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.

Travel Tips: Central Ohio Destinations

A recent two-day visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (never heard of it? You’re not alone!) was the perfect jumping off place for several other lesser-known attractions in the Ohio Region.

Warren G. Harding Tomb & Home

Harding home - Marion Ohio

photo: uberdadofthree, creative commons license

Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding ran a “front-porch” campaign from his Marion, Ohio, home, giving speeches—newly enfranchised women, laborers, African-Americans, Native Americans, and many other citizen groups—numbering as many as ten thousand individuals at a time. They arrived by train to undoubtedly overwhelm this small town. His neighbors rapidly saw the opportunity, however, and set up lemonade and baked-goods stands.

Years before, when he was 18 years old, he’d bought a struggling local newspaper with three friends. He made a success of it and was a prominent newspaperman before running for state and national office.

A handsome man, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wife, Florence Kling, five years older than he. In recent years, DNA testing has proved that he fathered an illegitimate child and disproved the persistent rumor that his great-grandmother was African-American.

The origin of the phrase “the smoke-filled room” as a place where political decisions are made refers to how he was selected to receive the Republican party’s 1920 presidential nomination. Many considered him a weak candidate, and his reputation has been further tarnished by numerous scandals in his administration (Teapot Dome scandal being the best known), the extent of which emerged only after his death.

Harding died in 1923, partway into his first term, and was buried in an elaborate tomb at the city’s cemetery, with Florence now alongside him. A sign says the tomb is maintained by a local technical college, but the grass inside was in need of cutting and weeding. It was shameful, really.

The Mazza Museum

University of Findlay, Ohio

photo: Alvin Trusty, creative commons license

About an hour north of Marion is Findlay, Ohio, home of the University of Findlay, a private liberal arts college with more than 4,000 students. Its best-known programs are in education and equestrian studies [!].

In keeping with the campus’s emphasis on education, its Mazza Museum houses what at first may seem an unusual collection: artwork from children’s literature. The museum has some 11,000 illustrations, collages, paper sculptures—indeed, works in every medium—that have been used over the generations in children’s books. About 300 of these are on display at any one time.

Although weekends are crowded and during the school year, classroom groups frequent the museum, when we visited, we were the only visitors. It was really fun, with an enthusiastic staff member to show us around.

If you’ve shopped for a child’s book any time in the last five decades, you may have noticed how beautiful and effective the artwork is, but perhaps, like me, you haven’t thought much about it. A visit here is an astonishing visual treat!

Distances:

From Toledo, 47 miles to Findlay (45 minutes) and 97 miles to Marion (1.5 hours); from Cincinnati, 160 miles to Findlay (2.5 hours) and 145 miles to Marion (2.5 hours)

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Warren G. Harding by John Dean – a 170-page bio that tries to refute Harding’s reputation as “worst ever” president
  • Beloved by Tony Morrison – the legacy of an African-American slave’s flight to the free state of Ohio; winner of the Pulitzer Prize
  • June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore – a novel set in small-town Ohio in which a terrible mistake changes a family forever
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – a classic collection of interlocking short stories that de-romanticize small-town life; published in 1919 and now considered one of the last century’s best novels

Travel Tip: Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga VNP

photo: Cuyahoga jco, creative commons license

If what springs to mind when you hear “Cuyahoga River” are the images from 1969 when the highly polluted waterway actually burned, the long, narrow Cuyahoga Valley National Park will be a more than pleasant surprise. Not only did the infamous fire prompt environmental legislation that led to a desperately needed clean-up of rivers nationwide, it got some folks thinking about the positive aspects of the river and the beauty of the valley through which it flows. Once nearly barren of fish and wildlife, it’s now a thriving habitat.

I’m told the word Cuyahoga comes from a Mohawk Indian word for “crooked,” and this river does indeed twist and turn repeatedly on its 85-mile journey, first southward, then north, eventually emptying into Lake Erie in the city of Cleveland. The Indians would make the eight-mile portage from the Cuyahoga to the Tuscarawas River for access to the Ohio, then the Mississippi and all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

photo: David Fulmer, creative commons license

What To Do There

As Europeans settled the area, the Cuyahoga become the waterway that enabled construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal between industrial Cleveland and tire-manufacturing mecca Akron. The meticulously maintained canal towpath is now a centerpiece of the park’s offerings, well traveled by walkers and bicyclists.

Also nestled in the valley is a historic train line, which runs the length of the park. From the train, you can not only appreciate the surrounding woodlands and adjacent villages, so removed from urban bustle, but you also may view wildlife. Passengers on our trip saw hawks, a young eagle, turtles, deer, and the tourists swarming the bicycle rental shop in the tiny town of Peninsula.

The Park has nearly 125 miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty for hikers, skiers, and horseback riders, camping options (we stayed at a ritzy B&B), canoeing, kayaking, and fishing, and lovely Brandywine Falls (pictured). We visited a huge marsh created when beavers were introduced into an area that was the former site of an auto salvage lot. A green heron visited when we did.

covered bridge. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

photo: Tim Evanson, creative commons license

Villages incorporated in the park harbor interesting features: a covered bridge (closed in the evening for clog-dancing), huge farmer’s market, canal locks, a ski resort, golfing, nature education centers, canal history, and the famous Blossom Music Center concert venue. So near to major cities, on weekdays at least, it’s a true getaway for all seasons.

 

Distances:
Planning on a visit of a day or two or just a stopover when driving through, here’s how close you are when you’re in Cleveland: 24 miles, 36 minutes or
Pittsburgh: 123 miles, two hours.

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – beautifully written novel about the unexplainable death of a teenager
  • All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House by David Giffels – a young family’s trials when reclaiming a rubber-baron’s elegant Akron mansion from the forces of nature (rain, critters, wisteria)
  • Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner – a novel about social class, city movers and shakers, and the Cuyahoga River—“funny, tough, elegiac”
  • The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case by James Neff – the real-life 1954 murder case that made F. Lee Bailey famous

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.

****Jade Dragon Mountain

Red Lantern, China

photo: Jakob Montrasio, creative commons license

By Elsa Hart – This charming debut mystery hits my personal buttons, set as it is in China, 1708, and incorporating many of the conventions of novels of Old China. Elsewhere I’ve written about my admiration of the Tang Dynasty’s quasi-historical Judge Dee, made famous by the detective novels of Dutch author Robert van Gulik.

Of course, the romantic vision of historical China in novels—A Dream of Red Mansions and those written by Westerns alike—and movies—from Raise the Red Lantern to The Assassin—bears no resemblance to China under Communism, nor to the everyday lives of poverty and privation of most Chinese of the past. The novels, even the mysteries dealing with lust, avarice, and murder are generally set among the nobility and the scholars. The tea may be poisoned, but it’s served in a translucent porcelain cup.

In Hart’s debut, exiled former librarian in the Forbidden City Li Du (already we encounter a scholar), traveling in a remote southern area, enters a town where his cousin is the magistrate to register his presence. On his arrival he learns that the Emperor of China is visiting the town in six days! He will preside over (and pretend to instigate) an eclipse of the sun. This visit accounts for the enormous bustle and elaborate preparations Li Du observes.

The town and the magistrate’s compound, including its impressive library, are evocatively described. Hart took me right to those places. For me, a delightful return. Although the Emperor’s visit will be a great honor for the magistrate and the town, it creates great risk as well. Many people, including foreigners, are anxious to influence what the Emperor sees and believes.

The magistrate, beset with difficult decisions and details, would prefer to dismiss the untimely murder of a Jesuit astronomer as simply the work of a group of Tibetans camped in the nearby mountains. But Li Du knows these men and believes them innocent. As an exile, he cannot afford to create any difficulties, yet he cannot let the false accusation rest and a murderer go free. His cousin allows him just a few days to solve the crime, as the Emperor’s visit comes ever-nearer. But is a worse crime in the making?

Hart has woven an intricate plot, drawing on real-life politics: the historical isolationism of China versus European pressure to open trade, conflicts between the Jesuits and the Dominicans, the friction inherent in the rigid Chinese class structure. These elements make the story both fascinating and subtle.

Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities:

****The Idol of Mombasa

Mombasa, Africa, Masks

photo: Angelo Juan Ramos, creative commons license

By Annamaria AlfieriSet in 1912 in the British Protectorate of East Africa (now Kenya), The Idol of Mombasa is Alfieri’s second novel featuring Justin and Vera Tolliver. In this book, the newlyweds embark on a none-too-welcome stay in the steamy, smelly coastal city of Mombasa, where Justin is the new Assistant District Superintendent of Police.

In Mombasa, they find themselves in a deliciously rendered stewpot of mixed racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds and loyalties. Though the local government is British, Mombasa—and that portion of its population that is Arab—remains under the significant influence of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The British have introduced into the police service their loyal Indian subjects, and Africans of many tribes fill the population.

The Tollivers are a mix too. Justin is the second son of a Yorkshire earl. He had a conventional if aristocratic upbringing, but possesses no fortune. Vera is more of a free spirit. She’s the daughter of a Scottish missionary, born and raised in the Protectorate’s pastoral up-country region.

The conflicts inherent between and among such wildly diverse people are tailor-made for both social and domestic drama.

The novel’s prologue describes a daring nighttime slave and ivory smuggling operation, and the book’s central dilemma relates to the illegal, but quietly tolerated practice of holding and selling slaves. Vera is an absolutist, unable to countenance slavery in any form, whereas Justin may be as morally opposed, but constrained by unwritten policy and his superiors.

When a runaway slave is murdered, followed soon after by the death of a notorious Arab slave-trafficker, Justin and Vera both set out to find the perpetrator—he in his official capacity and she with secret, possibly risky, and sometimes unaccountably naïve actions of her own. Conflict between the couple is thereby assured, as Justin alternately admires and is frustrated by Vera’s passionate, impulsive personality.

Alfieri’s descriptions of exotic Mombasa and its environs a hundred years ago vividly evoke the setting. Her writing is clear and interesting, yet somehow doesn’t exude a strong sense of menace, despite the cast of desperate characters and perilous environment. She keeps multiple plot balls up in the air, through a set of intriguing and well-drawn secondary characters. The net result is that this atmospheric novel transports you back in time and across continents to set you down in the middle of Mombasa, 1912.

A longer version of this review appeared at crimefictionlover.com.

Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Yesterday in New York City—terrible weather threatening all day, and a one-hour train trip home transformed into a six-hour wait-a-thon due to downed wires. Trains packed to bursting!

All that couldn’t dampen my enthusiastic endorsement of the Rolling Stones exhibit at Industria, a show venue in Manhattan’s West Village near the south end of the Highline (775 Washington Street, entrance on 12th), on view until March 12.

Seeing Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, and the others throughout a fantastic 50-year career tickles a lot of memories. One of the themes of the show is how they—Mick and Charlie, especially—recognized early that there was more to “show business” than their music. As a result they involve many of the arts and artists in their work. Alliances with folks like Andy Warhol and top set designers, graphic artists, and fashion designers led not only to innovative, memorable album covers and shows, but also plenty of interesting material for this exhibit!

The music gets its due, as well. You see a recreation of one of their favorite studios, lyrics as they wrote them in a notebook, and, if you’ve ever picked up a guitar, the display of many beautiful instruments they’ve used over the years and their comments about them are fascinating.

An early apartment is recreated (you wouldn’t want to live there), and the show ends with a 3-D movie. “Satisfaction,” indeed.

The Ghostlight Project

Ghost Light

photo: David Nestor, creative commons license

Safety considerations bolstered by a healthy love of superstitions led theaters to always leave a light burning on stage at night. A bulb in a simple stand will do. (I see Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing with one of these, but that may be my imagination). This tradition inspired The Ghostlight Project.

Yesterday at 5:30 in each U.S. time zone, outside some 700 theaters across the country, people gathered to create/shine/be a “light” for values the creative community holds dear, particularly “the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone.” Here in Princeton about a hundred people and one dog met outside McCarter Theatre Center to hear pledges from the organizations that use the building—McCarter, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Triangle Club—to uphold those values.

Most important, these efforts are not meant to be a one-off. From these initial seeds, many more activities are expected to grow. If you’ve wondered how you can respond in a positive and ongoing way to negative trends in our country, you may want to track what your local theater community is planning going forward. Artists have always led the way, let us hope they can do so again, despite the increasingly uncertain funding future for the arts.