Spy Scribes Rate the Russians: ‘Lame!’

bookcover Spy Scribes Rate the Russians: ‘Lame!’

After thugs abducted Alex Dryden from his hotel, the journalist and MI6 fact-finder learned that it’s better to go without a tie in Moscow.

“They put me in the back, you know, like you see in Italian Mafia movies, and I was driven out to some marshes — a notorious dropping-off spot for dead bodies. It was in the middle of winter and they’d kind of roughed me up in the back,” he told the Transom at a HarperCollins party last Thursday. “They pull your tie a lot.”

The spy came in from the cold through the hospitality of some locals, who filled him with vodka and pointed him to the nearest bus station. The scene made it into his recent novel Red to Black.

Mr. Dryden, a tan Briton whose real name is a closely guarded secret, was in town for ThrillerFest, an annual convention thrown by an organization of thriller novelists, offering classes and networking over four days in Manhattan.

Mr. Dryden has worked out of Moscow off and on since the 1980s, and like most of the novelists in town, he was eager to discuss the Russian spies recently discovered lurking in America’s suburbs.

“This is just 10 percent of the story. Five percent, what we’ve seen in the papers,” he said, adding that “people who know” have told him that Riverdale may be another hotbed of Russian activity. “Nobody’s really interested in spying in Russia anymore, frankly. They’ve got nothing. But the Russians are really interested in spying in America because America has tons of things that Russia wants.”

“But how lame are they?” said Kate White of the spies. The bubbly editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan is also the author of six Bailey Weggins mystery novels. “They’re not all that inspiring, unless you’re working on something comedic.”

And there is the problem of the setting — the suburbs, where adventure goes to die, as Ken Follett pointed out at a later event. “Mostly in thrillers we see people running down the street, turning the corner, ducking down an alley, climbing over a wall,” he said. “The city is better, really, for thrillers, I think.”

“Neither government wants to admit it, but the cold war’s over,” said Paul Lindsay, a 20-year veteran of the F.B.I. who retired so he could write “a novel to show what a bunch of buffoons they were.”

He writes under the name Noah Boyd and views his latest book as a casualty of the Russian spy ring, scooped by that perennial competitor in the intrigue business: reality. In his new book, an investigator hunts down missing Russian spies and the Americans who may be working for them. An earlier novel of his about mob burial sites preempted the discovery of a real site here in New York. As Mr. Lindsay’s editor praised his latest’s newfound relevance, the author just shook his head and muttered, with a smile, “Six months too early, again.”

“It does underline the essential challenge of writing crime novels in that you have to be more believable than reality,” said Michael Connelly at Friday drinks in the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca. “I think before this happened, if you kind of spun that story and at the end they’re traded back, you might have some editors, and even readers, that say, ‘I don’t think that would ever happen.’ So when you make it up, you’re held to a higher accounting of believability.”

Still, at least one novelist benefited from the news. Speaking outside the bookshop with author Dana Haynes and his agent, Janet Reid, the Transom learned that a novel he wrote three years ago may soon be making the rounds thanks to renewed interest in the cold war.

“Let’s just say this,” Ms. Reid said, recounting how she sold Mr. Haynes’ Crashers, currently out in hardcover. “Captain Sullenburger put his plane in the water, and I called up my editors with an aviation thriller. It was not unreasonable for them to have responded with, ‘Holy crap, of course I want this book!’ Everybody in town wanted to read it. So I am not surprised that he has a book about Soviet sleeper agents.”

“Would-be Soviet sleeper agents,” Mr. Hayes corrected. “It’s good to be good, but it’s better to be lucky.”

Ms. Reid said she hasn’t had an influx of Red Dawn-esque books yet, but that she can count on it in about four months. “They haven’t written the novels yet,” she explained.

“I thought it was over with, the whole Russian spy thing and the cold war and all that,” said Camilla Läckberg, a Swedish brunet crime author happy to “surf the Stieg Larsson wave,” as she publishes in the States for the first time this fall. “I guess you guys have kind of done everything you can with the Tiger Woods story and the Sandra Bullock story.”

Unsurprisingly, Ms. Läckberg added that as a Swede she is “Team Elin.”

But neither the cold war nor the story is over for Mr. Dryden. The angle the papers haven’t examined, he said, was the question of who the recently deported spies handlers were, who they reported to in the U.S. He proceeded to offer us this scoop, for a “few thousand dollars.”

“If you want to know who the Russian spies are in the U.N. and in the Russian embassy in Washington and the Russian delegation in New York, stuff like that, I could do some work on that,” he said. “But it would cost, because although my sources are first class, I do pay for them. They’re not that first class. Nobody’s that first class.”

With all these secrets floating around him, does Mr. Dryden worry about anything classified slipping into his books? After all, Mr. Lindsay still sends his to be vetted by the F.B.I., though he stopped working there 15 years ago.

“I tell MI6 they have to buy my books,” Mr. Dryden said. Then he threw his head back and laughed indiscreetly.