Dust Off Your Library Card

chalk outline, body

You see so many reviews of brand new crime novels on this website because, as you may know, I read and review them for the fantastic UK website CrimeFictionLover.com. Occasionally, I dig into my book pile and find something not suitable for CFL. Possibly it’s a book that’s been out a while, a new book already reviewed by CFL or in one case below, great non-fiction. A post for another day is a list of not-crime books. There is such a thing!

***Identical
By Scott Turow (2013) – if you want a novel full of twists and turns, this one has it. If you want a novel that stretches the bonds of plausibility, you have that too. Twin brothers Cass and Paul (Castor and Pollux, get it?) couldn’t be more different. One is running for city mayor, the other about to be released from jail after 25 years. He pled guilty to the murder of his girlfriend Aphrodite Kronon. Confusions worthy of the ancient Greeks and arising from twinhood are here, fairly predictably.

****Statute of Limitations
By Steven F. Havill (2006) – This is one of Havill’s meticulous police procedurals set in small-town New Mexico. I’ve read three of them, and I love them! A retired police chief abandoned after collapsing from a heart attack, a body in an arroyo, a late-night attack—this Christmas season is certainly not filled with goodwill toward mankind. Under-sheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman doesn’t miss a beat.

****The Aosawa Murders
By Riku Onda (2005), translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts – Newly published in English, the scenes in this prize-winning book are like a set of still lifes. Different points of view describe a crime in which 17 members of a single family were murdered, with only one survivor, a young blind woman. Gradually, the crime is pieced together. Lovely writing, stellar cover.

***False Light
By Claudia Riess (2019) – This is the second outing for amateur sleuths, art experts, and randy spouses Erika Shawn and Harrison Wheatley. Their challenge this time is to decipher a coded message from a famous art forger, now dead. Supposedly, it will identify some of his works masquerading in prestigious collections as the real thing. It’s a great set-up, and if you’re a fan of art world skullduggery, you may enjoy this, but I found the denouement implausible.

*****Breaking and Entering
By Jeremy N. Smith (2019) – Subtitled “the extraordinary story of a hacker called ‘alien,’” this is the nonfiction story of a woman’s career from her exploits as an MIT undergraduate through to her current role consulting with banks, government agencies, and others on security issues. Cybersecurity is their big concern, and she and her team are cyber experts, but they also routinely prove to clients that good old humanware can be their weakest link. Fascinating.

****Secret Service

By Tom Bradby – This new political thriller feels like it could be “ripped from today’s headlines.” Deception, betrayal, and the ethical vulnerability that compromise Western political leaders are here turned into a gripping, all-too-believable tale.

Bradby’s protagonist, Kate Henderson, head of MI6’s Russia Desk is an experienced operative, with a small team of trusted subordinates, a colleague perpetually trying to undermine her, and a boss whose private thoughts are kept behind a locked door. She has a loving and very patient spouse who covers for her when she suddenly must be on a plane somewhere, two teenagers who think they should be the center of her attention, and a mother full of resentments who lives in a care home near—too-near—the Hendersons’ London home, believable relationships all.

Kate also has a past. She spent time in Moscow as a student and met and fell in love with a man named Sergei. She didn’t act on those feelings, but she’s never forgotten them. That was twenty years ago, and when Sergei turns up in London, Kate finds those long-buried feelings still simmer.

Sergei feeds her some startling and actionable information about an impending meeting of top Russian intelligence operatives. Kate doesn’t reveal the suspicious source of her information, and, a bit skeptically, her superiors approve her plan to eavesdrop on this parley. The Russians discuss the shocking information that the UK Prime Minister will resign soon, and one of the top candidates to replace him is in the pay of Russian foreign intelligence. Is this a replay of the late 1960s IRL? Disinformation? If not, which candidate is it?

The changes in Western-Russian espionage over the years make this exciting reading. Bradby sums it up nicely when Kate says, “In the old days, it seemed like a fair match, didn’t it? . . . As long as we could spot their feints and sleights of hand, we could go home reasonably secure . . . It isn’t like that any more. They go behind us and around us and beyond us to the people and the country at large, whipping up hostility and division and dissent, their tentacles reaching down a thousand different alleyways.”

Bradby does a good job controlling his narrative and, without ever becoming tedious or heavy-handed, he subtly helps you remember who knows what, who trusts whom and with what information, and how much each person knows. No one tells all the truth, and the book’s title, Secret Service, has multiple meanings.

There’s plenty of action to keep the pages flying too, as some of those secrets prove deadly. Bradby doesn’t let you forget for a moment that the Russians will happily send a “wet team” to harm Kate or her family, in London or anywhere else in the world she may be.

All in all, it’s a story to immerse yourself in, and one that may make you raise an eyebrow when next you hear about some major Western politician’s unaccountable behavior. No naming names here.

Photo: Jackmac34 for Pixabay

****The Bells of Hell

cocktail

By Michael Kurland – If Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man series could be a refreshingly witty corrective for 21st century gloom-and-doom, then Michael Kurland’s The Bells of Hell may be just the book to prove it. There are dark deeds afoot by Nazis and Communists in the late 1930s, but the main characters in this historical thriller are plunging into these events with their equilibrium and senses of humor intact.

Lord Geoffrey Saboy is a British ‘cultural attaché’—that is, a spy in the British Secret Service—working in Washington, DC, along with his wife, Lady Patricia. Lord Geoffrey is gay, so though the couple is close, he doesn’t begrudge his wife her amorous dalliances, some of which are for pleasure and some in service to her own approach to sleuthing. An old friend of Lord Geoffrey’s, US counter-intelligence agent Jacob Welker, has the ear of President Roosevelt, which occasionally comes in very handy.

In March 1938, a Communist agent from Germany, arrives in New York, and in a matter of days, is found naked, tied to a chair in an empty warehouse, tortured to death. Unbeknownst to his Gestapo killers, there was a reluctant witness to this execution, unemployed printer Andrew Blake. Many arms of officialdom take notice when the salesman’s identity is revealed, as worries about the German-American volksbund (the “Bund”) are on the rise.

Welker talks a reluctant Blake into taking a job printing literature for the Bund. Blake is terrified by the murder he saw and almost paralyzed with fear his spying will be discovered. He laments every assignment and drags his feet in accepting each new task, proving once again that true courage is not going boldly into the unknown, but knowing the danger and going anyway. And when his German masters, in turn, ask him to spy on the Communists, he’s a pretzel of hesitation.

Kurland develops the plot in a number of interesting ways by giving Lord Geoffrey his own brush with the Nazis when he accompanies HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, on an official visit to Germany. HRH find Hitler impressive and forceful, and Saboy responds that one likely acquires the habit of being forceful when no one dares disagree. If you are familiar with the real-life affinity HRH had for Hitler, this plotline is especially intriguing.

Meanwhile, intelligence from multiple sources suggests the Gestapo is planning a major terror event in New York, which they plan to set up so that blame lands on the Communists. But what, where, and when is this to take place? These questions preoccupy the British couple and Welker, their American friend (and possible future amour of Lady Patricia).

The nicely plotted story moves along at a sprightly pace. Though the characters are dealing with deadly serious matters, they maintain their lighthearted, let’s-not-take-ourselves-too-seriously banter. Kurland captures the spirit of the times: the oppressive gloom in Germany, the uncertainties regarding impending war in Britain, and the fear of the extremists of right and left who threaten America. You may be as delighted as I am that The Bells of Hell is billed as ‘A Welker and Saboy Thriller,’ signaling the possibility of more about this engaging trio in future.

Photo: wikipedia

*****The Spy and the Traitor

By Ben Macintyre – A pal of John Le Carré, Ben Macintyre brings the novelist’s gift for writing compelling characters and page-turning narrative to the nonfiction realm. The Spy and the Traitor, subtitled “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War,” is based on the defection to Britain of KGB operative Oleg Gordievsky, and it provides at least as many thrills as the best espionage novel.

Gordievsky, raised in a family where working for the KGB is the family business, becomes disenchanted with Soviet hypocrisy. Posted to Denmark, he has a tantalizing taste of what life is like when lived outside a surveillance society. A British MI6 agent, working in Copenhagen under classic diplomatic cover, notices him and several modest bits of outreach are made by the two of them, but nothing comes of it. Gordievsky, however, sees his future and when he returns to Moscow, works at becoming accepted into the KGB’s English-language training program. Finally, he succeeds. After a few years, he’s posted to London.

Then the connection is made, and over at least a dozen years, he secretly works for MI6.

The intelligence he provides and particularly his insights into the Soviet mindset are pivotal in the late Cold War era, and he provides significant background for Margaret Thatcher’s meetings with Soviet leaders. His advice helps her craft proposals they can accept. It’s vital and thrilling diplomacy, all accomplished well out of public view.

I especially enjoyed the intriguing nuggets of tradecraft Macintyre drops as he follows Gordievsky’s twisting path. That level of detail is just one feature inspiring confidence in the narration and investment in the protagonist’s fate.

Throughout his years spying for Britain, Gordievsky is, of course, acutely aware that Soviet paranoia is ever on the lookout for leaks and traitors. MI6 is so protective of him, they do not even reveal his identity to the Americans. Good thing, too, because the head of counterintelligence in the CIA at the time—Aldrich Ames—is himself a double agent. Ames ultimately betrays more than two dozen Western spies inside Soviet intelligence, effectively signing their death warrants. His motive? Money.

Every so often, Gordievsky and his family are required to return to the Soviet Union for a term of months or years. This is the normal rotation to prevent personnel from becoming too attached to their place of posting. In case he comes under suspicion while inside the Iron Curtain, MI6 prepares an elaborate escape plan. No one is truly confident this plan can work, least of all Gordievsky. A breakdown at any point will be disastrous. But once Ames fingers him, they must give it a try, and that whole episode is a real nail-biter.

Macintyre’s book won the 2019 Gold Dagger for nonfiction, an award sponsored by the UK Crime Writers’ Association. John Le Carré calls The Spy and the Traitor, “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

Photo: tiburi for Pixabay.

Spies X 3

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****Spy’s Fate

Overhearing someone talking about you can be both unsettling and revealing. Arnaldo Correa’s novel, full of observations about the US and its spycraft, from the point of view of a Cuban intelligence operative, is another such revelation. While there’s plenty of ineptitude and bureaucratic blindness on one side or the other, the main character, Carlos Manuel, is an expert at exposing and outwitting it. For a book about a Cuban spy stranded in Miami with a vindictive CIA agent on his trail, there’s quite a bit of humor and a heartwarming romance too. I really enjoyed this book. First published in 2002, it was Correa’s first novel translated into English. Available here from Amazon.

***Spies

This Fiction River special edition, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, includes 15 short spy stories by a range of authors. If you think the short story form doesn’t provide enough space to explore the long con of espionage, these tales may change your mind. Rusch says that what links them, besides their topic, is “their willingness to look at the world in all its messiness,” without flinching from the corrosive effects of secrets on everyone involved. My favorites included two historicals—the clever and very British “Our Man in Basingstoke” by Sabrina Chase, set during World War II, and “The Message” by CA Rowland, set during the Civil War—and Ron Collins’s “The Spy Who Walked into the Cold,” set in racially divided Chicago a few decades back. Get it here.

****From the Shadows

Spies needn’t be government agents or involved with great sociopolitical questions. Spanish author Juan José Millás’s novel (translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn) barely escapes the bedroom. Damián Lobo, a youngish man down on his luck and out of work, entertains himself by carrying on pretend conversations with a famous talk show host. This fantasy so preoccupies him that, in a rash moment, he steals a tie pin he believes the tv star would like. The police chase him through an outdoor market and he ducks inside an old wardrobe on display. Before it seems safe to emerge, the wardrobe is trundled away, loaded onto a truck, and delivered to its new owners’ bedroom, with Lobo still inside. As it turns out, there’s never a good moment to climb out, and through an elaborate ruse, Lobo makes his home there, listening in on all the family’s intimate secrets. An amusing tale that Kirkus Reviews calls “spectacularly bizarre.” Millás has won numerous literary prizes; this short novel is his first published in North America. Loved it! Available from Amazon.

Photo: David Lytle, creative commons license

This is Gomorrah

night sky, light pollution

By Tom Chatfield – The potentially nefarious capabilities of the Internet have seeped from science fiction to technothrillers to non-fiction to the morning news. Now comes a debut novel on the topic by someone who is not only a technology expert but an entertaining storyteller.

Azi Bellow is a 34-year-old hacker holed up in a garden shed in South London with a load of computer equipment, exploring the dark web. In Azi’s world, it’s hard to know whom to trust, but he does trust his online friend Sigma. She feels the same, and when she finds herself in trouble asks for Azi’s help. She’s assembled extensive evidence that 50 confirmed Islamic martyrs are not actually dead but have acquired new identities. Naturally, no security service is looking for them.

Sigma believes these terrorists obtained fake IDs from Gomorrah, the darkest corner of the dark web, but now she’s on the run. Almost immediately Azi’s inner sanctum is invaded by a woman named Anna who makes it clear that he must help Sigma or Anna will reveal his quasi-legal and illegal activities to the authorities.

Thus is a thrilling cat-and-mouse game launched, with the urgency of Sigma’s situation prying Azi out of the shed into the real world. They flee England, and later he seeks refuge in Athens and, finally, Silicon Valley. It’s hard to stay ahead of Gomorrah.

Chatfield’s writing is full of sly commentary on technology and human (mis)behavior that will leave you laughing, crying, or both. While Anna and her team aren’t very likeable, Azi is, along with his venal childhood friend Ad and the desperate Sigma. All are experts at manipulation and establishing “…a context within which someone’s only choice is to do what you want, even if (especially if) they believe the decision is up to them.”

Tom Chatfield is the author of several nonfiction books (and TED talks) exploring digital culture. He’s been a visiting associate at the Oxford Internet Institute and advises numerous organizations about technology and media. He was a launch columnist for BBC’s worldwide technology site, BBC Future. In the acknowledgements he says, “Unlike reality, fiction has an obligation to make sense.” And for most of This is Gomorrah, Chatfield’s constructed reality does make sense. By the time it becomes too crazy, you will have already decided to trust him and just go with it!

Photo: woodleywonderworks, creative commons license.

Another Day, Another Film

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You could call it a “self-curated film festival” or you could just call me lucky to have two top-notch independent movie houses nearby. Whatever you call it, five movies in five days is a lot of popcorn-eating opportunity. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these very different films if they sound like your thing. Two here, three next week.

Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s film (based on a true story, whatever that means these days) centers on a woman (Keira Knightley) working for British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (trailer) . A memo comes through asking analysts to dig up information the Americans can use to pressure UN Security Council members to support the War. A Security Council endorsement would give the Bush Administration and the Blair government much-needed political cover.

But it’s wrong, and she leaks the memo, in violation of Britain’s strict Official Secrets laws. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans are helpful and entertaining investigative reporters. She has a Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) a rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and between them, they give fine and timely speeches about loyalty and treason. I was on the edge of my seat. Generally, I don’t like Knightley, but she’s great here.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 89%.

Judy

Rupert Goold’s film, written by Tom Edge, about Judy Garland’s sad last days doesn’t contain plot surprises (trailer). It’s showstopping strength is Renée Zellweger’s amazing performance. You know Judy’s going to crash and burn, and you so, so, don’t want her to. It’s painful to watch.

She scrapes herself together at times, which gives you hope that she can fulfill her contract with a London theater for five weeks of sold-out performances. They’re bringing in the cash she desperately needs in order to reclaim her two younger children from husband #4, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger doesn’t try to imitate Garland’s voice, but she’s got the mannerisms cold, and the way she belts out the songs, no wonder fans adore her. Flashbacks provide a cold appraisal of Hollywood’s exploitative star system, where her addictions began.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 83%; audiences 86%.

****The Paris Diversion

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By Chris Pavone – The Paris Diversion is the followup to Chris Pavone’s popular and award-winning debut thriller from 2013, The Expats. In the new book, former CIA agent Kate Moore is living in Paris with her husband Dexter when the ghosts from that earlier story come in search of her. A lot of action and a great many characters are packed into the twelve-hour period this novel covers. Along the way, you’re treated to a granular depiction of Paris—not just monuments and streets, but the way of life.

Kate doesn’t know whether she still works for the CIA. She’s a one-woman operation, head of something called the Paris Substation, and has ample money to hire all the help she needs to carry out assignments, though who and where do these orders come from? Dexter works from home, day-trading, and scheming to find a get-rich-quick idea. He thinks he’s found one.

In a recent panel discussion, author Pavone said he was drawn to writing thrillers because the characters lie so much. He’s brought that tendency to a high art in this novel with Kate and Dexter’s innumerable secrets and reflexive avoidance of the truth.

Dexter plans to sell short a large hunk of shares in a company called 4Syte. It will make him a massive profit as long as those shares drop in price as insider information predicts. 4Syte’s president, Hunter Forsyth, is an arrogant high-flyer, who Dexter believes was “born on third base, believing he hit a triple”—such a perfect description I laughed out loud. Forsyth is so convinced of his invincibility he doesn’t realize he’s been kidnapped.

The ominous sound of sirens pervades the book’s early chapters. Several bombs have been found in strategic spots around the city, and a Muslim man wearing a suicide vest has taken up a position in the plaza outside the Louvre. Rooftop snipers have him in their sights, though shooting him may merely precipitate the catastrophe. The petty arguing among the various police departments regarding whether to shoot sounded exactly right, with the ironic touch that the sniper is Muslim too.

Pavone’s secondary characters are strong, especially Forsyth’s assistant, Colette. Coolly French, married, she’s the object of Hunter’s lustful imaginings. The suicide bomber is another good character, knowing he will die, but not when, and with unexpected reasons for strapping on the vest.

You may want to stop reading this fast-paced novel occasionally to ask yourself, “What just happened?” as layers of the complex plot come into focus. A few aspects of the story—especially the idea that there are multiple off-the-books spy agencies operating around the world—may stretch credulity, but you probably will be turning pages too fast to worry about such things.

Photo: Dan Novac from Pixabay.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Author Lynne Olson drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Princeton Public Library this week to hear her discuss her latest book, a biography of a mostly unheralded Frenchwoman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Fourcade ran a loose network of 3,000 spies within Vichy France during the Nazi occupation, and Olson calls it the most influential organization spying on the Nazis in the war.

Born in 1909 to wealthy parents and raised in Shanghai, she married a military intelligence officer at age twenty, and ultimately had three children. During the war, she sent the children to Switzerland for safety and did not see them for years at a time. Sometime in there, Olson says, she had an affair with pilot hero and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince, et al.) She survived the war and many harrowing experiences and died in Paris in 1989.

The French Resistance movement, uncoordinated and spotty though it was, came in three flavors. Two have received considerable attention in films. First, sabotage—blowing up train tracks and the like (the Sebastian Faulks novel and film Charlotte Gray depict this nicely). Then there were the heroic efforts to help downed British and American pilots escape. The third, less cinematic job of the Resistance was intelligence gathering. Where are the troops headed, the armaments stored, the ships docked? This is the kind of information the Allies badly needed and Fourcade’s huge network collected and passed on.

You’ll recall that de Gaulle was in London during the war, but when Fourcade’s brother traveled there to offer the network’s services, characteristically, he would not cooperate. But MI6 would, not realizing for quite a while that the group’s leader, code name “Hedgehog,” was a woman. She was arrested several times and escaped twice. After D-Day, she was again captured, but that night she stripped down, held her dress between her teeth and wriggled through the bars of her cell, put her dress back on, and walked away.

She and one notable young woman who worked for her were able to get the information they did from unsuspecting Germans because, for the most part, no one took her seriously because she was a woman. She’s nearly forgotten today, Olson believes, for the same reason. After the war, de Gaulle created an organization to honor the war’s heroes—1032 of its 1038 members were men.

Olson’s conclusion is reinforced by the experience of another unheralded WWII spy, American Virginia Hall. One of the several new books (movies in the making!) about her is titled A Woman of No Importance.

****The Fourth Courier

By Timothy Jay Smith – Take a walk back in time to Warsaw, 1992, with Timothy Jay Smith’s new crime thriller. The Cold War has recently ended, but average citizens struggle to figure out the new economic realities. Nothing quite works yet, and the gray concrete dullness of Soviet brutalist architecture is made even harsher by the dismal April weather. Politically, old relationships are unraveling, and chaos in the former Soviet Union and some of its satellites raises an important question, who’s watching the nukes?

Warsaw police, meanwhile, are dealing with a baffling series of murders. Over just a few weeks, three unidentified young men have been shot to death, their bodies abandoned on the banks of the Vistula River, one cheek slit open, all labels expertly cut from their clothing. Now they’ve found a fourth victim, older this time. By chance, the forensic pathologist noticed the third victim’s hands bore traces of radiation. Whatever he’d been smuggling, Poland’s new Solidarity government wants help to stop it.

American aid comes to them from the FBI in the person of Jay Porter, who in turn calls on the expertise of the local CIA officer—a gay black man named Kurt Crawford—and the genial Ambassador. There are good interactions and good humor among the three Americans. They all want to put an end to what seems to be nuclear material being spirited out of the former Soviet Union—but each has a totally different way of going about it.

Porter meets an attractive Polish woman, Lilka, who, he learns, is divorced from her abusive husband, but the apartments in Poland are so few and so small, so they still live together. The American starts seeing Lilka, which gives author Smith a vehicle for introducing realistic aspects of everyday Polish life—the shortages, the cranky cars, the small indulgences, and the stresses immediately post-communism—one of the most interesting aspects of the book, in fact.

Perhaps there are a couple too many plot coincidences and intersections among the cast of characters. All of them remain distinctive and interesting, though, even the minor ones. Smith’s well described settings put you right in the scene, whether it’s the drably elegant hotel favored by a Yugoslav general, a seedy bar in the bowels of the train station, or the riverside wasteland where the corpses keep washing up.

Photo: “Soviet buttons” by seitbijakaspars, creative commons license.