Grand Central, 1984 (2006 mass-market re-issue), 543 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-446-35858-3
A generation after the end of the Cold War, the past already feels like an alternate universe: With the advantage of hindsight, we now understand how weak the Communist forces were, even at the height of the great transatlantic eyeball-staring contest. It’s strange, after seeing the way Russia imploded after the end of the USSR, to read about all-powerful Soviet forces and the valiant attempts by US secret forces to keep them in their places.
Nonetheless, that’s what we get with The Talbot Odyssey, a deeply paranoid throwback to the Cold War that survives even today in bookstores because it was an early novel by someone whose reputation continues to sell books. At the exception of his brand-new The Gate House, this novel marks the end of my effort to read the entire main-line DeMille back-catalogue. I’m not sure I would have bothered otherwise: Reading about the binary certitudes of the Cold War may be a comfort for those who think today’s world is shaded in too much gray, but it seems increasingly irrelevant.
Still, the Cold War isn’t too much of a bad time to get back to. After all, the stakes were high and simple: the survival of western civilization against an enemy seemingly determined to enslave America –and presumably provide free single-payer health-care whether Americans wanted it or not. 1984 was one of the last good years of the Cold War: Gorbachev would ascend in 1985, and after 1986’s Chernobyl, the myth of Soviet technological superiority would ring increasingly hollow. It’s also noteworthy that the closest we ever came to nuclear war was not in 1962, but 1983: Read up on Stanislav Petrov and Able Archer 83 to learn more.
So it’s no surprise if The Talbot Odyssey ends up being a muscular tale of espionage set in mid-eighties New York and Long Island, filled with brutal Soviet operatives, able American heroes, quite a few traitors, and a drawn-out ticking-bomb climax. It involves the weight of decades of clandestine operations reaching out to the 1940s, tangled family loyalties, multiple identities, high-technology threats and a little bit of romance. The backbone of the tale is about the unmasking of a deep mole in the US intelligence community and the hero is a policeman whose traits echo most of DeMille’s latter protagonists, but the only thing you really need to know is that it’s a superb late-period Cold War thriller, one that fully uses most of the plot mechanics of the genre and seldom hesitates to liquidate its own characters. One of the book’s standout sequences is a drawn-out torture scene in which a fairly sympathetic character comes face-to-face with a double-agent: it’s a terrifying sequence, and it ends on a spectacular note.
The cast of characters is large and not always clearly distinguishable and the book’s opening third meanders quite a bit in an effort to establish everyone’s complex lineage and relationships. No surprise, then, if The Talbot Odyssey feels like a meaty saga rather than light entertainment: This is one book that’s perfect for long flight or other uninterrupted reading moments. It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment to say that it’s a great book for its time, but there’s really no other way to explain that a novel like this couldn’t be written today: The overdone ruthlessness of the Soviets would be a tough sell now, and we know from our own history that the threat that weighs on every characters’ shoulders has not come to pass. Quite a bit of the novel plays upon genre espionage conventions, and so we get almost every trick in the thriller source-book except for hidden twins –perfect for a mid-eighties marketplace in which nearly every single suspense novel dealt with Communist spies, but not so much today when a “historical” novel would have to stick closer to accepted facts.
Nonetheless, it’s a heck of a read and another good entry in the DeMille oeuvre. By now, it has acquired a comfortable patina of quasi-alternate reality, and can be enjoyed not as a possible story, but as a fine example of once-possible genre fiction. It almost makes one nostalgic for that kind of fiction, when America-the-virtuous was a credible proposition, and there were implacable enemies up to Western Civilization’s standards.