By George Mehok
On November 9, 1989, the world rejoiced as picks, axes, and shovels brought down the Berlin Wall, reuniting a nation.
In his latest novel, THE SLEEPER LIST, Patrick Oster, author, journalist, and former Washington Bureau Chief of the Chicago Sun Times, takes readers back to the post-Cold War Soviet era, into the inner sanctum of international espionage. Thriller fans will find Oster’s latest novel historically authentic and politically charged. Oster pours decades of journalism experience into this story, giving readers an exciting glimpse into the lives of two “sleepers” secretly planted in the United States by the former East German intelligence units.
He talks more about it in this The Big Thrill interview and shares his thoughts on the Russian-Ukraine War and the former KGB agent and wartime President Vladimir Putin.
Let’s begin with the title—THE SLEEPER LIST, which will help readers understand the book’s fascinating plot. In the world of espionage, what is a “sleeper”?
A “sleeper,” unlike a regular spy, who often was someone like a third consul in the Soviet embassy—when there was a Soviet embassy—is someone who has a made-up identity and lives in the country that is the target. In this case, the United States. This sleeper agent has the cover of the general counsel of a supercomputer company. Unlike some sleeper agents, the protagonist, Michael Trick, uses his real name because his parents came over in the early ’50s, right after Stalin died, when there was a big exodus of refugees seeking democracy. Trick’s parents were engineers who knew a lot about electronics and worked in a US military defense plant. The East Germans positioned their son Michael as someone ready to do a job, but then the Berlin Wall came down, and he never got activated.
Then he gets a visit from a Russian handler who says, “No, no, no. You don’t get out. We’ve got a different job for you. Instead of spying on military stuff, we need technology and business secrets.” Because in the new post-Cold War, the spy business is about stealing stuff and selling it. Trick’s not thrilled about it and goes to the FBI and says, “Look, here’s the deal…” and wants the FBI to protect him. But they learn his parents were spies, and he’s a spy, so the FBI says, “You’re going to work for us,” and they turn him into a double agent.
The story takes place just following the fall of the Berlin Wall and involves East Germans and Soviets living in the United States. Your protagonist is an East German sleeper agent. What’s his situation?
He works for Kray-Z Incorporated. In the ’90s, Cray Computer Corporation was a famous supercomputer company in Silicon Valley. Supercomputers are important for, among other things, encryption and breaking codes with a big prime number. A prime number is only divisible by one or itself—one, three, five, seven, etc. Eventually, you get a number from here to Mars in terms of length. And the bigger the prime number you discover, the harder it is to break the code. It’s a race to get a bigger number and a better supercomputer. Michael Trick is, therefore, in the perfect position to steal the secrets of a supercomputer, and that’s of incredible value to the Russian gang, who would sell it to the North Koreans, Iranians, or other interested parties.
His handlers say you work for us, or we turn you in to the FBI and trade you for someone else―like a prisoner exchange. They put Trick into a situation where he’s asked to kill someone, and he’s not thrilled about that. He’s a good shot because his mother, also a Russian sleeper, trained him when he was a child using paper targets in preparation for someday being activated as potentially a sniper.
There’s another sleeper agent stationed in the US, and both the Russians and the FBI want to take him out.
Yes, Kirov. He’s a Russian sleeper agent and a former botanist. He’s bipolar and has real anger issues. The Russians give him pills to control his anger and turn him into a killer who’s good at staying off the grid. The FBI and the Russians try to find him because he’s killing people.
His weapon of choice is a special shovel that the Spetsnaz, special operations forces of the Soviet army, invented. The Spetsnaz are in Ukraine fighting now. Instead of using a bayonet, they use a very small spade and sharpen three edges to razor sharpness. They use it like a battle-ax, or they can shove it under your heart, and you’re dead. They wear it on their chest with a small carrying device. In fact, I bought one online for my research.
The Americans, an FX television series, involves sleeper agents living in the United States. What did you think about that series and its realism?
I like that series. I’m not sure that most sleeper agents had as much sex as that couple, which made the series interesting. The difference is the couple in The Americans took false identities and adopted different names. Like, if you remember, in The Day of the Jackel, the assassin who tried to kill Charles De Gaulle. The assassin took the identity of a baby who had died.
They were playing a long game, and it looked like they had been around forever with perfect accents and knew about baseball and American slang.
In the book The Charm School by Nelson DeMille, the Soviets trained Soviet spies in Russia to be Americans, and they used some captured Americans to teach them supposedly what they needed to know―how to speak and what gestures to use. It’s a less perfect system than being in the country for years and slowly developing your persona as you “sleep.”
You have a deep journalism background, having been a managing editor at Bloomberg News and editor and chief of the National Law Journal. Research is an incredibly important skill for a journalist. What was your research process for this book?
Some of what’s in my writing is stuff I knew because I either reported on it or when it was in stories I reviewed when I became a full-time editor. I reported on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the aftermath. Before that, I was in Washington and reported on the FBI and CIA, and I knew a lot of things about that world. I wrote a previous book called The German Club that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and gave a fictional explanation of why the fall happened so quickly and unexpectedly. THE SLEEPER LIST is a second “Berlin Wall” book. Both books could be read in tandem if you were interested in that period.
Among other things, starting with the idea that there were sleeper agents and the wall in theory made their job irrelevant, I started looking into the sleeper agents for the East Germans. In doing that, I discovered that Markus Wolf, the famous chief of the East German Stasi agency, had a system of putting his agents’ names on little file cards because he didn’t trust computers. He retired shortly before the wall came down, and the guys that took over didn’t like his old fashion system. They burned the cards after they put them on microfiche. Then the CIA bought the list of agents, including active agents and sleepers. In fact, Putin was a KGB officer at this time and left East Germany in 1990. He may have had access to that list.
Eventually, the CIA sat on the list for a decade and eventually told the combined West and East German governments that you guys have traitors in your midst, and these are who they are. But the CIA didn’t say anything about the East German sleeper agents stationed in the US.
That is how my what-if story came about―If you had somebody in the US on this list, what might that person have done, and what type of pressure that person was under.
While the story took place decades ago, it’s very relevant considering the war raging in Ukraine. What is your view on Vladimir Putin’s motivation for waging war?
I’ve reported from within Russia when it was the Soviet Union. In fact, I was officially deemed by their government an “enemy of the state” and was told never to come back.
Putin wants to restore as much as possible the glory of the Soviet Union when they had ten republics outside the SU. He grabbed Crimea in 2014. Belarus is basically in his pocket, but there are some others. I think it will be very difficult for him to go back to the original state, which would involve getting to Poland. We know he’s not getting East Germany back. Both Moldova and Kazakhstan are friendly to Russia, but he doesn’t have enough time to grab everything back, though he’d like to have more than he’s got now.
He obviously made a mistake thinking it would be a quick invasion, like in 2014 when he grabbed two provinces in the Eastern Ukraine, plus Crimea, which was originally part of the Soviet Union
The problem is Putin’s army is bogged down, and among other things, I don’t think it’s been trained well. They had a big budget to modernize, but what often happens in Russia happened; namely, the money got siphoned off by crooks, some were generals, some were oligarchs because it clearly wasn’t spent on modernizing the army. One of the stories that struck me was a Ukrainian who said Russian soldiers came into his house and stole his goods and even stole his shoes because the soldier didn’t have shoes. So how can you send out an army without shoes? It was reported that captured Russian equipment included army rations that were years old and inedible. As Secretary Rumsfeld used to say, “You go to war with the army that you have, not the army that you want.” And the army that Putin has is not so swell, but there are a lot of them. A heck of a lot more than the Ukrainians. But the Ukrainians over the last decade got really good because they got NATO training and weapons.
How do you see it playing out?
I think it’s going to be a long slog. Ultimately, Putin had hoped to negotiate with Ukraine and take what he wanted. But President Zelensky will not give up on basic things. In fact, he now wants Crimea back. It will be very difficult for the Russians to give it up. Zelensky might say that Ukraine won’t join NATO, and they can get some guarantees from Western countries without joining NATO. But Putin knows that as well. I think that he intends to pound the crap out of Eastern Ukraine and hope he’s in a better bargaining position. He can tell his people that he got rid of the Nazis, and he can say we went in to protect Russians, and we did. And the special military operation is now over.
Based on what you know about Russia, can he remain in power if it turns into a protracted war and further damages the Russian economy?
That’s an unknown at this point. In the short term, the sanctions aren’t biting yet, and Russians are used to all sorts of deprivation. They have a serf mentality; this is our lot in life, we are tough, and we’ll survive. We’ll eat dirt if we have to. But the problem is when all the mothers and fathers find out that their kids got killed, will they continue to accept the propaganda that the Russians are the good guys and that everyone is out to get them, which is working now. The people protesting in the streets are putting their lives in a dangerous place. Putin has put some in prison and probably killed people. Putin has shown no hesitation in getting them, even if they are not in Russia.
But he’s 70 years old, and how long can he hold on? He has good security and doesn’t spend much time in the Kremlin and has a dacha in the countryside. I don’t think it’s the time of the Bolsheviks―someone puts a gun to his temple, and he’s suddenly gone.
You have written several award-winning novels throughout your career, including thrillers and mysteries. How did writing THE SLEEPER LIST compare to the others?
A little more historical research than The German Club and The Commuter. Almost all my books rely on what I learned as a journalist. Some of them didn’t require as much research. This book required more research into the technologies of the time. For example, there wasn’t any hacking at the time. You’d get someone on the inside who then goes and downloads onto a floppy disk―trade secrets or reports. The cameras were not fancy. Trick’s camera was just an old East German camera with no batteries; in the light of a 100-watt lightbulb and using a small chain dropped from the camera to the desk was the way to determine it’s in focus. They used these little Minox cameras about the size of a fat thumb. You’d see them used in old spy movies. They would just cover your eye and press click. That was it.
The things that were revealed were the technology of the time. I had to create a timeline and determine if the crook had an IBM PC, he’d have had Windows 3.0 with a 486 chip. And the Internet came along later.
Can you share a bit about your writing process, and was there anything uniquely challenging about writing this latest novel?
I get an idea, and before I start writing, I create a decent outline. And I know how the book is going to end. I know some people like to just write and see where the muse will take them, but you need more certainty when writing a thriller or mystery. You need to have a person that gets into trouble. The characters are important, and that’s where I focus. Things flow from that because those people have certain skills and holes in their experiences. Maybe the person is divorced or an alcoholic. You need to create a challenge for your characters. They can’t be Superman, though even Superman has his troubles.
THE SLEEPER LIST is packed with the key thriller elements―action, intrigue, and suspense. What tips would you offer for crafting the classic thriller?
You have to put people in danger, and the outcome must be unpredictable. You have to have challenges. Maybe they get shot or die. People must be put in a situation where they do things they don’t want to—lie, betray. The thrill is how are they going to get out of it. It’s that extraction from danger. You have to create the danger in a way for your hero or villain to deal with it.
Are there particular authors that have inspired your writing? In particular, spy or espionage thriller writers?
I like Joseph Conrad. English was not Conrad’s first language. He’s a “show don’t tell” person. Don’t give all the information. Show what they do, and you’ll figure out who they are by what they do. Don’t explain everything. I’m very much a proponent of Elmore Leonard’s teachings―in dialogue, use the word “said,” don’t use dripping irony like “gushed” or “opined.” Forget about that. Leonard has a list of ten things to consider for writing. For example, don’t start with the weather. Grab them right at the beginning with something interesting―”It was the best of times and the worst of times.”
Patrick Oster, now writing fiction full-time, was a managing editor at Bloomberg News and editor-in-chief of the National Law Journal. In his spare time, he still writes obituaries of rich or famous people. He has worked as a journalist for Business Week and the Washington Post in Europe, for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America and covered the White House, State Department, the Supreme Court, and the CIA as Washington Bureau Chief of The Chicago Sun-Times. He is the author of the nonfiction book, The Mexicans, a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection. His award-winning comic thriller The Commuter was published by the Argo Navis imprint of Perseus Books. He also wrote the spy thriller The German Club and the cyber-thriller The Hacker Chronicles. He also wrote the award-winning murder mystery, The Amazon Detective Agency. His latest novel is the prize-winning The Obituary Writer, another murder mystery. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.