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A Conversation with Spy Fiction Author John Knoerle

John Knoerle

Please welcome my special guest, spy fiction author John Knoerle. John is here today to talk about his latest release, The Proxy Assassin. John  began his creative endeavors in the early 70s as a member of the DeLuxe Radio Theatre, a comedy troupe in Santa Barbara. He then moved to LA and did stand-up comedy, opening for the likes of Jay Leno and Robin Williams.

Knoerle wrote the screenplay Quiet Fire, which starred Karen Black, and the stage play The He-Man Woman Hater’s Club, an LA Time’s Critic’s Choice. He also worked as a staff writer for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Knoerle moved to Chicago in 1996 with his wife Judie. His first novel, “Crystal Meth Cowboys,” was optioned by Fox TV. His second novel, “The Violin Player,” won the Mayhaven Award for Fiction.

John Knoerle’s novel, A Pure Double Cross, was the first volume of a late 40s spy trilogy featuring former OSS agent Hal Schroeder. The second volume, A Despicable Profession, was published in 2010. Knoerle’s latest book,The Proxy Assassin, Book Three of the American Spy Trilogy, has just been released.

Visit his website at www.johnknoerle.com.

It is a pleasure to have him here with us today!

Thanks for this interview, John.  What an illustrious background!  Let’s start at the beginning?  How did you get intoThe Proxy Assassin the entertainment field?

John: I was working at the college radio station at UC Santa Barbara in the early 70s because I was a music nut. One fateful day two members of The Firesign Theater, a very popular and sophisticated comedy troupe, swung by to record promo spots for a gig on campus.

My job was to engineer the session. Firesign’s David Ossman and Phil Proctor improvised three brilliant and hilarious thirty-second spots in no time and left me in Studio B, stunned and amazed.

I didn’t have a clue if I could do what they did, but I sure knew I wanted to give it a try!

Was comedy your passion?

John: It became my passion. And The DeLuxe Radio Theater had good success in Santa Barbara in the 70s. But we were big fish in a small pond.

When I moved to LA to do stand-up, what comics call the room, got a whole lot colder.

Foolishly, I thought that my brilliant material would win them over and I wouldn’t have to stoop to that hackneyed ‘Where are you folks from?’ patter to warm up the crowd.

Lesson learned. Unless you’re well-known, you have to establish a connection with the audience before they will laugh at your jokes.

How’d you go from comedy to writing spy fiction?  Was it something you loved reading?

John: Yes. Though I wrote two novels based on personal experience before I branched out. It took me years of research to become conversant enough in espionage to attempt to fictionalize it.

I’m pretty confident that if you Google ‘former stand-up comics who now write spy fiction’, I’ll be the only hit!

Your first novel, Crystal Meth Cowboys, was optioned for a Fox TV movie.  Tell us about that?

John: Actually it was optioned for a TV series. Crystal Meth Cowboys was my first novel, self-published after years of rejection. A Hollywood writer saw it in a bookstore in LA – the only copy in the joint – and gave it a read.

Then I got an email inquiring about ‘sub-rights’. The writer and I – her name is Jacqui Zambrano – hit it off and wrote an hour-long pilot script that got the ball rolling. We got as close as auditioning actors and scouting locations when somebody upstairs pulled the plug at the last second.

Your latest book, The Proxy Assassin, is the last book of your American Spy Trilogy.  Is it sad to say goodbye to such a fantastic series?

John: Yes.

Can you give us a brief description of each book?

John: Book One, A Pure Double Cross, is Hal Schroeder, former OSS behind-enemy-lines spy, coming home to Ohio in late ’45, bitter and disillusioned after WWII. When the FBI seeks to exploit his undercover skills, he sees a way to make a pile and get the hell out.

Book Two, A Despicable Profession, is Hal’s uh-oh moment when he realizes he may enjoy intrigue and espionage a bit more than he is willing to admit.

Book Three, The Proxy Assassin, is, essentially, Hal’s transition from boy to man.

What’s next for you?

John: Not sure. I take the task of writing fiction very seriously, even if my style is somewhat smartass and throwaway. Making it appear to the reader that you’re not making much of an effort takes a ton of work, trust me.

And the prospect of writing another novel at this point in my life is….exhausting.

Thank you so much for this interview, John.  Do you have anything else you’d like to share with us?

John: Yes, here’s my great words of wisdom: travel! Break your routine. Travel to strange places, the stranger the better. It can help you appreciate what you’ve got and it makes life seem longer and fuller.

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Read-a-Chapter: The Proxy Assassin by John Knoerle


Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the spy fiction, The Proxy Assassin by John Knoerle. Enjoy!


The Proxy Assassin

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Blue Steel Press (September 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0982090390
  • ISBN-13: 978-0982090398

October, 1948. Former OSS agent Hal Schroeder gets invited to Washington D.C. by Frank Wisner, who heads the CIA’s new covert ops division. Hal is whisked off to Wisner’s Maryland shore retreat and introduced to a brace of Romanian royals, including the scarily beautiful Princess Stela Varadja, a direct descendant of Vlad Tepes Draculea.

Then Frank Wisner pops the question. Would Hal consider parachuting into a remote mountain camp to meet with the leader of a group of Romanian anti-Communist guerillas?

“I had already survived two previous suicide missions and a third did not appeal. But I told Frank Wisner I would need a few days to think it over. I had some sightseeing to do.”

As it turns out Hal Schroeder gets to do a lot more sightseeing than he bargained for. A journey that brings the American Spy Trilogy to a surprising, and emotional, conclusion.


Chapter One

The key number to remember when you parachute out of an airplane at an altitude of five hundred feet is two. You have two seconds to do two things. Get your feet down and your cord pulled. That’s it, that’s all you need to know.

I hadn’t jumped since ‘44 so the flyboys thought it would be a good idea for me to take a couple low-altitude warm-ups from a C-45 at Andrews AFB. Shake off the rust after a four year layoff.

Sure. Why not triple my chances of falling five hundred feet in six seconds and smacking the sod at ninety miles an hour? I told them to get stuffed. I’d risk my tender hide only when it mattered. And I’d pack my own damn chute.

I was more of a jerk than I needed to be to those earnest young men who were just about my age but seemed like kids. It wasn’t their fault I had fumbled and stumbled my way into another suicide mission.

The drop zone was located in rural central Romania. Transylvania, an area ringed by the thickly-wooded Carpathian Mountains. Which explained the tiny drop zone which explained the low altitude jump.

The mission wasn’t a complete disaster. I jumped out the joe hole and into the night sky with one big improvement over WW II. It wasn’t a blind drop, I had a group of resistance fighters waiting to greet me.

I executed a perfect two-point landing in a clearing between two mountains. My contact was Captain Sorin Dragomir, a large fortyish man with waves of thick brown hair. His well-upholstered gut and full set of teeth marked him as a man of stature.

That and his tasseled hessians and uniform jacket, buttons bursting, the gold braid above his breast pocket jiggling as he shook my hand. His dozen or so khaki-clad men were smaller and darker-skinned.

A dozen men. Christ. Joe Stalin must be quaking in his boots.

I got on my hotshot new Joan/Eleanor transceiver, rang the radio operator of the C-45 circling overhead and gave him the code for a safe landing. “Chaise lounge.”


“Godspeed.” With any luck the crew would reach their refueling strip in northern Turkey with a couple gallons left in the tank.

It was late, all I wanted was a quick snort and some shuteye. But the Captain made his men stand to attention around a guttering fire as he made a welcoming speech in English about the deep and abiding friendship between our two great nations. An elderly man stood beside him and translated his remarks into rapid-fire Romanian.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that it sounded a lot like Italian. One thing I’d learned in my mission briefing was that, despite the vast expanse of pale and dour Yugoslavs and Hungarians separating them from Italy, Romanians considered themselves charter members of the Roman Empire. Which they were many centuries ago. Funny what people choose to take pride in.

The troops dispersed after the welcoming ceremony. The Captain and I retired to his little fortress at the edge of the clearing. It was a very old building. I had to bend at the waist to clear the doorway. The main room was lit by candles in an iron ceiling wheel. No fire in the fireplace though the night was cold.

Before the front door was closed I caught a glimpse of two of Dragomir’s troops skittering by, headed home. It looked as though they had changed back into civilian clothes, which I took to mean that Captain Dragomir had not secured even this obscure slice of real estate.

The Captain and I seated ourselves at a table made from dark, foot-wide planks. The elderly man, apparently Drago-mir’s valet, went to a rough cupboard and fetched a bottle of twenty-year-old hooch and two crystal tumblers.

“I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, Captain, but I don’t drink Scotch.”

“Why not?”

“It tastes like peat moss.”

The Captain laughed at me. I knew the local drink was plum brandy so I asked for some. Dragomir laughed some more and issued instructions to his man.

We were served a delicious cold supper by candlelight. Three kinds of cheese, smoked ham, crusty bread, cucumbers in sour cream and sliced tomatoes. I should’ve stuck with peat moss, however. The plum brandy tasted like gasoline.

Frank Wisner, my boss, had set Dragomir and his men a task, which I relayed to him. They were to conduct surveillance on a Romanian Army encampment about ten kilometers to the southwest. This was to serve two purposes. To determine if the Captain’s men could follow orders. And to assess the readiness and morale of the Romanian Army in a remote outpost.

The Soviet Army was spread thin throughout Eastern Europe. They had a base outside Bucharest, for instance, but they relied on the Romanian Army to keep order in the hinterlands. And the hinterlands weren’t happy. The puppet government in Bucharest did as Moscow instructed. It collectivized farms and closed churches, which did not go over well with the locals.

Frank Wisner thought the Romanian Army would prove an unreliable ally for the Soviets, doubted they would open fire on their own people if push came to shove. How I was supposed to determine that by examining a remote Romanian outpost through binoculars was left to me.

Once I explained it to him Captain Dragomir agreed to Frank Wisner’s assignment without hesitation. We would march tomorrow evening, zero hundred hours. And how was his old friend Frank coming along in his important new job?


The beeswax candles flickered in the drafty, heavy-timbered little fort. The old man cleared our plates and went away. The Captain poured himself another tumbler as the shadows danced.

“This building dates back to the 17th Century. It was a Swabian hunting lodge.” He pointed to the stag horns mounted over the door, and the blackened hooks in the attic.

“That is where they smoked the meat.”

Meat hooks, ugh. Hitler was fond of meat hooks.

Captain Dragomir was keen to tell me all about his elaborate plan to foment rebellion against Moscow’s puppet regime in Bucharest but I was not, at this late hour, keen to listen to his delusions of grandeur.

That would have been a mistake under normal circum-stances. If you are sent on a risky and expensive mission to gather intelligence you don’t insult your source by saying, “I’m all in, Captain, let’s discuss this tomorrow.” That’s because tomorrow has a way of scampering off down the road while you’re lacing up your shoes.

But, as luck would have it, my bad attitude paid off.

Reprinted with permission from The Proxy Assassin by John Knoerle. © 2012 by Blue Steel Press

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Guest Blogger John Knoerle: ‘Why I Love (and write) Spy Thrillers’

We have a wonderful guest post for you today by John Knoerle, author of the new spy fiction, A Despicable Profession: Book Two of the American Spy Trilogy (Blue Steel Press). You can visit his website at www.bluesteelpress.com.

Why I Love (and write) Spy Thrillers

by John Knoerle

Tension and conflict are the two drivers of good fiction. Which is why cops and private detectives are so over-represented in books. Tension and conflict are part of their job description.

But consider the spy. Who experiences more tension on a daily basis than an espionage agent in enemy territory pretending to be someone he’s not? So why then are there fifty police procedural and private eye novels published for every one spy thriller? Give or take a few.

Two reasons, in my humble opinion. To make a spy story credible the author, and reader, need some esoteric knowledge – of geopolitics and espionage tradecraft. A police or PI book has a lower bar of entry. A spy novelist may have to explain that a cut-out is a third person who acts as a conduit between an agent and his handler but a writer of police procedurals never has to explain what a stakeout is.

I think the second reason spy novels are relatively rare is the more crucial one. If we accept that tension and conflict are the two drivers of a good story, conflict is more readily available to the crime storyteller. A cop or private dick can engage in violent confrontation when the circumstances warrant. If they survive, it’s no harm, no foul.

Not so for an undercover agent. Violent conflict brings with it attention from the authorities. Even if an agent survives a violent encounter he risks blowing his cover, which makes him useless. So spies, despite the James Bond stereotype, go to great lengths to avoid bloody conflict. Which makes writing a true-to-life spy thriller quite difficult.

Then why the heck bother, you might ask. My answer is simple. The greater the challenge, the greater the sense of satisfaction when the deed is done!

John Knoerle was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1949 and migrated to California with his family in the 1960s. He has worked as a stand-up comic, a voiceover actor and a radio reporter. He wrote the screenplay for “Quiet Fire,” which starred Karen Black and Lawrence Hilton Jacobs, and the stage play “The He-Man Woman Hater’s Club,” an LA Time’s Critics Choice. John also worked as a writer for Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Knoerle’s first novel, Crystal Meth Cowboys, published in 2003, was optioned by Fox TV. His second novel, The Violin Player,won the Mayhaven Award for Fiction. Knoerle is currently at work on The American Spy Trilogy. Book One, A Pure Double Cross, came out in 2008. Book Two, A Despicable Profession, was published in August of 2010.

John Knoerle currently lives in Chicago with his wife, Judie.

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A Despicable Profession: An Interview with John Knoerle

John Knoerle was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1949 and migrated to California with his family in the 1960s. He has worked as a stand-up comic, a voiceover actor and a radio reporter. He wrote the screenplay for “Quiet Fire,” which starred Karen Black and Lawrence Hilton Jacobs, and the stage play “The He-Man Woman Hater’s Club,” an LA Time’s Critics Choice. John also worked as a writer for Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Knoerle’s first novel, Crystal Meth Cowboys, published in 2003, was optioned by Fox TV. His second novel, The Violin Player,won the Mayhaven Award for Fiction. Knoerle is currently at work on The American Spy Trilogy. Book One, A Pure Double Cross, came out in 2008. Book Two, A Despicable Profession, was published in August of 2010.

John Knoerle currently lives in Chicago with his wife, Judie.

You can visit his website at www.bluesteelpress.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, John. Can you tell us what your latest book, A Despicable Profession, is all about?

It’s Book Two of the American Spy Trilogy, which follows the adventures of young Hal Schroeder, a low-level OSS agent in World War II. Here’s a brief synopsis:

May, 1946. America is basking in hard-won peace and prosperity. The OSS has been disbanded, CIA does not yet exist. Rumors swirl about the Red Army massing tanks along the Elbe in East Germany.

Former OSS agent Hal Schroeder gets an offer from Global Commerce LTD to be a trade rep in Berlin. He flies to New York to meet his new boss. Hal’s jaw drops when former OSS Chief Wild Bill Donovan strides in. Schroeder, who survived perilous duty behind German lines, says he is no longer interested in being a spy. General Donovan assures him that’s not part of his job description.

Hal comes to doubt that when he meets his immediate superior in Berlin. It’s Victor Jacobson, the case officer who sent him on repeated suicide missions in WWII.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

Hal Schroeder is a former OSS agent who has managed, despite himself, to become a local hero in Cleveland. He feels guilty about that because his actions were anything but heroic. He wants to make amends, with one important stipulation – he wants to live to tell about it.

The supporting cast includes the legendary Wild Bill Donovan, former head of OSS. Hal’s gung-ho case officer, Victor Jacobson. A Soviet NKVD Major named Leonid Vitinov who claims to have crossed over. And Leonid’s wan and beautiful wife, Anna.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

Wild Bill Donovan was a real person of course, so extensive research was key.

But the rest of the cast are creatures of my imagination. Hal, for instance, is an idealized version of my younger self – same hard, wise-cracking exterior protecting a deep sense of uncertainty about himself.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

I spend a solid year outlining the plot. I tried winging it one time but kept writing myself into a corner.

In the spy and mystery genres, I believe you need to know your destination before you start the journey.

Q: Your book is set in Berlin.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

Berlin in 1946 was the most interesting city in the world, IMHO. It was a viper’s nest of victorious postwar allies struggling for strategic advantage at the very beginning of the Cold War.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Yes, indeed. See above.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

Col. John Norwood, head of the British MI6 Berlin station, has swooped in at the last moment to rescue Hal Schroeder from a potentially fatal confrontation with the Red Army in the Soviet Sector.

A relieved Hal follows Norwood to his villa, wondering how the Colonel knew he was in jeopardy, and what the Colonel will want in exchange.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

“Sir, my special kind of cunning is real simple,” I said, leaning forward. “I was doing a decent job in Freiburg and Ulm and Karlsruhe logging troop movements and transmitting weather reports for bomber runs. I figured if I was dead my effectiveness might suffer. And, I figured, why get myself croaked carrying out suicide missions dictated by some asshole Case Officer who was snug as a bug in Bern drinking Allen Dulles’ wine cellar dry?”

“I wasn’t,” said Jacobson, “but please continue.”

Please continue? Christ, they were shorthanded.

“I have only one job requirement sir. Survival.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Jacobson, drier than my swollen tongue.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, John.  We wish you much success!

I appreciate your interest!

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