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Book Review, Peter Warner, The Mole: The Cold War Memoir of Winston Bates

February 1, 2014

Peter Warner’s The Mole: The Cold War Memoir of Winston Bates, was a thoroughly enjoyable book, even though I must admit that it really did mess with my head. On the surface, it is the story of a somewhat hapless Canadian aspiring poet with a photographic memory, who stumbles into courier work for the CIA in post-WWII Paris. Bates is then recruited by Canadian intelligence to become a spy, and moves to Washington, D.C., where he works his way through the American intelligence community, working for various senators and, eventually, President Lyndon Johnson. Throughout the book, Bates ends up playing a major role (albeit unknown to history or even the major players) in such events as the Suez Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, Watergate, and, possibly, the Iran-Contra Affair.

Warner’s research into the history of the mid-20th century was impressive, and I loved his portrayals of Cold War Washington. There may have been too much detail here for someone not as into history as I am, but I feel this level of detail drew the reader further and further into Bates’ detail-obsessed mind. I admit that I found myself less interested in Bates’ Paris and Germany adventures (and could have done without the crazy Russian couple entirely), but felt that the time jumping aspect of the plot worked well. The minor characters also were compelling (although I never quite understood Bates’ romantic life), and wish I could have learned more about Mark, Bates’ long-time next door neighbor, since we didn’t see much of him after he grew up.

The mind bending aspect of the book started about halfway through, for me, as I found myself wondering if Bates was an unreliable narrator. Did his photographic memory lead him to see spies where there were none? Did he hallucinate his “recruitment”? Did he actually not affect anything, but only think that he did? (I went with this theory for a long time, but then there was that odd conversation with Oliver North at the end…)

Peter Warner successfully got me to question everything I thought I knew about his main character, and I absolutely love this book for that.

Source: My public library

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