THROWBACK THURSDAY: The KGB Candidate by Owen Sela (Fontana, 1988)
A Russian President in the White House!!
In recent years there has been an influx of novels about American Presidents being influenced by overseas powers, or not operating in the best interests of America, or just being plain corrupt.
Many see this trend as being in response to the current political situation, but it is not a new fictional scenario, as this 1988 novel by British spy author Owen Sela demonstrates.
Sela burst onto the British thriller scene in the early 1970s with three enjoyable novels about adventurer and occasional spy Nick Maasten. He then followed them up with a terrific, but often overlooked novel, about a Chinese Police Detective in Hong Kong, The Bengali Inheritance, and a pair of exceeding good historical thrillers. By the mid-1980s, after a brief hiatus, Sela had ventured into the arena of bulkier international thrillers set predominantly in the United States and Russia. The KGB Candidate was the last of these.
The KGB Candidate revolves around a computer system invented by a programming genius, Steve Widdell, which can supposedly determine the next President of the United States. The system analyses the views and intentions of voters in various locations and provides Widdell’s candidate with the right response in any situation. Widdell had successfully used it in previous elections and with a new one about to begin he is preparing to utilise the program to guide a new candidate of his choosing. However, others have also become aware of it, including a rogue KGB agent, Boris Pomarev, with a plan to put a secretly pro-Russian candidate in the White House and a secret cabal of American power-brokers who also want to use it to get their man in.
When the computer program goes missing, and those associated with it killed, it is up to disgraced former CIA agent Drew Ellis and a female computer analyst to stop it from getting a Russian agent of influence elected.
It is a complex storyline with lots of moving parts and it takes Sela nearly half of the book’s 380 pages to put it all in place. Drew Ellis appears early in the story following the death of his agents, and his lover, in East Germany at the hands at Pomarev’s men, and then disappears for nearly 100 pages. When he returns the pace picks up and the second half of the book unfolds quickly with lots of gunfire, death and betrayal. Owen was always good at writing action scenes, and there are some exciting shootouts as Ellis desperately tries to get to the bottom of the conspiracy. There is a cinematic quality to the contrived final piece of bloodletting and the last twist will appeal to espionage fans.
I liked the book when it first came out in 1988 and on re-reading it, I still found it enjoyable, despite the uneven pace and the repetitiveness of the final quarter. The computing aspects ring less true now, than they did in 1988, and the effectiveness of the program now seems unlikely. It is not Sela’s best novel, but it is an engaging and entertaining tale, with an interesting touch of prophesy about it.
The paperback cover by Fontana is simple, but effective, and has a great tagline: “The Americans are electing a new President. The Russians have already chosen him”. If it was re-released now, you can imagine that it would attract some attention!
Owen Sela wrote the last novel under his own name in 1995, Coromandel a historical novel set in India. His books are now difficult to find, but well worth the effort!