Monday, May 19, 2014

Operation: Perfidia


Operation: Perfidia, by Leonard Jordan
April, 1975  Warner Paperback Library

Very different from any of his other books I’ve yet read, Operation: Perfidia was the first novel published under Len Levinson's “Leonard Jordan” pseudonym (though the book itself is copyright Levinson). Len told me once that this was his attempt at writing a John Le Clarre-type spy thriller, and it shows; while entertaining, Operation: Perfidia lacks the spark of the other Levinson novels I’ve read.

I think this is mainly due to the protagonist of the tale, David Brockman, a CIA agent who has just gotten out of Attica prison after serving eight years. Brockman is nothing like the typical Levinson protagonist: he’s dour, taciturn, and pretty much a cipher. In other words, he’s what you’d expect a real-life spy to be like, a faceless guy you’d forget moments after seeing. And while this could be factored as realistic, it doesn’t work as well when such a character is the star of the show.

Brockman as mentioned has served some serious time – but again, he’s such a blank slate that you get little feel for the hell he’s endured. The thrust of Operation: Perfidia is Brockman’s struggle to find out who set him up for this prison term and why, and also to find out what happened to his wife, Miralia. But he’s so emotionless, so sterile, that the reader feels little empathy for him. I mean, if it had been Alexander Frapkin sent to Attica for eight years, I’d certainly be rooting for him to find out who set him up.

The novel alternates between sections taking place in the “modern day” (which we can determine to be 1972, given that we’re informed Brockman was sent to prison in 1964) and backstory that documents Brockman’s involvement with what would become the Bay of Pigs fiasco, starting in 1960. In the modern section Brockman emerges from Attica as a highly-paranoid person, certain the Agency is stalking him. He’s clueless why he was sent to prison, having been set up on a fake breaking and entering charge, and the reader is gradually brought into his background as Brockman tracks clues around New York.

Another big difference about Brockman is that, unlike the average Levinson protagonist, he isn’t a horndog. Brockman’s still hooked on his wife, a pretty young Cuban revolutionary named Miralia Guzman; we see how they met during one of the flashbacks, while Brockman is stationed in Guatamala in preparation for the Bay of Pigs campaign. Maralia and her brother Julio are high in the revolutionary movement, and she and Brockman get in an argument the first time they meet, given Brockman’s pessimism about the plans for the campaign and its success. However Miralia still comes to him that night, stating that despite their political differences they have an obvious attraction for one another.

Now in the present Brockman wants to find Miralia, who has been missing since he was imprisoned, but to tell the truth it’s not like he’s rabid about it. This factors into the lack of emotion in the book, and Brockman himself – he hasn’t seen Miralia since the day he was arrested, and isn’t even sure if she’s still alive, but the way Brockman goes about trying to find her comes off as almost robotic, as if he’s doing it all by rote, and there doesn’t seem to be much drive behind it. Also, Miralia clearly comes off as a duplicitous person in these flashbacks, so much so that the reader is well ahead of Brockman by the halfway point, when he finally starts to suspect her of having something to do with his incarceration.

Brockman does though score with an old friend of Miralia’s, a heavyset Cuban lady who, having been Miralia’s gynecologist, informs Brockman that Miralia had a secret abortion while she and Brockman were married. The lady throws herself at Brockman, who ends up giving in to temptation, given his eight-year dry spell. But other than that, the sex scenes are relegated to the early ‘60s flashbacks, and there’s really nothing explicit throughout, even so far as the scant action scenes go. Again, the feel of the novel is more of a “straight” or at least standard spy tale, Len trying to keep things realistic.

Another thing missing from the typical Levinson tale is the sparkling cast of supporting characters. Unfortunately, none of them are very memorable, given that Brockman interracts mostly with Cuban rebels or fellow spys, with the former all being staunch idealists and the latter all dour professionals. The only minor character who has any spark is Ollie Rimsen, a circus dwarf who rents one of the rooms in the flophouse Brockman calls home in New York in the modern sections. In his few pages Ollie makes more of an impression on the reader than any other character in the novel, but unfortunately he’s gone too soon. Even Miralia, who is alternately a loving wife or a potential enemy, doesn’t really grab the reader’s interest.

When the Bay of Pigs fiasco goes down just as Brockman predicted, he finds himself an odd man out. Miralia no longer talks to him, too distracted as she waits in campaign headquarters for word of her brother Julio, who was part of the assault. Brockman has submitted many papers to his superiors that the campaign is doomed, but not until afterwards does anyone contact him about this, and this is merely due to the President’s desire to ferret out the people who were behind it and remove them from the Agency. Now Brockman works as a double agent within his own organization, but this subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, Brockman eventually no longer even calling in to report.

There aren’t many action scenes in Operation: Perfidia, though at one point in the modern section Brockman’s jumped by a Latino-looking guy in New York. Brockman takes him out, but we never do find out who the guy was; Brockman assumes he was either CIA or one of the old Cuban revolutionairies. A strange vibe comes to the novel when Brockman gets into the apartment he once shared with Miralia in New York; visions of being tied to a bed and drugged hammer through his mind, and he passes out. Thoroughly rattled, he leaves New York and heads for Miami, where he thinks he’ll finally find Miralia.

The last quarter of the novel mostly takes place in 1963, as Brockman flashes back to a suppressed memory of how he started to suspect Miralia of being unfaithful, given how she’d often head off for New Orleans without him. On one such occasion Brockman followed her, secretly bugging her room; he came to the conclusion that she, Julio, and other Cubans were plotting the assassination of someone, likely Castro. The reader of course guesses they have someone else in mind. And by the time Miralia’s announcing she’s heading down to Dallas one November day, you can see where it’s going.

Here we have a bit more action, as Brockman surprises a group of Cubans in a Dallas hotel with a blazing Colt .45, and then quickly deduces from their radio chatter that they have more men in Dealy Plaza. Getting down there as quickly as possible, given the crush of spectators, Brockman arrives just in time to spot Julio and others toting rifles on the infamous grassy knoll – but when Brockman tries to get help, he discovers this is all much bigger than he suspected.

And actually that’s another problem I have with Operation: Perfidia; the JFK angle is introduced too late, and it’s a bit unbelievable, given how many people Len has involved in it. There’s no way so many people could keep quiet about it, with Brockman the only one who knows the truth – and, of course, suffering for it. For we learn it was his knowledge of who really killed Kennedy that got Brockman set up on that phony breaking and entering rap; that is, after he’d been drugged and brainwashed for a while by his Agency “friends,” Miralia included.

Brockman at least gets revenge, and Len pulls an interesting trick by having Brockman gain vengeance before we learn what exactly happened to him – it’s only after he’s dispensed justice that we get the long flashback to what happened in ’63. But again, his victory is a bit hollow, as despite the fact that Brockman’s life was torn apart eight years ago, the guy is presented as such a bland cipher that you feel little empathy for him, and there’s no vicarious thrill when he gains vengeance.

I enjoyed Operation: Perfidia, but I didn’t love it like many of the other Levinson novels I’ve read. While Len’s writing is strong and fluid, taking you from scene to scene with ease, there was just something off about it, like a sort of sterile feeling. Again, though, this is likely do to Brockman, who himself is pretty sterile. On the plus side, Operation: Perfidia is one of Len’s novels that’s available as an ebook, so be sure to check it out. (The original paperback by the way is deceptively slim – it comes in at 174 pages, but it has eyestrain-inducing small print.)

Len recently sent me his thoughts on the novel, and his comments on the manuscript’s original ending are very interesting:

I wrote Operation: Perfidia circa 1974 and haven’t read it since delivering the ms to Warner. I also never read the paperback published in 1975, assuming it was identical to my ms except for minor editorial fixes to grammar, punctuation and syntax. 

I don’t want to give away the plot because it was supposed to be a psychological thriller. But I will say that it partially concerned the Kennedy Assassination. 

Those of you not alive then probably cannot appreciate the impact of the Kennedy Assassination on America. Some commentators have called it America’s loss of innocence. 

I was working at my desk at Paramount Pictures at 1501 Broadway in NYC when the news broke. Everyone was in a state of shock. At first it wasn’t clear whether JFK was alive or dead. Then the death knell was sounded. The President had been assassinated. 

I couldn’t deal with it. Like many Americans, I believed the Camelot myth. Our beautiful world had been shattered by seemingly demonic forces. 

I went home to my pad on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village and didn’t go out all weekend. My eyes were glued to the television set as horrific events unfolded. I even watched live as Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd and shot the cringing Lee Harvey Oswald. 

In days to come, conspiracy theorists went into high gear. Everyone was blaming everyone else. Few believed the Warren Commission Report. It seemed as if the foundations of America were being shaken. 

I read the Warren Commission Report and many other books and articles on the Kennedy Assassination, many of which contradicted each other. Gradually a theory formed in my mind amidst all the other concerns and hassles swirling around my life at the time. 

I quit PR and became a novelist in 1971. Soon I was writing pulp fiction for a small, not very prestigious publisher named Belmont-Tower that didn’t pay very well. I wanted to elevate myself to a prestigious publisher and make more money. In order to accomplish that great goal, I’d need to write a great novel. What should I write about? 

As I looked the market over, I felt most attracted by the kinds of novels written by John Le Carre, mainly because character development was an important part of his novels. He wasn’t simple-minded like some of the spy writers of that era. 

So I decided to write a John Le Carre-type spy novel that touched on the Kennedy Assassination. I called it Betrayed. The leading man was based loosely on me as a CIA agent. The leading lady was based on my first wife. The plot was based on my assassination theory at the time, which I no longer believe, but was credible and many still believe something like it. 

My then agent Elaine Markson submitted Betrayed to various publishers. An editor at Warner Paperback Library really liked it. I went to his office and he praised it to high heavens. I thought I was on my way to the bestseller list. 

Warner changed the title to Operation: Perfidia. For the first time, I could use whatever name I wanted as author. After much cogitation I decided not to use my real name. The novel was controversial and I thought someone might try to kill me, so decided on my first name and middle name, Leonard Jordan. 

When I received my author’s copies, I was appalled by the cover. It showed a guy holding an automatic rifle of strange manufacture, his trigger hand awkwardly bent. The painting of this guy was amateurish. Obviously Warner didn’t spend much on the cover because evidently the Warner brass didn’t like this book. Naturally it didn’t sell very well, so I returned to Belmont-Tower with my tail between my legs. 

I thought I should read Operation: Perfidia for this article. Having not read it for around 40 years, when I cracked my desk copy open, it read as if written by someone else. I don’t want to sound immodest, but I thought it pretty good. As I read, the story came back to me. I couldn’t wait for the ending, because I remembered it as very powerful and unexpected. 

As the plot was building to my fabulous power ending - SUDDENLY THE STORY CAME TO A SCREECHING HALT! I wondered if the pages has fallen out. It didn’t look that way. Evidently somebody at Warner had chopped off my great ending and written some new tag lines. At first I couldn’t imagine why. It wasn’t a long book to begin with. But publishers often do whatever they want with writers like me who have no clout. 

Then I thought that perhaps Warner might have seen the novel as possible first of a possible series, and wanted to keep the protagonist viable as opposed to the dark end I wrote for him. Whatever happened, the weak cover and new non-ending really torpedoed any chances the novel might’ve had in the market place. 

So that’s the backstory for Operation: Perfidia. It’s now available as an e-book and not selling well despite an intriguing cover. If I had any brains, I wouldn’t confess my true feelings about the truncated ending, because doubtlessly this confession will hurt e-book sales. But you shall tell the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Besides, there are lots of other Len Levinson e-books available with intact endings.

7 comments:

Marty McKee said...

Please give my thanks to Len for his contributions to your blog...not just for writing the original books, but also providing his "audio commentary" all these decades later. It's fascinating.

Trever Palmer said...

I have to echo Marty's comments.

Len's contributions are excellent, and it's a pleasure to read (along with your review).

RJR said...

Len,

Replace the original ending and it will FLY!!!!!

RJR

50sVintage said...

Len is a great writer. Curses to any and all who muck up his stories.

Len Levinson said...

I was thinking about Joe's review as I was hiking in a state forest near my pad this afternoon. I remembered that when I was writing OPERATION PERFIDIA, I conceived the protagonist Brockman to be a cold-blooded, very rational guy, not emotional or excitable or charismatic. After all, he's an assassin occasionally, which means he must be unemotional, and he must be completely objective in assessing information. He's bewildered by the injustice done him, but by nature he's not a passionate high strung person, which I guess made him appear kind of flat or bland. Anyway, I think he's exactly what I wanted him to be, for better or worse.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. And thanks, Len, for also leaving a comment! You all already know this, but I wanted to clarify that this review is just my opinion, and other readers will no doubt feel differently about the book. Also, I didn't mean to come off too negatively about it; I personally just didn't find the protagonist very compelling. However the circus dwarf was super cool!

Len Levinson said...

This is Len Levinson again. I just wanted to add that it's very difficult for a writer to be objective about his work. I thought the Brockman character was as fully developed as any of my other characters, but perhaps the development was mostly in my mind and never reached the actual pages of OPERATION PERFIDIA. That’s the biggest challenge of writing, to actually transfer thoughts into words on pages. Joe's review might be closer to the truth than my opinion. Who can say for sure? There are no absolute standards in literature.