Spy Fic: “Freshly Relevant”

Spy

photo: Joshua Rappeneker, creative commons license

The old saw “truth is stranger than fiction” was never more apt than when applied to the Trump Administration. Back in February, its bull-in-the-China-shop approach to national security inspired me to create a recommended reading list—as a public service [!]—comprising a few thrillers that would illustrate how espionage works and how to behave in order to protect our country and its secrets. The books on that list provide a much more exciting and vivid curriculum than tedious daily briefings, for sure. Apparently, my post came too late for Don Jr. Ah, well, authors keep trying. And the parallels keep emerging.

Last Friday Dwyer Murphy in LitHub said he also finds spy literature “freshly relevant.” And apparently, Senator Tom Cotton agrees. Murphy’s essay, “10 Great Spy Thrillers That Could be New York Times Headlines” starts like this:

The cast of characters is almost too much to believe: a Russian pop star, a British tabloid veteran, an attorney with mysterious ties to the Kremlin, a Moscow-funded lobbyist running a White House campaign, a real estate scion married into political power, and the son of the soon-to-be President of the United States.

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Murphy contends that you can get “uncannily close” to the strategies and schemes filling 2017 newspapers—and understand how the U.S.-Russia relationship got to be what it was and is—all while lounging in your beach chair with some pretty exciting novels. I remember wondering what John le Carré would do after the Cold War ended. Now we know. Trot out his backlist.

Here are Murphy’s picks that I’ve read too:

  • The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton – “cynical, paranoid, and savvy”; and the 1965 Michael Caine movie was a winner too
  • Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst – The hero of this novel is caught up in the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, “a work on a grand scale”—I’m a big Furst fan.
  • The Human Factor, by Graham Greene – Like many of Furst’s books, Greene’s classic starts with the protagonist, an MI6 operative near retirement, taking a few slight actions to aid the Communists and, when he’s in too deep, finding out they have an altogether different game on. The film version had an all-star cast and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré – Murphy calls this the ne plus ultra of the Russian spy game. Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy is the favorite of other writers, including Philip Roth.
  • The English Girl, by Daniel Silva – Silva has cited this novel when discussing the Russian interference in the U.S. election. “KGB playbook 101,” he reportedly said.

If you still have room in your vacation suitcase, the other books on his list (which I have not read) are: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, David Downing’s Zoo Station, Mesmerized by Gayle Lynds, Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov, and JFK’s favorite, From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming. Read all these and you will be every bit as well prepared to manage our country’s security services as some of the people actually doing so.

The CIA: A Commitment to Illusion

lipstick, makeup

photo: Maria Morri, creative commons license

This week The Cipher Brief offered an inside look at one of the more arcane activities of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) through an interview with Jonna Mendez, who worked as the OTS Chief of Disguise, retiring in 1993.

Although she began as a secretary with the Agency, when she took some photography lessons from the OTS, a new career was born. At that time, she was the only woman on the technical side at the Agency, and her first role was as a clandestine photographer. “I had cameras in lipsticks. I had them in key fobs. I’d put a camera in just about anything,” she said. When she started in the OTS, it was creating much of its hardware, like hidden cameras, but today it can buy a lot of what it needs off-the-shelf and upgrade from there.

Mendez later worked in the disguise unit, with the goal of enabling officers “to instantly change the way they looked.” Initially, the staff learned the art and tricks of making masks from the experts in Hollywood and, again, adapted them to CIA requirements. They also worked with Hollywood magicians to deconstruct the sleight-of-hand and distraction methods they use “to consistently and successfully deceive you.” (Read several startlingly entertaining anecdotes about the power of these illusion and distraction tools here.)

The office created a mask for Mendez, in which she “became about 15 years younger, much prettier, with a fabulous hairdo.” Wearing the mask, she met President George H.W. Bush and a group of high administration officials in the Oval Office. The mask was so realistic, no one realized she was wearing one, and she said they were shocked when she took it off.

When agents were given a mask or a disguise, they might initially be reluctant to wear it—“You don’t meet many men who want to put on a wig”—but they’d send them out into the community where they’d learn no one noticed, and they’d seat them near their colleagues in the cafeteria where they’d see no one recognized them. That usually convinced them, Mendez said.

Of course, being in a foreign environment and blending involves more than appearance. She’d teach agents the characteristic behavior of people in the places where they would be operating and what behavior to watch for and mimic.

Jonna is married to Tony Mendez, the CIA’s exfiltration expert who masterminded the escape of six American diplomats from Tehran in 1980, portrayed by Ben Affleck in the movie Argo. Their 2003 books about espionage in the waning days of the Cold War is Spy Dust. Tony’s book about his experiences, The Master of Disguise, contains the episode turned into Argo. You can order them with the affiliate links below.

A Thriller Reading List for the Trump Administration

Mar-a-LagoDear New Trump Administration Members, Friends and Hangers-on:

I propose an easy, entertaining way to enhance your understanding of how the world of secrets actually works. Read (or watch) a few of the many highly regarded thrillers for key lessons. They may spare you more of the embarrassments of the past few weeks.

Trust no one.
The initial reaction of ousted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to the possibility he’d engaged with Russian spies—“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian Intelligence officer’”—was LOL funny to thriller fans. When you’re dealing with a power whose aims differ from yours, anyone may be a spy. To get his paranoia up, Manafort shoulda read:
The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry
The Increment by David Ignatius
John le Carré’s “Smiley” novels, newly relevant

There are no secrets.
If Manafort caused chuckles and head-shaking, the allegations against ousted National Security Agency Director Michael Flynn was jaw-dropping. Not because Flynn had premature conversations with Russians, not because he lied about them, but because he apparently didn’t know his conversations would be monitored, recorded, transcribed, and become fodder for a political debacle. Surely the head of the NSA would understand the reach of the nation’s security apparatus.

Leaving aside the debate about whether Snowden should have snagged our stuff, what about the content of his revelations? What does Flynn think NSA’s $1.5 billion data storage facility at Camp Williams, Utah, is for, anyway? He should have read—and maybe somebody over there still ought to:
No Place to Hide – Glenn Greenwald (non-fiction)

The terrace of a resort isn’t the best place to strategize about national security. (See photo above).
Technology’s ability to “listen” by supersensitive microphones and by monitoring phone traffic and to “see” via miniaturized cameras and screen captures of compromised electronics far exceeds what participants in that meeting apparently supposed. Do all the Mar-a-Lago wait and kitchen staff have security clearances? Do the members? Are they tested for common sense? Apparently not, since a number of them recorded the confab. Worst was club member Richard DeAgazio, who posted a picture on Facebook of himself with “Rick,” the service member who carries the nuclear launch codes for the President—the “nuclear  football.” One hopes Rick, now identifiable by millions, has a safe new assignment.
Eye in the Sky – film by Gavin Hood
Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole

AND, WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, DEVELOP BETTER POLICIES, BECAUSE . . .

Climate change is real.
Dewy-fresh EPA director Scott Pruitt believes the debate about climate change is “far from settled.” While  recent heavy rains have alleviated most of California’s drought for now, the long-term trend persists. A fight over water in the U.S. Southwest is not inevitable, but its ugly consequences can be prevented only if the problem is squarely faced through regional strategies, which are what federal governments promote.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The War on Drugs is a loser.
This ill-conceived “war” has led to untold misery in Mexico and created a strong motive for illegal immigration. No wall will stop the drug flow. Fix this.
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
Down by the River, by Charles Bowden (non-fiction, not new, but harrowing. We’ve learned nothing.)

On the theme of resurgent ill will between the U.S. and Russia, reminiscent of the bad old days of the Cold War, see “Spy Fic: Freshly Relevant.”

****The Shanghai Factor

Shanghai, woman

photo: Fabrizio Maestroni, creative commons license

By Charles McCarry – This Shanghai-U.S. East Coast-based spy thriller is reminiscent of the early works of John le Carré, where the question always is, Whom can you trust? And the answer: no one. At least that’s how the unnamed narrator, a new CIA recruit, chooses to operate. Paranoia 101. Throughout, it’s McCarry’s wry observations of characters and their situations that make the reading such a pleasure.

Undocumented CIA agents, like the narrator,

. . . never carry official ID. This absence of proof that they’re up to no good is their protection. Otherwise, they are warned, they’re on their own. If they get themselves into trouble, they’ll get no help. If they do well, they’ll get no thanks. That formula is, of course, catnip to romantics.

McCarry gives his protagonist a deceptive openness and surface sociability. A Chinese languages major in college, he’s been sent to Shanghai to improve his language skills and cultural acumen and to keep a lookout for potential Agency recruits.

Early in his stay, a beautiful young woman crashes her bike into his, he buys her an expensive replacement, and before long, they’re lovers. It’s a fun way to learn the language not generally endorsed by Berlitz. From the beginning, he assumes she’d been sent by the Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service. Other than her name, Mei, he never asks her any questions about her background—what would be the point?—except to learn she was an exchange student in Massachusetts, which accounts for her American English. Nor does she ask such questions of him—ditto. Plus, he figures she already knows.

Through Mei, he meets wealthy, upwardly mobile young Chinese, disdainful of their stodgy Communist parents. Through one of them, he meets a prominent Chinese CEO and receives an employment offer he suspects is a feeler from Guoanbu. Such a placement could be invaluable to the CIA, if highly risky to him.

McCarry creates a number of entertaining secondary characters, especially lusty Mei, the hot-and-cold Chinese spy Lin Ming, and his mother’s former crack-addict cook, Magdalena. Are any of them what and who they seem? Then there’s his handler, the eccentric CIA director of counter-intelligence Luther Burbank (to the surprise of horticulturalists everywhere), who advises him take the job.

Burbank is the only man at the Agency who knows what he’s up to, and they talk only rarely. When they do, Burbank counsels that becoming a an effective espionage agent and undermining Guoanbu, will be a long game, vulnerable to exposure at every turn. They have to be content to wait for the payoff. He does take the job and, from there, life gets complicated.

McCarry’s writing is smooth and literary, and one of my favorite authors, Alan Furst, calls him “a master of intelligent, literate spy fiction.” If you like an old-fashioned spy story dependent more on agents’ wits than electronic wizardry and body count, you may enjoy this one too.

Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor

McGregor & Skarsgård, Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor is my kind of movie (trailer). A political thriller that avoids the eye-rolling tropes of so many films in the genre—the relentless testosterone-fueled special effects, vehicular mayhem, and beyond-evil bad guys. Instead, it relies for tension on the attachment it craftily develops between viewer and character, thanks to an excellent script and solid acting.

Based on the 2010 John Le Carré novel, as adapted by Houssein Amini, and directed by Susanna White, Our Kind is a movie about trust. While it shows that people at the highest levels of public trust may not necessarily have the public’s good at the top of their agendas—no news flash in this genre—trust at the personal level is still possible. And trust is entails risk. Life-and-death risk.

Low-key London academic Perry Makepeace (played by Ewan MacGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) are in exotic Marrakesh trying to revive a fading relationship. When she leaves him alone in a restaurant, he’s befriended by a Russian at a neighboring table, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård, brilliant!), who convinces him to go to “a Russian party” extravagant even by oligarchical standards. The next day Dima persuades Perry and Gail to drop in at his daughter’s 16th birthday party, where it’s just the usual—you know, bands, fireworks, sword swallowers, bejeweled camels.

At the party, Dima pulls Perry aside and confesses he’s the chief money launderer for the Russian mafia and in imminent danger of being murdered in an internecine war. He gives Perry a flash drive and asks him to get it to MI6. He says a big bolus of dirty money is about to land on British shores by way of a shell bank headquartered in the Mediterranean. Dima wants to defect, and he wants the Brits to protect him and, most of all, his family.

Plots featuring the “average man” work because you inevitably wonder, “what would I do?” The operational guys in the British security services (sly Damian Lewis, especially) like Perry’s information, but the big bosses don’t want them to follow up, for reasons of tangled agendas noted above.

After that it’s cat-and-mouse, with Dima and Perry two little mice and pretty much everyone else in the role of fat cats. Says critic Scott Marks of the San Diego Reader, “The mid-summer release of an adult, effects-free British thriller relating to the collapse of Europe’s global financial system timed out perfectly. You’ll Brexit knowing that your entertainment dollar was well spent.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 57%. The principal complaint seems to be that not much blows up (exactly what I liked about it!). Except of course, for people’s lives. Don’t believe the naysayers. It’s a subtle gem.

The Night Manager

Tom Hiddleston, The Night ManagerHere at Tom Hiddleston Central this week, we’ve not only seen the Hank Williams biopic, I Saw the Light, but on Tuesday at 10 pm, AMC began its six-part series starring Hiddleston in John Le Carré’s, The Night Manager. The tv show is punctuated by Jaguar ads [DO watch!] starring a Hiddleston who looks awfully like a shoe-in for that rumored James Bond role. (But should he want it? Possibly not.)

Having seen episode 1 of The Night Manager, I eagerly look forward to more. The conceit is that Hiddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, works as the night manager in upscale hotels—in the updated AMC version, in Cairo during the Arab spring, then in Switzerland—with ample motive to bring down a British arms merchant (Hugh Lorrie), “the worst man in the world,” who tends to stay in such posh places. A delightful surprise is Olivia Colman (she is police detective Ellie Miller in the UK mystery series Broadchurch) as head of an obscure London arms control agency.

Le Carré’s original, published 23 years ago, also began in Cairo in a much less turbulent era, though the double-dealing and “whom can you trust?” elements created excruciating tension in both the book (which I read ages ago) and now in the AMC version, which has a fresh new, LeCarré-approved ending. Says Judith Warner in the New York Times, the new version is “deeply appealing, and in substance and style, for this viewer at least, moved the book forward in a number of fortuitous ways.” For this viewer too. Loved it!

Eye in the Sky

Alan Rickman, Eye in the Sky

Alan Rickman in Eye in the Sky

Exactly what a thriller should be, Eye in the Sky has high stakes, conflicting motives, believable characters with a tangle of personalities, and a ticking clock. If you’ve seen the trailer for this film, you know that British and American military forces have put an “eye in the sky”—an armed drone with a powerful camera—to track members of a terrorist cell in Kenya, including an American citizen and two Brits. It finds them. The rest of the film is “what next?”

When the terrorists are found to be preparing for more suicide bombings, what was intended to be a capture mission soon must be reevaluated—legally, militarily, and politically.

Director Gavin Hood assembled a terrific cast, with Helen Mirren as the U.K.’s colonel in charge of the operation from an underground military bunker and Aaron Paul as the Nevada-based “pilot” of the drone. Alan Rickman (so glad to see him, so unutterably sad he’s gone) is a British lieutenant general supervising the mission from a wood-paneled conference room, along with high-ranking British government officials (reminiscent of the crowded situation room when Osama bin Laden was killed). It’s a room filled with more indecision than people.

On the ground in Kenya is a British agent played by Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi, whose life if caught isn’t worth the proverbial plugged nickel, the terrorists in a supposed safe house, the local Sharia law enforcement and security squads, and a neighboring family of innocents.

Most of the movie concerns the deliberations of the groups in the bunker, in the conference room, and in the Nevada “pilot house” as they see what the cameras can tell them—a lot, really—about what is unfolding inside the safe house. They’re aided by a facial recognition expert based in Hawai`i watching the same screens, attempting to verify the terrorists’ identities. Because of the incredible detail of these images, the transitions from screens to street scenes (mostly from the point of view of Abdi) feel seamless.

The key issues are “collateral damage”— inevitable or unacceptable?—and whether a nation can pursue its citizens across friendly countries’ borders. Says Wired reviewer K. M. McFarland, “it’s the best movie yet to tackle the legal and moral quagmire surrounding modern technological warfare.” That review also describes the degree of realism behind the movie’s rather amazing drone technology.

In the screenplay written by Guy Hibbert, the military and the political leaders views’ on the situation differ irreconcilably. The U.K. military want to move; the politicians are cautious. Those views are flipped for the Americans. (Actor Laila Robins, seen locally on stage numerous times, plays a U.S. security official.)

Filmed in South Africa in 2014, the staging of the safe house neighborhood carries a dusty realism that’s a stark contrast to the diplomatic h.q. and the high-tech pilots’ domain. Yet, the decision makers in those far-removed settings are not at all disengaged from the consequences on the ground. Alan Rickman’s final words to a recalcitrant politician are: “Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences 88%.

***Jump Cut

boy, desert

(photo: Claus Rebler, creative commons license)

By Libby Fischer Hellmann – In Jump Cut, Chicago-based thriller author Hellmann brings her outspoken heroine Ellie Foreman back for another exciting adventure after a 10-year hiatus. In the new book, video producer Foreman and her team have been hired to produce a series of puff pieces about ginormous Delcroft Aviation.

Her project is going well until a client meeting to review a rough cut, when a Delcroft executive unexpectedly tears into the video, the project, and Ellie herself. Given the vehemence of this reaction, the suits around the table have no choice but to postpone further work, and in short order they cancel Ellie’s contract altogether.

Ellie struggles to figure out what caused her to lose her client and fixes on a stranger who appears in the background of the video. She’d conversed with him, finding him oddly curious about her project, and they’d exchanged business cards. In the hope he can help her understand what went wrong, he agrees to meet her, but just before their rendezvous, he is killed. Suicide, the authorities say. Ellie suspects otherwise, especially when she realizes she possesses a flash drive containing significant clues. But various people want it back and aren’t picky about how they get it.

With its up-to-the-minute subject matter involving sophisticated surveillance, secret drone projects, quasi-political assassination, and international intrigue, Jump Cut is a timely, fast-paced read. The plot relies on a couple of shaky coincidences, especially finding the flash drive in the first place. And it includes the typical device of not spilling to the authorities when every bone of the reader’s body is screaming “Tell them! Now!”

Ellie’s close and believable relationships with boyfriend Luke, daughter Rachel, and dad Jake provide a warm counterpoint to the terrifying situation in which she finds herself. Hellmann writes in a breezy, easy-to-read style, but ultimately, the writing style is a jarring contrast to the book’s bleak take on the modern zeitgeist, in which the killing of innocent people is seen “as not just an acceptable but an inevitable part of war. Collateral damage.” That point is underscored a bit heavily by a prologue that recounts the death of a nine-year-old boy in a dusty desert on the far side of the world. We don’t hear another word about him until the epilogue, as a mother laments the loss of her children. Not until then do we know who he and his sister were and what their deaths have been: collateral damage.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

The 21st Century Spy Novel

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Some readers may long for the (fictional) days of the Cold War—a nostalgia fueled by the brilliant movie Bridge of Spiesand the dark-soul novels of John LeCarré and Graham Greene. At least then, we knew who the enemies were. After the disintegration of the iron curtain that protected Soviet secrets, the spy novel became a bit of an anachronism, but now it’s surging back in popularity and creativity, 21st century style.

While the antagonists may have changed—or, with what’s going on in Russia these days, be cycling back again—clandestine operations persist among countries that are enemies. And, as Wikileaks has reminded us, spying even occurs among friends. “As a piece of news, this surely sits alongside the Pope’s status as a Catholic,” said Christopher J. Murphy for CNN last year. As a consequence, the espionage writer has a lot of conflicts to choose among.

Tthe techno-thriller subgenre, so well explored in the past by writers like Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal) and Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October), has rapidly expanded fictional possibilities. Every day, it seems, more sophisticated technologies emerge that can be used to create political instability in other countries or groups and damage their military and economic security.

A recent Library Journal article said, “One needs look no further than today’s headlines to see the global issues available to present-day storytellers that weren’t there even 20 years ago.” A good case in point was the 2015 near-future thriller, Ghost Fleet (by P.W. Singer and August Cole) about the vulnerability of a U.S. military dependent on communication technologies—like GPS and wireless—and compromised by the computer chips that make them possible.

Recent popular espionage thrillers illustrate how diverse the threats are: Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim, involves deadly biological warfare; cyberespionage in David Ignatius’s The Director; Close Call by Stella Rimington (first female director general of MI5) covers counterterrorism; and the agents in Todd Moss’s Minute Zero face political instability in Africa.

Books like these turn reading and watching the daily news into a quest for the story beneath the story.

UPDATE:  Great minds . . . Dawn Ius wrote about this same trend in The Big Thrill magazine, 1/31/16.

***Deceits of Borneo

hong kong, woman traveler

(photo: ksobolev0, pixabay)

By H.N. Wake – This is the second full-length thriller by H.N. Wake and a repeat outing for her gutsy female protagonist, CIA Agent Mac Ambrose. (Read my interview with H.N. Wake to find out what she loves about this character.) The action takes place in Hong Kong and various spots in Malaysia—Kuala Lumpur, Miri, and the rain forests of Sarawak Province—with occasional scenes back at the CIA mothership in Langley, Virginia. Wake’s familiarity with Asia and Southeast Asia, gained during more than 20 years’ working overseas for the U.S. government, stands her in good stead here, as the ease and detail with which she describes these lush locales effectively transport the reader right into the setting.

Mac is deep under cover in Hong Kong, at a new job in the Risk Analysis department of a major international financial institution called Legion Bank, and her real identity is known only to one of the bank’s executives. When another Non-Official Cover CIA agent—Josh Halloway—goes missing out of Kuala Lumpur, Mac’s boss back in Langley tells her to find him.

Gradually we learn her concern about Halloway’s disappearance is not just collegial solidarity, it’s also personal. Halloway is handsome, charming, and intriguing, and they’d met and connected in Hong Kong. Mac was falling for him. The Bank provides cover for her search, when she’s assigned to the risk appraisal of a potential Malaysian client, Alghaba Financing, a major player in Malaysia’s timber and palm oil industries. If the bank takes the company on, it will receive millions of dollars in fees.

Given the opportunity to kill two birds at once, Mac flies to the Malaysian capital. When she checks in with the U.S. Embassy, she finds the ambassador has a chip on his shoulder the size of a teak log and is unwilling to help her. Evidence on the ground is scant, but Mac picks up Halloway’s trail, and the game is literally afoot in the jungles of Borneo. Wake’s choice of a female protagonist with the investigatory skills, cunning, and physical courage to undertake her next steps make this a refreshing antidote to the overdose of testosterone in many thrillers.

However, the goings-on back at Langley aren’t as persuasive. They add complication and some coincidence that detract from the main story. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how people in the field always regard the folks back at the main office: “What are they thinking?” At times Mac’s own behavior is a bit murky. She frequently presses a little too hard in trying to get information from a potential informant, and I never did figure out how she got the key to Josh’s room at the Miri Beach Resort.

What Mac discovers in the rain forest, the lengths people will go to keep her discovery a secret, and the fate of Josh Halloway are the key questions of this compelling story. Wake knows how to put together an exciting narrative, an exotic and interesting setting, and believable characters. H.N. Wake is an exciting new author worth tracking.

A somewhat longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.