Strangers on a Bridge

Written by James Donovan

Review written by Adrian Magson

Adrian Magson is the author of 27 crime and spy thrillers. 'Death at the Old Asylum', the 8th title in the Inspector Lucas Rocco series set in 1960s France, currently in ebook, comes out in paperback on the 14th March via Canelo Books. More information:

Strangers on a Bridge
Penguin UK
RRP: £8.99
Released: September 24 2015

Much has been written over the years about Russian spy Rudolf Abel (born William Fisher near Newcastle upon Tyne, strangely enough), and his capture and subsequent release in exchange for downed American U2 spy pilot, Gary Powers. 

While the now iconic exchange which took place on the Glienicke Bridge, Berlin, has always attracted attention, the court case in the US, where Abel faced a possible death sentence for espionage, is the more interesting part of the story. 

Written in 1964 by James B Donovan, a former member of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS -the forerunner to the CIA), and the man who was asked to represent him in court, Strangers on a Bridge is a fascinating look at a historical event that many younger people will not have come across before unless they see the film Bridge of Spies.  

Donovan, while openly criticised for defending a spy by colleagues and the general public, proved a highly tenacious defence in the face of considerable and damning evidence found in Abel's possession. These included  a great deal of cash, documents in different names, a hollowed-out pencil for carrying microfilm, microfilm strips, a cryptographic code in Russian and more. Worst of all, though, was the deadly testimony against him by another Russian spy and colleague who had been part of his cell. 

The detail is too much to go into here, but Donovan's primary task, as he saw it, was to save Abel from the death sentence. This would have been automatic had he been proved to have transmitted US secrets to Moscow. Instead, Donovan hoped to settle for a lengthy prison sentence for his client, such was the evidence against him. That he succeeded in saving Abel from the electric chair is no secret, but he did so against stiff opposition and criticism of  being a 'commie sympathiser'. (He wasn't, of course, but it makes one realise that with today's internet trolls using Twitter or Facebook, and the current methods used by today's media, by comparison he got off lightly). 

Much of the book deals with his discussions about the trial with Abel, who was highly intelligent and not averse to offering his own critique of the legal representations being made against him. More than anything it highlights the unusual relationship that grew between the two men; never quite friends but highly respectful of each other and often happy to talk on a wide range of subjects.  

It also highlights the loneliness suffered by the sleeper spy, isolated from everything in their former life, often for many years, only to be steadfastly denied by their home country when caught.  (Yet, as Donovan discovered, fighting to get some letters going between Abel and his wife and daughter on grounds of simple humanity, not all the letters from Abel's wife were genuine, but probably coming from his KGB handler in Russia, still keeping an eye on his agent). 

That downed U2 pilot Gary Powers came along was undoubtedly a stroke of good luck for Abel. (This, incidentally, occupies no more than a couple of pages in the narrative, with the prisoner exchange overseen by Donovan). But it was an occurrence foreseen by Donovan, who had suggested from early in the trial that, in the event an American spy were caught, Abel alive was a better item for bargaining an exchange than Abel executed. And it clearly worked.

Courtroom scenes can be dry and unexciting, a battle of words and procedural fencing, usually spiced up by authors and scriptwriters for dramatic effect. But this account is truly compelling to read, told in undramatic words and some wry wit by Donovan himself, showing a very human side of an odd situation - the interaction between a humane lawyer and a foreign spy he should despise, yet must defend. Highly recommended 

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