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The new novel by acclaimed espionage author Paul Vidich explores the dark side of intelligence, when a CIA officer delves into a cold case from the 1950s—with fatal consequences.
In 1953, Dr. Charles Wilson, a government scientist, died when he “jumped or fell” from the ninth floor of a Washington hotel. As his wife and children grieve, the details of the incident remain buried for twenty-two years. With the release of the Rockefeller Commission report on illegal CIA activities in 1975, the Wilson case suddenly becomes news again. Wilson’s family and the public are demanding answers, especially as some come to suspect the CIA of foul play, and agents in the CIA, FBI, and White House will do anything to make sure the truth doesn’t get out.
Enter agent Jack Gabriel, an old friend of the Wilson family who is instructed by the CIA director to find out what really happened to Wilson. It’s Gabriel’s last mission before he retires from the agency and his most perilous. Key witnesses connected to the case die from suspicious causes, and Gabriel realizes that the closer he gets to the truth, the more his entire family is at risk.
Following in the footsteps of spy fiction greats like Graham Green, John Le Carré, and Alan Furst, Paul Vidich presents a tale—based on the unbelievable true story told in Netflix’s Wormwood—that doesn’t shy away from the true darkness in the shadows of espionage.
Paul Vidich is the acclaimed author of An Honorable Man and The Good Assassin, and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, LitHub, CrimeReads, Fugue, The Nation, Narrative Magazine, Wordriot, and others. He lives in New York.
A solid man of average height, not yet thirty years old, stood in the ninth-floor hotel room and placed the telephone in its cradle, ending a difficult conversation. His tuxedo was at odds with the room’s drab, charmless atmosphere, and he brushed hair from his forehead with the unconscious gesture of a man whose sense of entitlement was rattled. He walked to the window, sipping from the two fingers of scotch he’d poured into a paper cup, and gazed at the dark clouds that blanketed the resting city. A curse slipped from his lips: Shit.
Phillip Treacher pondered the lie that he had just told his wife to explain why he wouldn’t be joining her that night at the president’s Thanksgiving gala. He misled friends, misrepresented himself to neighbors, and regularly carried out assignments that required him to go dark or use an alias, but this was his first lie to his new wife.
She knew he worked for the CIA, and she had come to understand in the first months of their marriage that when he came home in a sullen mood, there had been a problem at work—and she knew not to ask. They had established boundaries for their conversations, and his grimace was a signal that he couldn’t answer her questions. But when he drank heavily at dinner, she guessed that a Soviet double agent had died and his harsh interrogation had been a success.
Treacher had tried to soften the blow by starting the conversation with a few questions about inconsequential things—her gown back from the tailor for the weekend gala. Does it fit? And gossip about who would be at the White House and who would not. Casual chat that he kept up heroically until she interrupted. What’s wrong? Where are you? He said something unexpected had come up and he wouldn’t be able to make it. Her silence was the longest of their marriage, and without saying more, he knew she would ask the question that he couldn’t answer. He felt a terrible responsibility to keep her in the dark about an urgent national security matter of acute sensitivity.
He considered letting her hold on to her shock and anger, but he felt the need to offer a plausible explanation that she could tell other guests who asked why she’d come alone. I’ve been called out of town. Regret, guilt, remorse. These were the feelings that he permitted himself in the moment of his deception. But he had not considered, even for a moment, describing what he was doing a few blocks away in the Hotel Harrington.
Treacher stared at the black telephone. He drained the scotch from his paper cup and crushed it in his big fist. Too short for college basketball, too light for football, too slow for baseball, he had tried tennis, track, even fencing, before he settled on Yale’s rowing team, which was a good match for his strong hands. He still raced one-man sculls at dawn before his late-sleeping wife, Tammy, woke, and he got an hour of grueling exercise on the Potomac before going to the office. Treacher tossed the crumpled cup into the wastebasket and turned his attention to the silvered smokiness of the room’s two-way mirror.
Between two queen-size beds there was a night stand with a forest green banker’s lamp, a telephone, and the afternoon’s tabloid, which had been folded in thirds after having been read and discarded. A middle-aged man sat on the bed nearest the window. He wore a gray suit jacket, but he had no tie, slacks, shoes, or socks. He was morosely slumped half undressed on the edge of the bed, cradling his head in his hands. Quiet now, Treacher thought.
Treacher’s immediate thought was that this man, Dr. Charles Wilson, couldn’t possibly be a national security threat, couldn’t possibly be dangerous. He moved closer to the two-way mirror and saw that the quiet man was now deeply agitated. Dr. Wilson looked at his wristwatch, then stared at the telephone for a long time, visibly impatient and upset. He glanced at his watch again. His face was drawn and pale. Treacher thought the unthinkable and shuddered. The judgment winged across his consciousness: At least he’ll be at peace in his grave when this dreadful night is over.
Phillip Treacher was no stranger to the Hotel Harrington. He had been in room 918 before, under different circumstances, with a different security problem—and always the sensible spirit of the place provided a gloss of normalcy to the dirty business.
It was Washington’s oldest hotel and, at eleven floors, one of the tallest buildings in the city. Its location near the White House and close to the Smithsonian made it a top pick for out-of-town visitors. Its height had attracted the city’s first television station, Channel 5, which maintained its antenna on the roof and operated studios in a converted ballroom on the mezzanine. There, two iconoscope video cameras pointed toward the stage where Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux and his choir sang hymns every Thursday for the television audience. That Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1953, was no different. Spectators crowded the soundproof-glass wall and watched the animated evangelist in his tuxedo lead singers through a medley of rousing spirituals.
Channel 5’s popular programming drew a lively crowd of musicians, actors, and tourists to the hotel’s lobby, where they mixed with loitering fans and budget-minded diners going to the self-service Kitcheteria, or their elegant opposite, who came with reservations to the Pink Elephant Cocktail Lounge. Diplomats, lobbyists, and out-of-town businessmen moved swiftly to the elevators in the company of girlfriends or prostitutes without attracting the disapproval of the concierge, a smartly dressed professional, who noticed everything and remembered nothing. Lively social commerce made the Hotel Harrington a good location for a CIA safe house.
“A terse and convincing thriller. Vidich proved his talent for noirish spy fiction in two earlier books. This stand-alone work reaches a new level of moral complexity and brings into stark relief the often contradictory nature of spycraft.” Tom Nolan Wall Street Journal
“Based on the real-life case of biological warfare scientist Frank Olson, Vidich’s lean, crisp third CIA novel recreates, then reimagines, the circumstances of Olson’s still-unexplained death. Vidich, a former media industry executive with no spycraft background, writes with the nuanced detail and authority of a career spook. With this outing, Vidich enters the upper ranks of espionage thriller writers.” Publishers Weekly (starred)
“A richly detailed work of investigative crime writing perfect for fans of procedurals and spy fiction alike.” LitHub
“In the manner of Charles Cumming and recent le Carré, Vidich pits spies on the same side against one another in a kind of internal cold war.” Booklist
“Reveals a shameful instance of postwar conduct and the arrogance of the powerful. A worthwhile thriller and a valuable exposé.” Kirkus Reviews
“Vidich presents a fast-paced, historically accurate thriller, placing him alongside other great spy authors such as John le Carre´ and Alan Furst. Readers of the genre will want this slow-burn chiller that shows how far government will go to keep secrets.” Library Journal (starred)
“The Coldest Warrior reads like a le Carre novel for the postwar American moment. Vidich’s writing is as assured as ever, and his handling of difficult, charged material is truly admirable, and a pleasure to read.” CrimeReads (“9 Novels You Should Read in February”)
“The book spins quickly into risk and danger, and the final chapters, fast-paced and dark with threat, provide one of the best manhunt and intended escape sequences of current espionage fiction.” New York Journal of Books
“Trench coats and fedoras abound in this old-school spy novel exploring one of the most infamous incidents in CIA history. Paul Vidich is on territory close to home here, because it’s inspired by the death of his uncle, Frank Olson, a biological warfare scientist who died under mysterious circumstances in 1953. The Netflix series Wormwood also covered the case, but Vidich’s novel stands on its own feet. Vidich perfectly captures the era’s paranoid mood.” The Times (London)
“A sizzling and troubling tale. The Coldest Warrior is more than mesmerizing, it is an eye opener about the underbelly of the CIA whose clandestine movements are executed in the name of the nation’s best interest.” WBAI
“Vidich is quickly establishing himself as one of the best proponents of the Cold War espionage thriller and his new novel reinforces his position in this crowded field. A gripping tale of mixed morals, ruthless politics shrouded by all the ambiguities of the erstwhile Cold War. Both a gripping thriller and a testimony to the integrity of some of the actors of the drama who are only now being recognised.” Crime Time (UK)
“The Coldest Warrior is a terrifically paced page-turner with convincing red herrings and a surprise ending. These feats are not to be understated . . . Without ever slowing the pace or detracting from the novel's central mystery or action, Vidich still manages to carve out time in his taut narrative to provide snapshots of men trapped in personal cold wars of their own making.” Shelf Awareness
“If there’s a better spy novel this year espionage fiction fans will be able to count themselves very lucky indeed. The best spy stories are always about emotions, love and grief and other powerful motivators of our behaviour. That depth puts this novel up there with works by le Carré, McCarry, and the very best spy writers. The emotional intensity and fierce intelligence of this tale make it a tense read, it is a thought provoking drama.” NB (UK)
“The inner workings of the US’s actual deep state during the cold war—most of all, the CIA—is evocatively portrayed in The Coldest Warrior. Justly praised by his peers, Vidich is an espionage novelist who deserves to be more widely known. His noir cold war spy stories are laced with echoes of Graham Green and Eric Ambler. A finely written, taut novel.” Financial Times
“Compelling. The Coldest Warrior is more than an entertaining and well-crafted thriller; Vidich asks questions that remain relevant today.” Jefferson Flanders, author of The Republic of Virtue and of the Cold War First Trumpet trilogy (one of his top spy novels of 2020)
“Inspired by the true story of the death of Frank Olson, The Coldest Warrior is at once a breathless Cold War thriller in the mode of John le Carré, a cold-case mystery, and a tale of moral accountability. Although historical—set in the ’50s and the ’70s—its central theme is strikingly relevant: the personal suffering that results when our government agencies and politicians conceal their crimes, when political self-preservation outweighs public interest. A chilling read, indeed.” John Copenhaver, author of Dodging and Burning
“In Paul Vidich’s page-turning and well-written latest novel of espionage, he takes a hard look at how far people will go and which lines will be crossed in defense of the Holy Grail known as national security. Filled with action, haunting details and compelling characters. Highly recommended.” Brendan DuBois, award-winning and New York Times bestselling author
“Spring 1975: The once-invincible CIA cringes as its long-buried secrets are exhumed and denounced by the public, press and Congress. Inspired by real CIA malfeasance, Vidich memorably and vividly depicts the agency's inner circle, implacable men blind to the consequences of their pitiless actions, past and present, to wage the Cold War. A spy novel of the highest caliber, The Coldest Warrior could well be shelved in the history section, so masterful is Vidich's blending of fact and fiction.” David Krugler, author of the Ellis Voigt Thrillers
“The tale Paul Vidich tells in The Coldest Warrior—based on true events—could not be more chilling. Though the action of the book takes place nearly half a century ago, it reads as an allegory and a reminder for our time, a story about what is possible for bad people to accomplish if good people look away.” S. J. Rozan, bestselling author of Paper Son
“The Coldest Warrior takes a true story of political/espionage intrigue and fictionalizes it in such a way that it reads like a deadly serious spy novel from the Cold War era. Taut, tense, and fascinating.” Raymond Benson, author of Blues in the Dark and the five-book The Black Stiletto serial
“If we’re going to choose a 21st century Graham Greene, I nominate Paul Vidich. Mysterioso, funny, elegant, noir . . . you name it, Greene wrote it. And so does Vidich. If you like your narrator-cum-investigator to throw in a few quotes from Shakespeare in the middle of his hardboiled take on American realpolitik, Vidich is your man.” Mitch Silver, author of The Bookworm and The Apollo Deception
“I loved The Coldest Warrior. On one level it’s a straightforward spy thriller; halls of mirrors, spare prose, a hero with nowhere to turn. But like the best spy fiction it’s also about other stuff—above all a family tragedy and how resolving it might help a lost America find its way. Shades of Charles McCarry and Joseph Kanon, even classic post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers like James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor. Great stuff.” Dominick Donald, author of Breathe, the London Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year 2018
“Compelling.” John Dugdale Sunday Times (London)
The Coldest Warrior succeeds on two levels. First, Vidich’s story has momentum and never flags. In addition, Vidich raises vexing moral issues through his storytelling. To what extent should we view questionable CIA activities from the 1950s in the context of the time? Do we have an obligation to deal with the misdeeds of our past? To attempt to right wrongs? And can we achieve these goals without a public reckoning? National Book Review