‘The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface.’ That’s how a CIA manual from the early 1950s instructed its agents in the ultimate sanction. And that’s what happened in 1953 to a scientist who may have been involved in MK-ULTRA, the American bio-warfare project which attempted mind control through psychoactive drugs.
The Coldest Warrior picks up the thread of this story a quarter-century later in the mid-1970s. This skeleton is rattling so loud that it threatens to come crashing out of the cupboard and ruin the careers of agency operatives – now at director level – and the politicians who quietly sponsor them behind the scenes. If the original intervention wasn’t quite officially sanctioned then covering it up requires the involvement of a deniable black-ops unit. Hence the ‘honest spy’ who is tasked with shining a light on these shabby proceedings finds himself, his sources and even his family at risk as he gets nearer to the truth.
This book suffers somewhat from the same problem as many thrillers which are based on real events. It sits slightly uncomfortably in that space between the real world – where an American government employee being shoved out of a hotel window by CIA agents is indeed shocking – and the fictional world of espionage adventure where such events are small beer indeed.
This is a low-key investigation into the murky territory of inter-agency rivalry. A quiet menace pervades the narrative but it’s not a rip-roaring page-turning action-packed thriller by any means.
I struggled to make a connection with any of the characters, or to believe that the protagonist was genuinely at risk. Nor were there any particularly shocking revelations; perhaps because we’ve become desensitised to the murderous behaviour of intelligence agencies towards their own citizens. And who is surprised when a politician plots and schemes?
So this was an intellectually engaging read, but not an intense or involving one. It’s well researched and easy enough to read, but offers few of the poetic moments of grit or gravitas which bring real emotional impact to the espionage genre.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Coldest Warrior by Paul Vidich is available at Amazon