Saturday, December 31, 2011

In the Time of the Assassins


So here we are, hours from 2012.  Will it bring fiscal redemption, a stock market surge, the decompression of sovereign debt?  Is the rapture genuinely imminent?  For those whose chips are properly positioned?

We shall certainly see.  Meanwhile, the world we live in is becoming more and more Byzantine, literally, as in the stagnant and ominous final stages of the Ottoman Empire.  There seems to be a bomb under construction in every basement, a blade behind every arras.  Send whatever you can spare to The Department of Homeland Security.

In 2003 Tree Farm Books published a novel that anticipated a lot of this.  The Nature of the Beast came out of perhaps twenty years of mixing it up with spooks, matching wits with the gentleman spymasters who put together the early decades of the CIA -- my preparation for writing The Old Boys.  The Beast, as shocked members of my wife's family soon came to refer to the book, made its way on several levels.  It was a chase -- a recently retired senior officer from the Agency, Owen Rheinsdorf, was tasked by his patrician ex-boss, Munson Dickler, to hunt down and deal with an operative under contract to the Agency who seemed to be running amok.  The operative on whom this contract was being put out was a young -- late twenties -- socially primitive backwoods kid with a predilection for the young.  Pruitt Rumsey was a child molester. 

Still, the Agency hated to part company with Pruitt because of his uncanny inventiveness and efficiency when it came to his specialty, wet work.  Rumsey was a natural, the sort of assassin his case officer at the Agency could send out confident that the target wouldn't be a problem much longer.  An obituary was all but guaranteed inside of a month or so, usually specifying natural causes.  But Rumsey had recently been arrested and thrown into a local jail for losing control of himself with a seductive little girl, and now he threatened to talk freely unless the Agency intervened.

All this seemed startling -- over-the-top -- when the novel appeared.  It was generally ignored.  The larger theme -- the ethical consequences of a life in the shadows of uncontrolled intelligence work, nicely elaborated during the exchanges between Rheinsdorf and Dickler over the course of the narrative -- never seemed to become apparent to the casual reviewers.  But intelligence professionals understood.   "You have truly captured the dark world of intrigue and crafted a splendid plot," John Waller, himself a much-published historian and for many years the Inspector General of the CIA, wrote me upon discovering the book.

As it happened, throughout the eighties and nineties I formed close friendships with several CIA contract operators who actually took on the sort of missions at which my villain Pruit Rumsey had been so adept.  One, a mild-seeming retiree whose origins were undetectable in several languages, with whom we often overnighted in Connecticut enroute to Manhattan, encountered The Nature of the Beast as he attempted to fight off a cancer.  I got a posthumous note from him thanking me for writing the book, which he maintained he read and reread throughout his terminal months.  Somehow, it provided him a lot of comfort.

So literature can involve some unanticipated rewards.  One now presents itself.  One of the astonishing side-effects of computerization is to permit small publishers like Tree Farm Books to offer a digitized edition, either PDF or HTML format, of both The Nature of the Beast and The Old Boys directly, at a gratifying discount from the cost on Amazon.  Just go to the following variation of the Tree Farm Books site and bring your credit card.  Pruitt Rumsey will all but land in your lap.  The address: .

Good reading.  We will be in touch before long.


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