Britain-based American novelist Brady (The Blue Death, 2012, etc.) offers an unusual perspective on Alger Hiss (1904-1996), the aristocrat reduced to traveling salesman.
As a young ballet dancer in New York in 1960, the author was about to marry a much older man (“fortunately nobody in the company cared about the oddities of my private life”) who was the director of the organization that published Consumer Reports. Enter Hiss, a paper salesman after having served several years in prison for perjury; he didn’t land the account, but he found good friends in the couple. All these years later, Brady serves up a nice defense of Hiss, who she believes was not guilty of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union—but who she also believes was essentially framed by Richard Nixon, then making a name for himself as a staffer on the House Un-American Activities Committee. That allegation is not new—Victor Navasky, among others, has leveled it before—but Brady has a crime writer’s knack for ferreting out multiple lines of investigation, noting irregularities in the material evidence—e.g., a missing typewriter, a mimeograph machine capable of concocting false witness in the wrong hands—and in the documentary record, including files kept by Soviet intelligence. But she also allows that Hiss, the sort of man Nixon would have despised as well-connected, cultured, and effete, walked into some of the traps set by the prosecution, in part because he simply couldn’t believe that anyone would accuse a good public servant of wrongdoing. Brady writes with hard-boiled verve (“Hoover knew all about it. The FBI knew all about it. Freedom of Information reveals many FBI memos worried about it”) that occasionally hardens into ham-fistedness. Readers risk a little level-of-diction whiplash but to a useful end.
If you’re inclined to disbelieve the official record, Brady’s book, less than definitive but more than circumstantial, will confirm your view.