Originally published in Historical Novels Review.
Set against the looming Cuban Missile Crisis, Back Channel follows an alternative history that pits a nineteen-year-old, black, female college student, Margo Jensen, against the spies of both the United States and the Soviet Union, who are dead set to make sure that she is unable to relay vital information between Khrushchev and Kennedy. Her experience takes her from the Ukraine—along the side of Bobby Fischer—to fake dalliances with the President where she relays Khrushchev’s messages.
First things first: I found the choice of Margo as the chosen back channel a bit preposterous. That an inexperienced nineteen-year-old college sophomore with no training other than a few counseled words as she signed confidentiality papers could outwit the KBG, CIA, FBI, and others seemed almost surreal. However, I must admit that Stephen Carter handles this with a deftness that made me laugh at the insanity of this proposal and want to know what happens next. Carter maintains a fast pace typical of a political thriller, but there were sections in the middle that tended to muddle—an edit of 50 or so pages wouldn’t have hurt. The ExComm history trends to accurate, especially the fiery conferences held during those dangerous thirteen days in October. There are some creative liberties taken along the historical timeline, but these are forgivable as they help to make sense of the plot given. Not the strongest historical/political thriller available now, but a good read nonetheless.