Q. You have said that The Reluctant Spy is based on the life of a real person. Who was he?
A. George Koval was an Iowa-born American scientist on The Manhattan Project who acted as a Sovietintelligence officer until he disappeared in 1948. The American government did not even suspect that such a person existed until secret documents were made available after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Nothing was known about him except his code name, Delmar, and the suggestion that he may have divulged ‘the recipe’ for atom bomb triggers. It wasn’t until after his death in 2006, until Putin awarded him a posthumous hero’s medal, that any details of his astonishing biography became known.
Q. So the book is a biography?
A. No. I thought it would be interesting to tweak history and have suspicion turned on an invented character, loosely based on Koval, named George Koyne. The story is set after Koyne goes missing but before his secrets are known. The protagonist, Treasury Agent Dave Levitan follows the scientist’s trail and is amazed when his investigation reveals Koyne’s bizarre origins. During the final days of the story, with the balance of world power at stake, Levitan and Koyne confront each other during a voyage on an ocean liner. The Reluctant Spy is historical fiction, a mystery, a spy story and an exploration of conscience.
Q. You set the story in September of 1948. What was it about that particular time that interested you?
A. The Berlin Airlift, Israel’s war of independence and the 1948 Presidential election campaign were ongoing at that moment. The second half of the Twentieth Century would have been quite different if any of those three conflicts had gone in a different direction. The characters in The Reluctant Spy personify the issues underlying the conflicts and, because of the circumstances, both men have the ability to influence the course of history.
Q. Could you describe how the book was written?
A. My first draft was written from Koyne’s point of view. I was intrigued by the moral dilemmas, the issues of loyalty and obedience that any spy confronts. In Koyne’s case, there was a life-changing event, a sudden alteration in his circumstances that shaped his future. After I finished the initial draft, I realized it would be a more interesting tale if the truth were revealed slowly and if the issues could be crystalized as a clash between two men of conscience who have a chance to make a difference. I invented Dave Levitan as the detective and became so intrigued by his back story that I stopped work on The Reluctant Spy and brought Levitan to life in The Subversive Detective, a mystery story about a Nazi sabotage plot in World War Two. After I was satisfied that Levitan could handle a man as complex as Koyne, I returned to the Reluctant Spy and wrote the story as an extended chase that brings the two together in a memorable setting.
Q. Which is more important to you, understanding history or understanding people?
A. I don’t think you can understand individuals apart from their societies and the political context of their lives. I want to understand how external events, “the news” influences our decisions about right and wrong, the moral dimensions of our lives.