Two Entertaining Listens

Was your New Year’s resolution to get more exercise, and you’re having trouble bounding out of bed with the necessary zeal on these gloomy mornings? Here are two thrillers for your in audio that will get you up and moving, simply because you have to know “What happens next?” These two books are both impeccably entertaining and couldn’t be more different.

Blacktop Wasteland

SA Crosby, Blacktop Wasteland

When Crime Fiction Lover reviewer Rough Justice said “believe the hype” about SA Crosby’s rural noir novel, Blacktop Wasteland, he wasn’t kidding. Suffice it to say that Crosby has achieved that literary ideal—to create the universal by focusing on the specific. The types of challenges faced by Beauregard “Bug” Montage are faced by many sons of missing dads, by many hard-working people of limited means, by many who believe they cannot escape their past.

So much has been written about this multiple award-nominated novel, I won’t rehash the story, but if you like audio books, this is definitely one for your “must-listen” list. Actor Adam Lazarre-White is pitch-perfect, not only when it comes to the Black family at the center of the narrative but also in portraying the white trash grifters and petty criminals with their dubious, dangerous schemes.

Crosby has written his dialog with a precise ear for the rhythms and patterns of speech of his native southern Virginia (the pleading “Just hear me out,” from someone Bug should never in a million years listen to). Combined with Lazarre-White’s talents, Crosby’s characters come to life unforgettably. Good and bad, Black and white, brave and sniveling. They are real people.

Agent Running in the Field

This is John le Carré’s last novel published before his death in December, set in the upper realms of the British espionage establishment. The hero, 47-year-old MI6 agent Nat, is afraid he’s about to be shoved into retirement, but instead he’s given a lackluster post in a local backwater. Maybe this is to keep him out of trouble, but no matter, trouble finds him.

It’s an unsettled time, with Brexit looming and the political establishment, like all of Britain, deeply divided. Though you may anticipate what the sources of Nat’s deepening dilemmas will be, how he goes about extricating himself is exciting reading or, in this case, listening.

Agent is narrated by le Carré himself, and though I’m usually skeptical of an author reading his own work (mostly because I know what a bad job I would do), he offers a persuasive performance. Almost all the characters are British, which may help, or not. (Prof. Henry Higgins would be happy to dissect the regional and impenetrable idiosyncrasies of English speech.) Listening to le Carré read his own words here, quite expertly, as it happens, feels like a kind of good-bye.  

A Question of Time

James Stejskal’s debut espionage thriller takes place in 1979 in a divided Berlin. Located in the heart of then-Communist East Germany, Berlin was notoriously fertile territory for spies. In East Berlin and the country surrounding the city were the Soviets and the Stasi, East Germany’s repressive secret police. In West Berlin, some 180 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain, sat the Allies, with sectors of the city allocated to Britain, France, and the United States. Cold War tensions only intensified in this island of Western influence with the construction of the wall between east and west in 1961.

By the time the novel begins, the written and unwritten rules governing the strange minuet between spies and diplomats have been largely formalized. One key practice is allowing “freedom of passage patrols” by the Western Allies and the Soviets to tour the other side’s occupied zones. By treaty, those patrols could not be stopped or searched.

But what are rules for, except to be broken or at least bent? Chief rule-breaker here is Master Sergeant Kim Becker, a Vietnam veteran and now a member of the US army’s elite Studies and Operations Group. He has a team of creative and not-by-the-book operatives around him, and they receive a special assignment: A CIA asset, an East German high up in the Communist state’s security apparatus, believes he’s come under suspicion. He wants out. It’s up to Becker and his team to develop and implement a plan to extract him.

Stejskal convincingly establishes the riskiness of the mission and its various ingenious stages, as well as the suspect-everyone mindset necessary for people living under such a difficult regime. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on literary flourishes and detailed description, but you will be turning pages too quickly to miss them. Despite the impressive number of contingencies Becker’s team is prepared for and their attention to espionage tradecraft, the unexpected still occurs. Even then, the rescuers aren’t victims of their plan, they have a powerful capacity to improvise.

Modern warrior-hero stories are often either too far-fetched or too poorly written to recommend. In this one, though, the action is described with just enough detail to make it believable and not so much to bog the story down. The writing is clear and compelling and doesn’t get in the way of the telling.

James Stejskal spent thirty-five years serving with the US Army Special Forces. After his military service, he was recruited by the CIA and served as a senior case officer in Africa, Europe, the Far East, and elsewhere. He is now a military historian who has written several nonfiction books. I’d definitely read another about Becker!

Order from Amazon here.

Private Eyes: 2020 Incarnation

spy, espionage, reading

Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker reviews a couple of recent books about the private investigation industry and its changing role. One of them, The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World, by Tyler Maroney, was named a 2020 favorite by Kevin Burton Smith, who monitors PI stuff on his web site, for the Private Eye Writers of America, and for Mystery Scene.

More than thirty thousand private investigators are working in the United States, and while some of them engage in the activities that find their way into crime stories—investigating kidnappings, flagging cheating spouses or employees, and finding missing persons—a lot of what modern PI’s do is less juicy corporate work. They check out potential employees, track missing assets, scour proposals for multibillion-dollar deals, assess corporations’ potential partners, engage in (presumably) white-hat hacking, and amass opposition research from the undrained swamp of politics.

These activities are ubiquitous in the corporate world today. Globalization, deregulation, and rapid technological change have created the opportunity for whole new chapters in the secret investigations playbook, as well as new criminal opportunities and strategies.

Despite the growth in that sector of the industry, tales of insider trading, corruption, and fraud are a regular feature of the news media. You have to wonder, is the investigations business simply ineffective in curbing bad behavior, or is the malfeasance we read about only the tip of what would be a glacier-sized iceberg if the investigators’ weren’t on the job?

Says Keefe, the book “is not an exposé. It is part memoir, part how-to guide, a celebration of the analytical and interpersonal intelligence that makes a great investigator.” Those are the traits that have given Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes nearly a century and a half of popularity. Sounds like a must-read!

World-Rocking Reading List:
The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World
Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World
Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage

Rekindling a Love Affair with Television

Somebody Feed Phil

Thanks to quarantines and streaming services, I’ve been watched more television these last few months than I have in years. Here are series our family found especially entertaining, ICYMT:

Somebody Feed Phil – In each episode, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal (pictured) visits a city somewhere in the world and, accompanied by local restaurateurs and food critics, drops in on local markets and farms, seven or eight restaurants of multiple types and price points, and a few of the unique sights. Phil loves everything he tries (almost), and he tries everything. The humor is broad—OK, it’s corny. A foodie website dissed the show because Phil isn’t a “real” food expert, which shows the reviewer totally missed the point. What he’s demonstrating is that anyone can have a wonderful time when they have an open mind—and mouth. He has fun, and we do too! Plus, I’ll bet he knows a lot more about food than he lets on.(Netflix)

The Americans – about Soviet citizens embedded in American life and carrying out spy things. Based on a real-life Russian program (that was apparently remarkably unsuccessful), the series was every bit as good as all my spy/thriller writing friends have said. It was brilliant to set the series during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding. But I did wonder why Philip and Elizabeth never seemed to worry much about fingerprints. (Amazon Prime)

Call My Agent – Three seasons of this French comedy series are available, with subtitles, about a quartet of Parisian talent agents. Although they all work for the same firm, they are competitors, and their colleagues better not forget it! The strange deals they get involved in always misfire in some awkward, barely salvageable way. Adding to the fun is having real French movie stars play their clients. There they are, without their makeup or their game face on. Playing themselves, sort of. (Netflix)

The Crown – Now showing: The Diana Years. We especially like Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. O’Connor played author Lawrence Durrell in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu, which was a charming series. If flint-hearted Margaret Thatcher (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) mentions her father one more time . . . (Netflix)

The Perfect Weapon

The Perfect Weapon, HBO, David Sanger

In mid-October, HBO released its documentary, The Perfect Weapon, about growing cyber security risks (trailer). A recent Cipher Brief webinar featured David Sanger, national security correspondent for The New York Times, who wrote the book on which the documentary was based, and Mary Brooks, who contributed to both his book and the documentary, and was moderated by Cipher Brief founder Suzanne Kelly.

Creating a documentary based on a detailed, fascinating, and chilling 340-page book is a challenge. It had to be more interesting than 000s and 111s scrolling down the screen. There was a history to lay out. Director John Maggio decided to render the technology aspects of earlier cyberattacks in broad strokes and to humanize the story by focusing on the victims. This approach not only revealed how many sectors of society are vulnerable to cyber criminals, but also how diverse are the sources of these attacks.

The first cyber attack receiving much play in the United States was North Korea’s 2014 takedown of Sony in response to a movie it didn’t like. For that segment, Maggio’s team could interview actors and executives. It was harder to get the story of the next significant attack—this one by the Iranians on the Sands Casino in Las Vegas—because the casino executives don’t want to publicize it.

Since then, attacks have continued, most recently with ransomware attacks on US hospitals already stretched thin by the coronavirus, and on local governments in Florida, for example—after crippling attacks on Baltimore and Atlanta.

Though costly and significant, these episodes have not been serious enough to trigger retribution by the US government. “They are short of war operations,” Sanger said, “and deliberately calculated to be so.” The potential for much more consequential acts definitely exists. It is known, for example, that malware has been placed in the US power grid, where it sits. Officials don’t want to talk about it, or remove it, ironically, because they don’t want the bad actors to understand our detection capabilities.

Of course, the United States isn’t inactive in this arena. In 2010, our government. and Israel used the malicious computer worm Stuxnet to disable Iran’s nuclear program, an action US officials won’t admit to even now, Sanger said. Unfortunately, the destructive Stuxnet code escaped into the wild and is now available to many black-hat hackers. Stuxnet “didn’t start the fire,” he said, “but it was an accelerant.”

Who is behind an attack can be murky. For various reason, organized crime has increasingly muscled its way into the cyber-threat business. Governments hire hackers or external organizations to create havoc, because it gives them deniability. “Not us,” they say.

The US Cyber Command’s goal is to “defend and advance national interests.” However, the job of preventing attacks is difficult. It’s a challenge that requires considerable imagination, given an environment where the risks are escalating rapidly, the technology is improving constantly, and the targets have no boundaries. You may have read about recent threats to COVID vaccine research.

What exactly are the “national interests,” when American businesses have suppliers, clients, and customers all over the world? Companies don’t want to be perceived as working against those relationships. Google, for example, declined to participate in a military program to make drone attacks more accurate. Similarly, though Microsoft and the Cyber Command were both attempting to disable TrickBot in the last few weeks, their efforts were independent and uncoordinated.

Thomas Donahue, Senior Analyst at the Center for Cyber Intelligence has said, “We cannot afford to protect everything to the maximum degree, so we’d better figure out what cannot fail,”

The documentary—and the book—lay out what’s at stake for all of us. Past posts on this topic:
* Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing
* Cyberthreats: Coming to a Company Near You

The Woman Is a Spy

Three women who’ve made outstanding careers for themselves in the intelligence community were featured in a Cipher Brief webinar last Friday, moderated by the organization’s founder, Suzanne Kelly, former CNN Intelligence Correspondent. As a writer interested in that world, I was eager to hear the women’s perspectives.

The women were:

Over the course of these women’s careers, the attitude toward women working in intelligence has evolved, just as it has throughout American society. When they started out in the early 80s or so, the intelligence community was an old boys’ club, and most women were relegated to support staff and administrative positions. The diversity of job opportunities for women is much greater now—after all, CIA Director Gina Haspell is a woman—but vestiges of old attitudes remain.

Thus, the era in which a story is set makes a great deal of difference as to how female characters would be treated. Perhaps engineering backgrounds gave two of these women added insight or practice in breaching institutional gender barriers.

The panelists had all worked in a variety of settings—for both government and the private sector. They change jobs and vacuum up new knowledge and skills. So, if your character needs a particular expertise, it certainly would be realistic to create a previous position where she could have gained it, inside government or not. Or, even in her own security services company.

Savvy women in the intelligence community work hard to develop a network of women in their and other intelligence agencies for all the familiar advice-seeking, moral-support reasons we know. From the perspective of these women, a more diverse workforce—in terms of gender, cultural background, type of education, analytic style, and where people have lived —produces better intelligence outcomes, as intelligence community employers have come to appreciate.

Suggested reading:
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Bloodmoney by David Ignatius
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynn Olson

War Stories: Oddly Timely?

Can focusing on another low point in Western civilization sidetrack you from obsessing over the current news cycle? Does seeing how another generation coped with agonizing stress help? These engrossing World War II stories are like biting your lip as a distraction from a different pain. Click on the novel title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Interpreter

AJ Sidransky’s political thriller has a fresh and appealing story line. The war in Europe is winding down when US Army Intelligence recruits Vienna-born GI Kurt Berlin to help in its interrogations of captured Germans—Nazis, Wehrmacht officers, and members of the SS and Gestapo.

When he reluctantly agrees, he finds himself face-to-face with the Nazi who had a terrible impact on his own family. He’s in the excruciating position of keeping his own emotions in check, but can he sustain it? Read my full review here.

Night of Shooting Stars, Ben Pastor

The Night of Shooting Stars

Latest in author Ben Pastor’s award-winning World War II-era political thrillers about colonel Baron Martin von Bora, late of German military intelligence. Because his former unit was believed to harbor anti-Nazi army officers, Bora must keep looking over his shoulder when he’s asked to investigate a strange murder. Is it a trap? What he keeps uncovering are dangerous hints about a plot threatening Adolf Hitler himself. Read my full review here.

The Winds of War
War and Remembrance

The audiobook of Herman Wouk’s 1971 saga, The Winds of War, is long (45 hours, 46 minutes) and engaging—perfect for my daily 40-minute walk. There are an awful lot of characters in this story of events leading up to World War II—American, English, German, Polish—many of them real-life politicians and military leaders. At the core of the story is a single family, fictional US Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, his three adult children, and their significant others. Pug is desperate to command a battleship, but naval intelligence duties in the capitals of Europe keep delaying that assignment. You get a well-rounded picture of the multinational political forces and military maneuvering in the late 1930s, packaged in a rich skein of interesting plot lines. The book ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk

In its sequel, War and Remembrance (56 hours), Pug is still in the Navy, son Warren is a Navy flyer stationed on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor, and son Byron is a submariner. Byron’s situation is complicated by his marriage to Natalie Jastrow, a Jew stuck in fascist Italy. With these three men in different branches of the Navy, Wouk thrillingly (for me) recreates many of the important battles and strategies of the war in the Pacific.

You may recall ABC’s 1980s miniseries of these books with Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry (Interestingly, all three children were played by different actors in the two productions.) Reportedly, a new adaptation, to be co-written by Seth MacFarlane is in the works.

The Winds of War was a best-seller, but the critics didn’t love either book. Too much emphasis on historical accuracy over character development, they thought. Exactly what made me enjoy it! It’s like an education about the war in an easy-to-digest package, with Wouk’s main point, the key word “remembrance.”

The audiobooks are narrated brilliantly by Kevin Pariseau, who kept me company all summer.

Thrills and Chills, Delivered Right to Your Ears

These are “OK-I’ll-take just-another-walk-around-the-block” audiobook listens. Award-nominated stories, great narrations! Click on the titles for my Amazon affiliate links. Enthralled by every one of these!

The End of October

Lawrence Wright, End of October

Lawrence Wright must have really polished up his crystal ball before writing this medical/political thriller about a brutal pandemic. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he has a knack for describing scientific complexities and capturing both the big political picture and the significant details. The hero of the book is Henry Parsons, an American physician from the Centers for Disease Control trying to control the uncontrollable as world leaders behave in all-too-familiar, self-serving, short-sighted ways. Near the end, the book strays into conventional thriller territory, but the rest is terrific.

Mark Bramhall read the audio version, and I could hear Dr. Anthony Fauci every time he delivered Parsons’s words. Read my full review here.

American Spy

In Lauren Wilkinson’s highly regarded debut novel, it’s 1986 and Marie Mitchell is an FBI intelligence officer. As a young Black woman, she feels passed over, and her boss is hostile. She’s approached by CIA operatives running a campaign to discredit Thomas Sankara, the charismatic, pro-Communist president of Burkina Faso, and Marie agrees to help. What Marie  doesn’t expect is to fall under Sankara’s magnetic spell. Long after leaving Africa, the long tail of retribution is still chasing her, with deadly intent. Marie’s strong relationships with her family give the book tremendous resonance. Narrated by Bahni Turpin, beautifully

Stranger Diaries, Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries Elly Griffiths’ award-nominated story describes Clare Cassidy, a high school English teacher with an affinity for the long-dead gothic horror writer R.M. Holland and his most famous work, “The Stranger,” a short story about a macabre murderer. When colleagues at the school where she teaches—where Holland himself lived and worked—start being murdered, there are mysterious links to Holland and every reason to think Clare may be next. Narrated by Esther Wane, Sarah Feathers, Anjana Vasan and Andrew Wincott, who reads “The Stranger,” bit by bit.

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