Origin of a Character: Nelson

This is the third in a series of explorations of the origins of characters in my canon of work. We’ve covered Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin, my two main protagonists, and now it’s time for Nelson. In canon, Nelson is a secondary character, the man who, as the head of the United Nations Intelligence Directorate, dispatches Mai and Alexei on The Directorate’s most important missions. He is also Alexei’s former partner.

Because my work is an homage to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Nelson is based on Napoleon Solo–and James Bond. He’s suave, sophisticated (in contrast to his upbringing), and lucky with the ladies. Though Robert Vaughn’s portrayal of Solo is iconic and a joy to watch, Henry Cavill’s performance in the 2015 Guy Ritchie movie is more the image I had in mind for my character Nelson.

And since Nelson is the head of The Directorate, he’s also part Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E.

A Son of Virginia

I based Nelson’s origins in the Piedmont foothills of Virginia where my father grew up. Nelson was the son of a man, who left the farm to be a merchant seaman during World War I, and a local teacher. Nelson’s father was enamored of the sea but got his fill and returned to the family farm near a small town where a new teacher had been installed. After a brief courtship, they married, though it took nearly a decade before their first and only child was born. That love of the sea led Nelson’s father to name his son Horatio Nelson.

In rural Virginia in the 1940s, the name Horatio would have been the source of many a jest, and Nelson had to use his fists to assure the boys in his school called him only “Nelson.”

Much like his father, the young Nelson yearned for something more exciting than raising cattle and watching corn grow. The afternoon after he graduated from high school, he didn’t wait to be drafted: He joined the U.S. Army.

The Korean Conflict

In the Army, Nelson was assigned to an intelligence unit that was operating in the Korean Conflict and got his first taste of the great game. When an operative from a secret organization called The Directorate recruited him, it seemed the perfect fit.

The only hitch was the secrecy of The Directorate required its early operatives to leave their old lives behind and have no further contact with their families, who had to believe they were dead.

That was a difficult choice for Nelson. He loved his parents, but he didn’t love the prospect of trying to make a living from rocky land. The Directorate promised adventure and travel to far-flung lands, and Nelson gave up his life in Virginia.

Nelson was designated killed in action, and his parents buried on their farm a coffin with an unknown soldier’s body inside.

The Cold War

Nelson was the typical cold warrior, and the enemies he fought were spies from the KGB. He worked mostly on his own or with other agents as The Directorate grew. One of them was a woman operative named Inga Decourcey, who had been one of the youngest members of the French Resistance during World War II.

Inga and Nelson were quite often partnered, and Nelson wanted that partnership to be more permanent, as in married, something Inga didn’t see in her future. After that, Nelson was determined not to let another woman get close to him.

Inga was killed by terrorists in the mid-1980s, and Nelson always considered her the one who got away. (I’ve written a story about this, which you can find in my short story collection, Spy Flash.)

Partnered with Alexei

In 1964 a defector from the KGB reported to a meet with Nelson, who got him to the U.S. and debriefed him. The defector had a mission: He was a member of an internal, pro-Leninist cabal set on eliminating Communism from within Russia, with the help of the west. The one thing that motivated Nelson was fighting Communism.

That was the beginning of his partnership with Alexei Bukharin. For twelve years they operated in Europe, the middle east, and northern Africa. A mission in Albania left Nelson with the wounds that would put him behind a desk, where he found he had a talent for management and strategic planning.

He became the deputy director of The Directorate, leaving Alexei partnerless until Nelson came up with the brilliant idea of having Alexei Bukharin train Mai Fisher to be a Directorate operative.

Head of The Directorate

In the early 1980s The Directorate’s original director died at his desk, and the U.N. Secretary-General appointed Nelson to the job. Nelson set about bringing the organization into the modern era of espionage. However, he never abandoned any of the skills he’d used as an active operative.

He amassed intelligence on world leaders and used that to The Directorate’s advantage. Though a fair and indulgent boss, Nelson remained as ruthless as he had been as an operative.

I won’t go on because right now, the end of Nelson’s story is yet to be told.