book review: strangers on a bridge

Strangers on a Bridge by James B. Donovan
Scribner, 464 pp.
Published August 4, 2015 (Originally pub. 1964)

Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers

Summary (via Goodreads): In the early morning of February 10, 1962, James B. Donovan began his walk toward the center of the Glienicke Bridge, the famous “Bridge of Spies” which then linked West Berlin to East. With him, walked Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, master spy and for years the chief of Soviet espionage in the United States. Approaching them from the other side, under equally heavy guard, was Francis Gary Powers, the American U-2 spy plane pilot famously shot down by the Soviets, whose exchange for Abel Donovan had negotiated. These were the strangers on a bridge, men of East and West, representatives of two opposed worlds meeting in a moment of high drama.

Abel was the most gifted, the most mysterious, the most effective spy in his time. His trial, which began in a Brooklyn United States District Court and ended in the Supreme Court of the United States, chillingly revealed the methods and successes of Soviet espionage.

No one was better equipped to tell the whole absorbing history than James B. Donovan, who was appointed to defend one of his country’s enemies and did so with scrupulous skill. In Strangers on a Bridge, the lead prosecutor in the Nuremburg Trials offers a clear-eyed and fast-paced memoir that is part procedural drama, part dark character study and reads like a noirish espionage thriller. From the first interview with Abel to the exchange on the bridge in Berlin—and featuring unseen photographs of Donovan and Abel as well as trial notes and sketches drawn from Abel’s prison cell—here is an important historical narrative that is “as fascinating as it is exciting” (The Houston Chronicle).

My thoughts: One would think that no one more qualified than James B. Donovan could relate the story of Colonel Rudolph Abel's trial and his later exchange for downed U.S. pilot Gary Powers, alongside two other Americans. When called upon by the American Bar Association to serve as counsel to Abel—a suspected Soviet spy captured in the thick of the Cold War—he manages to spin the assignment as a fundamentally American duty. He exhausts every avenue in pursuit of a fair trial and finds an easy camaraderie with a man whom the public found easy to disdain. His personal recollections brim with pride for his country, respect for his client, and an admirable, albeit unsurprising, precision.

Halfway through Strangers on a Bridge, however, one might come to think they've been mistaken in their belief. While Donovan provides detailed insight into the legal processes behind Abel's case, it doesn't always unfold from his pen in an accessible manner. Donovan finds his greatest success when writing in his own voice, narrating events rather than cataloging them. This occurs for only about half of the book, with blocks of text copied directly from courtroom transcripts dominating the middle section concerning Abel's trial. For readers interested in a detailed account of the proceedings, these entries constitute a gold mine. However, for the lay-person hoping for the insightful summaries that made up earlier chapters, such transcripts start to wear out their welcome.

(It is nonetheless fascinating how the record clearly demonstrates, even without further commentary from Donovan, the trial judge's bias and the dubious tactics of the prosecution. It's unfortunate that the verbatim format can read very dryly. I mention it, though, not to scare off others from making their way through it. Donovan's account of the trial is rewarding and insightful; just because it moves along at a slower pace than the passages that precede and follow it doesn't make it any less essential to the overall account!)

Arguably the most delicate part of the entire case, the negotiation of Abel's exchange really could not be told by anyone else. Donovan's terse account of the multiple trips across the Berlin Wall to strike a deal engrosses more completely than even le Carré or Fleming. That his is a true story makes it all the more remarkable. Although devoid of shoot outs or explosions, Strangers on a Bridge brings to light the resilience, cunning, and patriotism of Donovan and Abel alike. Donovan's devotion to the fundamentals of liberty and civil rights, no matter who asks to exercise them, is still an inspiring message more than fifty years after two strangers crossed paths on a German bridge.


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