Donald Morrison: The Manhattian candidate


NEW YORK — My introduction to the world of spy thrillers began with "The 39 Steps," British novelist John Buchan's rollicking 1915 yarn of double-agents and a wrongfully accused hero. I wasn't reading back then, of course, so my actual introduction to the masterpiece was Alfred Hitchcock's clever 1935 film version.

I did find the book a few years ago — and was appalled by Buchan's ethnic and nationalist stereotypes, typical for 1915 but offensive to the modern ear.

That's the problem with spy thrillers. They are prisoners of their time, vulnerable to upheavals in politics, technology and sensibilities. I pretty much gave up on the genre in the 1990s, when its richest vein of inspiration — the Cold War — came to an end. Writers then scrambled for other subjects, like climate catastrophe, terrorism, corporate perfidy. But without the evil Soviet Union as a foil, the spy thriller somehow lost its mojo. I lost interest.

Well, I just found it again. The other day our president felt it necessary to declare that he is not a Russian agent. Let that sink in.


He said it was all a hoax and a misunderstanding. Some people say otherwise, as does a growing list of contacts between his staff and Russian agents, his odd refusal to allow transcripts of meetings with Russia's president, and his uncanny gift for advancing the Moscow policy agenda.

Rather than get bogged down in those details, I'd like to make a prediction: Our president's alleged ties to Russia will be the greatest thing for spy thrillers since the invention of invisible ink.

The stampede has already begun. An early entry is David Pepper's "The People's House," in which Russia tries to hijack the presidential vote in key Midwestern states. Pepper, head of Michigan's Democratic Party, should know about that.

Another is "The Kingfisher Secret," which has the president's former wife, a onetime East European sports champion named Ivana, of course, recruit him for the Russians. The author of this work goes by the name "Anonymous," surely to avoid assassination.

Also worth mentioning is the terrific TV series "Occupied," just starting its second season on Netflix, about a fictional Russian takeover of democratic Norway. That happens at least partly because the U.S. withdraws from NATO, an event our real-life president and his Russian counterpart would cheer.

Assaults on democracy have a rich history in spy fiction. Tom Clancy's 1991 thriller "The Sum of All Fears," later a movie, features a nuclear-fueled plot to replace democratic Europe with a neo-Nazi dictatorship. Len Deighton's 1962 "The Ipcress File" has the Soviets using sophisticated psychological tricks to neutralize British politicians. That was back when communist "brainwashing" was a big concern in the West.

Brainwashing also figured in Richard Condon's "The Manchurian Candidate," twice made into a movie. The 1959 book and '62 film (with Frank Sinatra) centers on a Soviet plan to put Moscow's man in the White House, though the 2004 remake substitutes an evil corporation for the Soviets.

Indeed, espionage thrillers mirror our changing insecurities. John Buchan's spies were pre-World War I Germans. The villains of "The President is Missing," James Patterson's recent collaboration with former President Bill Clinton, are shadowy jihadis backed by two other modern-day nightmares, Saudi Arabia and, um Russia.


Which brings us to our current president. As the press and the Mueller investigation uncover ever more links between him and Russia, tenuous or not, expect the thriller genre to follow closely. There will be more plots involving Russian hacking, election interference, social media manipulation, money laundering, sexual and financial blackmail, and other Moscow-themed fears. Also more tycoons-turned-politicians, problematic presidential kids, rogue porn stars, complex stratagems to defang NATO and reconstitute the old Soviet Union.

Of course, this trend may disappear as soon as our president does. Too much competition — from the headlines. Truth is not just stranger than fiction, but often more interesting.

Consider "The Manchurian Candidate." Richard Condon's protagonist, a captured U.S. soldier re-programmed by the Soviets to kill on command, is sent home to assassinate a presidential candidate so Moscow's favorite can win.

The tale is not entirely fiction. Documents released in the 1970s show that, a year before the book was published, the CIA launched a behavior-modification project to create unsuspecting assassins. The effort was inconclusive and later abandoned.

Until, that is, 2012, when Russians agents hack into CIA computers, get their hands on the findings and use them to train a New York real estate tycoon to

Sorry, you'll have to await my forthcoming thriller.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and Advisory Board member.


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