International lawyer and former Navy pilot Gwynne Huntington Wales recalls many years sitting in an airline seat flying from one foreign country to another during the course of a distinguished international law career, lulling the time away reading spy thrillers.
As he neared retirement age, Wales began to think that maybe he could try his hand at writing espionage intrigue. He had become disillusioned with the trend in spy thrillers that had turned the respected career in espionage into superheroes and comic characters, far from the truth and respect, he felt those who served with dignity and faced daily threats of possible death deserved.
Now well into retirement, Wales sat with a visitor on the back lawn of his home on Brookside Drive overlooking a majestic garden of summer flowering bushes, testament to the hobby of his wife, to whom he has been married 50 years. He discussed his first novel, The Valley of Death, which he finally has published after thinking about its plot and writing the manuscript for two years.
The book is based upon Wales' experiences working in foreign countries, including Turkey, Indonesia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, and meeting "special forces types," including some British agents who crossed the border into Iraq on a regular basis.
"I was fascinated by the fact that they didn't tell me what they were doing. It didn't surprise me, but it interested me," he said. Maybe if [the British] are doing it, we are doing it."
Wales believes during his years working in foreign countries he has met a number of people dealing in espionage. After all, he observes, they have "no means of support, yet live well."
The author attributes a great deal of his novel's plot to his imagination. He would look at a map of Iraq and observe many bodies of water -- rivers and lakes and think of the possibilities of hiding weapons of mass destruction underwater.
Commenting upon the weapons of mass destruction controversy today, Wales said they "could still be hidden somewhere. They haven't been found. I'm a lawyer you know. Just because they haven't been found, doesn't mean they don't exist."
The Valley of Death is the story of the CIA's discovering a sale of Iraqi nerve gas to al Qaeda and the two-week battle of wits that ensued to determine the target and to recover the gas. The plot takes place in November 2002, before the invasion of Iraq. The CIA responds to a report from a highly placed British spy about an Iraqi operation to recover and sell nerve gas to terrorists, by dropping Jan Vandermeer into a remote valley in northeast Iraq to determine whether or not the report is correct. He discovers that the lake at the head of the valley is contaminated with VX nerve gas. Using Predator surveillance, the CIA watches the Iraqis recover a canister of the gas and deliver it to the initial transporters. Now the CIA must make a decision destroy the gas before it moves out of Iraq or let it proceed to protect the source of the report as well as to try to roll up the network of terrorists engaged in moving it to its ultimate but unknown destination.
Wales believes "thriller and espionage aficionados will enjoy reading The Valley of Death. The book portrays the difficulties encountered by the field agents involved in counter-terrorism activities as well as in establishing and maintaining personal relationships." This is why Wales has lost patience with the trend in espionage stories that present the superhuman hero rather than the human side of the individual who must do his job in an in clandestine manner.
Wales said his characters are not James Bond types. There are no superheroes. "They are ordinary people that make mistakes." Yet he noted they are "guys who won the Cold War."
In his book, Wales tries to show how the culture of secrecy affects the people involved, even the woman with whom the spy wants to be intimate. The hero in "The Valley of Death" teams up with a female agent from Iraq.
As a former lawyer, Wales, who graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School, enjoyed the process in writing a novel. With years of experience writing briefs and memos, he felt comfortable with the writing process, especially the fact he no longer had constraints in his writing as he did with law and was able to be guided by his imagination. He discovered writing a novel to be very "liberating."
His experience as a Navy pilot also contributed to his success in writing his novel. After the Korean War, he performed active duty for four years and continued in the Navy reserves for another dozen years until 1969. He said making 45-degree turns 100 feet off the water to track submarines is an experience that "focuses the mind." Such experience, he said, was a great help in law school, which he entered after his active duty, and even in writing.
He describes himself as a man who "has lived and worked in both the world of action and technology and that of ideas and cultural diversity."
When asked what he thought it was about his personality that led to his writing an espionage book, Wales said it was having "an intellectual curiosity and an appreciation of the unheralded work that people do in espionage work. They cannot be known, but they do amazing things. He said all such people have, like those in the CIA "the internal satisfaction for a job well done or a star on the wall." He explained that inside the CIA is a "Wall of Honor," with stars, each designating the death of one of its members. There are no names.
"It's covered with stars," Wales said.
Wales is married to the former Janet McCobb, a Southport native. The couple met when the Wales family moved to Southport when he was in college. Both of their fathers had worked for the same oil company. They have three children and three grandchildren. They moved into their 1750 home three years ago after many years living in Greenwich.
Wales will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Aug. 15 at Borders Fairfield and at 2 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Pequot Library.
The Valley of Death, published by iUniverse, can be ordered at 1-800 AUTHORS or 1-877-823-9235 or online at iuniverse.com. It is also available through Ingram Book Group and Baker & Taylor and on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and booksamillion.com.