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.

Stellar New Crime Novels from South America

Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosenda

Uruguay probably isn’t at the top of your list of places clever crimes are hatched—with cleverer police detectives on the prowl—but Mercedes Rosenda’s new book, admirably translated by Tim Gutteridge, will clue you in. It’s dubbed ‘a blackly comic caper in the style of Fargo.’ You may object to the descriptor, caper, as being too weighted on the comic rather than the ‘blackly’ side. But if you think of a caper as involving slightly dim criminals who can’t quite get anything right, this is surely one.

The story begins in confusion. Diego is in an overcrowded and dangerous prison, charged with a recent kidnapping. The slippery lawyer Antinucci promises to spring him. It seems that Ursula López, wife of the kidnapped man, says Diego never contacted her, never asked for a ransom. But the ransom was paid, and Diego’s partner absconded with it. Still, without Ursula, he can’t be convicted.

Before long, you realize two very different women named Ursula López are intertwined in the story, and it’s hard to see how everything can work out well for them both. The situation looks increasingly perilous for Diego too, when he’s forced to participate in an ill-conceived armored truck robbery.

I found Ursula and the female detective, Leonilda, especially interesting. They’re women whom the men dismiss as unimportant, yet they keep the events of the story moving in unexpected directions and provide much of the wry humor. Glimpses of life in Montevideo peep through too.

Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

Eloísa Díaz’s riveting new political thriller takes place during two tumultuous periods in Argentina’s history. The present-day of the story is December 2001, when riots in Buenos Aires and elsewhere will lead to the president’s resignation. These events alternate with flashbacks to 1981 and Argentina’s Dirty War, a terrifying era in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of supposed left-wing sympathizers. Among the murdered was the younger brother of the book’s protagonist, Inspector Joaquín Alzada of the Policía Federal.

Alzada has a new deputy, Orestes Estrático, eager to please, alarmingly wet behind the ears, and insufferably by-the-book. A young woman from one of the country’s wealthiest landowners is reported missing, and Alzada’s superiors don’t want him spending time on the case. After all, what kind of investigation is it? A missing person? Not enough time has elapsed. A murder? There’s no body. Unless . . . Alzada and Estrático recall the body of an unknown woman discovered that morning in a dumpster behind the city morgue. Could they pretend she and the disappeared woman are one and the same?

Alzada is an engaging character, and how he goes about discovering what happened to his family in 1981 and to the missing woman in 2001 is told from close-in point of view. You’re privy to many of his thoughts and wry observations at odds with the politically correct demeanor that’s his survival strategy. Especially enjoyable is young Estrático, who has talents Alzada doesn’t expect.

The Survivors

By Jane Harper – Award-winning Australian crime writer Jane Harper has done it again. Her Harper’s latest crime mystery, now out in hardcover, revisits the perils of small-town life so expertly deconstructed in The Lost Man (audiobook reviewed here) and her first novel, The Dry, recently released in its film version (trailer), with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (15 reviews).

For The Survivors, the setting is the village of Evelyn Bay in coastal Tasmania. Kieran Elliott, has reluctantly returned to there to help his mother pack up the family home. His father has Alzheimer’s disease, and Kieran’s mother, Verity, needs help. I wondered at the naming of this character. Are we to suppose that Verity is a reliable truth-teller?

Kieran’s older brother Finn was one of the storm’s victims, along with Toby, older brother of Kieran’s friend Sean. Kieran blames himself for the tragedy and many locals do too. He’s borne an agonizingly heavy burden since the tragedy and every bit of shoreline, every sound and smell and photo in the family home bring it all back.

The killer storm was much worse than expected, and Kieran, then 18, was not as cautious as he should have been. He was down in the shoreline caves, romancing the beautiful Olivia, ignoring the strength of the incoming tide that would fill the caves, drowning anyone inside. When he and Olivia finally tried to leave, their exit was almost cut off, and he put out a call for help. Finn and Toby headed out to rescue him, but their boat capsized, and they were lost. Kieran and Olivia swam and climbed, barely reaching safety. Olivia’s younger sister Gabby was seen on the shore rocks around that same time; her body was never found. In a small town, so much loss is hard to get past. And harder to forgive.

Olivia now lives on the beach with her tiresome summer roommate Bronte, and is dating Kieran’s long-time friend Ash. This tight circle of friends welcomes him. But Kieran picks up persistent hostility from Toby’s son, among others. Then Bronte’s body is found on the beach and a new round of recriminations begins.

Author Harper has nicely paced this novel, with each bit that is removed or clarified providing new insights into the town’s tragedies. I especially like how she develops such strong characters and realistic dialog. You understand them, yet they retain the capacity to surprise. They seem to be involved in real relationships, stretched a bit taut at times, but these times are demanding.

Harper has received much praise for the quality of her writing, and this novel does not disappoint. It seems a good many compelling stories are bottled up inside her, and I’m grateful she shares them with us.

New Jersey Noir: Cape May

New Jersey Noir: Cape May is the second of William Baer’s novels about private investigator Jack Colt, set firmly in New Jersey. Jack is a resident of Paterson, noted for its waterfalls that powered local industry (pictured). There, one of his forebears founded the Colt firearms manufacturing company, so naturally, the revolver he carries is a Colt Python. Luckily, he’s pretty good with it too.

A judge from Cape May, New Jersey, at the far southern tip of the state, calls on Jack with an intriguing tale of two mysterious deaths. He’d hired a local Cape May private investigator, Edward Colt—puzzling coincidence there—to look into the murder of his daughter ten years before. Now Eddie Colt has been murdered.

Judge O’Brien had twin daughters, Nikki and Rikki. When Nikki was seventeen, her car was driven into the Atlantic Ocean with her in the trunk. The police long ago exhausted their available suspects, but Eddie Colt wanted to pursue it. In his papers were twenty-five thousand dollars and a note: “Remittance for Jack Colt.” “He wants you to solve the case,” the judge told Jack. “Both cases.”

Jack goes about doing just that, re-interviewing the dead girl’s twin, Rikki, their friends, and trying to get a lead on a college student Nikki met the night she disappeared. The story, as Jack gradually unwraps it, has unexpected twists and is nicely plotted.

Two additional aspects make the novel a true pleasure to read: humor and narrative voice. The banter between Jack and Rikki and between Jack and his elderly receptionist will keep you chuckling. For that matter, all the dialog is strong, reflecting author Baer’s playwriting expertise.

Most of the story is told by Jack himself. You feel as if you’re sitting in the passenger seat of his car, tooling down the Garden State Parkway.

As such conversations go in real life, Jack wanders a bit, taking the opportunity to throw in facts about New Jersey, which he clearly loves, Paterson especially. But Baer has such a light touch, these digressions stay interesting, not pedantic. For example, he points out that Cape May has more Victorian homes than any other city in the United States, except San Francisco.

In addition to the first novel in this series, author Baer has published several books of short stories, plays, and nonfiction works and is an award-winning poet and playwright.

You can be forgiven for assuming the book is part of the Akashic Books short story series set in various cities and, in fact, Akashic published a New Jersey Noir a few years ago. Unlike stories in that volume, many of which unfortunately seemed as if they might have occurred anywhere, Baer’s book is New Jersey all the way. Real New Jerseyans will recognize that last bit as a shout-out to one of our state’s most famous characters.

Ellery Queen Strikes Again!

The short stories collected for the bimonthly editions of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are always entertaining and diverse. The current issue has some classics as well as brand spanking new ones, though I don’t recall any actual spanking. That must be some other magazine. Here are some of the stories I enjoyed best:

“Pink Squirrel” by Nick Mamatas – Stories with clever Lithuanian grandmas are always entertaining. “Welcome to America! Where you can drink ice cream and alcohol simultaneously!”

“Stray” by debut author Ken Lim – What if what you’re running from isn’t really after you?

“The Interpreter and the Killer” – There’s a big international drug-trafficking case that takes an unexpected courtroom twist for Jeff Soloway’s Spanish-language interpreter. The plot hinges on a single word.

“Boo Radley College Prep” – Karen Harrington’s heartfelt tale about how a young boy learns not to make assumptions about people. This one will stay with me a long time. Excellent characters.

“Curious Incidents” – Steve Hockensmith devised a clever girl who is a Sherlock Holmes devotee, of course, for his latest Holmes on the Range story about Big Red and Old Red and a disappearance out west. Funny and true to the master of detection.

Many of the authors in this issue write novels as well. You can get the flavor of the way they think and write in these short, pleasurable bites.

The Art of Violence

The Art of Violence, SJ Rozan

By SJ Rozan – Here’s the latest in SJ Rozan’s popular series featuring private investigators and romantic partners Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. Former client Sam Tabor has recently been released from the Green Haven Correctional Facility, where he was serving time for the stabbing death of a young woman during a party where someone put PCP in the punch. Mentally unstable in the best of times, the drug had a powerful effect on him, and the woman’s death devastated him.

The reclusive Sam has been an artist his whole life, but kept his work private until one of his Green Haven therapists made him into a cause célèbre. The cynical Manhattan art community latched onto him and his work, “full of blood and destruction.” It ginned up a successful campaign for Sam’s early release. Now he’s a reluctant art-world phenomenon.

As he says to Bill, ‘A jury might have bought the idea I was temporarily out of my mind, but the point, like you say, the point is, I really am out of my mind.’

Since Sam returned to Manhattan, two young women bearing a remarkable resemblance to the earlier victim have been murdered. Sam can’t remember a thing about either evening—the drinking and blackouts don’t help—and he’s afraid he killed them. To stop the murders, Sam wants Bill to prove he’s the killer, so he can be taken off the streets. He’s tried turning himself in to the police, but they aren’t interested. An NYPD detective, under pressure to arrest Sam, thinks he’s a “freaking lunatic,” but doesn’t fit the serial killer profile. Meanwhile, several people in Sam’s life have reasons to want him in the frame for these new murders.

An especially appealing aspect of this story is the sympathetic touch with which Rozan portrays Sam and his confusion. He’s the antithesis of the self-justifying (“she deserved it”), self-glorifying killers typical of this genre. In a way, he’s like the patient in the psychological thriller Primary Obsessions, whose violent thoughts are just that, thoughts, not deeds. In Sam’s case, the dark thoughts are manifested in his art. Even so, as evidence mounts, the NYPD spotlight turns inevitably toward him, and it would be easy for Sam to talk his way right back into prison. Bill and Lydia need to move fast to stop that.

Out of the Frying Pan

Just when we might indulge in a huge sigh of relief about the narrow escape our democracy has just experienced, on the horizon looms a more-than-plausible thriller about the disastrous consequences of deteriorating U.S.-China relations.

If you like political or military thrillers, get yourself a copy of the current issue of Wired (29.02), which is entirely devoted to a four-chapter excerpt of 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, the new book by Elliot Ackerman (novelist, Marine with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan) and Admiral James Stavridis, supreme allied commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013 and recent Dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

The Wired editors made this unusual choice by explaining that, while their content is often wildly optimistic about the future, sometimes they must take pains “to envision futures that we really, really want to avoid.” Cold War-era fiction laid out the grim path the great powers were on. As Stavridis explained, they made “the unthinkable as vivid as possible.” The cautionary tale 2034 tries to do the same.

I’ve read the first chapter, which starts, not surprisingly, in the flashpoint of the South China Sea, where a trio of U.S. destroyers is on a “freedom-of-navigation” patrol.

You may recall that IRL, China has been creating and weaponizing artificial islands in the sea, has seized our drones there, and is gradually asserting an expanded zone of influence. Why do we care? About a third of world commerce passes through those waters, which are the primary link between the Pacific and Indian oceans; it has oil and gas reserves; and is a gateway to many of our allies.

The fictional U.S. ships, their communications disabled, become surrounded by PRC warships, and must resort to signal flags to communicate with each other. (This reminds me of P.W. Singer and August Cole’s 2015 speculative thriller Ghost Fleet, in which U.S. military communications is compromised by malware embedded in cheap Chinese computer chips–a pound-foolish penalty of low-bidder procurement. To operate at all, the Navy must deploy ships, planes, and submarines that predate modern computers and wireless communications.)

The lesson from both books is what we become most reliant on makes us vulnerable. As if the military has become like people who cannot get from home to office and back without GPS. In a sort of epigram, Wired offers this: “They fired blindly in the profound darkness of what they can no longer see, reliant as they had become on technologies that failed to serve them.”

Anyway, it’s a cracking good read, and it appears you can download the whole book as a pdf (or other format) here.

170427-N-ES536-0005 NORFOLK (April 27, 2017) Quartermaster 1st Class Jose Triana, assigned to the Pre-Commissioning Unit aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), attaches signal flags to a line. Ford’s “over the top” lines are being weight tested by the ship’s navigation department. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elizabeth A. Thompson/Released)

Forgiving Stephen Redmond

Sidransky, Forgiving Stephen Redmond

By Alan Sidransky – In 2008, workmen tearing down a clutch of derelict Washington Heights rowhouses make a grim discovery: Behind the plaster of an upstairs bedroom is the body of a man sitting in a chair, wearing a hat. To the dismay of the demolition foreman, the NYPD detectives called to the scene—Tolya Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez—intend to make a serious investigation. No matter that the corpse has been entombed for at least forty years, and no matter that everyone who knew the victim is probably dead.

Kurchenko and Gonzalvez, partners and best friends, have appeared in two previous police procedurals by Sidransky, and their easy camaraderie is balanced by meticulous investigative work. They’ll need some time to do the digging required for such a cold case, and their captain grudgingly gives them a few days. The detectives are intrigued. This is their neighborhood, they’ve known those houses for years. What happened there?

Property records reveal that the house was then owned by Máximo Rothman and his best friend and business partner Ernest (“Erno”) Eisen, Jewish immigrants from Europe by way of the Dominican Republic. (Max was murdered three years earlier, and these same detectives investigated.) Max and Erno met in the coastal Dominican town of Sosúa, one of the few places in the world that welcomed Jewish refugees as World War II threatened Europe.

Erno, now quite elderly, admits flat-out that he killed the man sealed up in the wall. This surprising confession could wind the case up rather neatly, but it needs some follow up, which leads the detectives deeper into the past.

The detectives hope Rabbi Shalom Rothman, Max’s son, can provide insights about what went on in the rooming house four decades earlier, and their questions bring back memories and feelings Shalom thought were buried forever. Author Sidransky uses the character of Shalom to explore the obligations of love between fathers and sons, not just between Shalom and Max, but also between Shalom and his autistic son, Baruch.

Another appealing aspect of the story is its demonstration of friendship based on mutual respect that exists between Pete, a Dominican, and Tolya, a Russian Jew. Amidst all the teasing and day-do-day banter, the subject of friendship rarely comes up. It doesn’t need to. It’s in their every interaction.

Sidransky’s description of life for the refugee Jews both before and after coming to New York make an evocative back story, but change and the need to adapt didn’t end with their arrival in the United States. Gentrification, displacement, cultural conflict, changing markets and institutions are an effective backdrop for urban characters facing not only who they are, but who they think they are. Forgiving Stephen Redmond offers a timely, immersive mystery and a powerful family story.