets, even the English practice common sense. But we get all knotted up in right and wrong.”
The character who says this means it as a criticism but it is America’s saving grace. It’s no stretch to say that this novel is a labour of love for Paul Vidich, nor to say that’s it’s been a long time in the making. It’s a very personal piece because it relates to his family history, he witnessed the distress and destruction wrought by Olson’s death. However, Vidich decided to tell this story not from the family perspective, or that of an outsider, but through an internal investigation within the CIA. It’s a triumph of the novel that it gives us a story imbued with psychological depth and emotional intensity and yet distanced enough to be balanced. This is a measured interpretation of what might have happened in real life and the most logical way the story could have been told as an espionage novel. This novel portrays the thinking of CIA insiders, those there in 1953 and the investigators years later, as well as the devastated family. Wilson’s death has ramifications through time, it impacts on society.
If there’s a better spy novel this year espionage fiction fans will be able to count themselves very lucky indeed. The Coldest Warrior rings true, it’s not about the game it’s about exposing the raw emotional core of the story, the wounds opened up by living with deceit and lies. It’s not just that this is a mesmerising story drawn from life, it’s also an insightful dissection of the psychopathy of the Cold War; the perversion of patriotism, inbred paranoia, self-doubt, doubt of others, learned betrayal, and skewed sense of morality that grew out of the idea that there was no peace footing in the post-WWII shadow world. As Vidich alludes to in his preface if you train people in deception and lying, and even the idea of murder by necessity/with justification what kind of secret guardians, what kind of Agency would you expect to get?
Vidich is the author of two previous espionage novels set in 1950s America featuring spy GeorgeMueller, An Honorable Man (2016) and The Good Assassin (2017). These novels established Vidich as a writer of intelligent and entertaining spy thrillers. The Coldest Warrior is a step up again, this novel has heart, a profound understanding of the human consequences of the secret war. This is a fiction, it’s goal is not to uncover the actual events as they occurred but to examine their impact. The best spy stories are always about emotions, love and grief and other powerful motivators of our behaviour. This is more important than the spying and the whizzes and bangs. That depth puts this novel up there with works by le Carré, McCarry, and the very best spywriters. The emotional intensity and fierce intelligence of this tale make it a tense read, it is a thought provoking drama.
Did Dr. Wilson jump? Did he fall? Or, was he pushed? The Coldest Warrior opts for the latter, elucidating the psychology of the spy world, of treason masked as patriotism, of putting ideology over family and friends over morality and any innate sense of right or wrong. What this novel also does is see the perpetrators of vile acts as human beings, no cardboard cut outs, no caricatures. This insight is a sign of why the spy novel is still relevant. I know it’s fiction, there are plenty of history books and factual accounts that go into what we do know of the death of Olson, but as le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor series spoke to 1970 Britain this book rounds out the picture of post war America. Think of the way 1984 threw light on the workings of Soviet communism.
When the Inquisition murdered Giordano Bruno the first thing they did was show him the instruments of torture, then they left him to think about it. Once begun imagine the mental anguish awaiting the next torture session. The Inquisition understood the value of psychological torture, techniques refined by the Russians, the Chinese and the western powers in the twentieth century and this novel feeds into that larger story. As early as 1959 Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate, dealt with the subject of brain washing, (the North Koreans), but the US was into mind altering, psychological manipulation and ‘special’ programmed aimed at the mind for years before that, including LSD experiments, (project MKUltra was sanctioned in 1953).
Dr. Olson fell/jumped/was pushed out of a window at the Statler hotel in NYC. The novel opens on a fateful November night much like that. A hotel room on the ninth floor of the Harrington in Washington DC, to all intents and purposes a CIA safe house. Philip Treacher has lied to his wife for the first time tonight, she knows what he does, his life is built on the lies he tells, but this bothers him. The other side of a two way mirror two men are sharing a room. One is asleep, the other, Dr Charles Wilson is agitated and disturbed. Treacher watches, he takes a phone call from Herb Wiesenthal, the decision has been made, two men will be arriving shortly, make sure they have access to the room. Wilson went AWOL earlier in the day, the security guys had to pick him up, barefoot, agitated, out of control. The Agency needs to contain this situation, there’s no other way, it’s been sanctioned upstairs, a higher pay grade, there’s no time for regret or sentiment, this is duty. Turn off the camera that’s focused on room.
“Michael, this will be unpleasant. You’re a professional. A patriot. A good Catholic. The man next door is dangerous. Unstable. You saw him in the television studio barefoot and upset. You were kind enough to find his wallet. It’s all very unfortunate, but very necessary.”
And so it happens.
The Russell Senate Office Building twenty-two years later. The director of the CIA is about to perjure himself in front of a committee, senior officers Jack Gabriel, James Coffin and George Mueller, watch from the back of the room. Wilson’s widow and son are there too. The chair asks:
“Your testimony is that Dr Wilson, an employee of the Army, was never an employee of the CIA?”
“It is, Mr Chairman.” [Director of Central Intelligence]
A week ago the DCI could have made that statement believing it to be true but a memo had come to light. Experiments were carried out on several men at a retreat in Maryland involving administering LSD to unknowing subjects, Dr. Wilson among them. Later the DCI wants to know the truth, he asks Gabriel to investigate, keep Mueller and Coffin informed, not the FBI or the Whitehouse:
“You get to the bottom of this.”
So it begins, lines are drawn, who is on who’s side? allegiances will change, and all the while this weighs on Gabriel, the Director, of course the family, but also the men who were there twenty plus years ago, those who don’t believe in washing dirty linen in public.
Gripping, urgent and perceptive. A remarkably powerful novel.
Paul Burke 5/5*
The Coldest Warrior by Paul Vidich
9780857303332 No Exit Press Paperback 27th February 2020