Review: A.G. Russo's 'Offenbunker'

Cold War spies face off in this thriller.

Source: https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2016/10/02/bring-back-cold-war.html

There seems to have been a resurgence in fiction surrounding the Cold War as of late. Despite the Berlin Wall falling nearly twenty years ago, writers have been flocking back to the decades-long standoff between East and West including old masters like John le Carré. New writers have also come to the genre including A.G. Russo, whose novel Offenbunker brings spy fiction, secret government bunkers, and the threat of nuclear war altogether in a neat package.

The divided city of Berlin with its infamous wall features in the novel.

Russo's tale takes in perhaps the most dangerous days of the Cold War. Opening with the building of the Berlin Wall and reaching its climax with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the novel follows two apparently separate plot strands. One involves a group of agents from various American intelligence agencies hunting for a traitor inside the CIA. The second follows the opening of the eponymous bunker in the Blue Ridge Mountains that acts not just as a hideaway for government officials but also houses perhaps the ultimate deterrent to a nuclear attack. Of course, the threads converge in the novel's finale as the threat of war reaches its zenith.

It's the plotting that is perhaps the biggest highlight of the novel. The two plot strands echo many of the classics of Cold War spy literature and take the reader from a divided Berlin to Washington D.C., into CIA headquarters, and down within the Offenbunker itself. Indeed, the way Russo brings them together echoes such classic thrillers as The Day of the Jackal and The Eye Of The Needle with the sense of how history might have unfolded but we simply don't know about it. 

Elsewhere Offenbunker is rather variable. The novel reads a screenplay in waiting at times with Russo's brisk, punchy prose style. There's almost a filmic style of staging at times which is most apparent especially in the novel's finale. Russo's research of the era shines as most chapters open with a couple of paragraphs giving context to the era in what will be a plus for those unfamiliar with the early 1960s. The result is a novel that is immensely readable but which comes at something of a price.

A blast door at the Greenbrier Bunker in West Virginia, one of the novel's real-life inspirations.

That price being paid by the characterization and the dialogue. While all of the characters feel plausible, none of them ever feel quite real and range from two dimensional to spouting cliches. The same can be said for the dialogue as well which often is in service of the plot and little else. The romances between a couple of characters seem forced, for the most part, more in service of the plot than a natural extension of the characters lives. Also, while the opening information in most chapters is nice, other pieces of exposition feel less natural and there are some obvious anachronisms in places (such as character searching a computer for files in chapter thirty or frequent references to the traitor as a"mole" more than a decade before the term entered the popular lexicon with le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). There are also some odd omissions of historical characters including CIA counter-intelligence chief James Angleton who surely should have been at least the figurehead of the hunt for a traitor in the CIA.

On the whole, however, Offenbunker is a solid read. While its characters and dialogue are not its strong suits, its plot is an intriguing one which takes in some of the Cold War's days while also telling an engaging story along the way. For those seeking a new read from an old genre, it's worth giving A.G. Russo's novel a go on your Kindle.

(I received a free copy of the novel from the author in return for an honest review).

Matthew Kresal
Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first piece of fiction was published in the anthology Blood, Sweat, And Fears in 2016.

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Review: A.G. Russo's 'Offenbunker'