Where Failure Ends with a Bullet: The Genesis of "A Single Spy"

Chris Schluep on March 28, 2017

Single-Spy225Do you ever wonder how an author develops an idea into a full-blooded novel? In this exclusive essay, William Christie describes how an idea and a character latched onto him and wouldn't let him go.

The Genesis of A Single Spy

By William Christie

Where did A Single Spy come from?  Quite simply, I'm a thriller writer and a history addict.  But this was the first time I've combined the two into a single book. The genesis took place in 1999, when Yale University Press published Professor John Erickson's military history: Stalin's War With Germany. I would like to stress that Professor Erickson's work, though monumental in scale and brilliantly researched during the Cold War before the Russian military archives were opened to the West, is not light reading by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, the kind of tome that a hard-core history addict reads for pleasure. 

And buried deep within the second volume, The Road to Berlin, I found my diamond.  A five-page account (in over 1,100 pages of text) of Operation Long Jump, a German plan to assassinate Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill at the Teheran Conference of 1943. And how it was thwarted by a Soviet intelligence officer who had infiltrated German military intelligence.

I had never heard of such a thing, and that's a hard admission for a history addict to make. I tore through to the notes. Professor Erickson was honest enough to state that he had never been able to find any substantive official documentation on Operation Long Jump, other than the kind of propaganda stories about heroic Russian spies of the Great Patriotic War that the former Soviet Union loved to churn out. I suspect he included the account in his history because it was simply irresistible.

It was irresistible to me, also. Whenever I was doing other research, I looked for sources on Operation Long Jump. I never found any historical confirmation, other than Soviet intelligence accounts that were obviously fictionalized. The archives of German special forces, if in fact there had been any, vanished with the fall of Berlin. The legendary German commando Otto Skorzeny, who supposedly commanded Long Jump, always said that it had never taken place. But he would say that if it had failed, wouldn't he?

The consensus of retired British and American intelligence officers I spoke to was that the plot had never existed, but was a Russian ploy to have Roosevelt stay at the Soviet Embassy in Teheran, ostensibly for security reasons but actually so Soviet intelligence could bug his conversations and get a look at the American negotiating positions.

It was a classic intelligence wilderness of mirrors. And for me the perfect opportunity to write the historical novel I always dreamed of. A fictional story, yet absolutely correct in every single historical detail.

I was on the road, but I still had to find that single spy. In Professor Erickson's account, he was a Russian who had learned fluent German growing up near the ethnic German settlement of Helenendorf in Soviet Azerbaijan. And in the various Soviet accounts a typical young communist hero. Which didn't really interest me. By definition, spies are not stable personalities. Intelligence agencies look for recruits who have the same attributes as con artists, yet are not pure sociopaths unable to follow orders, experience loyalty, or respond to discipline. As you might imagine, this is a relatively small pool within the human population. And one of the reasons the CIA, who first recruited among the Eastern Ivy League establishment and then after Vietnam favored corn-fed middle-American patriots, has never been very good at human intelligence.

As he grew in my mind Alexsi was a thief, not so much by choice but because you had to be a thief not to starve during both the Great Famine and the Great Terror in the Soviet Union in the early 1930's. The child who in school honors Comrades Lenin and Stalin not so much because he is a fervent believer, but to stay out of trouble. Such a boy, when chosen (or blackmailed) by Soviet Intelligence, would pass all their loyalty tests - where failure ends with a bullet - while still secretly being his own man and not theirs. 

I also knew that to make him explicable to the reader I had to catch him young. So there Alexsi was, with the entire bitter history of the mid-twentieth century taking place before his eyes.


William Christie's new novel is A Single Spy, available April 25th.


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