This book tells the story of a Cold War prisoner exchange that, in the author’s view, helped to stave off World War Three. William Fisher, a.k.a. Rudolf Abel, was a Soviet agent (actually British by nationality) who was captured in New York city because of his work spying on the U.S. nuclear program. Francis Gary Powers was an American pilot flying reconnaissance over the Soviet Union to get a look at its nuclear arsenal; he was shot down on one of his missions and imprisoned in Russia. And Frederic Pryor actually had nothing to do with the spy game at all — he was simply an American student in Berlin studying Eastern economics, arrested by the Stasi because he fit their profile of what a spy should look like. Cold War tensions were running high at this time, so the agreement to trade Abel for Powers and Pryor was a vital gesture of good faith between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
In my American history classes in school, my teachers would always run out of time at the end of the year, so we’d usually only get as far as World War II in the lesson plan. As a result, I know basically nothing about the Cold War and was excited to read this book to learn more. I have to say, I found it slow going at first, as Whittell takes a long time to set up the three prisoners’ backgrounds. He also goes into stupefying detail about the type of plane Powers flew and the various engineering difficulties that its inventors encountered. But once the prisoners’ arrests are described, the book picks up considerably as it focuses on the political machinations needed to accomplish the prisoner exchange. The book also seems to be very well-researched, as Whittell was able to interview many of the people involved firsthand. I’m not sure it’s a particularly groundbreaking work, but I did find it interesting, and I’m now looking forward to seeing the film version with Tom Hanks.