Friday, April 3, 2015

Vintage Mystery #3

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2015. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written between 1960 and 1989 inclusive and be from the mystery category.

I read this for the category “V-6 Author who last name begins with the same letter as yours"

Category: True Crime | Espionage

The Spy in The Russian Club: How Glenn Souther Stole America's Nuclear War Plans & Escaped to Moscow – Ronald Kessler

This book is an account of how in the 1980s an American Navy intelligence officer became a successful spy who passed secrets about US nuclear war plans to the KGB, the spy service of the Soviet Union. The warning signs were there: lavish spending, wild behavior, and tip-offs from women who knew something was wrong. But the investigations by defense security services and the FBI were slow, haphazard and bungled so Souther had time to defect to the USSR. 

After three years in the worker’s paradise, he committed suicide. The obit in Izvestia was so adulatory and revealing as to what his accomplishments were that US officials sensed their nose was being rubbed in an intelligence coup. They took back bearings. Predictably, they claimed that the damage Souther caused was not nearly on the scale of Walker or Ames.

They would, wouldn’t they, as Mandy Rice-Davies, embroiled in a politics and sex scandal, would say.

A safe assumption is that there’s no telling how much damage Souther did to our national security in his – mercifully – short spying career. Kessler notes that Souther was buried with full military honors as a KGB major. The Soviets wouldn’t honor somebody who passed along chickenfeed.

Anyway, the focus of this book is on why Souther would turn traitor, defect to a third world country with nuclear weapons, and then top himself. Born six months after me in January 1957, he grew up in Indiana in the same atmosphere of riled-up anti-authority that many of us felt in the 1970s. His father was a stern, remote, quarrelsome capitalist so Souther was angry. He was angry at dad. He was angry about The Capitalist System oppressing the little guy. When he entered the Navy, he hated the way officers treated sailors (what do rebellious guys expect in the military –hugs?). Though he was always popular and the life of the party, he saw himself as a misfit and outcast, not like other people.

His anti-social ways made him act strangely. Kessler tells a lot of stories of Souther’s sordid behavior that people just seemed to shrug off. He was arrested for assaulting a co-ed, knocking her down and biting her in the neck. Those who knew him on the Old Dominion campus divided into two camps: the disgusted and the tolerant. Amazing what excuses people will make for the guy at parties who always puts on a lamp shade.

Though bizarre behavior came from a natural lack of impulse control, he doubtless used his antics as a smokescreen. People would not see the reality beyond his clowning, his mask of the regular, if a little wild, guy. He mightly impressed women with his listening and consideration of gift-giving and taking on birth control responsibility. But the hail fellow and nice guy were masks. He would coldly let women down, shutting off his attention and affection as easily as turning off a lamp.

His first wife tipped off the authorities to his spying early in his career. But they dismissed her tip as the ranting of an angry wife, thus allowing Souther time and experience to gain better access to deeper secrets. Later background checks were rather perfunctory too. Other alienated girlfriends told them stories, only to the be accused by the authorities of being as bad as Souther was. Oh, well, water under the bridge now – as one FBI guy said, at least the ham-fisted FBI interview with Souther drove Suther to defect and stop his spying.

Kessler was a journalist and so does a good job of interviewing people who had extended interaction with Souther. Kessler admits the FBI and other agencies refused to talk to him and that although he exchanged letters with Souther, he never talked to him face to face.  I think this would be a good book for readers who like the higher class of true crime books and of course espionage buffs.

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