Author: David Wise
Wise, David (1981). Spectrum. New York: Viking Press
Date Updated: December 10, 2015
Another tale of horrific CIA misconduct, nuclear-style—with enough gritty detail and neat grabbers in the plot to compensate, more or less, for journalist Wise’s first-novel clumsinesses. The CIA nastiness starts out under the LBJ administration here, when assistant deputy-director Towny Black oversees a ruthless plan to steal raw material from a US nuclear plant and give it secretly to Israel. Only part of the stolen nuclear stuff actually goes to Israel, however—and 16 years later Black, now CIA head under Pres. Thurlow Anderson, has under his personal control (hidden somewhere near Washington) a convoy of nuclear missiles (to be used for surprise foreign attacks. . . or to blackmail the President). Who knows this dastardly secret? Only Black, his right-hand man Frank DiMario. . . and CIA London chief Bob Travers. And now Travers, whose disgust for evil CIA methods (which began with the use of torture in that nuclear-plant theft 16 years back) has reached the breaking point, is ready to spill the beans—to Gary Hart-like Sen. Barry Owens.
Although Owens finally believes Travers’ wild story, there’s no proof. So they decide to generate some evidence by scaring Towny Black into action: Travers sends Black a letter declaring his intention to Tell All. And sure enough, Black immediately responds by dispatching a super-killer to London (in elaborate disguise) to kill Travers with a poison dart-gun. . . while Owens’ staff searches the Washington area for that hidden stash of nuclear missiles. Soon Travers and girlfriend Valerie are on the run through Europe, chased by the hideous killer (Travers finally shoots him on a train); and tangible evidence of Black’s outrageous ploys is mounting.
Finally, confronted by the President (who has been put in the know), Black plays his ace card: if the President goes ahead and exposes this CIA scandal, Black will fire his missiles at the White House. Thus, there are some chases, kidnaps, and Phantom-jet bomb-droppings before the national security is restored.
It’s a fairly dandy plot—with always at least two parallel lines of action going simultaneously. But Wise makes too many narrative blunders to maintain top suspense: the pace of the opening chapters is deadly slow; chunks of exposition are presented in stiff dialogue; the mechanical sex scenes for Travers and Valerie are laughable; and, though Wise’s apparent vast knowledge of CIA dirty trick history is impressive (and sometimes fascinating), he often stops the narrative dead in order to offer lectures on CIA evil and debates on CIA morality. Not first-rank, then—but the genuinely scary, nearly believable premise makes this a solid bet for thriller fans, especially those with a taste for issues and headlines.