Blue Book by Tom Harley Campbell

In the mid-sized, middle-America town of Dayton, Ohio, retired homicide detective John Burke isn’t wildly happy about the reduced pace of his life, but in this quick-moving new thriller by Tom Harley Campbell, unexpected trouble—and a fascinating mystery—are headed straight toward him. They arrive in the form of 18-year-old Alex Johnson, all the way from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Alex’s father was a Mississippi cop whose body was found in Dayton’s Mad River four years earlier. Not solving that case has haunted Burke ever since. Now Alex provides a tantalizing clue.

A news story starts another pot simmering. Al-Jazeera reports that Yasser Arafat died from polonium210 poisoning. Deeply interested in this development is Hattiesburg history professor Charles Robinson. He’s haunted by the mysterious 2004 death of his own father, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, which Charles believes was also a polonium poisoning. Charles’s father had a secret, post-World War II assignment in Dayton, called Project Blue Book (in real life), to investigate reports of UFOs (now called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), and determine whether they threaten national security.

In the post-War era, while the older Robinson was sifting evidence, the Air Force, the military, and the Central Intelligence Agency conducted an unrelenting public information campaign to discredit UFO reports and depict the believers as tin-foil-hat-wearing kooks. (Last week, Enigma Labs released a mobile app in which users can report and record an unexplainable event as it happens, potentially turning random anecdotal information into data.)

Whether you believe UFOs exist or not, you will understand that, in dicey situations, it’s always the cover-up that presents the greatest difficulties. The more extreme the effort to hide something, the more important it’s likely to be. Project Blue Book’s work and conclusions have been secret for fifty years. As John Burke probes the death of these two fathers, the campaign to cover up Project Blue Book seems to threaten all of them.

John Burke is an exceedingly likeable character. He may be retired, but don’t sell him short. There’s a complex plot here, as befits a story with so many deep secrets, housed in an inaccessible area of Dayton’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Author Campbell effectively conveys the intimate feel of Dayton (population less than 140,000), a relatively small dog wagged by the big tail of the defense, aerospace, and aviation industries. A local police department can’t help but feel that a giant hovers over its shoulder. And that giant, Burke learns, isn’t always friendly.

There’s just enough science here to make the story interesting and give it plausibility, without weighing it down. Campbell does an especially good job interleaving actual events with his fictional tale. It’s a wild ride, and a fun one! You can order it here with my affiliate link.

Want more? The multi-episode docuseries, “UFOs: Investigating the Unknown” premieres on the National Geographic TV channel Feb. 13.

Binge or Nibble? Watching Slow Horses

A new season of the wildly (and deservedly) popular British TV series Slow Horses puts fans like me in a quandary (trailer). Do watch the whole thing in can’t-get-enough mode, or do I parcel it out, one or two episodes a week, to make the experience last longer? I did wait until the distractions of the December holidays were over before starting the new season, and so far, I’m taking it slow. But when an episode’s closing credits roll, it isn’t easy to turn away.

If you’re a fan of British crime/spy/mystery dramas, you probably already know that Slow Horses is based on the Slough House novels of Mick Herron. The first season aired on Apple TV+ last spring (6 episodes) and the current season began in December (6 more).

The premise is that MI5 agents who’ve messed up in some way are transferred to Slough House, where the “slow horses” are put out to pasture. There, under the harassing oversight of profane and obnoxious Jackson Lamb, they receive mind-numbingly dull assignments in the hope they will quit the service altogether. With everything going on in the world and in the U.K., MI5 faces innumerable internal security challenges. Even agents on the far fringes of the security establishment can find work to do.

New Yorker staff writer and historian Jill Lepore spent time with Herron recently and her article on Herron appears in the December 5 edition of the magazine.

Apparently the books were a bit of a hard sell in the beginning. Publishers didn’t know what to make of it. Too much humor. “Is this a thriller or is it comedy?” In fact, the audio narrators say they have to stop recording occasionally, so they can laugh off-mike. The Daily Telegraph has called Slow Horses one of the best spy novels ever written and Herron is widely considered the heir-apparent to the late John le Carré. Heavy burden, that.

What makes the books and the tv show so irresistible are the great characters. And, in the tv version, the cast is absolutely up to it. Lepore says Jackson Lamb (played by Gary Oldman, who makes Colombo look like a fashion plate) is “an old joe who’s straight out of Dickens, if Dickens had ever invented a character who used the word ‘twat’ all the time.” A decade ago, Oldman received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of George Smiley in le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. According to Lepore, Oldman believes Jackson Lamb “is Smiley if everything had gone wrong, although arguably, everything has.” In the age of Brexit, she says, Lamb is like Britain—“angry, embarrassed, and coming apart at the seams.”

If you’ve missed the books or tv series so far, do yourself a favor and get acquainted. And don’t miss the show’s theme music sung by Herron fan Mick Jagger. Just the right notes of discord and the impression everything is going off the rails.

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Gods of Deception

Upfront I’ll tell you that David Adams Cleveland’s book is 917 pages long. Before you stop reading, consider why an author would write such a book and how it even got published in this era of instant information? Of itself, length isn’t an insuperable barrier for me. I gladly stick with Neal Stephenson’s door-stops, though twenty pages can be too many if they’re boring. But this book was heavy, even for a paperback. So I ripped off the cover and used a butcher knife to slice it into four 250-page sections. (Are you cringing?)

I read it. I liked it. If you’re wondering what justifies taking so much of a reader’s time?, I’d say “layers.”

At the heart of the story is the controversial 1950 trial of diplomat Alger Hiss, which divided the country for years. Liberals thought Hiss was a victim of red-baiting in the simmering anti-Communist climate; conservatives were convinced he got off lightly with his conviction and sentence on two counts of perjury. Spying was his real game, they believed. Documents that came to light after the collapse of the Soviet empire confirmed he was a spy (though not everyone believes it even yet).

These were not trivial suspicions. Hiss managed to get himself attached to the US delegation to the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin Yalta conference about the post-World War II world. Thus, he was in a position to influence the meeting’s significant pro-Soviet outcomes, such as handing Poland over to the Soviets and returning millions of Soviet citizens to their home country and almost certain death.

One of Hiss’s defense attorneys was Judge Edward Dimock who, when Cleveland’s book takes place in 2002, is in his 90s and wants his grandson George Altmann to handle his memoirs. George, whose other grandfather was a Depression-era artist, begins to doubt the manuscript. Gradually evidence accumulates that Dimock knew Hiss was a spy, but did he, really? It’s a bit like a visit to the optician. You believe you are seeing the picture clearly, but then some shift, some slightly new way of looking is introduced, and the picture snaps out of focus again.

In the 1930s, the suspicious deaths and convenient disappearances of five men who could have testified against Hiss occurred (in real life), and George Altmann’s artist grandfather made a sixth (fictional one). Young George and his girlfriend, a character I never warmed up to, try to sort out the truth of the mysterious deaths, but again, facts are hard to pin down.

On top of the questions of intrigue and murder is a thick layer of art and music. Young George runs an art gallery, and his girlfriend is an artist. They look at the world around them in a particular way. Judge Dimock’s wife was a concert pianist, and insisted her son and three daughters also play. The family home in the Catskills is itself like a work of art with one priceless feature—an ancient ceiling painted with frolicking gods and goddesses, who become silent family friends and bemused observers.

All these layers—the significance of Hiss and the trial; the long tail of violence; the law and its opposite, the creative arts; the perennially perturbed family relations—any of these could be a book in itself. And I haven’t even mentioned Young George’s mother’s scandalous involvement with the Woodstock concert and music scene. Cleveland’s intricate layering of these innately intriguing elements makes the experience of each more resonant.

Ultimately, one message of the book is that the Hisses of the world, determined liars and true believers, can create a climate of disinformation, a parallel reality it’s hard to break free of. Their deceptions can lead even the most intelligent people astray and down paths of destruction. This is certainly a message that should resonate in today’s world. Though I thought the book started slow, before long it drew me into their fractured world.

What to Watch This Weekend

popcorn

Three recent-ish British films well worth the time. Our theaters keep teasing us with lots of enticing film previews, but they aren’t here yet!

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Has this popular franchise finally lost its luster? I was afraid so, but writer Julian Fellowes pulled it off once again (trailer). All the regulars are there, except for Mary’s husband. In the opening scene, Tom Branson marries a wealthy young woman, and she and her mother join the ensemble. Downton is being taken over by the cast and crew of a deep-pockets film company, under Mary’s supervision. To avoid this intrusion, most of the family travels to the South of France to visit the Dowager Countess’s unexpected legacy—a villa willed to her by a man she charmed decades previously, before her marriage to Lord Grantham. (Here’s hoping her legacy included funds for maintenance.) Quibbles aside, the costumes, manners, scenery, and pleasantness of it all are refreshing. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 97%.

The Duke

You’ll enjoy this comedy about a man whose single-mindedness repeatedly gets him into trouble with the authorities, directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman (based on a true story)(trailer). To the exasperation of his wife (Helen Mirren), Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is so focused on aiding elderly veterans that he neglects his family responsibilities. He steals a famous painting, hoping to hold it for ransom that would be used to help poor people. He’s caught and put on trial. Lots of chuckles here, and you can’t go wrong with Mirren and Broadbent. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 86%.

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat, which was directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, is based on a nonfiction book by Ben Macintyre (trailer) It recounts the story of the key piece of the Allies’ massive effort to convince the Germans that Greece, not Sicily, was their invasion target in the Mediterranean. A corpse is given a back story and a set of fake papers and set adrift to come ashore in Spain. Will the papers get to  the German operatives in Madrid? Will they believe the fake story or recognize it as disinformation? This deception is led by military planners Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley ( Matthew Macfadyen). The film tries hard to maintain the tension, but knowing how the plot turns out, deflates that balloon somewhat. One fun aspect was the important role of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn)—then a Lieutenant Commander as assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division. in the office typing away on what he says is “a spy novel.” I’m not convinced the romantic elements are factual, but that’s filmmakers for you. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 64%.

No Escape

And, to show that you can’t get away from Downton Abbey, the cast of Operation Mincemeat includes Penelope Wilton, who plays Isobel Crawley Merton in Downton. Matthew Good, who played Henry Talbot (Mary’s absent husband) in Downton plays Kempton Bunton’s barrister in The Duke..

Spies, Spies, Spies!

You might with justification believe that John le Carré’s death marked the end of sophisticated spy fiction. Three reasons to take heart.

First up, le Carré may be gone, but his work isn’t quite finished. While I enjoyed what at the time was termed his “last” espionage novel—Agent Running in the Field—the posthumously published, rather slender, novel Silverview is also worth a read. Both are expert at focusing your attention in one direction, while all along, the protagonist is engaged in a much bigger, much more complicated game. It’s that combination of spywork and grifter that I find so intriguing.

Over his career, le Carré had done such a convincing job of peopling the various sides in the Cold War and setting their minions against one another, that I for one wondered what he would write about after the breakup. I shouldn’t have worried. Not only were there many more books, but the Russian menace was apparently just on pause. Too bad he’s not still here to probe its current-day secrets. (You’ll recall that in The Russia House, set in the Gorbachev years, le Carré’s premise was that the Soviet military menace was not all it was cracked up to be. Fast-forward to 2022.)

Second, let me introduce you to a 21st century spy novelist who I believe is a potential heir to le Carré’s mantle as chronicler of the cynical, conflicted, mistake-prone and sometimes baffling and baffled espionage agent: author James Wolff. A member of the UK government for fifteen years, he writes under a pseudonym. His two books—2018’s Beside the Syrian Sea, and 2021’s How to Betray Your Country—are a different breed than the usual spy story, more complex, like the people he portrays.

In Wolff’s work, you have a strong sense that the context and actions of the characters are grounded in reality, as the agents are, too, flaws and all. As Wolff said in an interview with the Harrogate Festivals, “I don’t think that a book can be thrilling if the reader doesn’t believe that the characters are real.” No need to amp up the energy with over-the-top, implausible situations and confrontations. I’ve lost patience with authors struggling to pack in yet another far-fetched idea or action scene.

And third, finally, Apple TV has finally started showing its original production of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, witty and quick-witted. As Apple describes it, the spy drama “follows a dysfunctional team of MI5 agents—and their obnoxious boss, the notorious Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman)—as they navigate the espionage world’s smoke and mirrors to defend England from sinister forces.” And Mick Jagger singing the theme song! What more can you ask? There are eight novels and three novellas in Herron’s series, so, fingers crossed, there will be lots of good watching ahead.

Appointment in Tehran

By James Stejskal – If like me you remember the 1979 episode when radical Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage, you’ll read James Stejskal’s riveting new thriller with an increasing sense of foreboding. That’s especially if you also recall that the US military launched a rescue mission that came to a disastrous end in the desert south of Tehran. Ultimately, the American hostages—many of them diplomats—were held for 444 days, until the inauguration of a new American president, Ronald Reagan. (The rescue of several Americans who escaped the embassy invasion and hid in the Canadian embassy was the subject of the highly entertaining 2012 film, Argo.)

Given that Stejskal’s characters are smart and skilled Special Forces men, members of Delta Force, I was interested in how he’d handle the botched rescue. No revisionist history here. His description is an accurate picture of how it happened, and, perhaps more important, why it happened: an overly complex strategy, contingency planning failures, and sheer bad luck.

As real events simmer in the story’s background, Stejskal’s characters, led by Master Sergeant Kim Beck and Staff Sergeant Paul Stavros, have a lot of work to do. First, they undergo specific and intensive training in skills likely necessary for the rescue attempt: close quarter battle marksmanship, casing a target location, working as a team following a target through the city without being detected. Fascinating. Naturally, these skills come into play before the story ends.

Even though the Delta team members are not part of the main rescue force headed for disaster in the desert, they have several critical jobs. They must make on-site assessments of the situation where Americans are being held (the embassy and the Iranian Foreign Minister’s office). They must double-check the adequacy and security of sites and logistics for extracting the hostages. It’s dangerous undercover work. Iran isn’t just hostile, it would welcome the chance to make political hay out of the capture of American spies.

And that’s not all. An army intelligence operation has smuggled a tactical nuclear weapon into Iran to be used against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Americans want their bomb back at all costs. A traitor within US European forces has told the Soviets about the weapon, and they want it too. While this part of the story is purely fictional, the accuracy with which Stejskal portrays real events adds to the credibility of the entire plot.

This then is the Delta Force mission: backstop the rescue efforts, extracting the diplomats held at the foreign minister’s office, find that nuclear device, and move it out of the country. Any or all of this could go badly in so many ways.

Like his previous thriller involving many of the same characters, A Question of Time, this story is a pure adventure. It’s as much a political thriller as a military one, and you become a frustrated observer of the way bureaucracies tie themselves up in knots. Stejskal is a former CIA officer and US Army Special Forces member who had assignments worldwide, which has helped him create a plausible and exciting story.

Order here from Amazon.

Weekend Movie Pick: The Courier

The Cold War spy film The Courier, which came out last year (I missed it totally), is available on Netflix. A “based on true events” tale that took place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it describes how a British businessman was persuaded by MI6 and the CIA to make contact with a Soviet scientist who appeared eager to share information about his country’s nuclear program with the West. As we now know, that cascade of events in 1962 came much closer to disaster than our leaders and the American public believed.

The film, directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor (trailer), stars Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life businessman Grenville Wynne. The Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky, is played by a sad-eyed Merab Ninidze. The cast is great and the story gripping, even though it follows a well-trodden path. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. For both Wynne and Penkovsky, it was either take the risk or total annihilation.

The film was originally titled Ironbark, the Brits’ code name for Penkovsky, but the star turn belongs to Cumberbatch, the courier. The touches of Soviet perfidy seem right out of John le Carré. When the MI6 crowd starts talking about exfiltrating Penkovsky, it seemed like an impossible long-shot. (I wish they’d make a film about Oleg Gordievsky, another real-life Soviet spy, whose story was told in Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which gives a hair-raising account of how difficult saving Soviet spies really was.

The Courier is a cautionary tale and a solid bit of filmmaking about a period people under 60 weren’t alive to experience.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 95%

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!

A Spy’s Bedside Table

chess

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.