Content warning: violence, death
My eighth book in the 2022 challenge is The Bucharest Dossier by William Maz. The book satisfies Category 12 of the challenge, a contemporary novel that takes place in communist times.
A bit of history
Most Americans don’t know much about the Romanian Revolution, and even the ones who know some things probably don’t know as much as they think. You may know that communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown in this revolution, and that he and his wife, Elena, were executed by a firing squad after a very quick military tribunal. You may even know that the protests that sparked the revolution started in Timișoara over the removal of a Hungarian pastor. Even if you know all those things about the Romanian Revolution, there’s still a lot you don’t know.
For instance, was the revolution entirely an inside job, or did they have outside help? People have long speculated that the CIA or the KGB (Russian/Soviet intelligence during their communist era), or maybe even both, covertly supported the revolutionaries. If the possibility of KGB support surprises you, know that then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Ceaușescu despised each other. But regarding what actually happened, the general public doesn’t know any more about that than we did in 1989. It was also widely speculated that the Ceaușescus had Swiss bank accounts, but nothing was ever proven. If those accounts existed, what happened to the money? The novel explores this and other open questions surrounding the revolution.
Maz describes this book as a love story inside a spy thriller inside a historical novel. The history in question is the last days of Romania’s communist government, i.e., the days leading up the 1989 revolution.
The protagonist, Bill Heflin, is a CIA analyst who is encouraged by one of his Russian contacts to come to Bucharest, Romania’s capital, as the communist regime there is crumbling.
What Heflin’s Russian contact knows that even many of his CIA colleagues don’t is that Heflin is actually Romanian by birth and came to the US with his family as a child. Even “Bill Heflin” is a name he chose for himself as a young man, and only a handful of people know his birth name.
Among the many people Heflin left behind when his family fled Romania was his childhood love, Pusha. Could he find her when he returns to Bucharest?
What I liked
Maz has a lot of fun with the things we don’t know about the Romanian Revolution. Was the CIA involved? The KGB? Intelligence agencies from other neighboring countries? Did the Ceaușescus have secret foreign bank accounts? Intriguing elements like these are the backbone of any good spy story, and Maz delivers on this front.
Maz also spends more time than you might expect examining the immigrant experience and what it’s like to have multiple cultural identities, and I consider this time very well spent. Although born in Romania, both Heflin and Maz are of predominantly Greek ancestry and spent time in a Greek refugee camp between leaving Romania and arriving in the US. In Romania, his family were the Greeks. In Greece, they were the Romanians. In the US, they were the immigrants until Heflin changed his name. It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that he seems most comfortable around other people with similar experiences.
While the book is ultimately from a pro-American perspective, it’s not an entirely uncritical one. Heflin witnesses events and learns things about some of his intelligence community colleagues that leave him quite disillusioned by the time he leaves Bucharest. Maz further explores the history of that time and the moral questions that people face in such situations in this fascinating guest post for Crime Reads.
What I didn’t like
I’m always concerned when a book’s protagonist shares a lot of similarities with its author. In my experience, books like that often tend to veer into wish-fulfilling territory, and there’s some of that here. At times Heflin feels like an idealized version of Maz as a young man. It doesn’t happen enough to derail the book for me, but I know this is something that turns off many readers.
I don’t read a lot of spy thrillers, so I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this. I feared it would be a dumb plot-driven fantasy (in the sense of wish fulfillment, not genre), but those fears were mostly unfounded. It was also enjoyable to get yet another angle on what living under communism was like in Romania. In short, it’s a fun page turner with enough contemplative elements to keep it from becoming a generic potboiler.
Do you like spy thrillers? If so, what are some of your favorites? Leave your thoughts in the comments!