A Timeless Spy Thriller From Eastern Europe
William Maz’s Cold War-era 'Bucharest Dossier' eerily evokes today's crisis with Russia
William Maz’s debut spy novel, The Bucharest Dossier, takes us back to the last Cold War and the decline of Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe some three decades ago. The good old days? Not at all, the issues are eerily similar to what’s going on in the power play between Russia and the United States today. And that’s not good.
In this intriguing and coincidentally timely thriller, CIA spies are racing to track down Russian-inspired assassins. And a cruel dictator—in this case Romanian, not Russian—who is subjugating his people and killing anyone who stands in his way. The hero of the story, a CIA analyst named Bill Hefflin, ends up so disenchanted with his own team, and with the Russian agent that he has been running (or who has been running him maybe), that he goes rogue to take care of matters on his own.
The return of a rogue or unhappily retired agent to fix a very dire problem is, of course, a well worn trope in intelligence fiction, but Maz demonstrates just how well it can work.
His story opens in Romania in 1989. Just as now, the United States and Russia—then the Soviet Union—were vying against one another in Eastern Europe. How far will each side’s intelligence agencies go in achieving their goals? It’s a moment when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is promoting Glasnost (political liberalization) and Perestroika (economic reforms). The dissolution of the USSR is looming, but Stalinism and Big Brother are still operative in the Romanian capital, where the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, faces down the end of his 24-year reign with well-honed brutality. It’s no spoiler for readers familiar with events that Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, are captured and killed in a military uprising.
Maz deftly folds Hefflin and his other fictional characters into the historically accurate events of that fall and winter. And it’s no wonder: As it turns out, the author is clearly digging into his own past. Like his fictional protagonist, Maz is a Romanian of Greek heritage and came to the United States as a child. He and his alter ego also attended Harvard, where perhaps the parallels end. Hefflin is a spy; Maz studied medicine and went on to become an anesthesiologist with a fascination with writing fiction on the side.
Central to the story is Hefflin’s trauma stemming from memories of the old country, his dislocation and a yearning for a lost love. But the romance of returning to Romania is lost on the young CIA analyst when he arrives in Bucharest, capital of a police state with spies and informers everywhere. By now, however, the authoritarian state is crumbling from within.
Hefflin is present for Ceaușescu’s capture and too close for comfort during Ceaușescu’s summary execution. His sometime double agent, a KGB officer dubbed “Boris,” controls the Romanian military rebels and makes sure Ceaușescu is quickly dispatched.
“The firing squad!” Hefflin remonstrates to Boris when he realizes his operative has more power than he had expected. “But there hasn’t even been a trial yet.”
“There will be,” says Boris. “It should not take long.”
“We are in the middle of a revolution, my young friend,” Boris continues. “You think Marie Antoinette got a fair trial?”
Hefflin is disillusioned and paralyzed. He shrinks to the back of the kangaroo courtroom out of the view of filmmakers stationed there to document the bloody demise of Ceaușescu and his wife, “relieved that the camera had not panned around to show his face.” The execution of the dictator comes at the end of a sobering revelation for Hefflin, who the CIA had sent to Romania on temporary duty , in part to seek to search for those who murdered his beloved mentor back at Harvard, Professor Andrei Pincus. The professor, who had finagled Hefflin’s acceptance into the university, had also been the silent hand behind Hefflin’s recruitment by the agency.
We share a secret with Hefflin--there is more to his return to Romania than anyone knows--he’s gone back with some trepidation. His overriding reason for going back is deeply personal and has nothing to do with the mission: He has lost contact with Pusha, the first real love of his life, who dropped out of touch after he left Romania. Under constant surveillance, his search could be deadly, and all he has to go on are fragments of childhood memories.
The dilemma Hefflin faces could not be more timely: Can you ever go home again? And after so much traumatic change, what does “home” mean anymore? It’s a question, of course, facing millions of Ukrainians who have fled with their lives in Vladimir Putin’s genocidal rampage across their country.
The Bucharest Dossier is a fast-moving page-turner and a cynical look at geopolitics that makes it a challenge to sort out the good guys from the bad along the way. It is also a loving portrait of a young man’s hazy memory of home and the mesmerizing force of a first love. That part of the story is wrapped up in a tale that is so romantic—and a bit fanciful—that we end up wishing that true love can really triumph.
As much as I would like to argue that the romance angle in the story is too neat and perfect, I felt at the same time attracted to it. Some of the spycraft may go overboard at times and the naivete of our hero may stretch belief once in a while, but The Bucharest Dossier is a refreshing relief from today’s oppressive gloom and doom. We could use more happy endings these days, which in this case, means the bad guys get what they deserve—then and now.
Former Washington Post, Newsday and A.P. reporter and editor Peter Eisner is the author of a series of nonfiction World War Two books, most recently MacArthur’s Spies, The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II.