For players of the Great Game that is the nonfiction spy-lit biz, there are two fairly standard bits of publishing tradecraft. One is to settle on a subtitle that trumpets a superlative—say, the “greatest,” the “best,” the “most,” and then add the appropriate string of nouns (e.g., “the greatest espionage story of the Cold War”). This is done to assure the prospective reader (and, hopefully, buyer) that while there are shelves (and shelves) of competing real-life accounts out there, this is the essential book, the one that tells a truly significant tale. The second, no less wishful marketing strategy is to create jacket copy that promises that the work is “as compelling” or “as suspenseful” as a novel by John le Carré. It’s shamelessly tangential branding designed to convey that a book of reportage, an espionage history, offers a read as complex and insightful as the Spy Master’s carefully wrought, character-driven fictional narratives.
These observations—one professional’s seditious notions on the tricks of his trade—are prompted by my having read Betrayal in Berlin, by Steve Vogel, a former Washington Post reporter and, more recently, a military historian and author. Vogel capably recounts the often told (in books, a feature film, and documentaries) espionage story of the tunnel built into East Berlin at the tense height of the Cold War, which allowed Western spies to tap into the Russian telecommunication systems.