No Game for Amateurs is a novel that follows one man’s adventures and misadventures in the years leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Charles Worthington, a recent Harvard law graduate manages to fall into a plum job as the personal secretary of Vincent Astor, then the richest man in the US.
In the run-up to World War Two, the US had no intelligence service to speak of. Between the two world wars, the US had jettisoned its intelligence collection capabilities. It’s been trying to keep up since, with periods of roller coaster activity, depending on those in power. Before Central Intelligence Agency came OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. Before OSS, there was next to nothing, until five scant months before the US was drawn into the fray.
The two years before that, while not entirely dormant, had a number of individual operatives working for President Franklin Roosevelt without much direction, coordination or assistance from anywhere in the US Government. But since they were mostly independent operators without a full-time desk running things, it was scattershot and piecemeal, at best.
Roosevelt, recognizing the fact the US would be drawn into the war one way or another, began tasking the moneyed class, his pals and cronies, to collect intelligence on anything they could dig up on the Germans and Japanese. Astor’s task was to take a trip on his yacht to Australia, then back through the South Pacific, stopping at “several obscure South Pacific islands and Hawaii".
Worthington, meanwhile, was bored stiff for the first few weeks, unsure of why he was even onboard the yacht, idling his days away looking at the endless miles of waves in all directions. On the way back from Australia, however, he’s advised that the group will be stopping at the Solomon Islands, at the behest of a certain “Franklin,” whom Worthington works out means the President, and that they’re supposed to keep their eyes open for “anything interesting.”
When the yacht arrives “at the little-known island of Guadalcanal," with few inhabitants, they find little at the first two stops, but the third proves more interesting. Worthington, while taking a long walk on the island looking for “anything interesting,” he comes across what appear to be surveyor stakes. Then he finds a newly-made path of sorts that leads him to a small shack, where he finds more of the surveying equipment. He also finds a hidden radio with Japanese markings. As he studies an architectural plan of what appears to be an airfield, he’s jumped by a Japanese man he’d met earlier that day, claiming to be an anthropologist.
A fortunate eye enabled him to spot the hammer coming toward his head. The Japanese man just misses him, they tussle, and when the Japanese then tries to stab him, Worthington manages to turn the blade away, causing the Japanese to commit unintended hara-kiri. Worthington hurriedly buries the man as best as he can and scurries off to the yacht. The group decide it’s in their interest to quickly leave, and the adventure begins.
The remainder of the story takes place mostly in Washington and New York, following Worthington’s adventures, which take him into contact with American spies, a Russian spy, and one certain Japanese spy who turns out to be the brother of the man Worthington killed. The story ends on the morning of 7 December 1941.
This book doesn’t offer up much action, which makes it more true to life than most spy novels out there. Much of what a spy actually does consists of observation, talking to many, many people, and reporting back on these matters. It also consists of constantly analyzing recent discoveries in connection with what’s already been learned, and trying to sort out the chaff and finding the wheat. A spy’s work is often extremely frustrating, but there are moments, particularly the “Aha!” moments, which can send the intelligence officer to euphoria. It seems, however, that most of the time it’s like trying to pick fly shit out of pepper.
No Game for Amateurs is a good read, and the author’s previous years in CIA’s Directorate of Operations (where the real spies are) give credence to his narrative. This novel is fictional, but is based on little known historical fact. Not a ludicrous interpretation such as a typical Oliver Stone yawn, but one that is entirely feasible, and often true, with no bending or breaking of the facts.