“Robin Winks” sounds like the perfect pseudonym for an academic with a secret career as a mystery novelist. Lamentably, “Robin Winks” happened to be that noted academic’s real name, obliging him to devise another one for his fiction.
Winks, sitting in his book-lined second floor Berkeley College office, refuses to reveal the name he writes under or how many pseudonymous works he has published. Now a famed historian of the British Empire, Winks no longer needs to hide his literary sideline to avoid compromising his academic career, as he once did, but maintains his secret nonetheless.
“I segregate my work,” said Winks, who maintains three studies in addition to his on-campus office, one devoted to each of his major areas of interests: British imperial history; national parks; the history of intelligence services; and mystery/suspense fiction.
Winks believes that his diverse intellectual pursuits are united by a common interest in the ways in which information is controlled and transmitted.
“My interest in mystery fiction has always been in how the power of the writer can mislead the reader fairly, without cheating,” he said.
The description is an apt one when applied to Winks’ own conversational style. A gifted raconteur, he also manages the rare feat of leaving select areas unilluminated without being coy. He takes pains to avoid suggesting that great secrets exist behind the conversational doors he declines to open.
He is emphatic, for example, in insisting that his pseudonym is not a household name. “If I were the equivalent of Agatha Christie, obviously 100 journalists would have gone to work and found out,” he said.
The sense that his interests truly cohered came to Winks only later in life; as a young man, he got degrees in everything from diplomatic history to Maori studies while weighing the attractions of a career as a park ranger or diplomat, eventually opting for the latter.
When his Foreign Service application was delayed because he was married to a foreign national, he went into academia and was hired by Yale in 1957. He admits to having written 17 books under his own name during his 44 years in the Yale History Department.
Academia, originally a default option, eventually became the means to the fulfillment of all of Winks’ early aspirations. His expertise in the history of the British Empire won him a position as cultural attache to the American Embassy in London in the late 1960s. He has held a variety of similar posts since and traveled extensively as a lecturer.
Although he never entered the parks service, Winks became an expert on the history of conservation and visited every national park. By the time the Carter administration began searching for a chair for the Parks Service Advisory Board, Winks, in his own words, “demonstrably knew more about national parks than any non-Park person.”
He continued to hold the position during the Reagan administration and later served as the head of Yale’s Environmental Studies Program. He is now an adjunct professor in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Winks has also been a lifelong defender of the merits of mystery/suspense fiction and continues to pen impassioned defenses of the literary merits of the genre as well as making his own secret contributions. He discussed the links between detective fiction and historiography in his collection “Historian as Detective.”
A few years later, Winks published “Cloak and Gown,” the results of his own investigation into the historical links between Yale students and faculty and the CIA in the years leading up to the Bay of Pigs invasion.
“I know lots of academics who have worked with intelligence, and there’s an enormous affinity between academic research and analysis and intelligence research and analysis,” said Winks.
“The best part of writing ‘Cloak and Gown’ was getting people to talk who others said would never talk to [me],” said Winks. “It became a bit of a game to get at the stuff people said you couldn’t get at.”
He disdainfully notes: “Journalists tend to surround the era [of the early CIA] with an aura of mystery to enhance the sense that they have done something remarkable.”
Winks recalls that he discovered the seemingly untraceable whereabouts of former spymaster James Jesus Angleton by looking him up in a northern Virginia phonebook. Getting Angleton and others to tell him the truth proved more difficult.
Angleton often offered Winks half-truths to test him, revealing the full truth only after Winks referred to books and documents which contradicted Angleton’s statements. Winks repeated this process of trust building with one major CIA veteran after another, occasionally agreeing to omit facts which would harm living people.
The five men Winks profiled in the book were all dead before it was published, and two chapters were withdrawn by Winks because their subjects were still living. Winks maintains that he was able to discover what few had known “because [he] never violated a trust,” and said that he continues to honor promises made to his sources to this day.
Since Winks has always been a man to practice what he studies, it is perhaps no surprise that many have speculated about his own involvement in intelligence work. Winks acknowledges that his tendency to travel, his diplomatic posts and his voluminous knowledge of the history of American intelligence may have contributed to such suspicions.
Winks will neither confirm nor describe any personal involvement in intelligence work, choosing instead to describe the things that he has not done. “I have never been employed by the CIA,” said Winks. “My knowledge of matters relating to intelligence comes largely from research and contacts.”
In answering such questions, Winks seems to balance a sense of an obligation to secrecy with his historian’s distaste for creating a false mystique through elliptical statements.
“Everyone likes to attach romance and mystery to pretty mundane things,” he said.
He unequivocally rejects the idea that his academic career has been a cover for intelligence work and without hesitation states that he has not recruited a student and never would.
A student, recalls Winks, once asked him how to get in touch with the CIA. Winks referred him to the northern Virginia phonebook.
The deleted chapters of “Cloak and Gown,” like the exceptions to Winks’ carefully worded negations, and the details of his life as a novelist, seem like grist for a stunning memoir, but Winks is unsure that he will ever write one.
Unless he does so, the papers that might reveal the full details of his biography and the extent of his research remain under lock and key in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, sealed for the next 25 years.
Until then, would-be detectives will have to wait for the full details of a life someone more romantically oriented than Winks might call “the stuff that dreams are made of.”