I read a lot of thriller novels in my youth. Some had scenes and phrases that’ve stuck with me over decades. The 1980 novel The Spike, by conservative journalists Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss, was hawkish on foreign policy (and ahead of its time in worrying about “disinformation”). A character named O’Reilly, modeled on Patrick Moynihan, calls some foreign leaders “retromingent reactionaries,” sparking outrage at the U.N. when delegates learn the first word means “backwards-urinating.” In recent years, when I’ve heard some on the right proudly label themselves “reactionaries,” I’ve mentally added that they’re “retromingent.”
When I heard the news that “Former Trump adviser Paul Manafort was removed from a plane at Miami International Airport before it took off for Dubai because he carried a revoked passport,” my first thought was how well that’d work in a political thriller. “The gray-haired man mopped his brow as the burly suits approached in the aisle,” might be the opening. “A TV screen blared war news from Ukraine, where he’d consulted for a pro-Russian party before returning to U.S. politics. Some things, he knew, weren’t covered by any presidential pardon.”
In Joseph Heywood’s 1987 novel The Berkut, Hitler secretly survives World War II after faking his suicide (but letting his wife, Eva Braun, kill herself). The fallen Führer flees with a few collaborators, who oddly aren’t all fanatical loyalists. This Nazi group is pursued by a squad of Soviet operatives (and, separately, by an American agent). The lead Soviet agent carries a badge conveying “Total Authority” to act on Stalin’s behalf. The Soviets capture Hitler, and Stalin consigns his enemy to a hellish existence in a cage hanging in a Kremlin dungeon.
Kahawa, a 1981 novel by Donald Westlake, offered a vivid glimpse of Idi Amin’s Uganda. In the story, which revolves around a train heist, the dictator’s brutality is supplemented by that of fictional Canadian mercenary Baron Chase, “a man so steeped in his own villainy that evidences of his evil now only amused him.” Years later, I’d be reminded of that character by Donald Trump’s affinity for the name Barron, given to his son and to fictional spokesman John Barron.
In Tom Mix and Pancho Villa, a 1984 novel by Clifford Irving, the film star and the revolutionary are involved in tumult on the U.S.-Mexico border in 1913. Mix was known to me from an excellent film-history class at Newtown High School in Queens. George S. Patton as a young officer is memorably portrayed, along with a fictional Mexican tough guy he confronts. Irving adeptly mixed fact and fiction, a skill he put to less-felicitous use in the 1970s when he went to prison for his role in a fraudulent Howard Hughes autobiography.
Steal the Sun’s an excellent 1981 novel by A.E. Maxwell, or Ann Maxwell; I didn’t know the author’s a woman until years after reading the book. In the final months of World War II, Finn, an intense American intelligence officer, is assigned to protect a cargo of uranium heading west for the new atomic bombs. This requires fending off foreign spies, including through hand-to-hand combat with a female Soviet agent in the desert. I remember a scene where Finn departs from his cat to take the mission, softly telling the animal there are “no guarantees.”
In retrospect, such novels must’ve been a significant factor in my youthful embrace of right-leaning politics, though it’s hard to disentangle cause and effect, as I also was likely drawn to the books by the opinions I was forming. Some of the thrillers I read, like The Spike, openly propounded an ideological view of current events; but even when less explicit, the thrillers’ tendency to present a dangerous world, past or present, fit well with a neoconservative hard line on national security.
The political divisions of the 1980s have been scrambled in the early-21st century. Republican hawkishness has regained some salience amid the Ukraine war, although sympathy for Russia as an “anti-woke” bastion remains a tendency in some parts of the right. Foreign-policy divergences between the center-left and the progressive-left are similarly formidable. With such flux, one hint of the future will be in novels over the next few years. Keep an eye on whether Russia, China or someone else emerges as the top villain on fiction shelves.
—Kenneth Silber is author of In DeWitt’s Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal and is on Twitter: @kennethsilber