Monday, October 31, 2011

Your Embassy Invitation

Come for a tour of the glittering--and gritty--world of foreign embassies with this week's guest, William S. Shepard. William is the author of the diplomatic mysteries featuring Robbie Cutler.
 Buy Murder on the Danube
     Last Sunday we were having luncheon with some old friends who were celebrating their wedding anniversary. At my table was their eldest grandson, just out of college with an interest in international business, and no job. I mentioned to him the State Department’s Foreign Service, and the fact that they are hiring new economic officers, following a rigorous set of written and oral exams. His eyes lit up – he had never really considered this career option. Perhaps you have a grandson, or a brother, niece, or son or daughter in college who might be intrigued. My own interest was started by a book on diplomacy that I chanced upon while rummaging through books in our high school library. It looked like a fabulous career. In many respects, it still does.
     Have you ever wondered if diplomacy is all glittering Cary Grant or Sean Connery with no down to earth Dennis Farina or Sylvester Stallone? Would you be intrigued by an invitation to an Embassy reception? And have you ever wondered how diplomats are chosen, and what they do?
     The classic, cynical answer to the last question was phrased by an English statesman many years ago: “A diplomat is an honest man who is sent abroad to lie for his country.” However, my experience, gleaned from negotiating a treaty with a communist government, is that the farther apart your country is politically from the host government overseas, the greater the need for candor and honesty. 
     This all comes up because I took the good advice that every writer is given – write about what you know.  And my career was in the Foreign Service as a career diplomat, or Foreign Service Officer (FSO).
 Buy Vintage Murder
     My new series of “diplomatic mysteries” explore this world. In the first, “Vintage Murder,” a thirtyish career diplomat, Robbie Cutler, is assigned as Consul in Bordeaux.  He is brought into a murder and blackmail scheme on the part of a terrorist organization, the Basque ETA (a real group which operates on the border between France and Spain). In the sequel, “Murder On The Danube,” Robbie is reassigned to the American Embassy in Budapest as Political Officer. He must sort out the murder of a prominent visiting American, against the background of the Hungarian Revolution years ago.
     The diplomatic world is pictured here. Robbie holds a staff meeting in Bordeaux, and participates both in an Embassy conference at Paris (very like the ones I attended), and an Ambassadorial dinner party for visiting Senators. In Budapest he briefs a visiting Congressman, shares notes with political officer colleagues from friendly embassies, and takes us inside an Embassy staff meeting. All of this is the actual diplomatic world at work. It is, however, projected upon the need to solve crimes, Robbie’s specialty. And to do so, Robbie must dig deep behind the masks of what people are saying to get to the truth – as a competent diplomat or detective must do. Robbie Cutler, aided by his fiancée Sylvie Marceau, must do both.
     I suppose at one time, diplomacy was like the elegant popular image.  That began to fade in Viet-Nam, when FSOs were assigned out of the Embassy and into the countryside. That is becoming more the norm than the exception, as FSOs in current war-torn areas perform civil affairs work. The days of “The Ugly American,” when diplomats did not speak the local language, are long since past. (That film, by the way, inspired the establishment of our Foreign Service Institute, with intensive training in every conceivable foreign language.)
     Don’t worry. There are still glittering Embassy receptions, and Robbie Cutler will find lots of scope for his investigations at his next assignment. And the diplomatic world despite the surface glitter is a very real and perilous one, as Robbie will find out as he climbs the career ladder of diplomacy. Fortunately, his wife will then be able to interpret for him with a keen insight what people are trying to hide.  She may even solve a murder or two that he hadn’t suspected!
About William S. Shepard

Now residents of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Shepards enjoy visits from their daughters and granddaughters, fine and moderate weather, ocean swims at Assateague, Chesapeake Bay crabs, and the company of Rajah and Rani, their two rescued cats.
Prize winning mystery writer William S. Shepard is the creator of a new genre, the diplomatic mystery, whose plots are set in American Embassies overseas. That mirrors Shepard’s own career in the Foreign Service of the United States, during which he served in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest, Athens and Bordeaux, in addition to five Washington tours of duty.
His books explore this rich, insider background into the world of high stakes diplomacy and government. He evokes his last Foreign Service post, Consul General in Bordeaux, in Vintage Murder, the first of the series of four “diplomatic mysteries.” The second, Murder On The Danube, now also available on Kindle, mines his knowledge of Hungary and the 1956 Revolution. In Murder In Dordogne Robbie Cutler, his main character, is just married, but their honeymoon in the scenic southwest of France is interrupted by murders. The most recent of the series, The Saladin Affair, has Cutler transferred to work for the Secretary of State. Like the author, Cutler arranges trips on Air Force Two – now enlivened by serial Al Qaeda attempts to assassinate the Secretary of State.


Una Tiers said...

Hi William:
You're right embassies are always intriging.
The cover for Murder on the Danube has an incredible crown. Can you tell us the origin?
A few years back the Field Museum had a display with Russian artifacts that were similar.

Best wishes.

Una Tiers

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I love espionage mystery novels, and they are always best when written by someone who intimately knows the territory.

William S. Shepard said...

Una - The Crown is the Holy Crown of St. Stephen of Hungary. It fell into American hands as the Second World War ended, and was safeguarded by the United States at Fort Knox. I mention some of this history in Murdeer On The Danube - hope you will enjoy it!
William Shepard

Ellis Vidler said...

William, I'm a fan of espionage thrillers. Your background is so unusual (at least for most of us). The authenticity makes your work unique. I'm looking forward to Murder on the Danube.

jenny milchman said...

I love a good novel of intrigue, too--and admire the heck out of anyone who can write one!

Sandy Cody said...

I'm another fan of intrique novels. I'm fascinated (and a little repelled) by the smiling charm of characters who lie for a living (even if sometimes it's for a good cause).

Supriya Savkoor said...

Oh, these books sound fascinating, William! Do you set them in the era when you lived in these countries or in the present? The world is changing so much, so fast, what do you think the biggest changes in the lives and work of diplomats are today versus when you lived that life?

And btw, the novel I'm working on now starts in an embassy in Cairo. I may have to pick your brain. :)

Ellis, thanks for another bringing us another great interview.


Ellis Vidler said...

Supriya, I remember the opening of your book. Intriguing. I really wanted to know more. Hurry up and finish it!

William S. Shepard said...

Supriya, Your question is excellent. Time really is another foreign country. My initial draft will reflect the foreign nation as I remembered it. But much changes over time, and that is especially true of Hungary, emerging from a communist dictatorship. When we lived in Budapest, for example, the 1956 Revolution was officially a "nonevent!" When we returned to gather research for Murder On The Danube, an elected government was in power, and I did my research - which included the terrifying sensation of being locked into a cell at Marko Street Prison - with the official help of the Hungarian Government. I even lectured at the 1956 Historical Office.
Murder On The Danube has two time spans, the past or back story, and the near present. One other temptation - don't make a fictional story too current, as the next election will put your work out of date!
I hope very much that you will enjoy reading Murder On The Danube, and possibly Vintage Murder which preceeded it. Let us know your comments!

William S. Shepard said...

I noticed your comment about characters with charm who lie for a living. Hope that didn't mean diplomats, although that is often thought. My own experience is that your word and personal reputation are what matters, and that is nowhere more true than when you are dealing with people from a different system. I remember a negotiation with the communist Hungarian Government that was going nowhere, because they were so caught up in their own ideological view of the USA. Finally they yielded, because our negotiating team had built up a reservoir of trust. Charm, I think, doesn't hurt either. Many thanks for your comment.

Sandy Cody said...

William, I'm afraid my comment reflected the impression of diplomats that I've gained mostly from the movies I've seen and the fiction I've read instead of real life. Sorry if I offended. In reality, I am grateful that we have people who are willing to perform this difficult service. World peace would probably have no chance at all without them.

William S. Shepard said...

Sandy, no offense taken.
Diplomacy is one of the great professions. My book, "Diplomatic Tales," should be out on Kindle in a few months, and there I explore it half as memoir, and half in fiction, with 20 short stories set in Embassies. I wrote at least one story about each major job in the Embassy, to give an idea of how it is all supposed to work.
But diplomacy - starting with Viet-Nam, I think - is really changing. (I had two tours at the Embassy there, the second to monitor the Hungarian performance under the Paris Peace Agreement.)
I remember being at Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon to see the last American troops leaving, and having the inevitable thought, "WHAT ON EARTH AM I STILL DOING HERE?" More jobs like that are now a Foreign Service possibility, rather than traditional diplomatic tasks, and bad guys don't know or care about noncombatants. I wish there were some more articles about what happens when the US military moves out of Iraq - and a huge deployment of diplomats remains behind.
It's still a fascinating job. And it is merit system based, with a competitive exam for entrance. Just the thing for one's bright niece or nephew who is out of school and at loose ends!
Cheers, William

Sandy Cody said...

Let me know when the book is available on Kindle. I'm ready to be educated.