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How James Grady’s Spy Thriller Became a Lethal Weapon

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James Grady wrote one of the seminal books on spy games and politics with "Six Days of the Condor." Now he's back with "Last Days of the Condor." Nathan Grady, Forge Books

Every writer hopes one of his books makes it into the movies. Forty years ago, James Grady got lucky with his very first, Six Days of the Condor, which was turned into the hit Watergate zeitgeist film (albeit shortened to Three Days of the Condor) starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and Max Von Sydow. Decades later, the book not only remains the platinum standard for Washington-based spy thrillers, but a kind of cultural meme for paranoia.

"Shit, it's starting to feel like Three Days of the Condor, you know?" Breaking Bad’s Hank says to Walt on a 2011 episode, one of many such references over the years. The 1974 book is still in print. The movie pops up frequently on cable.

Now, exactly 40 years after the release of the movie, Grady is back with Last Days of the Condor. Yes, the Redford character, a researcher in a secret CIA unit, is on the run again—albeit wheezing a bit in middle age. He should be on the cover of AARP. Unlike the first time around, however, his innocence is long gone. He’s seen CIA guys go rogue.

So, too, Grady. Even as a 21-year-old Senate intern in 1972, the Montana native had sensed there were clandestine undercurrents to Watergate. Two years later, he went home and wrote Condor “on nights and weekends while working state government jobs,” he says. As much as he had a precocious sense of the secret world that emerged during Watergate, as well as revelations about CIA assassinations and the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, he knew nothing about how to get a book published.

“I sent it through the mail” to W.W. Norton in New York, he says, “and it got picked out of the slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts. “The publisher paid me the huge sum of $1,000 and percentages of what they sold it to the movies for. My first movie payment was six times what my dad made in a year as a movie theater manager.”

Grady seemed like a Cassandra with his book, which presaged the rise of the still half-hidden national security state. Now everybody seems hip to conspiracies—maybe too much so. The revelations of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, not to mention such post-9/11 shockers about CIA ghost flights, black sites, torture and the manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, has completed the end of innocence that began with Vietnam. When we catch up to Condor in 2015, he’s living in a whole new world.

“Essentially, I took the iconic young and naive character I created for the Watergate era, shimmered him ahead through the movie and book characterizations into a baby boomer era hero now confronting the post-Snowden world of spies,” Grady says. “Prior to Snowden, few ‘ordinary’ citizens of the world realized just how pervasive the intelligence apparatuses of major countries are in everyone's lives. Such thinking used to be ‘kook’ talk. Now it's common belief and comedian's punch lines.”

And much, much more. A few years ago I called up Grady, an old pal from the shadow world of Washington espionage writers, and informed him that, according to a Soviet defector’s forthcoming memoir, Condor had inspired the Cold War–era, Soviet KGB to launch a secret program modeled on Redford’s CIA job as Grady invented it: To sift through books and movies for new and deadly tricks that Langley might want to appropriate.

“It stunned the hell out of me,” Grady recalled as we revisited that conversation over the weekend. But that was nothing compared to years earlier, when he heard on the news that Iranian assassin had carried out a mission near Washington, D.C., that seemed taken from another scene in Condor.

It was 1980, five years after the movie came out. The year before, Islamic revolutionaries had toppled the CIA-backed Shah of Iran, but things were far from settled. Western-based exiles were scheming to get back into power, and one of the key plotters, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, lived in Bethesda, Maryland, a Washington suburb. On July 22, David Belfield, an American Muslim convert, appeared on Tabatabai’s doorstep dressed in a mailman’s uniform—just like Grady had dreamed up for an assassination attempt on the Redford character in Condor. Unlike in the book and movie, however, Tabatabai fell for the ruse. He opened the door. Belfield pumped three shots into him and fled through Canada to Iran, where he remains today.

“It was right out of my book,” Grady says. “Very weird.”  It gnawed at him so much that he finally found a way years later to reach Belfield (who now calls himself  Dawud Salahuddin) by phone so he could ask him where he got the mailman idea.

Salahuddin wasn’t sure, he told Grady. It might have been the book or movie, but “he said he may have gotten the idea from a friend...” who had seen the movie.

Then came the news of the KGB’s fiction-combing project in 2011, likewise inspired by Condor. It blew Grady’s mind.

“Here we have reality aping fiction, which apes reality, which apes fiction,” he said. “It really closes the loop.”

New loops may open in Last Days of the Condor. It’s not giving away much to say that Grady, now 65, has invented new and novel ways for the bad guys to try and rub out his hero. Does he worry that he’ll inspire yet another assassin, maybe this time from Al-Qaeda, ISIS or the Russians?

“Yes,” he says. “But if I tell a good and 'true to itself' story, I'm equally as likely to tell our good guys what tactics and strategies to watch out for.”

He hopes. Last time, it didn’t go so well.

Jeff Stein is Newsweek’s national security correspondent in Washington, D.C. He can be reached more or less confidentially via encrypted email at spytalk[at]hushmail.com.

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