(Part two of this review is here)

Writing this in 2020, I could be describing a Russia-related thriller of the most up-to-date nature, instead of a novel written four decades ago.

The front cover blurb talks of a

‘story so explosive it can only be told as fiction’.

The back cover refers to a

‘sensational novel by two top investigative reporters that exposes the sinister truth of KGB manipulation of the western media’.

The Spike, 1980

The story between the covers revolves around Russia’s long-term efforts to influence the news media, plant stories favourable to its aims, and seek to change the political direction of the West —and specifically see their favoured people in the highest positions in the US. Yes, this could be troll factories, social media manipulation, fake news, the ‘Russia-gate’ furore surrounding President Trump, and all the other tropes of today.

Of course, having been published in 1980, The Spike deals with a different technological reality and a print-based media, but nonetheless the similarities are obvious.

Nor does it end there. In 2018 the movie of Jason Matthews’ novel Red Sparrow includes explicit scenes of the imaginary ‘sparrow school’, where male and female agents are trained in the full sexual curriculum prior to being sent out to use sex as a tool of espionage.

Open The Spike and you find yourself reading what could be the screenplay for the same movie, but written 40 years before its release, and with the girls called ‘swallows’ not ‘sparrows’. (Lending credence to part two of our review of Red Sparrow, which sets out how Matthews insists on portraying today’s Russia as if it were the Soviet Union of the Brezhnev era.)

So we are taken to Verkhonoye

… in the desolate area outside Kazan where the KGB is said to have maintained a school for sexual operatives.

By the end of her three month course at Verkhonoye, Tania was a full-fledged ‘swallow’, trained to satisfy the most exotic sexual predilections and to display any required emotion without succumbing to it. Her partner, Yuri, had undergone similar schooling, as one of the KGB’s ‘ravens’— the term favored for male sexual operatives.

Interestingly, according to an interview with Matthews

“at the height of the Iron Curtain years of the 1960s and 70s … Russian sources spoke of a ‘Sparrow’ school, a state school where women trained in these arts … The training consisted of a few months of instruction in how to elicit conversation, how to open a bottle of champagne, little things like that, at a time when the average woman in the Soviet Union wasn’t groomed in such worldly things.”

CNBC interview, 3 March 2018

Much of this detail can be found in the book Sexpionage: the Exploitation of Sex by Soviet Intelligence, written by journalist David Lewis in 1976. Lewis identifies, apparently from interviewing a former KGB ‘Swallow’, the training school known as the Verkhonoye House of Love, near Kazan.

Clearly de Borchgrave and Moss, actually writing during those years, had read the same stories.

Leaving ‘sexual operatives’ behind —and we should do, because really this is not a major plot element— The Spike is no formulaic genre-following thriller. It is a rounded novel that spans decades and the globe. The characters are convincing and recognisably human.

(Part two of this review is here)