Fear in Writing: Who is Monterey Mary? by Author T.H.E. Hill

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Who is Monterey Mary? by Author T.H.E. Hill

For the first time in the history of Southern City Mysteries, I am turning this blog over to an author I don't know.  That being said, T.H.E. Hill is the new author of Voices Under Berlin, and he is highly intriguing.  Without further ado, take it away, Hill!

Who is Monterey Mary?

For "civilian" book shoppers browsing titles, the first apparent mystery in Voices Under Berlin is in the subtitle: The Tale of a Monterey Mary. "Civilians" generally have no idea what a Monterey Mary is. This mystery, however, does not remain unresolved for long if you pick up the novel and look in the glossary at the front of the book. A Monterey Mary is a graduate of the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California. In other words, a military linguist.

I added the glossary when manuscript readers, who were never in the military, or had never known someone in the military, kept asking questions about the jargon as they went along. They were not members of the audience for whom I had originally written Voices Under Berlin, but they liked the tale, so I was pleased to add the glossary as a helping hand to this class of readers, after which the comments from "civilian" test readers became even more positive. You can't please everybody though. One reader expressed her displeasure at having her intelligence insulted by the inclusion of the glossary, as if she didn't know what the jargon meant. My apologies, but not everyone who reads Voices Under Berlin is familiar with the jargon, and the glossary was added for those who don't know it.

Though the explanation "military linguist" may seem a bit thin, that is only a stepping stone to the novel, which is where the detailed explanation of what a Monterey Mary does is to be found.

Voices Under Berlin is ostensibly about the pre-wall Berlin Spy Tunnel that the CIA dug to tap three Russian underground telecommunications cables in the mid-1950s. It became infamous, when it was discovered by the Soviets, 54 years ago during the night of 21-22 April 1956. The Time Magazine article (7 May 1956) about the discovery was entitled "BERLIN: Wonderful Tunnel." In the article the tunnel is described by a German journalist as "the best publicity the U.S. has had in Berlin for a long time." At the time it was indeed an astounding feat of engineering.

• You can learn more about the Berlin Spy Tunnel at the on-line Cold War Museum.

The yarn in the novel is told from both ends of the tunnel. One end is the story of the Americans who worked the tunnel. The main character, Kevin, is the Monterey Mary who has to transcribe the Russian conversations that are coming off the cable tap. This part of the story is about the fight of the tunnel rats for a sense of purpose against boredom and against the enemy both within and without. Reviewers have compared the novel to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H*, and Hans Helmut Kirst's Zero Eight Fifteen, perhaps better known in America as The Revolt of Gunner Asch.

The other end of the tunnel is the story of the Russians whose telephone calls the Americans are intercepting. Their side of the tale is told in the unnarrated transcripts of their calls. They are the voices under Berlin. This part of the novel has been compared to Henrik Ibsen’s "play for voices," Peer Gynt, which is usually considered very hard to stage due to its accent on the aural, rather than on the visual. This unusual approach to literature is intended to help the reader understand the ear-centric worldview of the people who had to transcribe the Russians’ conversations. The result is a new type of spy novel, as unique as Berlin herself.

It is Cloak-and-dagger with headphones.
A pair of "antique" military headphones of the type used for operations like the Berlin spy tunnel.

The real mystery of Voices Under Berlin is the question of which of the Americans assigned to the tunnel project is the target of a "honey pot," sex for secrets operation being run by the KGB. Is it Kevin, the Monterey Mary who transcribes the tapes coming off the tap? Is it Blackie, whose nickname takes a whole chapter to explain? Or is it Lieutenant Sherlock, the martinet who has so little common sense that he only manages to escape the disasters that dog his steps by sheer luck. Corporal Neumann, the eternal new man on site who never ever quite gets the hang of how things really work has a German girlfriend too. Could it be him? Or could it be Fast Eddie, the married sergeant, whose wife works at the PX Theater. Master-Sergeant Laufflaecker, the "master scrounger" is single. That makes him suspect too. The nameless Chief of Base is hardly worth considering. He has said that anybody with a German girlfriend will be reassigned so fast that his stomach will have to take the next plane to catch up with him.

Little hints emerge from the transcription of the intercept tapes, but they never contain enough information to positively identify the target of the "honey pot" operation until the very end of the book. Telling you who it was would spoil the book for those who have not read it yet, so you will have to buy a copy to find out who done it.

About the Author:
T.H.E. Hill, the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, served with the U.S. Army Security Agency at Field Station Berlin in the mid-1970s, after a tour at Herzo Base in the late 1960s. He is a three-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLIWC) in Monterey, California, the alumni of which are called "Monterey Marys". The Army taught him to speak Russian, Polish, and Czech; three tours in Germany taught him to speak German, and his wife taught him to speak Dutch. He has been a writer his entire adult life, but now retired from Federal Service, he writes what he wants, instead of the things that others tasked him to write while he was still working.
You can learn more about T.H.E. Hill and his books at: http://www.voicesunderberlin.com/.


  1. Interesting post. I for one, didn't know what a Monterey Mary was.

    Thanks Michele for introducing me to a "new to me" author and an interesting new book to check out.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Interesting! And I can only imagine how much research would have gone into this book.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Mason- New-to-me, too--both the author and the phrase.

    Elizabeth- I had the same thought. It probably helps that Hill worked in the setting.

  4. Alex- It really is. I learned a lot from just this post, imagine how much we could learn from the book?

    Dez- What a kind welcome!