BEFORE HE WAS kicked out of office -- at least momentarily -- by this week's bizarre and ineffective coup, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had been placed in political peril uncounted times by die-hard novelists desperately milking the Cold War for one more conspiracy.
In a host of recent thrillers, American writers had threatened the Soviet leader with assassination, kidnapping and elaborate coup plots, usually spawned by true-believing Communists intent on making the Motherland once more safe for Marxism.
But even in these fictional bastions of the Cold War, the crumbling of communism has brought sweeping change. Gorbachev is often portrayed as a good guy. And he frequently is saved in the nick of time by . . . the CIA.
Now that fact has overtaken fiction, it seems likely that this sub-genre will get a lift as readers supplement accounts of inscrutable Kremlin chicanery with imaginary scenarios of cutthroat power politics.
Already, at least two writers are getting a boost for their prescient books about plots against the engineer of perestroika and glasnost.
Bantam Books has announced that it is speeding up publication of veteran spy novelist Robert Littell's latest book, "An Agent in Place." Originally scheduled to be out in mid-January, it will be published next month. The book will be emblazoned with a sticker proclaiming, "The prophetic new thriller that goes behind today's headlines," says Bantam spokesman Stuart Applebaum, noting that "one of the plot lines of the book is hard-liners in the Kremlin plotting to overthrow Gorbachev."
Meanwhile, author Joseph Finder says that since the coup "apparently there's been a spike in sales" of his first novel, "The Moscow Club," published last February by Viking. A scheme by the KGB and the Soviet military-industrial complex to exterminate Gorbachev lies at the center of the long and complex novel, Finder says.
The failed coup is a blessing for thriller writers everywhere, Finder says. The coup restores mystique and political opacity to the Soviet Union, essential elements for the free reign of imagination.
"The fact that [the coup] happened recharged a lot of batteries," he says. "Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union was becoming less mysterious and less baroque. But the coup shows that unpredictability of the Soviet Union is still there."
Publisher Neil Nyren of Putnam, who also edits techno-thriller writer Tom Clancy's books, says that Finder was a little ahead of the curve in his perception of Gorbachev's shaky hold on power. But within the last two years, as knife-sharpening against Gorbachev became common knowledge, writers turned to unseating the Soviet president as "a natural plot line," Nyren notes.