With the subsiding of the Cold War at the end of the ’80s, the heyday of the spy thriller appeared to be over. But thanks to recent events in the news (and several seasons of The Americans), suddenly we’re all au fait with safe houses, double and even triple agents, moles, fake identities, switching cars (or Ubers), kompromat, and other staples of espionage. John Le Carré, the master of the genre, is even bringing back his most famous character, quiet spymaster George Smiley, in a new novel after an absence of 25 years.
The renewed relevance of the cat-and-mouse world of international espionage is uncannily brought home The Twentieth Day of January, a solid example of the genre originally written by British author Ted Allbeury in 1980 and just reissued in the U.S.
The plot, considered unlikely at the time, is enough to give one the unsettling feeling Allbeury was a sort of literary Marty McFly, writing towards a future only he knew. A British agent, MacKay, recognizes the new American president’s chief of staff and former campaign manager from an old report suggesting he might be obligated to a Russian agent. MacKay prepares a dossier which prompts a discreet investigation by intrepid, ultra-professional CIA agent Peter Nolan into connections between the president’s team and the Soviets and a possible “conspiracy to distort the due process of an election.”
Together, Nolan and MacKay painstakingly accumulate testimony and documentary evidence to build their case while trying with varying degrees of success to protect their witnesses, and themselves, from KGB hitmen. As the evidence mounts, the CIA chief, Harper, ponders what to do with their findings—which politicians will try to bury the investigation, which will assist it, and what the revelation will do to faith in American democratic institutions.
Like fellow espionage novelists Le Carré and Ian Fleming, Allbeury’s knowledge of the workings of secret services was gained the hard way—by doing the job. He served in Britain’s Special Operations Executive in World War II and in intelligence during the Occupation, then as an officer in MI6, Britain’s equivalent of the CIA, running agents between East and West Germany. At one point he was cornered in a farmhouse by KGB agents, who left him nailed to the kitchen table. Later his children were kidnapped and abducted to South America.
Understandably ready for a quieter life, Allbeury moved into advertising, only turning to writing in 1973 at the age of 56—a late spurt of productivity that led to 40 novels and a successful writing career before he died in 2006. He avoids the easy us-and-them over-simplifications of a Tom Clancy, instead exploring, like Homeland, the moral ambiguities on all sides and the toll these fluctuating ethical boundaries take on agents.
There are many jaw-dropping passages, none moreso than when Allbeury’s describes the new president. Identified by the Soviet spy chief as a man who “wishes to be in politics for business reasons,” the vain and superficial Powell, says a Washington insider, “just came out of nowhere. He was one of six or seven possible runners. A complete outsider, then—boom, he was the Republican candidate,” with the added appeal of not being a professional politician. Meanwhile, Powell’s wife, who doesn’t like the political world and from whom he leads a separate life, remains in the family home with their young son instead of moving to Washington.
The new president, according to his campaign manager-cum-sleeper agent Andrew Dempsey, enjoys the trappings of office “like a kid in a toy shop” but is somewhat fuzzier on policy beyond promising “to slash taxes, cut unemployment, and achieve peace on earth.” Says Dempsey, “He doesn’t know how he’s going to do it but, by Jesus, he’s going to do it.” Whatever Powell’s priorities are, his Russian backers know what they want from him, namely “a peace pact, troops withdrawn from Europe, trade both ways,” and soon the president-elect is toeing the isolationist line. “[F]or too long,” Powell says, “the United States has been expected to act as fireman for every bush-fire in the world. We have our own bush-fires of inflation and unemployment.” Just last week, addressing the North American Building Trades conference, Trump said much the same: “I’m not and I don’t want to be president of the world. I’m the president of the United States, and from now on it’s going to be America first. We’re going to bring back our jobs.” That’s not to say that Allbeury’s crystal ball was entirely clear: Unlike the present incumbent, Powell is youngish, fit, handsome, and a former junior professor at Yale.
And how does Allbeury predict it will all resolve? What happens if the dogged agents prove that the President was elected with covert Russian assistance and that he was generally if not specifically complicit? That would be telling, but as Nolan observes, “Congress would turn their backs on him. He would be a cypher, and the whole country would be in turmoil for four years.” Worse, “even if … Powell is impeached,” Harper says, “those bastards have won. The American people won’t ever be able to trust the system any more, not just the politicians but the whole bloody set-up.” We must hope Allbeury’s crystal ball was cloudy about that too.