Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Spike by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss

In my last post I reviewed Tom Rachman’s impressive debut novel The Imperfectionists which is about journalists working for an international newspaper based in Rome.

The novel got me thinking about other books written by well-known journalists, such as Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times (1980) by Harrison Salisbury, which I have read, and All the President’s Men (1974) by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, which I have been planning to read.

Thanks to Ron Scheer of Buddies in the Saddle for reminding me about Bernstein’s and Woodward’s investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post. In 1976, it was made into a film by Alan J. Pakula (Presumed Innocent, Sophie's Choice, The Pelican Brief) and had Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in the two lead roles. I haven’t seen the movie either.


When I entered journalism by a quirk of fate, in the mid-eighties, the first book that was thrust into my hands was The Spike (1980), a trailblazing spy thriller written by two other American journalists, Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss. It is built on the experiences of both the authors. 

“This is the book every budding reporter should read. It will inspire you,” I was told. The Spike did inspire me but it didn’t take me as far as it takes young Bob Hockney in his journalistic career.

As far as I remember, Hockney is opportunistic and learns the ropes quickly as he graduates from a plain cub reporter to a globetrotting investigative reporter who gets hold of a scoop of a lifetime—involving a KGB plot, western media, sex, and blackmail. There is just one hitch: Hockney’s exclusive despatches are spiked by his editor.

In journalistic parlance, “spike” literally means to kill a story.


In my very first job as a reporter, I remember the copy desk had a wooden block with three iron spikes sticking out of it. It was used to actually spike copies filed by reporters and received from wire services; stories that would not make it into next morning’s newspaper. The devils on the copy desk loved using it; sometimes, I suspect, to show a reporter who was boss. Reporters filed stories in earnest, copy editors killed them in right earnest. It was discouraging.

The Spike was my first exposure to a fictional account of the world of newspapers. It was racy and gripping. Read the book if you haven’t. You won’t regret it.

18 comments:

  1. Another newspaper film of note is ZODIAC (2007), set in 1960s-70s San Francisco and based on the experience of the reporters (Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.) at THE CHRONICLE, who attempted unsuccessfully to identify a serial killer. Another of note is season 5 of HBO's THE WIRE, which takes place at the Baltimore SUN.

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    1. Ron, I have seen ZODIAC and remember liking it though I also remember Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo more than Robert Downey Jr. Another film that comes to mind is THE SHIPPING NEWS (2001) which I found rather boring in spite of the formidable cast of Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, and Cate Blanchett. I'm not sure THE WIRE has been telecast in India.

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    2. I remember when I first read "All the President's Men." If only journalism could always be that exciting! :) Some non-crime related films on newspaper journalism that I enjoyed were "His Girl Friday" from 1940 and "Citizen Kane."

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    3. Elizabeth, I think journalism is shown as being exciting in fiction and in movies but it is seldom so in real life unless one is covering a safe beat like, say, the entertainment industry. I saw CITIZEN KANE many years ago and remember very little of the film.

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    4. I remember enjoying Annie Proulx's novel (though I have friends who didn't). The movie left not a shred of a memory for me, so I guess that qualifies it as not memorable. I have reviewed (and recommend) Richard Wheeler's frontier editor Sam Flint series, though that's a way different time frame.

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    5. Ron, I didn't know THE SHIPPING NEWS was based on a novel by E. Annie Proulx, an author I know very vaguely. I read about her and found that she has written both fiction, including a series of Wyoming stories, as well as nonfiction. I was also surprised to know that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was based on her short story of the same name and which was a part of her "Close Range: Wyoming Stories" collection.

      I intend to read Mr. Wheeler's Sam Flint series soon.

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  2. Wow, tough to be a reporter. What an excellent review!

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    1. Clarissa, thank you. I agree, it is tough to be a reporter or correspondent, particularly on the crime, war, and terrorism beats. The job requires a lot of determination and dedication.

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  3. I went through a spy phase back in the early 80s and read The Spike sometime around then. I remember it as being pretty good but can't recall any details today.

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    1. Charles, I'm still firmly ensconced in the espionage fiction phase, preferring the conservative writing of Thomas Craig to the glamourous style of Tom Clancy, though both are equally good. THE SPIKE is a very good book.

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  4. Prashant, I will add this one to the list, cheers!

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    1. Col, if you do I'd be happy to know your views or better still read your review. I want to know what my blog friends think about this particular novel.

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  5. "... with three iron spikes sticking out of it." Yeah, that's got to be intimidating.

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    1. David, the spike was an intimidating tool until the late eighties after which it began to be phased out of newsrooms. Today, the "delete" key has replaced the spike.

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  6. Fascinaing - thanks Prashant, both for th eprrsonal history and the details on the book, which (for shame) I had not heard of before.

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    1. Sergio, you are welcome. THE SPIKE is right up your alley. Anyone can read and enjoy the book. Borchgrave and Moss wrote one other novel, a political thriller called MONIMBO, which is a place in Nicaragua. Bob Hockney of THE SPIKE reappears in this book which revolves around the kidnapping of a US Senator in Puerto Rico. I read this novel but remember little, hence I didn't mention it in my post.

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  7. I remember spikes in the newsroom when I started out in journalism....

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    1. Moira, the spike, typewriter, the teleprinter, and cigarette smoke are some of my earliest memories of the newsroom.

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