Ronald Drabkin had never written a book before when he stumbled across the story of Frederick Rutland, a British aviation hero turned spy turned double agent, now the subject of Drabkin’s Beverly Hills Spy: The Double-Agent War Hero Who Helped Japan Attack Pearl Harbor (Morrow/HarperCollins, Feb. 13).

Rutland became known as “Rutland of Jutland” after the World War I battle of Jutland, when he flew his floatplane over the German fleet and radioed their coordinates back to the British. On his return, though, his plane malfunctioned. He set it down on the waves, climbed out onto the wing, fixed the engine, and flew off again, all while shells whizzed overhead.

Rutland moved to Los Angeles between the two world wars and began selling information about Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy, and advances in American aircraft to Japan. Later, when the attack on Pearl Harbor appeared imminent, he went to the FBI and offered to sell them what he knew.

His story had everything—movie stars, infidelity, staggering wealth, and, of course, deceit, betrayal, and regret. We caught up with Drabkin via Zoom from his home in Tokyo; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Frederick Rutland is an amazing character—audacious, fearless, charismatic, brilliant, and possibly amoral. How did you come across his story?

It was just dumb crazy luck, really. My father worked in military intelligence—he was a spy, right?—in Los Angeles in the 1950s. He passed away five or six years ago, and in cleaning out his house I found all this old espionage stuff and got curious and started looking into it.

I Googled around and found Rutland’s name. [The information] looked similar to what my dad had done—espionage at the same time, same place. So I sent the FBI a Freedom of Information Act request on Frederick Rutland. It came back as “newly declassified.” I’m reading this and I’m thinking, Wow, this is really crazy stuff. Here’s Boris Karloff, here’s Charlie Chaplin. And maybe I’m the first person to see this.

Why has Rutland been so little heard of until now?

It was covered up. The FBI was a little late to the game around espionage before Pearl Harbor. Here they had this English war hero working with Charlie Chaplin and Boris Karloff in plain sight. He’s not famous now, but at the time he was very, very famous. He was in the society papers every day. And this was embarrassing as all get-out.

The FBI flat out didn’t believe him when he said that the Japanese were going to attack?

He said, Look, the Japanese are going to attack the U.S. and I’ll know about this; let me help the U.S. out. The FBI didn’t believe him. They thought he was just a slimeball. They had him quieted. They put him on a plane to England, where he was tossed into jail with no charges.

If you get back into the U.S. mindset at the time, they were worried about Nazis; they weren’t really thinking about Japan. It didn’t seem like a real threat.

Rutland had positioned himself as a businessman. He was selling aviation information to Japan, but he did so openly. So was he really a spy? Or was he just a businessman?

Well, that’s a really good question. Were he to do that today, it would be against the law. The laws were different then. Also, he was British, not American. As a British citizen he was less subject to U.S. laws.

And he wasn’t selling British secrets.

No. And the British never found anything against him either. He didn’t break any British laws.

Was he ever charged with any crime?

Never charged with a crime. He spent a good 3.5 years in prison. And they kept him in there a long time without charges. He started out in Brixton prison and then they moved him to the Isle of Man.

Later, his American daughter went to Britain and pleaded with him to fight to clear his name, and he was like, “I was never charged with a crime. I was put in prison without charges.” You can’t clear your name if you haven’t been accused of a crime.

How much did class play into his story?

The other British pilots were highly educated at Oxford and Cambridge. He was the son of a day laborer, the lowest of the low. He joined the Royal Navy at age 14, lying about his age because he was hungry. He was 5-foot-2, 75 pounds. He spent 10 years doing every job in the Navy. And he knew everything about all the machines.

When he did his mission with the “sticks-and-strings” plane, the other fellow in the plane was a Cambridge fellow. He’d read the classics, but there was no way he could fix the engine. But Rutland had a chip on his shoulder because of the way the others treated him.

At what point did you decide this needs to be a book? And how did you go about it?

I live over in Japan and I made some friends here that are in the naval forces today. They were fascinated. And they started looking into the Japanese side of the story, like who sent him to Pearl Harbor to look around. I had both sides. I had the U.S. side, the Japanese side, and I thought, Someone needs to tell this story.

Did you know how to write a book?

That’s hard, right? Obviously, I leaned on a bunch of people, took a writing class; I asked people. It’s really hard, as a first-timer, if you say, “I’m writing a book; can you give me some advice?” I think published authors get that every day.

I was really surprised to read how determined Japan was to attack the United States for so many years before World War II. Why were they so hostile to the U.S.?

There were a bunch of reasons—first of all, the clash of powers in general. Second, they needed oil and knew that the U.S. was threatening to cut off their oil—and eventually did cut it off. And at the end of World War I there was a proposal to the League of Nations against racism, saying that every country should be treated the same, no matter the race. And Japan was very much in favor of that. The British actually were pushing for it, but it was killed by the U.S. and Australia. And then the U.S. banned Japanese and Chinese immigration. So there was a feeling in Japan of their being insulted. You put all that together.

Did Rutland see himself as a traitor? Did he feel regret for what he did?

I think for a long time he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong at all. He had a sort of chip on his shoulder about how he’d been treated and he felt it was justified.

This would make a great movie. Has anyone talked about movie rights?

Yeah, my agent’s talking to—there’s a lot of interest from Hollywood people.

What happened to the research you did on your dad? Will that be a book?

I didn’t find a lot of info. Some authors will talk about, Do you have a book, or do you have anecdotes? For him, I have a bunch of anecdotes.

Laurie Hertzel is a writer in Minnesota.