Too close for comfort

Almost 40 years ago, a British author wrote a prescient novel.

The Twentieth Day of January

“After they had proved that the president-elect was a reed that bent to Soviet winds, what then? What happened? Every solution spelt disaster. Deep depression for millions of people, a hundred McCarthys, all the words of 1776 made nought, the checks and balances exposed as a dream, and an icy tension between the two most powerful nations in the world.”

Substitute the word “Russia” for “Soviet” and the above paragraph could reflect the unspoken worries of California Congressman Adam Schiff. Congressman Schiff has been in the news lately since he’s the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee which has been trying very, very, very hard to investigate links between Russia and the Donald J. Trump presidential campaign/transition team. But there’s no Department of Mind Reading at Dover Books, so we can’t know what Mr. Schiff is thinking. And the paragraph is actually from The Twentieth Day of January by Ted Allbeury, a novel published in 1980. It’s the story of the investigation of president-elect Logan Powell, a businessman turned politician who was suborned by the Soviets for quite some time before winning — somehow — the highest office in the land.

Here’s another seemingly ripped-from-the-editorials passage: “The Americans were used to punch and counter-punch, not this cobweb attack that used the very basis of democracy as the means of its enslavement.” The Twentieth Day of January is really that sort of book: once you start reading, you’ll be compelled to write “OMG!” in the margins over and over, or highlight a ridiculous amount of text in your e-book edition. The parallels between this novel and America’s current national anxiety are thought- provoking and just plain surreal.

The late author, Ted Allbeury, was in British Intelligence during World War II, and it really shows in the delicious descriptions of spy-craft. There’s surveillance and counter-surveillance, scrambled telephone calls, a perfectly hygienic break-in that nonetheless arouses the honed instincts of the Soviet spy, and a drugged confession.

The novel also includes a short scene in the Soviet Union which has cameo appearances from Yuri Andropov and Rudolph Abel. Andropov was the head of the KGB and Abel was played by Mark Rylance in the movie Bridge of Spies.

The novel is as chilling as the television series The Americans and as frustrating as the slog through the daily news. It is also sad. One of the investigators tries to wrap his brain around what happened: “I can’t explain it, but this thing is different from anything the Soviets have ever tried. It’s kind of sick, in a special sort of way. It makes the Constitution itself look childish and pathetic.”

Author Allbeury lived an interesting and fulfilling life, according to various on-line sources. He passed away in 2005. Had he lived long enough to see our present state, would he have been surprised?

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