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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Blog guest – Charles Ameringer – ‘more than a grain of truth’

Today, my blog guest is Charles Ameringer. Charles is professor emeritus of Latin American history at Penn State University and a former captain in the USAF Reserve. Before beginning his teaching career, he served as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Department of Defense.
His book The Old Spook is a spy/detective novel about a burned out CIA operative Tom Miller that morphs Richard Burton (Alec Leamus) into Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade)—and back again! A tale of espionage and sleuthing that engages the reader in the culture and tradecraft of the CIA and the dilemma of government secrecy in a democratic society.  The novel begins with a flashback of the old spook’s career that reveals the stress of shady dealings with sinister characters and transports the reader to such places as Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Bolivia and Chile. Miller has hair-raising encounters with the Russian agent who recruited Lee Harvey Oswald and meetings with Miami Mafia figures. He’s involved in several plots to assassinate Fidel Castro.

In the wake of the Watergate scandals and Jimmy Carter’s purging of the clandestine services, Miller takes forced retirement.

Not ready to call it quits, however, he goes home to Milwaukee where he opens a detective agency and takes on a missing-person case that unwittingly puts him on the trail of a Mafia hit-man. This case gains the attention of Detroit crime bosses and the CIA itself and then there’s an attempt on his life…

The novel covers the 1950s to the 1990s and plenty of names are dropped – Dulles and Helms of the CIA, the Kennedys, Guevara, the missing union boss Jimmy Hoffa, the Mafia chieftains Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli, Oliver North et al. In the style of Upton Sinclair and Herman Wouk, the fictional Tom Miller interacts with actual events and personalities to provide an entertaining and intriguing read.

All author royalties will be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project.


The fictional Tom Miller interacts with actual events and personalities through recent history played out on the global stage. Often, it reads as though Miller was there, liaising with shady wheelers and dealers in South and Central America.

If you have any recollection of some of these events, you’ll soon begin to wonder if this fictional account contains much more than a grain of truth. Fans of John Le Carré, Len Deighton and Charles McCarry will enjoy this revelatory novel. - Pastimes Costa Blanca magazine, May 2012.
Charles Ameringer
Q & A

This is your debut fiction book. When you were writing your non-fiction works, did you ever hanker after writing fiction at the time?

No, not really.  I was thoroughly committed to the methodology of the History discipline, that is, seeking empirical evidence and striving to relate events as accurately as possible.  At the same time, I always tried to write well, in order to be stylistic and literary.  After I retired, I had the urge to combine that creative instinct with imagination.  Inspired by Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series and Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” I did so by placing a fictional character at the scene of historical events as they were happening.  Drawing on my experiences as a professor travelling abroad to interview persons of interest and conduct archival research, I created a CIA operative to go where I had gone and meet with whom I had met, only at another time and under different circumstances.     

Charles, I suspect that the character of Tom Miller has been bouncing around in your head for a number of years. Can you tell me when you first decided to write about Tom?

It’s true that he had probably been there for some time, and popped into my consciousness after I finished my last scholarly work in 2009.  Although an octogenarian and retired, I still had the urge to write, but I wanted to free myself of methodological restraints and have some fun (although there is absolutely no distortion of factual material in The Old Spook).  Tom Miller is essentially my alter ego.  As noted, he retraces my steps, but only to provide authenticity to the places he goes and people he meets.  Many novels are autobiographical in nature.  For example, Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War, providing the template for Frederic Henry in A Farewell To Arms.  As a result, such novels are unique; there is none other like each and there never can be.     

Your book reminds me of Richard Pape’s Arm me Audacity, because when I finished that I really wondered if the narrative was true. Obviously, you feature real people and the big events you relate were true – but are you able to enlighten us as to how much of the double-dealing and political chicanery actually occurred?

As you say, the big picture is a factual account, being based on the extensive research I completed for my non-fiction study, U.S. Foreign Intelligence: The Secret Side of American History, which David Kahn (The Codebreakers) describes as “one of the first and one of the best surveys of American foreign intelligence.”  Tom Miller’s presence at these events is the product of my imagination, but his specific actions in no way alter the truth of what was occurring around him.  As Dean Andrade, the host of the “Milwaukee Authors” website, writes in his review of The Old Spook: “I really enjoyed the blend of real history with fiction, with a story that weaves together famous names and events—the Bay of Pigs, Che Guevara, the Kennedy assassination, Jimmy Hoffa, Oliver North, Aldrich Ames, and much more—all told with sharp historical accuracy and keen insight.”  However, there is a story within the story; the novel is divided into three parts and Part Two, “Where’s Aldo?” is pure fiction.  None of what occurs there is true, which may explain why it’s the most exciting portion of the book, given that Tom’s character enjoys a free rein.  Still, it wouldn’t make sense without the context of the truthful double-dealing detailed in the other parts.  Nor, is this to suggest that the other parts of the novel are lacking in thrills and suspense; as the popular author Debra Hartmann states in her review, “A great read, entertaining and powerful, a story that leaves you constantly on the edge.”          

You definitely gave The Old Spook a sense of place. Do you think this is important in fiction, and why?

Combining the places where I lived and worked with my travels as a professor engaged in research, I sought to give Tom and the reader a “real feel” of the venues in the novel   Perhaps it’s the teacher in me, but I think a work ought to be informative; if you’re going to take the reader to the campus of the National University of Mexico, for a drink in La Floridita in Havana, a stay in a pensión in San José, Costa Rica, or a trek to the copper mine in Chuquicamata, Chile, you are obliged to make it as realistic as possible.  To have been there helps, although some place descriptions may be unavoidably second-hand.. 

I believe your wife is a strong support in your writing. How do your family/friends feel about your switch to fiction?

Initially, my wife and sons were sceptical when I put on my novelist’s hat, but subsequently were quite sincere in saying that they really liked the novel and wondered “if we have a grandma Moses phenomenon here.”   However, my sons were a bit taken aback by my use of obscenities in the text, but I explained that it wouldn’t do to clean up the language of the fictional Mafia hit man Jack Aldo, a central figure in the story.  .      

You’ve just celebrated your 87th birthday and I know that time marches on. Do you have plans for another fiction book, or do you feel you’ve said all you needed to say in The Old Spook?

I don’t intend ever to stop writing and I have a number of ideas in mind.  Right now, I’m toying with a story about a freshly-minted assistant professor coping with a Berkley-inspired campus movement during the 1960s. 

A tall order, I know, but what is your favourite book? And why?

It is a tall order, but I think it’s Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana.  In my opinion, there’s no place as fascinating as Old Havana (pre-Fidel, that is), which Greene portrays beautifully, and it’s a whimsical and tragic tale of an unwitting screw-up that somehow fate permits to end well.    

Where can readers find you?

You can find me on Facebook, Goodreads, and
and The Old Spook on the following links: = =
Thank you, Charles.

Books by Charles Ameringer:

The Democratic Left in Exile: The Antidictatorial Struggle in the Caribbean, 1945-1959  

Don Pepe: A Political Biography of José Figueres of Costa Rica 

Democracy in Costa Rica 

U.S. Foreign Intelligence: The Secret Side of American History

The Caribbean Legion: Patriots, Politicians, Soldiers of Fortune, 1946-1950

The Cuban Democratic Experience: The Auténtico Years, 1944-1952 

The Socialist Impulse: Latin America in the Twentieth Century 

1 comment:

sharon hass said...

Interested in reviewing your book. Sounds thrilling. I'm on Goodreads.