Lake Norman & Mooresville

Former undercover agent to publish novel

Jim Gordon and his wife, Victoria, live in Sherrills Ford. You may find Jim on a Friday night at the Lions Club barbecue dinner, or on a Saturday morning mowing his yard.

You may see him driving around in his beat-up old pickup truck.

But behind that simple appearance is a true Renaissance man, who collects classic cars and coaches young athletes. He's also had an inside view of some of the most important, if secretive, events of modern history.

A retired federal agent, Gordon worked undercover for U.S. Customs. In his hundreds of investigations, Gordon was a key player in the war on drugs.

One operation resulted in the seizure of 111,000 pounds of marijuana and a 378-foot ocean-going freighter. His work was the subject of Jason Ryan's "Jackpot" and dozens of other books on drug smuggling.

As proof of his experiences, Gordon could show you letters of commendation for his service and unique souvenirs of his undercover life: stationery from the desk of former Panama President Manuel Noriega; photos of other federal agents.

Until now, Gordon never talked openly about his involvement in these operations.

Since his retirement four years ago, however, he's been working on a book of his own. The novel, now in the final stages of editing, tells the story of an affluent Charleston, S.C., family, embezzlement and a series of murders disguised as suicides.

It is a work of fiction, Gordon insisted. But he put his whole life into it.

Gordon was raised on Savage Street in Charleston, in the old-money district referred to as "South of Broad" and made famous in Pat Conroy's work of the same name. Gordon called himself "an old S.O.B."

Even so, Gordon described Charleston as "a place where manners are taught, exercised and refined on a daily basis."

In the care of his grandparents, he learned to distinguish Queen Anne from Chippendale and Wedgwood from Waterford. But although the family was affluent, his was not necessarily a pampered life. From age 5, Gordon worked with his grandfather restoring homes.

"He said, 'If you work with your hands, you never have to worry about the banker or the cardiologist,' " Gordon said.

Following in his grandfather's footsteps, Gordon thought he would make a career of home restoration. Instead, it became a lifelong hobby.

His grandfather had never completed high school, but he insisted that Gordon receive a formal education.

Gordon attended the original Cathedral School behind the Cathedral of St. John, where the Rev. Joseph Bernadin - later a famous cardinal - became his mentor and friend.

Gordon graduated from Sacred Heart School in 1964. He briefly attended seminary and soon found himself back in Charleston with a draft notice. Upon his return from Vietnam, Gordon earned a business degree and began work for the U.S. Treasury Department.

Once again, it was his grandfather who encouraged Gordon into public service. For your life of privilege, he said, you owe a debt of gratitude.

In his undercover work, Gordon learned to read people, to know whether someone is lying by subtle shifts of their eyes. He learned to analyze seemingly innocuous conversation for hints of deception or manipulation. He learned whom to trust.

"I see things other people don't see," he said.

Once, while he working undercover, a colleague asked him how such a nice guy could do what he did. Gordon replied, "Maybe I'm not such a nice guy."

Or maybe he's just an S.O.B. from Charleston.

That unique perspective became the backbone of Gordon's novel.

"The book is about 'you are who you associate with,' " he said. "You become your environment."

Although the book is set in Charleston, and is unmistakably Charlestonian, the environment Gordon establishes is that of family and close associates: grandparents who teach manners and the value of hard work, parents whose selfish concerns and deep-seated shame threaten those values, and the inescapable influences of church, of region and of personal choices.

In Gordon's view, a person is inevitably the product of his environment. At the same time, we have the responsibility to shape that environment, to make it better - to make ourselves better. Gordon's latest project, his writing, is both a tribute to the influences of his early life and an attempt to help those who have experienced loss. Ever the public servant, Gordon wants his work to help others.