Red Widow

By Alma Katsu – I really wanted to like this book more. Written by a former officer of both the US Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, Red Widow plunges you right into the world of partial information, hidden agendas, latent violence, and self-interested double-dealing.

Lyndsey Duncan is a CIA officer whose romantic attachment to an agent of Britain’s MI6 has put her under a cloud. This, despite her remarkable success on her first overseas assignment. Detailed to the high-stakes Moscow Field Station, she recruited and ran an invaluable asset, Yaromir Popov, a high-ranking officer in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Now she’s been sent back to CIA headquarters, unsure of her future there, while an investigation drags on.

On the promising side, the Chief of the Russia Division, Eric Newman, wants her help in investigating the disappearance of two Russian double-agents. The coincidence suggests Russian internal security was onto them. And that information on their identity came from within CIA.

In another shock, Eric tells Lyndsey that her prize, Yaromir Popov, has died of poisoning.

Since Lyndsey has been overseas for several years, many of the Division staff she knew have moved on. However, she recognizes one woman, Theresa Warner, whom she knew slightly in the old days. Theresa’s husband was killed while conducting a sketchy Russian operation, and her colleagues regard her simply as The Widow. These two quasi-outsiders, Lyndsey and Theresa, form a friendship.

The extreme compartmentalization of the Agency, particularly Lyndsey’s sensitive task, means not much job-related information can be exchanged, but author Katsu doesn’t give the women any other common interests—movies, tennis—that they could share. As a result, the basis for their relationship is thin and feels contrived.

Katsu does what I assume is a creditable job describing operational constraints and office operations within the CIA—who can talk to whom, when, and about what. The big reveal the women experience isn’t much of a surprise for readers of espionage fiction, nor is what they do with that knowledge.

Additional plot information risks being a spoiler. Suffice it to say that, even if Lyndsey and Theresa’s actions are a tad predictable, they remain interesting characters. The bigger problem is that the male characters didn’t come across as real, three-dimensional people.

Authors worry, maybe a little, sometimes a lot, that friends and family will think they recognize themselves among a novel’s characters. (They’re almost always wrong about this.) Perhaps Katsu was hampered in writing about a world she knows so well, precisely to avoid any such misconceptions.

Reading Red Widow, you come away with a strong impression of what it’s like to work in a clandestine service, the resources at your disposal, those withheld from you, and the cynicism of many of the participants. You won’t develop a strong affinity for many of the people involved, and perhaps that’s part of the game.

Order it from Amazon here or from Indiebound here.

The Rose Code

By Kate Quinn – Spies afoot in World War II, and not all of them are who you think! Most of the story of The Rose Code takes place in December 1939, when three young women converge on Bletchley Park. They’ve been recruited for ill-defined jobs and arrive in a mixture of youthful high spirits, enthusiasm, and uncertainty. Interspersed are chapters from, November 1947, which are a day-by-day countdown to the royal wedding of Prince Philip of Greece and Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, future Queen of England.

Most people today know the story of Bletchley Park (BP): how bright young things learned to decode messages generated by the German Enigma machines. Led by a collection of genius misfits and military leaders, an enormous decryption enterprise was quietly assembled. Quinn’s detailed construction of that world is riveting, not just the technical hurdles overcome, but also the human interactions in that intense and desperate effort.

Osla Kendall’s socialite mother hopes to stash her in Canada to wait out the war, but the sidelines are never a place for Osla, and she returns to London. She’s a goddaughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten and, as it happens, the wartime girlfriend of Prince Philip. (Lest you think this is a fictional bridge too far, the character Osla is modeled on the real-life Osla Benning, “a beautiful, effervescent, Canadian-born heiress and Hut 4 translator who was Prince Philip’s long-term wartime girlfriend,” Quinn explains in an afterword.)

Mabel Churt has none of Osla’s advantages, living in Shoreditch with her mum and younger sister, but she’s bright and hard-working, and, like the many summoned to BP, she’s meant to help the male “brains of the outfit” with administrative and secretarial duties. That restriction doesn’t last.

Mab and Osla are billeted in the spare bedroom of a Bletchley village house, where they meet the shy family daughter, Beth Finch. Beth is their age, but so totally cowed by her Bible-spouting mother, they feel obligated to bring her out of her shell. To her mother’s chagrin, Beth lands a BP job, and she turns out to be the best code-breaker of them all.

The work the women do is fascinating and deadly serious, yet the (mostly) young people they work with are full of life and humor. One by one, the coding systems of the Germans fall to the BP’s round-the-clock efforts. From this vital but obscure corner of the war, you view its stuttering progress: Dunkirk, the bombing of London, the naval battle of Cape Matapan, the United States entering the war, the Germans’ snarl in the Soviet Union, preparations for D-Day—the innate excitement of the story propelling you past one wartime milestone after another. By constantly grounding her plot in real events, Quinn’s narrative feels both believable and significant.

After the war, in the days leading up to the royal wedding, Osla and Mab receive a coded message from Beth. The friends have become estranged, unaware Beth is confined in a particularly horrifying mental institution. She hints at the existence of a Bletchley traitor who sold secrets to the Soviets and recalls their past friendship (‘You owe me.’) Uneasily, Osla and Map reunite, and the hunt for the traitor is on. Without all the resources of BP, they must decipher the Rose Code.

It’s a book that grabs your attention from the beginning and never lets go. I loved it!

The Cut

By Chris Brookmyre – “Millicent Spark’s life ended on the twenty-third of January, 1994,” starts Chris Brookmyre’s new thriller. She woke up with the body of her lover Markus next to her, covered in stab wounds. She served 20-some years in prison for his murder – her sentence lengthened because she insisted she was innocent. She’s finally out, living in Glasgow, trying to cobble together some kind of modus vivendi in a vastly changed world.

At a university across town, Jerry Kelly is an uneasy first-year student, having trouble fitting in. He’s black, from a village in North Ayrshire, and grew up with almost nothing. A big piece of his education, such as it was, came from obsessive viewing of horror videos from his gran’s rental outlet. This explains his encyclopedic knowledge of film in general and especially the legendary gore-fests.

Brookmyre’s two misfits have plenty of depth and individuality; they’re sympathetic, despite their flaws, with a wry sense of themselves. On the surface they appear to be polar opposites, but plot magic happens once their paths cross.

Jerry applies to live in an off-campus house, not expecting to be accepted, given who he is and how he looks—dreadlocks, black wardrobe of metal band t-shirts—and given that his prospective housemates are three elderly ladies. To his surprise and theirs, they take him in. He discovers that pre-prison, his prickly new housemate Millie Spark had been a genius makeup artist on many of the blood-soaked films he loves. Grisly wounds were her specialty. The movie-banter between them is highly entertaining, and she’s not put off by his dark affect. But what cements their relationship is when he rescues her from a man trying to smother her with a bed-pillow.

The last movie Millie worked on was Mancipium, a film rumored to be such pure evil no one has ever seen it. All copies were destroyed, and everyone connected with it died. Not strictly true, although several unexplained deaths and disappearances gave the story legs. Seeing Mancipium is at the top of Jerry’s all-time wish-list.

Millicent and Jerry discover that her murdered lover Markus was not a film production company rep, as he claimed, but a London cop. Why did he lie, and what was he after? Who really killed him, and why was Millie framed for his murder? The answers to these questions could prove Millie’s innocence and answer the more urgent question, who wants her dead now? Author Brookmyre effectively ramps up the tension as the danger to Millie mounts and as she and Jerry discern the outlines of a much bigger conspiracy.

The long-ago summer Mancipium was wrapping up offers intriguing clues: immense pressures on the production team, a decadent lifestyle of underage sex and over-consumed drugs, and the influx of high-powered guests that lifestyle attracted. Millie and Jerry search out the scattered remnants of the old crew and ask their questions, with their pursuers never more than a half-step behind.

There may be a fifty-year age difference between Jerry and Millie, but a lively and wholly believable friendship grows up between them. Getting out of their predicament will require the knowledge and skills of both. They are fascinating, funny, and spirited protagonists who are such good companions—to the reader and to each other—that I wished the book could continue for another hundred pages. I hated to give them up! In sum, a most satisfying adventure.

Leapin Leprechauns!

When it comes to a painful history, Irish authors know whereof they speak, and they know how to tell a story laced with humor. Fiction is one way to process lingering cultural traumas.

While I’ve read quite a few books by Irish authors in paper, they are wonderful books to listen to, as the narrators’ accents are transporting.

Crime Fiction

Next up for me is A Galway Epiphany by the award-winning Ken Bruen, called “the Godfather of the modern Irish crime novel,” being released April 1. It features his character Jack Taylor, an ex-cop turned private eye who becomes the center of his own mystery, when he is hit by a truck and left comatose but unscratched (narrated by Gerry O’Brien).

In the Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty’s first book featuring police detective Sean Duffy–a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In the bleak Belfast spring of 1981, hunger strikers in HM Prison Maze are dying. Paramilitaries are setting off bombs, gunfire rakes the streets, and Duffy is investigating a possible serial killer who targets homosexuals. The violent backdrop is tangible, especially with the forceful narration of the award-winning Gerard Doyle.

Stuart Neville wrote a series of excellent novels also set in Belfast, including the one I listened to, The Ghosts of Belfast. Fellow author John Connolly called it “not only one of the finest thriller debuts of the last ten years, but also one of the best Irish novels, in any genre, of recent times.”  Also narrated by Gerard Doyle.

In an interview, Doyle says that when he was a child, his parents would often take him with them to the pub. “I’d sit on the bench late into the evening listening to the stories and the lies. And the music! I even sang sometimes. They’d put me up on a table. One of my best was Ronnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustbin.'”

Other Fiction

The Gathering by Booker prize-winner Anne Enright “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping,” said the editors of The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading a few years ago under the auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.

Glenn Patterson is another writer who gave a memorable reading in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association takes place. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.

You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

A Great Read Needs a Great Reader

Having read several excellent thrillers set in Argentina in the last year, I was excited to see the interview with Alberto Manguel (Glimmer Train #102). Born in Buenos Aires in 1948, Manguel lived in Israel and many other countries. Taking his love of reading to the huge scale, he was the director of the National Library of Argentina, but on an intimate scale, as a teenager he read out loud several times a week to the great Jorge Luis Borges as his eyesight was failing. Manguel (pictured) is now a Canadian citizen.

Everyone who is a reader can admire the love of books that has propelled his career. His first book was put together when he was working for an Italian publishing company. He and his colleague Gianni Guadalupi wrote a travel guide to the cities, lands, and islands that live only in the imaginations of authors and their readers: Shangri-La, Oz, Wonderland, Middleearth and many others. His catholic reading led him to assemble more than twenty anthologies, for which the included authors are undoubtedly grateful. “The impulse was less of writing a book than publicizing what I had read,” he said. Eventually, writing about what he had read became the non-fiction book A History of Reading and many others.

Like most inveterate readers, he said, “experience came to me through stories. Books have always given me the words to name the things that happen. We all know that we can’t see what we don’t know is there.” If imagination is a tool for survival, we tell stories in order to hone that tool and make us of it.

“I think our species has survived through having experiences without having to have the physical experience,” he said. You can link up that thought to the repeated studies showing that reading literary fiction helps builds people’s empathy. (This finding does not apply to popular fiction, which often lacks characters who are “nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand”—you know, as in real life.).

Most of Manguel’s books were written in English, which was his first language, followed by German. He didn’t learn Spanish until he was eight. “When I learned Spanish, I was introduced to another way of thinking. I’ve always believed that languages dictate your thoughts and allow you to think certain things,” and language studies bear out his view.

Miguel continued: “Spanish has a horror of the vacuum. You don’t allow for silences. You fill the sentence with adjectives, adverbs, synonyms, and it’s not disturbing. If you do that in English, you write purple prose.”

What an interesting insight! It makes your fingers itch to sit at the computer and bang out an adjective-rich conversation. Here’s Argentinian thriller-writer Sergio Olguín’s character Verónica Rosenthal describing her cousin’s house: “It’s hidden away behind a little wood on the hillside. A typical nineties construction, Californian style: huge windows, Italian furniture, BKF butterfly chairs (uncomfortable), and Michael Thonet rocking chair, which, if it isn’t an original, certainly looks the part, a spectacular view (even from the toilets), a Jacuzzi in almost all the bathtubs, a sauna, a well-equipped gym, huge grounds (looking a bit sparse now that autumn’s on its way), a heated swimming pool, a changing room, a gazebo which is in itself practically another house and lots, lots more.” Whew! That passage is from Olguín’s new five-star book, The Foreign Girls.

Angelino Heights

By Adam Bregman – Quirky thrillers that don’t follow typical “hero’s journey” plotting have great appeal. You really don’t know what’s coming next. Adam Bregman’s debut thriller is one of these books, with the quirkiness intensified by a passion for the Los Angeles of decades ago. The story is set in the late 90s, and the protagonists are on the hunt for classic neighborhoods, bars that have lived through innumerable trendiness cycles, and other vestiges of California when it was still a shared national dream, The Golden State.

You’re first introduced to Nathan Lyme, a youngish man who begins the story with a long rant about the infelicitous changes wrought in his city. “It’s not that I’m opposed to change. It’s just that I prefer they don’t change anything, unless it’s somehow for the better.” Before long, you realize Nathan’s fussiness doesn’t apply to his own behavior, as he rifles the coats and handbags of guests at a house party he briefly attends.

Next up is Dalton Everest, a high school teacher, short to Nathan’s tall, who also prowls for vintage watering holes. Sitting next to each other at a bar one night, they strike up a conversation, then an unlikely friendship. Nathan is everything Dalton is not—good looking, charming, a risk-taker, and street-smart. He’s also very private about how he makes a living.

But Nathan, whose life story you eventually learn, is lonely. He wants a partner in his crimes. And he thinks Dalton is reliable and congenial enough to assist him in his long string of car thefts and home robberies.

At first Nathan uses the heavy-drinking, but beautiful French woman Melanee to lure Dalton in, but that approach goes badly awry, and he ends up making his pitch flat-out. To Dalton’s own surprise, he goes along with Nathan’s proposal to team up, getting in deeper and deeper, terrified every step of the way.

Finally, you meet Orlando Talbert, a morose Black LAPD detective concerned about a career advancing at a snail’s pace who would like to have one spectacular score to jump-start the professional recognition he believes is his due. He makes a success of cases he’s assigned by pursuing them relentlessly, and you recognize him as Nathan and Dalton’s potential nemesis.

It’s a fast-paced read, nicely written, with strong dialog. Author Bregman has brought to the page his own enthusiasm for the remaining old, odd bits of the city and his encyclopedic knowledge about its eccentricities—geographical, architectural, and sociological. Reading the book is like a tour with a most interesting and entertaining guide.

Play the Red Queen & The Coroner’s Lunch

Bust out of your quasi-quarantine and take a trip halfway around the world and decades back in time with crime thrillers set in Saigon in 1963 and Ventiane in 1978. The politics feel tragically quaint, knowing how they turned out, but the settings are ripe for conspiracy, conflicting agendas, and misunderstandings at every level. Yet both books include characters who manage to maintain a sense of humor and perspective, even as their worlds are crumbling around them.

Play the Red Queen

By Juris Jurjevics – This new book has received considerable well deserved attention, bittersweet because the author died suddenly in late 2018, not knowing whether it would even be published. It was his aim that the book would, in his phrase, “bear witness” to an underreported aspect of the Vietnam War: the “elaborate, even treasonous corruption—and our complicity in it.”

He brings all this out in a book that is not a political diatribe but a page-turner of a thriller. American military advisors in Saigon are being killed by a beautiful and mysterious young woman who shoots with unerring accuracy from the back of a speeding Vespa. The U.S. military wants to get to the bottom of it and assigns two genial investigators. They run into countless operational and political obstacles, within the Vietnamese and American bureaucracies. Meanwhile, a powerful sense of foreboding settles on the city, as the corrupt Diem regime loses its grip. Tragically, its ouster opens the door for massive American intervention, which we know as the Vietnam War.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore.

The Coroner’s Lunch

This is the first of Colin Cotterill’s entertaining mysteries about Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old physician appointed to be Ventiane’s coroner in the new socialist Laos. He has a disconcerting habit of saying what he thinks—and one thing he thinks is that he has no training for this role—which doesn’t suit the era of extreme political correctness. Yet, people continue to die under questionable circumstances, and he has to sort it out. Fortunately, his staff is loyal and he finds a few important allies.

In theory, I would expect not to like the occasional excursions into the supernatural that Cotterill deploys, but they are so culturally consistent and believable that I just went with it. And am glad I did. It’s a charming book.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore

(This post is my first try at Indie.Bound, an alternative to Amazon. Let me know what you think! And whether it doesn’t work!!)

A Spy’s Bedside Table

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Which espionage books do actual spies read and, ahem, respect? A former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, Emile Nakhleh, kindly provided The Cipher Brief with his list, and I’ve added my own recent faves.

He recommends the first two of these non-fiction books, all three of which have four GoodReads stars:

Non-Fiction

Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad by President Obama’s CIA Director John O. Brennan, a leader who was controversial to both political parties and was “in the room where it happened” when many significant security issues were discussed (not all of which he can talk about).

The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future by Chris Whipple. Whipple says the job of CIA Director is “one of the hardest and most perilous in government,” and in this book, he tells you why.

Operation Dragon: Inside the Kremlin’s Secret War on America, by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and former Romanian espionage chief, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking foreign intelligence officer to defect to the United States. They describe Russia’s continuing threat to the U.S., and, in a blockbuster revelation, say Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev personally told Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President Kennedy, then changed his mind, but Oswald stuck to the original plan.

Fiction

The Order by Dan Silva – Nakhleh recommends it, and I listened to it . Fans of Silva’s Israeli intelligence officer Gabriel Allon will be pleased. He becomes involved in a conspiracy within the Vatican to hide evidence that the Jews were not, actually, responsible for the death of Jesus, two thousand years of violence, hatred, and retribution to the contrary. Again, GoodReads gives it four stars, but I’d say three. Not nearly as troubling as the real-life Gods Bankers.

Agent Running in the Field – John le Carré’s last novel, continuing the string of memorable characters he developed, all the way back to George Smiley and Alec Leamus (my review).

Finally, you might want to save a spot on the nightstand for the October 12 literary debut of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For her conspiracy thriller, State of Terror, she’s teamed up with crime novelist Louise Penny.

“Living to Tell the Tale” – EQMM March/April 2021

The title of this issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reminds readers how grateful they are that so many authors—20 in this issue alone—lived long enough to tell their tales and continue to do so! I should add a 21st writer—Dean Jobb—who writes the “Stranger Than Fiction” column. Probably many writers keep a file of head-shaking stories they know they’ll never use because, “who’d believe it?” I have a file like that. Lots of stellar tales in this issue, and here are four that stood out for me.

“Who Stole the Afikomen?” by Elizabeth Zelvin – After reading Liz Zelvin’s story, you’ll feel you’ve already done Passover this year (my Seder table pictured). The bantering among the family members across generations is perfection. Sharon take her new fiancé (the narrator; nice use of “external viewpoint”) to his first Seder and to meet the family. Her mother has thinly disguised objections. Bad enough that he’s not Jewish, he’s a cop. I loved this can’t-win exchange, which starts with the mother’s line: “This is what I get for sending you to Harvard Law?” “You didn’t send me to Harvard Law! I worked every day through high school and college and went into debt up to the eyeballs so I wouldn’t have to ask you.” “So you didn’t trust your mother and father to give you an education?”

“Cold Hard Facts” by Chad Baker – The corrosive effects of suspicion taint a woman’s view of her husband. Surely, he couldn’t have murdered their awful landlord. Or?? Insightful line: “She did not fear Adam. She feared the future.”

“Yeah, I Meant to Do That” by Mat Coward – I’m a pushover for stories about grifters and con artists. In this tale, a near-retirement grifter is recruited by an oddball assortment of “civilians” to devise a con on a wealthy and successful man who’s cheated them. Though they’re inexperienced, their Fagin gives them each a role, and it’s fun watching them play it!

“The Phone Message” by Robert Cummins – a juicy police procedural in which the detective turns over every investigative stone in the hope he won’t find anything. And his suspect appears to be giving him free rein. Cummins really has you rooting for these dueling protagonists.

Intrigued by great stories like this? Subscribe to EQMM here.

Hotel Cartagena

Hotel Cartagena, award-winning Hamburg-based author Simone Buchholz’s new novel, with English translation by Rachel Ward, is an edge-of-your-seat carnival ride (more on that later) featuring Buchholz’s spirited series character, public prosecutor Chastity Riley.

Because her chapters are told in first-person, you’re well aware of her wry sense of humor and her dread of an after-hours birthday celebration at a hotel’s 20th floor bar. Not that she doesn’t favor a drink after work, but the ten celebrants include two of her ex-lovers. Before her current sometimes lover, detective Ivo Stepanovic, can arrive, the bar is invaded by a dozen well-armed men, and escape is cut off.

Before you find out what this is all about, the book skips back a couple of decades to tell the story of Henning, a young man from Hamburg’s sketchy St. Pauli area, who relocates to Cartagena, Colombia. He becomes involved with a Colombian drug trafficker wanting to expand his German market. The money is simply too tempting, and Henning identifies a couple of appropriate contacts. The lucrative kickback he receives continues for years until Hamburg police catch on. Henning flees to Curaçao, where he’s safe from the authorities, but not from the past.

Henning’s story alternates with Riley’s. The hostage-takers seem reasonable and have declared an open bar. Riley sliced open her thumb on a piece of pineapple, and while she drinks the first of a goodly number of gins and tonic, she immerses her injured thumb in vodka.

Over the course of the next few hours, the captors reveal their game, as her thumb steadily worsens. She spikes a fever and sees everything through a hallucinatory haze. I really enjoyed the sense of  teetering on the edge of disaster, which Buchholtz handles deftly.

Riley, especially, but Stepanovic and Henning too, are interesting characters with lots to command your attention. While the situation doesn’t seem too overtly dangerous for the hostages, with so many men armed to the teeth, the police massing downstairs itching to do something, and possible plotting among the police attending the birthday party (who they are is something the assailants still don’t realize), so much can go wrong. The situation is as wobbly as the swirling carnival ride—the ‘chairoplane’—Riley believes she’s riding.