Throughout my years of reading, until about a decade ago somehow I missed the fact that Nelson DeMille graduated from the same high school I did, albeit many years before. Once I found that out, I made it a point to begin reading all of his novels.
The Charm School has a very intriguing plot. DeMille himself served as a platoon leader in Vietnam. In the introduction he reflects on that in light of the subject matter of the novel. Many POWs from Vietnam remain unaccounted for even all these years later. What really happened to them?
Set in the 1980’s as the Cold War was reaching critical mass, The Charm School supposes that the North Vietnamese turned captured American pilots and others over to the Soviets in exchange for Soviet Weaponry. These pilots were interrogated for information that could be of use to the Soviet Military. Once that usefulness had run out, the Soviets found a new way to use them.
Greg Fisher is an American driving his personal vehicle through Europe for the summer. He’s taken it into the Soviet Union with a strict itinerary. He deviates slightly from that itinerary and ends up in the middle of a mystery that brings to light what happened to many of those POWs. He knows his life is in danger as he attempts to get a message through to the US Embassy in Moscow.
Enter Colonel Sam Hollis, air attache to the Embassy. He tries to get to Fisher before the KGB does. He also has to try and discover the mystery behind the information he’s given. Hollis is coping with some of his own guilt from Vietnam, and that may be influencing some of the decisions he’s making.
Most of the novel is an excellent spy thriller as the US Intelligence personnel attached to the Embassy try to figure out what’s going on and what they can do about it. It’s a great game of cat and mouse that had me on the edge of my seat. DeMille gives great detail about what life is like in the Soviet Union both for the Embassy officials and the people who live there. The reader is exposed to everyone from peasants in the countryside to KGB echelons.
Near the end of the novel, certain events took place which seemed to slow it down to me. It nearly lost me just before the ending. I’m of two different minds on the ending, but most of me feels that it had to end that way. There wasn’t really going to be a “happy ending” to this one. My other complaint is the romance. I really didn’t feel it was necessary to the story, and the character of Lisa comes off as a bit flighty. She seems to throw her arms around Sam entirely too much. I understand that part of the reason she is there is to prompt certain characters to take certain actions, especially at the end. Her storyline really could have been left out and the book would not have suffered in the least. At one point I thought she might have been a Soviet plant and was waiting for that to pan out. I don’t know if that would have made her storyline better.
I loved the attention to detail. It really made the story feel full and I could imagine this time in the Soviet Union. People there did not question much, making much of what happens throughout the story feel quite plausible. DeMille paints Embassy life as very lonely there, with so much fear between the nations that friendship with any local was impossible. All there seems to be is conflict and a constant back-and-forth trying to push the envelope between the governments.
I remember this time as I was in my late teens and early twenties, so the setting really hit home. The Charm School is a great Cold-War thriller with a lot of suspense that will keep you guessing.
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