Posts Tagged ‘spy novels’

The Russia of Joseph Kanon’s Defectors (Atria, digital galley via NetGalley) is the Soviet Union circa 1961, gray and grim as the Cold War. Even the Party faithful have to wait in long lines for food and depend on the black market for basic amenities. Simon Weeks has often wondered why his older brother Frank, a CIA golden boy, chose to defect in 1949. Was it money, ideology, gamesmanship? Now Frank has written his KGB-approved memoirs and asks Simon, who became a publisher after his brother’s defection ended his State Department career, to edit the manuscript. Simon discovers his brother is as charming and wily as ever, even though he is accompanied everywhere by a minder, and the restricted, isolated lifestyle has turned his beautiful wife Joanna into an alcoholic. They consort only with other defectors, from famous figures like Guy Burgess to anonymous research scientists. A recent death in the group is presumed a suicide. When Frank begins to show his hand, Simon senses something is up and must fall back on old tradecraft. Betrayal is in the air, murder in a cathedral.

Kanon, who has written spy thrillers set in Istanbul, Berlin and Los Alamos, is at the top of his game. Defectors offers suspense and atmosphere galore, but it also explores the perplexing nature of a double agent, as well as enduring questions of loyalty to family and country. A timely tale.

I didn’t know much about World War I spies beyond Mata Hari until I read Kate Quinn’s compelling The Alice Network (HarperCollins, digital galley via edelweiss). The title comes from the name of a real-life group of female agents who operated in France during the Great War. American college student Charlie St. Clair first learns about the network in 1947 when she tries to find her cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the more recent war. Eve Gardiner, a reclusive, ill-tempered alcoholic and former Alice spy living in London, initially resists Charlie’s entreaty for help — she draws a gun on her — before setting out for France in her vintage roadster driven by charming ex-con Finn.

Quinn expertly propels parallel storylines, alternating between the 1947 road trip with its twists and dead ends, and Eve’s recruitment as a spy in 1915 and her dangerous work for the Alice network. Both stories, which eventually connect, are absorbing adventures, although Eve’s is the more harrowing as she becomes the unwilling mistress of a powerful German sympathizer. Still, Charlie also proves to be a resourceful, conflicted character with a not-so-little problem. Suspense increases as secrets come to light in both narratives. The Alice Network is sad and heart-breaking but also hopeful and redemptive.

In Mark Mills’ deft cat-and-mouse game of a thriller, Where Dead Men Meet (Blackstone Audio, digital galley via NetGalley), someone is trying to kill Luke Hamilton. Or it could be a case of mistaken identity in 1937 Paris, where Hamilton is assigned to the British Embassy. He is grieving at the news of the murder in England of Sister Agnes, the nun who took him in as an abandoned baby 25 years ago. Readers already know Sister Agnes’ murder is connected to the attempt on Luke’s life, but it is the appearance of the mysterious Bernard Fautrier who warns Luke he is in real danger.  The race — to escape the killers and to find out their motives — takes Luke to Nazi Germany, to neutral Switzerland, to enigmatic Venice. There are moments of exquisite tension, although the resolution of the main mystery comes a little too early. Still, complications ensue as table turns. Revenge is cold and deadly.

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berlinJoseph Kanon is one of my favorite writers of historical espionage, right up there with Alan Furst in evoking the spy’s world of shadows, way more than fifty shades of gray. Last year’s Istanbul Passage was a layered tale of the crossroads of East and West in 1945. Now, in Leaving Berlin (Atria, digital galley), Kanon’s back in divided post-war Germany in the rubble-strewn Soviet sector during the blockade of 1948-49.

Alex Meier is a Berlin native and novelist who escaped the city for California before the war. Standing up to the McCarthyites earns him a job with the CIA in lieu of deportation or prison. If he’ll spy on his fellow cultural emigres in East Germany, he can return to the States and the young son living with his ex-wife. Alex isn’t too happy with the arrangement, especially when he finds out his old flame is the consort of his main target, a Russian major. His life becomes infinitely more complicated when her brother escapes from a POW labor camp and needs to get medical help in the West, and when the East German police insist he become an informer. His loyalties will be tested more than once; betrayal lurks in every dark corner. There’s a shoot-out early on, then a murder and a cover-up, but the story’s less concerned with action than with discerning the traitors on all sides. The characters, with their varying backstories, are believable, even if Alex can’t believe what they say.

knivesOlen Steinhauer signals what he’s up to at the very beginning of his clever All the Old Knives (St. Martins/Minotaur Books, paperback ARC) when CIA agent Henry Pelham discusses the state of contemporary spy fiction with a fellow airline passenger. She’s reading an old Len Deighton. “They just don’t make stories like this anymore. … You knew who the bad guys were back then.”

Actually, they do still write traditional spy novels — see Joseph Kanon, above — and Steinhauer’s new book isn’t as different as one might suppose, despite its up-to-the-minute terrorist-flavored plot and its unconventional framework. Almost all of it takes place over dinner at a quiet restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., where Henry is meeting former lover and agent Celia Favreau for the first time in five years. Both were stationed in Vienna during the catastrophic takeover of a passenger plane by a radical Islamic group. Celia left within months after the debacle to marry an older man and start a family. Ostensibly, Henry just happens to be in her neck of the woods and Celia is catching him up on her two small children, but much more is revealed in their conversation and in flashbacks. Henry’s involved in an inquiry about the hijacking — there’s lingering suspicion that a mole tipped off the terrorists — and he wants Celia’s version of events. Of course, it’s all in the official report. Or is it?

Halfway through the book, Steinhauer switches perspectives from Henry to Celia, and while her memories overlap his, they also differ on crucial points. So, who are you going to believe? Both are well-trained liars and unreliable witnesses. The narrative switches back and forth as dinner progresses. Wine flows. Delicious food consumed. The veal hardly needs a knife, but the talk becomes more pointed. In the end, a good spy tales turns on deceit and betrayal. All the Old Knives is very good indeed.

dreamingspiesLaurie R. King’s novels mix atmosphere, history and intrigue, whether she’s writing suspense novels like 2013’s The Bones of Paris or one of her entries in the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series, say, 2012’s Garment of Shadows, which started out in in 1920s Morocco. Her latest, Dreaming Spies (Bantam/Random House, digital galley) finds Mary and Sherlock on a steamer bound for 1924 Japan, where they disguise themselves as Buddhist pilgrims as part of a secret mission to help the royal family. It all stems from a meeting aboard ship with a young Japanese woman, who turns out to be economist, acrobat and real-life ninja, and an English lord who turns out to be a blackmailer. The leisurely narrative, stuffed with all sorts of fascinating cultural asides, is occasionally punctuated by action scenes, but it’s Mary and Sherlock’s wits that make the story so entertaining. Their Japan adventure is only partially resolved, however, and there’s more mystery a year later when their Japanese friends and foes come calling in Mary’s beloved Oxford with its “dreaming spires.”

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Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss) is a sly wink, a puff of smoke and a few mirrors. Pretending to write a spy novel, McEwan has gone all “tricksy” — his word, not mine — on us with a story that has little to do with actual espionage but everything to do with deceit. All writers are spies, don’t you know, in cahoots with readers. Double agents everywhere. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Narrator Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”) is a pretty, blonde maths student at Cambridge circa 1970, a voracious, indiscriminate reader of paperback novels who is enamored with Solzhenitsyn and a married history tutor of her father’s generation. Tony Canning once worked for MI5, and, over the course of their idyllic but mostly secret affair, he grooms her for the intelligence service before unceremoniously dumping her and disappearing. Still, Serena accepts a lowly clerical job at MI5 — the only kind of position open in the security service to young women of the era.

Readers know from the get-go that Serena’s days as a spy are numbered because she announces it in the first paragraph, looking back some 40 years: “Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

This lover  doesn’t show up for awhile as Serena describes her ascent as a fledgling Cold Warrior; she makes a couple of friends, reads incessantly, wonders if her bedsit has been searched, keeps up with current politics (Heath, miners, IRA) and is eventually dispatched to clean up a safe house. But this serves as prelude to her part in Sweet Tooth, an operation by which MI5 indulges in cultural warfare, secretly funding certain writers through fake foundation grants. Serena’s mission is to approach Tom Haley, a young writer of fiction and journalism, and offer him a stipend so he can take time off from teaching and write a novel. Just don’t tell him where the money’s coming from.

You may think you know where this is going, and you may be right, although McEwan veers off into meta-fiction to offer several of Tom Haley’s short stories, which strongly resemble McEwan’s early works. (Tom also shares some autobiographical details with McEwan, including friends such as Martin Amis.) Serena reads Tom’s stories, thinks she “knows” him, and falls in love and into bed. Although MI5 would never tell its secret writers what to write, Serena knows that Tom’s bleak, dystopian novel of father and daughter is so not what they had in mind.

Both Serena and Tom are a bit earnest, narcissistic and smug, in the way of young university graduates. McEwan serves their eventual comeuppance with a quick twist, which hardly surprises if you’ve been paying attention.

Sweet Tooth isn’t a masterpiece like Atonement, nor does it offer the emotional depths of  On Chesil Beach and Enduring Love. If you want to read a McEwan spy tale, go back to noirish The Innocent. Think of Sweet Tooth as a well-written entertainment, a playful exercise in literary sleight-of-hand.  Or should that be slight-of-hand?

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If you know where to find Checkpoint Charlie, how to follow Moscow Rules, and can quote from The Third Man, then Dan Fesperman has a book for you. In The Double Game, he pays homage to the classic espionage novels of the Cold War era even as he constructs a clever spy tale.

Former reporter Bill Cage begins to feel like he’s fallen down the rabbit hole of one the espionage tales he read as a Foreign Service brat growing up in Prague, Berlin, Budapest and Vienna in the 1960s and ’70s.  Someone is leaving him cryptic clues harking back to Cage’s old interview with Edwin Lemaster, in which the CIA spook- turned- spy novelist admitted he had toyed with the idea of being a double agent. The anonymous writer suggests there’s more to the story, and his intriguing missives send Cage off from his boring PR job to visit his diplomat father in Vienna. Soon, he’s puzzling over more literary clues in the surprise company of an old girlfriend, Litzi, who may know more than she’s telling.

The Double Game wears its knowledge lightly, thanks to Fesperman’s twisty plot and play on the classic themes of deceit and betrayal. Still, readers of le Carre, Deighton, and earlier greats, will appreciate the numerous literary references, as well as the visits to antique bookstores in European capitals where the mysterious “Source Dewey” plied his tradecraft. An eccentric book scout, Lothar, keeps turning up, as well as the cohort of a retired agent. And a former CIA researcher named Valerie (!) decries her similarities to le Carre’s fictional Connie Sachs, but she sounds just like her as she recalls one secret operation: “Then, in early sixty-five, Headlight struck gold. A man he met in Budapest. On a tram car of all places, right as he was rolling across the Danube on the Margit Bridge. Source Nijinsky.”

Charles Cumming’s nimble A Foreign Country takes its title from the famous L.P. Hartley line from The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When designate MI6 chief  Amelia Levene goes off the grid, the service taps disgraced former agent Thomas Kell to find her. Given this chance to get back in the game, Kell reluctantly agrees and rather quickly tracks down Levene in a Tunisian resort. But that’s just one byway on a winding route taking Kell (and readers) into the long-ago past, where a French expatriate in Tunis had an affair with a British nanny, as well as more recent events — the murder of a French couple in Egypt, and a kidnapping in Paris. Even if you guess where the story’s going, it’s fun to follow the cat-and-mouse game from a Marseilles ferry to an English country house.

Love and loyalty are also called into question in Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off, a different kind of Cold War tale, narrated by a young PLO operative posing as a student in 1989 London. Michel details his day-to-day errands as a courier for Abu Leila, the mentor who picked him from a Lebanese refugee camp after his his parents were murdered, and who supervised his schooling in Cyprus and his training in East Berlin and the Soviet Union. (KGB agents, we learn, read le Carre for the tradecraft.) As Michel gets to know his rooming-house neighbor Helen, a prickly graduate student, he splices more of his lonely past into the procedural-like narrative. When a routine operation goes tragically awry,  Michel is left holding a sealed envelope his enemies are willing to kill for. He and Helen escape to Scotland, where his education as a spy is tested and a thrilling chase ensues.

Open Book: Dan Fesperman is an old friend and colleague, and I thank him again for the hardcover copy of The Double Game (Knopf). I also had access to a digital version on NetGalley, where I obtained the e-galley of Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off (Little, Brown). I read a paperback advance reading copy of Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country (St. Martin’s Press), after signing up for a giveaway on Shelf Awareness.

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Alan Furst’s historical espionage novels unreel like classic black-and-white films, so it’s fitting that Frederic Stahl, the hero of Mission to Paris (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley) is a handsome Hollywood actor. Loaned out by Warner Bros. to Paramount France in the summer of 1938, Stahl will play a soldier returning from the Great War, a role like many of his others, “a warm man in a cold world.” But because he was born in Vienna, and Germany is now allied with Austria, Stahl is of particular interest to the Nazi propagandists who want to use him in their “rapprochement” campaign with the French. Repelled by the Germans and Hitler, Stahl takes on another role for the American embassy, passing on information gleaned from cocktail parties, “pillow talk” and a Berlin film festival. Not surprisingly, he finds he has talents as a spy and becomes caught up in more pre-war intrigue threatening the cast and crew of his film as they shoot on location in Morocco and Hungary.

This is all familiar, beloved territory for Furst fans. No one is better at evoking the shadows falling across Europe “as the lights go out,” and ordinary souls reacting to extraordinary circumstances. A few characters from previous books make appropriate cameos, and, of course, there is the requisite scene at the Brasserie Heininger and its most-requested Table 14. The atmosphere is thick with secrets, romance, unease, suspicion. Stahl plays the lead, but Paris is again the star.

Joseph Kanon expertly evokes the crossroads of Europe and Asia in Istanbul Passage (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley). It’s 1945, and the war is pretty much over, but Turkey continues its precarious balancing act of “neutrality,” spying on everyone. American expat businessman Leon Bauer, whose hospitalized German-Jewish wife has retreated from the real world after witnessing a tragedy, is an”irregular,” an off-the-books occasional spy. But then an appointed meeting with a Romanian defector that should have been routine goes awry, shots are fired, and suddenly Leon is a secret agent for real. “The  lies got easier, one leading to the next until you believed them yourself.”

Kanon’s story is as layered as Istanbul itself with history, religion, politics and culture. The Americans want to find the leak in their intelligence headquarters. The Russians want the Romanian, implicated in wartime atrocities. The Turkish police are looking for a killer, and the Turkish secret service is keeping tabs on the old boats in the harbor filled with Jewish refugees looking for safe passage to Palestine. How much is a human life worth, and does it matter if that life belongs to a former enemy? Leon has choices to make as an American, a spy, a husband and a lover, but all are risky, physically and morally. Kanon is right there with Furst and le Carre in depicting the spies’ world of smoke and mirrors, way more than fifty shades of gray.

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Word is that Moscow Central has put out a hit on the colonel who defected to the U.S. this past summer and then allegedly blew the covers of the Russian spy ring that included a flame-haired party girl.

It is, news anchors have been quick to point out, like something out of a John le Carre thriller. Yes and no. Yes, in that le Carre has always been best with Russian adversaries, especially when terms like “moles” and “double agent” are in play, and betrayal is his favorite theme. No, in that le Carre despises U.S. intelligence and his turncoat colonel would be whisked to safety by the British Secret Service. Unless, of course, the whole thing is a cover story, or a cover-up, by MI5, who are using the Americans to their own ends, and the party girl is actually the former lover of a both a powerful MP and a naive British diplomat. Or something even more complex.

As proof, we have Our Kind of Traitor, le Carre’s best book in years, although not up there with those of the Smiley/Cold-War era. But at least readers are spared the partisan rants, unsympathetic characters and Third World woes of recent novels that have beeen more earnest than entertaining.

The layered narrative begins somewhat slowly with a tennis vacation in Antigua, where young Brits Perry and Gail, a professor and a lawyer, become entangled in the affairs of the outsized Russian businessmen/crook Dima and his large family. Almost before they know it — as they later recount to British intelligence — Perry and Gail have been entrusted by the world’s No. 1 money launderer to negotiate his safe passage to England, where his sons will go to Eton, Dima will reveal his secrets, and all will live happily-ever-after. Oh, if it were only that simple.

But events soon become deliciously complicated as le Carre flexes his storytelling muscles and introduces some characters that might well have worked at the Circus in the old days: Hector, the veteran, flamboyant spymaster and loose cannon; his trusted lieutenant, Luke, loyal to the Service if not his wife; Ollie, the best back-door man in the business; Yvonne, demure, clandestine researcher; and ambitious Matlock, who the others must convince of Dima’s worth. With idealistic, athletic Perry and the smart, secretive Gail as go-betweens, it will be a barefoot operation — no logistical support, deniability all around — at the French Open in Paris, then Berne and the Swiss countryside. Dima’s criminal cohorts have him under tight surveillance and a probable death sentence. One errant text message, or misplaced memory stick, or nosy train conductor, and the whole thing could blow up. And that’s even before the warring factions of intelligence and London finance decide to referee.

Le Carre’s writing is fluid, his pacing nimble, his comparison of tennis to the great game apt and timely. Yes, he’s done the money-laundering thing before (Single & Single) and the innocents abroad (The Night Manager), the Swiss and all their rules (Smiley’s People), the entire hall of mirrors (20 previous espionage novels). But that’s what makes Our Kind of Traitor vintage le Carre — and my kind of thriller.

Open Book: A good friend gave me John le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor (Viking) for my birthday. Thanks, Dean.

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My heart always beats a little faster upon spying a new novel by Alan Furst.  It’s no secret that I am a longtime fan of Furst, “who uses the shadowy world of espionage to illuminate history and politics with  immediacy.”

I wrote that in a review of one of his earlier works, Dark Star or maybe The Polish Officer, and it’s since become a bookjacket blurb, along with “Some books you read. Others you live. They seep into your dreams and haunt your waking hours until they become the stuff of memory and experience.”  Also, “imagine Casablanca as written by John le Carre and you get some idea of the effect of Furst’s cinematic tales, which take place in the late 1930s and early ’40s. The lights are going out across Europe, and we see them flickering in Paris and Prague, Moscow and Berlin, Warsaw and the Ukraine.”

Yes, the guy is that good. How do I know? Because, about nine years ago,  after more than a decade of singing his praises to whomever would listen (I once spent a good portion of an interview with David Halberstam discussing Furst), his novels started climbing the best-seller lists and profiles appeared in news magazines and the New York Times. Vintage reissued his books in handsome paperbacks, and Furst reviewed a le Carre novel for the Sunday book review. (I’m not taking credit — it all goes to Furst. Still, at the time, I thought, “at last, mission accomplished).

But now comes the backlash. Relative newcomers to the Furst bandwagon, who have only read a handful of his 11 books, are starting to question his mastery. They quibble that his new Spies of the Balkans, like its predecessor The Spies of Warsaw, isn’t up to standards. Too formulaic, they say..

Excuse me. If by formulaic, they mean an intelligent, well-written atmospheric story featuring fairly ordinary citizens making extraordinary efforts to stop the Nazi domination of Europe, well, yes, Furst might be repeating himself. But northern Greece and the port city of Salonika in 1940 is new territory for me, as is police officer Costa Zannis’ adventures trying to forge an escape route for refugees through the hostile Balkans to Turkey, aided by counterparts in Berlin and Zagreb. The air is again thick with moral ambiguity. Yes, Costa has some interesting romantic liaisons, as have other Furst heroes, and even more interesting enemies. But he also has a true allegiance to his family and birthplace, making him less of an idealistic free spirit caught up by the fortunes of  war. 

Maybe this this novel isn’t quite as powerful to me as some of Furst’s others, but I’ve only read it once, quickly flipping pages. Now I can look forward to rereading it, savoring scenes I rushed through, admiring how well Furst can sketch an entire character in a couple of sentences or a snippet of dialogue. For example, there’s “the friend of a friend,” who looks to Zannis “like a French king; prosperously stout, with fair, wavy hair parted to one side, creamy skin, a prominent nose, and a pouch that sagged beneath his chin.”  A little later, the man instructs Zannis, “When you describe your adventures in France, as no doubt you will have to, I would take it as a personal favor that you remain silent about this particular chapter, about me.”

Zannis does, but not Furst. He specializes in these secret chapters of a forgotten history. 

Open Book:  I met Alan Furst at a book convention some years ago and he later sent me a signed hardcover edition of the first of his historical espionage novels, 1988’s Night Soldiers, after learning that my mass market paperback was falling apart.  I bought my copy of Spies of the Balkans (Random House).

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