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Book Review: The Bucharest Dossier

Especially for a debut novel, The Bucharest Dossier by William Maz, a former practicing doctor who did his residency at Yale, surprises as an espionage thriller and a love story that is as moving as it is fanciful. The dialogue is smart and the setting authentic — Romania on the eve of the violent 1989 revolution against the crooked and cruel regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The novel is a cynical and sorrowful insider look at a country the author knows well and at the spy game, CIA as well as KGB.

It opens with an intriguing sentence, the scene Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December 1989: “Professor Andrei Pincus left through the rear door of the Harvard Faculty Club wearing another man’s coat.” It's no spoiler to note that he’s soon dead. A fellow Romanian, he had been a mentor and friend to young Bill Hefflin, whose Romanian family changed its name to blend in when they arrived in America. Intelligent and good looking, but aloof and disillusioned, Bill finds himself 10 years after arriving in America at Harvard, where he’s invited into the prestigious — and real — Fly Club. There, he’s subtly seduced by secret CIA agents and a beautiful, charismatic sophomore into playing spy games that reveal he’s got what it takes. Longing for his lost childhood in Bucharest and angry about what happened to his friend Pincus, he acquiesces. 

The novel offers some intriguing lore about the differences between CIA analysts and those up a notch — the field agents. There are also memorable portraits of agency heads and “assets,” or confidential informants, that suggest The Cold War was even colder and blew in earlier than we knew. Based loosely on events that occurred during that “tumultuous time,” as the author writes, the story recalls 44 years of horrific communist rule, a “reign of terror,” “one of the bleakest periods in Romania’s history.” As with his fictional protagonist, Bill Hefflin, it was a time that drove the author’s own family out of the country when he was still a boy, spending a year in a Greek refugee camp before emigrating to the United States. But as Maz looks back, wistfully as well as critically, he says that now, 30 years after the trial and execution of the Ceausescus, questions still remain about the nature and extent of the atrocities surrounding the revolution. 

Maz has studied the literature about that dark period and has visited his homeland many times. He obviously feels confident in offering “a plausible scenario” about the violence: a plotline that suggests a “deeper dimension” to the role the United States and Gorbechev’s Russia played in fomenting and directing the revolution. But his primary motive in writing the book, he says in an endnote, was not to dwell on the misery of the Romanian people or the machinations of the spy agencies, but to show that “the flame of hope” could still burn brightly in the hearts of many of those who endured or fought the horror. 

Brutally realistic about the effects of war and realpolitik, but also affectingly personal and nostalgic, The Bucharest Dossier is suspenseful enough to make one forget the woes of the world for a while, and muse on the mythic draw of childhood innocence and love. A murky black and white cover effectively suggests noir but hardly the colorful richness inside.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.