Warner, 1988, 630 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35320-5
As we uncertainly make our way through this fifth year of the current self-proclaimed “war on terrorism”, it’s good to remember that it wasn’t always so. That barely twenty years ago, everyone was looking anxiously at the Soviet Union as the potential source of nuclear Armageddon. Now, of course, we know better: The Soviet bear turned out to be a paper tiger, a third-world country with a nuclear arsenal and not much else.
But as of 1988, paranoia and cold war thrillers were still hot viable commodities. The Charm School, an espionage thriller set deep behind Russian borders, may seem a charming antiquity today —but it must first be viewed through its historical context before being criticized as a relic of another era.
It begins with an American student, as he makes his way through Russia on his own set of wheels. A chance encounter allows him to see something he shouldn’t know about, rolling the plot into motion. Before long, intelligence officers inside the American embassy are alerted to the horrible secret, and plunge neck-deep in a vast conspiracy. DeMille being DeMille (see Up Country), he can’t resist the temptation of using his novel as an excuse to travel and probe the depths of late-Cold War Russia.
The Charm School has both its good and less-good aspects, but one of the highlights of the book -indeed, one that has survived intact through what we now know of the defunct Soviet Union- is to be found in its depiction of the USSR as a joyless place barely subsisting above poverty levels. Through its investigating protagonists, DeMille takes us deep in Russia, from the tourist spots of Moscow (which, I gather, DeMille visited) to the rural countryside. DeMille nails down two important aspects of the experience; first, the sheer backward nature of a place where electricity is still a tenuous privilege; second, the domination of a totalitarian regime where anything can happen to anyone on a whim from the upper hierarchy. Nearly twenty years later, The Charm School is a time capsule dedicated to a defeated enemy: Let’s just hope that things are better over there today.
The not-so-good parts of the novel come when the Vast Conspiracy is exposed, the one that directly threatens America’s very own social fabric. Knowing what we know about the relative strengths of both societies, especially given the problems described by DeMille elsewhere in the novel, it seems unlikely that the Charm School could have had even a minimal impact on America. (Heck, some will say that home-grown Americans are far more likely to behave stupidly on their own than due to a Vast Conspiracy. Indeed, it remains to be seen if a Soviet-penetrated US would end up more like Canada than Russia.)
But it’s a constant strength of DeMille’s writing skill that we’re more than able to overlook this dated piece of hysteria. (If there’s something to overlook, naturally; readers with a good knowledge of Cold War clichés and rumors will just read the back cover blurb, guess the conspiracy, raise their shoulders and read on anyway.) The first half of the book is a quick and impeccable espionage thriller full of trade-craft details and slices of life in an embassy. Protagonist Sam Hollis is a tough-guy that clearly represents the early prototype for such latter-day DeMille heroes as Plum Island‘s John Corey or The General’s Daughter Paul Brenner, minus the polished sarcasm. The relationship he has with Lisa Rhodes is also emblematic of DeMille’s male/female character dynamics, though Up Country keeps coming back to mind thanks to the “travelogue in a totalitarian regime” aspect. (This being said, I keep going back up DeMille’s early bibliography and finding those elements over and over again. Don’t be surprised if an upcoming review ends up saying something about earlier characters being early drafts for Sam Hollis.)
If the novel suffers from a third-quarter slowdown (in which description takes the place of action), DeMille’s terrific prose is delicious enough to keep us reading without pause. Fans of the author already know all about the addictive nature of his plotting: The Charm School is no exception to the rule. It helps that the ending is both suspenseful and mournful, allowing both personal triumph and political hard edges. As a novel, The Charm School has aged relatively well, especially when compared to other similar novels of the era: It counterbalances its wilder moments with enough careful accuracy to make the final result seem worthwhile. Even today, it remains an essential piece of DeMille’s work.