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The Charm School

The Charm School

Titel: The Charm School
Autoren: Nelson Demille
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    On occasion, I find myself agreeing with the
Washington Post
. About
The Charm School
, they wrote, “Contemporary Cold War fiction doesn’t get much better than this.”
    But the Cold War is over, so is
The Charm School
still relevant? That would be like asking if
war novel or historical fiction is relevant. One of the first war novels ever written,
The Iliad
, is still read almost 3,000 years after it first appeared, yet some recent novels about the Vietnam War and the Cold War have passed into oblivion, while others are still read and enjoyed. Obviously the question of relevance is not the right question. The question is, What makes for a good, timeless read? The answer, as we all know, is good writing, believable plot, interesting characters, realistic dialogue, suspense, mystery, romance, the battle between good and evil, and sometimes even a happy ending.
    We also know that war spawns hundreds of novels, most of them written after the last shot is fired. But the Cold War, for some reason, has not inspired any major retrospective novels since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It’s as though whatever was written contemporaneously, such as
The Charm School
, or Le Carré’s novels and Tom Clancy’s earlier books, or the thousands of other East versus West spy novels and nuclear Armageddon thrillers published between 1945 and 1989 are, and will be, the sum total of Cold War literature. The same can be said of motion pictures; with very few exceptions, Hollywood has not touched the subject in any significant way.
    To be sure, tomes of nonfiction books, school texts, and film documentaries have been written and produced about the Cold War since it ended, but as an art form, the subject seems dead.
    In any case, even if novelists don’t want to write about the Cold War, and movie producers don’t want to deal with the subject, what was written and filmed still has the ability to entertain and to educate.
    The Charm School
is set in the old Soviet Union. The time period is about 1988, and the premise, in a nutshell, is this: American Embassy personnel in Moscow learn of the existence of a Soviet spy school (the Charm School) that trains KGB agents to talk, act, look, and think like Americans. The reluctant instructors at the school are Americans—military pilots shot down and captured over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. These pilots have all been listed as missing in action and their fate has been unknown for over a decade when the story opens.
    I won’t give any more of the plot away, but I will say how I came upon this premise. I was an infantry officer in Vietnam in 1968. In April of that year, I was passing through Hue-Phu Bai Air Base and stopped in the Officer’s Club for a cold beer. The jet jockeys in the bar had rarely seen an infantry officer and I had rarely seen fighter-bomber pilots up close. They were interested in the life of a ground soldier, and I was interested in the life of jet pilots who dodged surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft fire between beers. Ironically, they thought my job was more dangerous than theirs, and I thought they must be suicidal to fly through Missile Alley on the way to Hanoi and Haiphong. In any event, during the conversation, one of the pilots remarked offhandedly about “the guys who were winding up in Moscow.” When I asked him what he meant, he explained, saying something like, “You know, the pilots who were seen bailing out safely and not showing up on POW lists or in Hanoi’s propaganda films.”
    I replied, “The North Vietnamese aren’t necessarily giving out all the names of the guys they capture.”
    This pilot replied, “No, because they’re sending some of them to Moscow. That’s the payoff for the Soviets giving them the SAM missiles.”
    I recall being somewhat amazed by this statement.
    The pilot continued, “The Red Air Force is using these guys to train their pilots in American tactics and in equipment capabilities.”
    It made sense and I nodded.
    Another pilot added, “Those guys will never come home.” He made a cutting motion across his throat.
    This exchange stayed with me and when the controversy concerning American missing in action grew throughout the 1970s and ’80s, I made a point of watching for anything that resembled what I’d heard at Hue-Phu Bai in 1968. But I never saw anything written and never heard anything said about this possibility. Still, it haunted me, and this idea became the
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