A Game of Spies
With my soon-to-be-published first novel off to the presses came the question: What next?
My editor posed the question over lunch. I had no answer ready. Instead, I thought out loud. My riff on The Eye of the Needle had turned out pretty well. The Day of the Jackal was another nifty spy thriller. Maybe I could write a sequel to A GATHERING OF SPIES, set a few years later in the 1950s, and this time use Jackal as a jumping-off point.
Later that day, the editor called my agent and made a deal for ‘Untitled Altman Sequel’. I was learning quickly that in publishing, pitching something as a spin on something else isn’t a drawback – it can often be a selling point, as it allows the publisher to position the novel in a known niche.
But I really had been just thinking out loud. I had no book, and no ideas beyond what I’d said. For the next half a year, I researched, interviewed people, and racked my brains, tried to figure out what the hell to write. But the book wouldn’t come. Sometimes that happens. (Many years later, the book came at last in a different form – see THE ART OF DEVIL)
At last, I called my editor and admitted I was beat. The book I’d rather write, I said, was based on a true story I remembered reading in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. When I told my editor the story, he agreed that there was a book in it. And so the switch was made. Luckily, the signed contract for ‘Untitled Altman Sequel’ left us both some wiggle room.
A brief paragraph from Shirer’s book had made a powerful impression on me. In 1940, a German plane carrying secret plans for the imminent attack on the Low Countries had crashed in Belgium. The French and Low Countries had been made aware of the plans – but had wondered: Was it too good to be true? Were the plans real, or a German deception?
This kernel of an idea combined with Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From In the Cold, which I had recently read for the first time – and suddenly, I had my second book.
It would not technically be a sequel. Instead, it would be a sort of soft prequel, featuring some secondary characters from A GATHERING OF SPIES. It would take place during the so-called Phoney War of 1940, after war had been declared but before real hostilities had commenced. And it would answer a question posed in the book Strange Victory by historian Ernest R. May: If the Allies in May 1940 were in most respects militarily superior, were not badly led, and did not suffer from demoralization (not yet, at least), then what accounts for Germany’s six-week triumph?
A Game of Spies featured complex flawed characters and the gray tones of an old movie. It was perhaps more original than my first book, if also perhaps less crowd-pleasing. Critics loved it. (“You can’t bribe reviews like this!” my agent crowed at the time.) Sales fell short of A GATHERING OF SPIES. But I had gotten not only to indulge my literary bent, but to prove to myself and others that I was more than a one-trick pony.
When the question of a follow-up came around again, I knew what I wanted to do. I’d been filling in the gaps in my spy novel education, and had discovered Eric Ambler. His tales of fish-out-of-water entangled in morally-gray international intrigue had fired my imagination. I was ready to take a stab at my first contemporary spy thriller: DECEPTION.