The Coldest Warrior, by Paul Vidich

December 11, 2020 at 4:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  An investigation into the death of a scientist working for the CIA yields shocking results.

The year is 1975. Jack Gabriel, an Agency veteran, has submitted his retirement to the Director. But his departure is put on hold. Instead, he is tasked  with finding out the truth about the death, just over twenty years ago, of Charles Wilson.

Jack has always had a degree of ambivalence concerning his chosen profession.

Lawyer? Investment banker? College professor? Those were the careers he had contemplated, but still the allure of espionage drew him to her bosom. The cerebral challenge of the work, the immediacy of the problems and  their complexity, the urgent call to fight  the great Cold War against Communism. These were what drew him.

He reluctantly embarks on this investigation, only to find that every step of the way, obstacles are placed in his path.

Charles Wilson had been a family man, with a wife and children. Antony, the eldest, has never been able to accept the verdict of suicide in his father’s death.

“What happened!”Antony snapped. “He died. Fell or jumped. That’s pretty clear, clear as mud.”
Gabriel was impatient with Antony’s testiness. “We both believe someone needs to be held accountable.”
“Really?” Antony stared. “He suffered the killing love of his friends.”

Paul Vidich’s prose is salted with allusions to classic literature: At one point, a character remarks that “Men strut their time in power and then are  heard from no more.” Or, as Shakespeare says in MacBeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
*************
For me, this is one of the most genuinely shocking passages in all of Shakespeare’s works. Even in the tragedies, he  usually seems so life affirming. But here – a blank void of night, sheer nihilism.
**********
The Coldest Warrior is based on a true story. I knew that, going in. I’m interested in the field of intelligence work, and had encountered a description of the actual events in my reading. What I was not aware of was that this author, Paul Vidich, has a personal connection to these events. I won’t say any more here. He reveals all in the acknowledgement section that follows the novel’s conclusion.
**************
I will say, though, that this novel has a greater impact if you read it in conjunction with a viewing of Errol Morris’s Wormwood. Available on Netflix, this six part documentary film recounts the actual story of the death of Frank Olson and the subsequent investigation – or perhaps, one should say, the subsequent cover-up. Some reviewers have felt that Wormwood is longer than necessary, and that in places it drags and is repetitious.
*************
I thought it was excellent. For one thing, the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia was evoked in a way that was positively uncanny. It lay dark and heavy over the unfolding events of the story. For another, the extended interview material with Frank Olson’s son Eric was riveting. Eric Olson simply refuses to let go of this inquiry until those responsible for his father’s death are named and held accountable. Quite a few of the individuals involved are now deceased. No matter. Dead or alive, they must be made to take responsibility.
*********
I came away from Wormwood with enormous respect and compassion for  this man who, decades ago at the age of nine, suddenly and unaccountably lost his father. The Olson family has had more than its share of tragedy. But decades after his father’s death, Eric Olson is still fighting the good fight.
***************

 

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