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Some Underworld Spy

Tool of the Trade

By Joe Haldeman 

9 Feb, 2023

Big Hair, Big Guns!


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Joe Haldeman’s 1987’s Tool of the Trade is a stand-alone science fiction espionage novel.

MIT psychology Nicholas Foley is a seemingly unremarkable academic. In fact, Foley is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he is a Soviet sleeper agent. Leningrad-born Nikola Ulinov was infiltrated into the US as a young man. Ulinov, now Foley, has invested decades establishing himself within American academia.

Foley’s casual hobby of lethal vigilantism is less remarkable than how the sleeper agent manages to kill miscreant after miscreant. Foley has the power to compel obedience.

More precisely, Foley stumbled across a sonic frequency that induces unquestioning obedience in anyone whose hearing is not impaired in that frequency. With the necessary equipment hidden in plain sight as a digital watch, as long as would-be muggers and other ne’er-do-wells give Foley time to activate the watch and speak, their fates are sealed.

A Soviet defector exposes Foley as a mole. If Foley were single, he could simply vanish back to the Soviet Union. Because he is happily married, he looks for a path that won’t cost him his wife Valerie. He uses his watch on various agents to buy time … but not carefully enough. In so doing, he exposes the secret that he can control minds.

A sleeper agent embedded in a department of no particular interest is a minor curiosity. A Soviet agent who may or may not be a double-agent who can erase memories and order hardened agents to kill themselves is of tremendous interest to both Americans and Soviets. Both sides launch manhunts for Foley.

Foley is a pragmatist who, on his own, might settle for vanishing into a new identity, funding a lavish lifestyle with his powers of compulsion. Valerie on the other hand is an idealist. Personal comfort means nothing in a world on the brink of nuclear war. Guided by Valerie, Foley sets out to reshape the world order.


How worried were people about nuclear war back in the Cold War? Enough that extreme measures were seen as justified, both in real life deliberations and in novelistic plotting. People seemed really keen on not getting incinerated, although not to the point that they accomplished actual disarmament. It was also a period in which digital watches were cool, thus some of the covers this novel received.

If there is one lesson modern readers should take from this work, it is always construct a backup for the super-science device on which you’ve based your entire strategy.” Confidence in one’s ability to recapitulate one’s work should not distract from the fact that having to do so can be inconvenient. In general, off-site backups = good. 

One man with a superpower reshaping the world may seem superficially plausible, as long as the reader doesn’t invest any time thinking about how large organizations (like nations or corporations) actually work. This book is a product of an era when people thought a single stirring public announcement [1] would actually affect subsequent policy.

I think this may have been the first Haldeman novel I actively disliked. Foley is a plausible character but he’s also a serial killer in whose mind I didn’t particularly want to spend time. The cure for nuclear war seems much worse than the disease, handing as it does what amounts to global control to a couple operating without any sort of check or balance. Haldeman used the idea of a single powerful person ending the nuclear stand off before (see To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal”) but this may be his most off-putting example.

Perhaps the point is to offer readers hope, but really, and then a miracle saved us all” isn’t any kind of hope at all. Oh, well. Can’t like them all.

Tool of the Trade is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

I did not find Tool of the Trade at Book Depository.

1: One wonders what the Foleys could accomplish by commandeering a Presidential television broadcast.