Updated: Aug 24, 2022
On November 9, 1989, the world rejoiced as picks, axes, and shovels brought down the Berlin Wall, reuniting a nation.
In his latest novel, THE SLEEPER LIST, Patrick Oster, author, journalist, and former Washington Bureau Chief of the Chicago Sun Times, takes readers back to the post-Cold War Soviet era, into the inner sanctum of international espionage. Thriller fans will find Oster’s latest novel historically authentic and politically charged. Oster pours decades of journalism experience into this story, giving readers an exciting glimpse into the lives of two “sleepers” secretly planted in the United States by the former East German intelligence units.
He talks more about it in this The Big Thrill interview and shares his thoughts on the Russian-Ukraine War and the former KGB agent and wartime President Vladimir Putin.
Let’s begin with the title—THE SLEEPER LIST, which will help readers understand the book’s fascinating plot. In the world of espionage, what is a “sleeper”?
A “sleeper,” unlike a regular spy, who often was someone like a third consul in the Soviet embassy—when there was a Soviet embassy—is someone who has a made-up identity and lives in the country that is the target. In this case, the United States. This sleeper agent has the cover of the general counsel of a supercomputer company. Unlike some sleeper agents, the protagonist, Michael Trick, uses his real name because his parents came over in the early ’50s, right after Stalin died, when there was a big exodus of refugees seeking democracy. Trick’s parents were engineers who knew a lot about electronics and worked in a US military defense plant. The East Germans positioned their son Michael as someone ready to do a job, but then the Berlin Wall came down, and he never got activated.
Then he gets a visit from a Russian handler who says, “No, no, no. You don’t get out. We’ve got a different job for you. Instead of spying on military stuff, we need technology and business secrets.” Because in the new post-Cold War, the spy business is about stealing stuff and selling it. Trick’s not thrilled about it and goes to the FBI and says, “Look, here’s the deal…” and wants the FBI to protect him. But they learn his parents were spies, and he’s a spy, so the FBI says, “You’re going to work for us,” and they turn him into a double agent.
The story takes place just following the fall of the Berlin Wall and involves East Germans and Soviets living in the United States. Your protagonist is an East German sleeper agent. What’s his situation?
He works for Kray-Z Incorporated. In the ’90s, Cray Computer Corporation was a famous supercomputer company in Silicon Valley. Supercomputers are important for, among other things, encryption and breaking codes with a big prime number. A prime number is only divisible by one or itself—one, three, five, seven, etc. Eventually, you get a number from here to Mars in terms of length. And the bigger the prime number you discover, the harder it is to break the code. It’s a race to get a bigger number and a better supercomputer. Michael Trick is, therefore, in the perfect position to steal the secrets of a supercomputer, and that’s of incredible value to the Russian gang, who would sell it to the North Koreans, Iranians, or other interested parties.
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This article is part of the interview, first published in the magazine The Big Thrill.