Behind: “Sparks to the Bear’s Hide”


“If there’s one thing I have no business doing,” I told them, “it’s writing a spy story.”

It was a sharp winter’s day, and around our pub table the critique group nodded readily. A little too readily. Crimped in my hands was a draft of the spy story I had been attempting to introduce.

“It’s for Mystery Writers of America,” I explained. “Every year heavy hitters put together an awesome anthology. This time it’s the Cold War, with Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, the only two American authors ever to pen an authorized James Bond novel.”

Now, it is a fact that inserting James Bond into any conversation kick-starts it big time, no matter how it was humming along pre-Bond. Try it. You’ll see what I mean. On that particular cold Saturday, the group’s nods turned knowing, if at whatever action-packed Bond scene ran through their heads. Echoing through pub you could almost hear the surf guitar opening to Dr. No.


“Damned British,” I said, scribbling liked mad.

I meant the various grand schemes and counter-strategies John Lewis Gaddis had outlined in his The Cold War, open on my seat-back table. Out our train window morning glimmered over France. Beside me, my wife pretended not to wake up.

“It’s for the MWA anthology,” I wanted to remind her. But I didn’t. I’ve gotten good at staying married.

The train barreled south, into Provence. I read on, well-fueled by inspiration and Coca-Cola Lite. Weeks into research, no writer fed me Cold War perspective like Gaddis or its zeitgeist like John le Carré. Gaddis framed the stakes; le Carré made it human. Both got inside the grand monoliths of East vs. West and showed its reality: fragments and fissures.

I was honing in on the story gold buried in those fractures. The British, a fading power, forever had to calibrate their interests, balancing instinct with how far they dared stray from America. If the British on their isle walked a tightrope, imagine the front lines where East and West truly met. Imagine where the Cold War wasn’t the least bit cold.

Where there was blood in the streets.


“Hungary!” I said. All these months later I like to think I declared the Hungary idea. It was worth declaring.

A damning piece of evidence that I only thought it: no librarian asked me to leave. Surely any Eureka!-grade exclamation would have brought at least a curt rebuke.

Already I had dismissed Czechoslovakia. Russian tanks crushing their 1968 rebellion was an iconic if grim image of the times, but the math was all wrong. A lead character had long since begun to form: young woman, no spy training, a gaping wound in her soul where a daddy’s girl used to be. A Czech recruited for a revenge mission set a Prague version in the mid-80s, already the Glasnost era. Not enough boil to the pot.

But the 1956 Hungarian Revolution?

Cue Budapest, 1973. And cue the Bond riff, if that’s your thing.


“Revenge,” I said.

The gray cat in my lap blinked her wet eyes. Either she wasn’t impressed or she preferred her revenge served colder still.

I kept typing–there is no point elaborating to a cat. What I’d meant was, with all that Cold War gamesmanship, a Shakespearian turn of a game upon its players. A pox on both the East and West’s houses. The idea sounds tidy a year later. At the time it was anything but fast or easy, a prying loose of story, of craft vs. impulse. But I’d begun to write, kindled by grainy Polaroids of ‘73 Budapest and launched by a narrator I can’t explain. Helena appeared to lead me before I had its end, before she had the name. But her first words she had a tone.

So did her Budapest. Hungary’s Western connection and tradition of self-determination survived under the Russian thumb. By 1973 socialist ideology had calcified, and Hungary wrangled a degree of political and economic freedom: Goulash communism. “The happiest barracks,” it was said of Hungary, though I read it as a nexus of decay. Corrupt, lip service paid to Communism, ever more overt luxury, but still smuggled goods, still a crumbling one-party state, still a formidable secret police, still a Russian crackdown should Hungary stray too far.

Still more than a few war criminals from ’56 lining their pockets.

Like I said, revenge.

JANUARY 27 (4 days to Deadline), THE SANCTUM SANCTORUM

Great story, Gloria said in her e-mail. But it’s disjointed. And the ending doesn’t work.

The silence that followed was broken only by the Pomeranian snoring at my feet.

I re-read her critique, re-read my story, re-re-read her critique. The truth hit me like where Bond snaps off that hipshot on the poor bastard tracking him in the sniper scope.

Salty words flew.

It took more than one long walk until I got back hammering out a better story. All but the ending. Helena hid it from me until the last minute. Out of love, I’ve wondered. Or fear. The big finish as submitted–no spoilers–was its truest and most painful. And sealing it up for New York, the pages smelled of fresh laser toner. In the end, after all the research and creative agonies, nothing inspires like a ticking clock. Say like all those bombs that Bond defused with the timer stopped at 007.


“Remember a few months back,” I said, “when I brought in that spy story?”

* * *

The Thank Yous
  • To MWA and the Publications Committee, for offering us members at all levels a chance to participate in this amazing tradition. And to Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson for such a damned good anthology idea. Appearing alongside such accomplished talent is an honor that will be with me forever.
  • To Gloria Kempton, a great cheerleader and a clear eye. Her suggestions opened the door to the “Sparks” that made Ice Cold.  I can’t recommend her enough.
  • To Cheryl, Lily, Kathleen and all my buddies at the NWMG Mystery Group. Your support means the world to me.
  • To the Rolling Stones. I mean, why not? And to Ian Fleming, John le Carré and all those masters that built this genre.
The Research

I tried hard to get 1973 Hungary as right as possible. To the extent I got it wrong, I apologize. To the extent I took a liberty here and there, well, that’s storytelling. Know “Sparks” was born from good intentions: honoring the Hungarian cause and its very human place in the Cold War.

The Title

The Hungarian proverb goes: “Ne igyál előre a medve bőrére.” Translation: Don’t drink ahead to the bear’s hide (Wikipedia), or idiomatically, “don’t count your chickens.” I latched onto the double-meaning made of “bear,” the sense of fate balancing out, the Hungarian connection. Sparks, a central image of the story, flung at a bear’s hide would live fierce but overmatched lives, a scorch mark at worst.

“Sparks” is about the scorch marks.


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