William Safire, one-time spy novelist, dies

Most of the obituaries for William Safire, who died Sept. 27 of pancreatic cancer chronicle how the one-time speech writer for Richard Nixon became a columnist for The New York Times, won a Pulitizer Prize and was an expert on language.

What they probably won’t discuss in detail was how the 79-year-old pundit took a turn at being a spy novelist. Safire’s 1995 novel was called Sleeper Spy. In it, a “sleeper” agent planted by the old Soviet Union has been activated. Enter investigative reporter, Irving Fein, who seems based on journalist Seymour M. Hersh, who has written extensively about intelligence activities. As described by Safire:

Irving Fein found himself kicking around the media, respected by peers but seen as trouble by editors, potent in print but unable to capitalize on what he wrote by touting it effectively on television. Maximum energy, zero synergy.

Fein has gotten a tip and the sleeper and is poking about. It’s more complicated than that, of course, and the tale runs more than 400 paperback pages. It was fairly entertaining and the paperback version carried quotes from the likes of PBS’s Jim Lehrer, former CIA director Richard Helms and then-CBS anchor Dan Rather.

Sleeper Spy is a footnote in Safire’s career. But it was an interestng footnote for fans of espionage fiction.