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%
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.
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.
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.
All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker – An thriller in which real and symbolic dark clouds hover menacingly over a tiny Alabama community. Young girls—young religious girls—are being murdered. When another goes missing, the town’s turned into a tinderbox, and the sheriff is hard put to control the situation. The sheriff, the girl’s twin sister, and a couple of outsider friends are captivating characters. Written from multiple points of view, this is a complex, compelling story.
A Cold Death by Marilyn Meredith – Another in the popular Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. A group of sniping acquaintances is snowbound at a mountain cabin and none too happy about it. Loyalties shift; suspicions rise; accusations cascade. Crabtree also must deal with the ghost of a former resident, and the light touch of paranormal is handled well.
Theft: A Love Story by Man Booker prize-winner Peter Carey – In this 2006 novel, a flamboyant Australian artist struggles with a career past its peak, while dealing with his developmentally disabled (but entertainingly astute) younger brother, a conniving girlfriend who is always one step ahead of him, and an unforgiving ex-wife. “Witty, urbane, funny, and profound.”
Our Game by John le Carré – When one of the oldest friends of retired MI6 agent Tim Cranmer goes missing, along with Cranmer’s mistress, he sets out to find them. In this 1995 spy thriller, Cranmer’s bosses try to convince him his Cold War and thus his career are over, but his friend and fellow-spy appears to have identified some new mission, using the £37 million he’s stolen from the Russians to finance it. With this fast-paced, enjoyable read, you’re in the hands of the master.
The Directive by Matthew Quirk – There’s a short window of time between when the U.S. Federal Reserve makes its recommendations and when they’re made public. During that hour or so, they are one of the most closely guarded secrets in the financial world. The Ford brothers want that information, which is worth, well, millions. Clever plotting, persuasive, a fun read from 2014.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Prepare yourself to fall in love with Count Alexander Rostov, confined after the Revolution to Moscow’s famed hotel, The Metropol. The rich life he builds there never strays from elegance and civility, traits that the new Soviet power-brokers lack utterly. It’s a lovely story, and, as Ann Patchett says, “The book is like a salve.” Great narrator too.
The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr – Kerr’s tenth Bernie Gunther novel, this one has the Berlin police detective on a confidential assignment from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels—to track down the father of his favorite actress. Gunther meets the woman, and they begin a risky love affair. He does find her father, knee-deep in a bloodbath in Yugoslavia, but he and Goebbels decide to keep his murderous career a secret and tell her he’s dead. Like all secrets, this one has consequences. Gunther’s sly critiques and disdain for the Nazis is another dangerous activity, and you worry he’ll go too far.
A few more thirty-second book reviews are here. Enjoy!
The New York Times Book Review touts the release of a new John le Carré novel, A Legacy of Spies, through an interview by Sarah Lyall (great last name for a spy) of both the father of modern spy novels and his friend Ben Macintyre, author of 11 non-fiction books, mostly on British espionage.
On the chance anyone’s not familiar with le Carré, the write-up credits him with almost single-handedly elevating spy novels from genre fiction to literature (“almost,” because of the significant, occasional contributions of literary writers like Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham). Macintyre gets more specific, calling le Carré’s novels “emotionally and psychologically absolutely true.”
The article notes he popularized “the subversive hypothesis that the spies of East and West were two sides of the same tarnished coin, each as bad as the other . . . espionage painted not in black and white but in shades of gray.”
There’s not a lot of detail about the new book, though somewhat tantalizingly, we learn it’s “a coda of sorts” to 1963’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which the interviewer calls possibly most responsible for readers’ “le Carré addiction.” In this sequel, the children of the two main characters of the earlier book sue security services over the fate of their parents.
As a writer trying my own hand at espionage fiction, I was especially interested in what the two authors cited as similarities between espionage and novel-writing, including this exchange:
Macintyre: Spying and fiction are not entirely different processes. You try to create an artificial world. And the better and more realistic and more emotionally believable you can make that world, as either a spy or a novelist, the better you are going to be at it.
Le Carré: And you must also contemplate all the varieties of a person’s character. Could she be this? Could he be that? Can I turn him or her into that other person? All of those are actually the serious preoccupations of a novelist.
Macintyre: . . . And because spies invent their world, and often invent their pasts, they’re tremendously unreliable narrators. You have a wonderful backdrop of truth and nontruth to work against.
In a sense, lying, when it comes to facts, is at the heart of both espionage and fiction. Le Carré attributes his ability to create fictional worlds of duplicitous characters to his upbringing by a father who was a flamboyant con man, one with the temerity to run for Parliament despite having served time in jail. Another exchange:
Le Carré: And I had to lie about my parental situation while I was at boarding school.
Macintyre: What you’ve just described — is it the root of your fiction? Your ability to think yourself into someone else?
Le Carré: If my father said he was going to come and take me out, it was as likely as not that he wouldn’t show up. I would say to the other boys, I had a wonderful day out, when I had really been sitting in a field somewhere.
Inevitably I was making up stories to myself, retreating into myself. And then there was the genetic inheritance I got from my father. . . . He had a huge capacity for invention. He had absolutely no relationship to the truth.
Some readers won’t be surprised that a conversation dwelling on espionage, the Russians, and the slipperiness of truth segues to consideration of President Trump, of whom le Carré says, “There is not a grain of truth there.”
He suspects the Russians hold compromising information on Trump. “The mentality that is operating in Russia now is absolutely, as far as Putin is concerned, no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War,” he says. “It worked then, it works now.”
Macintyre is of the opinion that the Russians do have compromising information on the U.S. President, termed kompromat. Their motive: “Then [Trump] has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.” He calls the Russian lawyer who met with the President’s son and top campaign officials at Trump Tower, and who may or may not be working with the government, “straight out of one of our books.” She’s foggy and deniable. “It’s called maskirovka,” Macintyre says, “little masquerade — where you create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is.”
Le Carré caps off this discussion by speculating that the “smoking gun” might be documents on plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow. “There are bits of scandal which, if added up, might suggest he went to Russia for money. And that would then fit in with the fact that he isn’t half as, a tenth as rich as he pretends to be.”
Guest poster David Ludlum works as an editor and marketing professional for a wealth management organization and is writing an espionage novel.
The old saw “truth is stranger than fiction” was never more apt than when applied to the Trump Administration. Back in February, its bull-in-the-China-shop approach to national security inspired me to create a recommended reading list—as a public service [!]—comprising a few thrillers that would illustrate how espionage works and how to behave in order to protect our country and its secrets. The books on that list provide a much more exciting and vivid curriculum than tedious daily briefings, for sure. Apparently, my post came too late for Don Jr. Ah, well, authors keep trying. And the parallels keep emerging.
Last Friday Dwyer Murphy in LitHub said he also finds spy literature “freshly relevant.” And apparently, Senator Tom Cotton agrees. Murphy’s essay, “10 Great Spy Thrillers That Could be New York Times Headlines” starts like this:
The cast of characters is almost too much to believe: a Russian pop star, a British tabloid veteran, an attorney with mysterious ties to the Kremlin, a Moscow-funded lobbyist running a White House campaign, a real estate scion married into political power, and the son of the soon-to-be President of the United States.
(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)
Murphy contends that you can get “uncannily close” to the strategies and schemes filling 2017 newspapers—and understand how the U.S.-Russia relationship got to be what it was and is—all while lounging in your beach chair with some pretty exciting novels. I remember wondering what John le Carré would do after the Cold War ended. Now we know. Trot out his backlist.
Here are Murphy’s picks that I’ve read too:
The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton – “cynical, paranoid, and savvy”; and the 1965 Michael Caine movie was a winner too
Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst – The hero of this novel is caught up in the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, “a work on a grand scale”—I’m a big Furst fan.
The Human Factor, by Graham Greene – Like many of Furst’s books, Greene’s classic starts with the protagonist, an MI6 operative near retirement, taking a few slight actions to aid the Communists and, when he’s in too deep, finding out they have an altogether different game on. The film version had an all-star cast and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré – Murphy calls this the ne plus ultra of the Russian spy game. Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy is the favorite of other writers, including Philip Roth.
The English Girl, by Daniel Silva – Silva has cited this novel when discussing the Russian interference in the U.S. election. “KGB playbook 101,” he reportedly said.
If you still have room in your vacation suitcase, the other books on his list (which I have not read) are: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, David Downing’s Zoo Station, Mesmerized by Gayle Lynds, Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov, and JFK’s favorite, From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming. Read all these and you will be every bit as well prepared to manage our country’s security services as some of the people actually doing so.
Our Kind of Traitor is my kind of movie (trailer). A political thriller that avoids the eye-rolling tropes of so many films in the genre—the relentless testosterone-fueled special effects, vehicular mayhem, and beyond-evil bad guys. Instead, it relies for tension on the attachment it craftily develops between viewer and character, thanks to an excellent script and solid acting.
Based on the 2010 John Le Carré novel, as adapted by Houssein Amini, and directed by Susanna White, Our Kind is a movie about trust. While it shows that people at the highest levels of public trust may not necessarily have the public’s good at the top of their agendas—no news flash in this genre—trust at the personal level is still possible. And trust is entails risk. Life-and-death risk.
Low-key London academic Perry Makepeace (played by Ewan MacGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) are in exotic Marrakesh trying to revive a fading relationship. When she leaves him alone in a restaurant, he’s befriended by a Russian at a neighboring table, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård, brilliant!), who convinces him to go to “a Russian party” extravagant even by oligarchical standards. The next day Dima persuades Perry and Gail to drop in at his daughter’s 16th birthday party, where it’s just the usual—you know, bands, fireworks, sword swallowers, bejeweled camels.
At the party, Dima pulls Perry aside and confesses he’s the chief money launderer for the Russian mafia and in imminent danger of being murdered in an internecine war. He gives Perry a flash drive and asks him to get it to MI6. He says a big bolus of dirty money is about to land on British shores by way of a shell bank headquartered in the Mediterranean. Dima wants to defect, and he wants the Brits to protect him and, most of all, his family.
Plots featuring the “average man” work because you inevitably wonder, “what would I do?” The operational guys in the British security services (sly Damian Lewis, especially) like Perry’s information, but the big bosses don’t want them to follow up, for reasons of tangled agendas noted above.
After that it’s cat-and-mouse, with Dima and Perry two little mice and pretty much everyone else in the role of fat cats. Says critic Scott Marks of the San Diego Reader, “The mid-summer release of an adult, effects-free British thriller relating to the collapse of Europe’s global financial system timed out perfectly. You’ll Brexit knowing that your entertainment dollar was well spent.”
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 57%. The principal complaint seems to be that not much blows up (exactly what I liked about it!). Except of course, for people’s lives. Don’t believe the naysayers. It’s a subtle gem.