The Charm School: A Thrilling Tale of Espionage Behind the Iron Curtain
Highly charged from the start, Nelson DeMille’s The Charm School dives right into painting a polemic portrait of Russian society during the Cold War. The book is filled with details of how the common man struggled in Red Russia during the 1980s as well as politico-religious pressures and moral and cultural challenges of the Soviets at the time. All of this is just part of a riveting tale told by a top-notch novelist who has clearly done his homework on Russia. Even the dialogue that happens on Moscow’s streets is peppered with Russian obscenities deftly translated to English. There’s also some clever humor throughout the book, especially in dialogues between characters. Not to mention the intracultural ironies of spycraft, which makes for highly interesting reading.
Gripping Suspense from the Word Go
The story starts with a young American driving through Russia in a Pontiac Trans Am. He comes across a fellow American who claims to be a former fighter pilot imprisoned for over a decade at a war camp named The Charm School. This surreal camp apparently looks just like a suburban American town and is a top-secret location where Russian spies are trained to be perfect Americans. The idea behind The Charm School is for captured Americans to teach the Soviets to seamlessly integrate into society in the United States as sleeper agents. Thankfully, the young American is clever enough to call his embassy with information about the man before his “accidental” death in a car accident.
Ironic Twists, Violence, and Cynical Betrayals
From here on, the book rapidly runs through a sequence of events that involve intelligence personnel from the American embassy unraveling the mystery bit by bit as (most of them) survive a range of dangerous incidents. Of course, there is a villain—the cruel KGB officer, Colonel Burov, who at one time is under threat of being captured to become an instructor at what may have been the American version of Russia’s Charm School.
A Balanced Book
Things slow down considerably around the third quarter of the book with more descriptions taking place than action. Thankfully, DeMille’s prose is excellent and makes it easy to keep reading. There are just enough wild moments throughout the work for it to maintain its equilibrium, despite the slump.
All’s Well That Ends Well
The way the plot unfolds is quite moving. While the ending is positively enthralling, it also has a solemn element to it, which makes it more believable and more than makes up for the slightly slackened pace. A book with a good ending always leaves the reader in a good place, and this is one of those books. By the end of The Charm School, the reader feels like they’ve just come to the culmination of an adventure where they’ve experienced some hard-edged politics. At the same time, they also arrive at a point where they clearly see the characters’ personal growth, giving it the human element that many thrillers lack. No wonder this book has stood the test of time. It is well worth a read.