Spying on spy novelist Allan Topol
July 28, 2012
ASPEN – The difference between fiction and nonfiction can be a few seats away in this town, yet determining the difference is not always a simple task. For example, on Thursday morning, spy writer Allan Topol sat down at the Hotel Jerome library to discuss his latest piece of fiction, while in the lobby, a number of suits-and-ties discussed a recent talk at the Aspen Security Forum at the Aspen Institute.
Suddenly, the difference seemed almost nonexistent.
Yet Topol, a best-selling author in the action-thriller genre, is in town to relax and get some writing done. You’ll find him and his wife attending more Aspen Music Festival events than those at the Security Forum, which concluded Saturday, despite the fact that most of the characters he writes about are in some way embodied in the real characters talking about international issues just a few blocks away.
In Topol’s first few books – he’s been publishing since the late ’70s – he tackled Russia and the Middle East, having discovered inspiration while standing in line for gas for hours and asking, “How can this happen here?” And while working as a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., area for years with his wife and four kids, he got to know more than a few connected souls who often give him leads on characters and storylines. In fact, one former intelligence officer read his popular book “Spy Game” and let him know two corrections: Overall, it was good, the officer said, but a CIA agent would never use a cell phone, and a Mossad agent would never read an Israeli newspaper in public. Duly noted, Topol said.
“One year, I was traveling to China for fun, and I was in Xian at the Hyatt, and half the hotel was occupied by Boeing people,” Topol said. “And I wondered what they were selling. I know it could not be anything too top secret, but that’s about when I started thinking about a book about China.”
Topol, who is spending three weeks in Aspen with his wife, who plays “serious piano for two hours a day,” soon developed an idea for a trilogy of books. His latest offering, “The China Gambit,” is the first in that trilogy, and follows a storyline about how China has reached into areas of the U.S. government and made things uncomfortable for the book’s protagonist, a former CIA agent named Craig Page. Page has to determine who killed his daughter, a prominent journalist, and why.
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Topol is clear to note that not all Chinese are villains. He avoids the trap some thriller writers take – he was clear to only mention writers he likes, not dislikes, like the writer Graham Greene – and does include a few sympathetic characters who are from China and trying to display a complicated morality.
And authenticity counts in his “action spy” world, where he combines real situations and invented characters. Despite dialogue like “The situation has become lethal,” the book is believable, and moves quickly through its fast-paced narrative with fast-paced dialogue. A critic looking for deep literature would argue that Topol’s voices sound a little too important and self-aware, but after all, these are worlds Topol both borrowed and created, allowing him to tap into a wide, accepting audience.
There is a local tie, as Aspen is one of the characters in “The China Gambit.” In two of the final chapters, 89 and 90, both named “Aspen, Colorado,” the action begins to reach a climax. While more detail would give away the ending, just note that Topol did do his research, and his introduction to Aspen was spot-on.
“The tiny Aspen airport was jammed with private planes. The rich and famous enjoy early-spring skiing. And unlike Washington, once the snow stops, they have cleared the roads in record time.”
Then, we’re back to fiction. Guns get pulled, scotch gets poured and a frantic call to the president is placed. It’s hard to believe this could happen for real in Aspen. But then again, the evening before Topol sat down for an interview, Wolf Blitzer was interviewing Admiral William McRaven about the Osama bin Laden raid in town about real intrigue, spying and international intelligence.
For Topol, he had to remind himself he was here to be on vacation first and foremost. And when his hometown is melting under 100-degree heat, it’s not hard to stay for a few extra days.
“It’s an easy town to love,” he said. “That’s why we come back here every year. Plus, I write a little better. It has to be the air, the atmosphere, the music, something that gives me a little more inspiration.”