Big Thrills: The Charm School by Nelson DeMille
I don’t know about you, but every now and then I’m ready for a big story with a big plot and big stakes. The collapse of civilization as we know it. Nuclear holocaust, biological warfare, asteroids on a collision course with Texas. . . the end of Planet Earth if our hero doesn’t manage to stop some monstrous danger just in the nick of time.
The king of the big thriller is generally considered to be Robert Ludlum, but for my money, the only writer who does this genre half well is Nelson DeMille, the author of such mammoth bestsellers as The General’s Daughter, Plum Island, The Lion’s Game, and his most recent effort, Up Country. These are thick novels, six hundred pages long or more heavy enough to weigh down a beach towel in a typhoon. Despite their sheer heft, DeMille generally manages to get the reader hooked from the first page and never lets go. With good writing, interesting characters, a bit of humor, and vaguely convincing plots, these are thrillers that make you stay up past your bedtime to read just one more chapter . . . and then another . . . before turning off the light.
The best DeMille is probably his breakout book, the 1988 Cold War blockbuster, The Charm School, which he managed to squeeze in just before the demise of the Soviet Union and oh, what a sad day it was for the thriller genre when that particular Evil Empire was forced out of business! The charm school in question is an sinister KGB academy deep in the Russian countryside where spies are being trained to fit into American life, complete with a perfect knowledge of English, rock n roll, baseball, and the suburban backyard barbecue.
But who can teach these nasty Russian spies to pass themselves off as Yanks? This is where the plot thickens: a group of kidnapped American POW’s from the Vietnam War, long believed dead, have been gathered as instructors in a mock mid-American village that has been constructed to teach future Soviet sleepers the minutiae of Americana. And just to make matters even more insidious, it turns out that the CIA actually knows about the Charm School but is reluctant to spill the beans due to tricky political machinations back home in Washington.
The story starts with an American tourist in Russia, Gregory Fisher, who picks up a most unusual passenger one night on a dark country road it is one of the American POW s who has escaped the KGB school and wishes desperately to get word of the place to the outside world. Can Gregory reach the American Embassy in Moscow with his terrible secret? Not likely; that would be just a bit too easy for a 600-page thriller.
Poor Gregory, quite an appealing young man, dies a fairly nasty death, but the incident sets three other Americans in motion: a sexy, ironic Air Force officer, who must fly one last covert mission to destroy the Charm School; a sexy, romantic woman who is a U.S. Embassy liaison and falls hard, naturally, for the pilot; and the chief of the CIA s Moscow station, not-so-sexy but very smart, who happens to have the hots for the girl. In short, not only do we have (as the copy on the back cover informs us) a vast and astounding KGB conspiracy that stands poised against the very heartland of America we have a love triangle as well. Now, that s literature!
The fact that Nelson DeMille manages to pull this off and make it seem more-or-less believable is the best recommendation of all that he is an extremely clever writer. The Charm School is a lot of fun. A pulse-pounding adventure, and all that hyperbole. A bit silly when you think about the plot afterward. But while you are reading, a perfect escape.