Mal Warwick

Author Archives: Mal Warwick

Ritual murder and Hungarian émigrés in 1870 London

An Echo of Murder by Anne PerryAn Echo of Murder (William Monk #23) by Anne Perry

@@@ (3 out of 5)

English novelist Anne Perry writes historical crime fiction. In abundance. Thirty-two books to date in the Thomas Pitt series, set in England in the period beginning in 1881. Five in a World War I series. And twenty-three in a series of novels featuring William Monk, who serves as Commander of the Thames River Police in London in the years following the American Civil War. An Echo of Murder is the latest entry in that series.

It’s 1870 now. As the novel opens, we find Commander Monk and his wife, Hester, living in comfortable surroundings on Paradise Street south of the Thames. A young man of about eighteen known as Scuff lives with them. Hester, who served as a nurse with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War (1853-56), has founded a medical clinic across the river. Her experiences in the war figure in a major way in the story that unfolds.

An Echo of Murder begins with the savage killing of a Hungarian émigré in what appears to be a ritual murder. Investigating the crime, and others that follow, leads Monk, his sidekick, Hooper, Scuff, and eventually his wife Hester into a deep dive into the Hungarian immigrant community. But Monk’s investigation turns up virtually no clues until close to the very end of the book, and the story veers off into detailed accounts of Hester’s experience in the Crimea and Scuff’s training as a doctor in a clinic that caters to the Hungarian community. Taking center stage well into the story is Heather’s friend Fitz, who served with her as an army surgeon in the war; we learn far too much about his experiences there, too. Perry can’t sustain the suspense amid all those digressions. And, unfortunately, she seems never to have met a point she can’t belabor. I found the book slow going, not to mention often tedious.

Anne Perry, born Juliet Marion Hulme, served five years for the murder of her best friend’s mother at the age of fifteen. She later changed her name.

You might enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. I don’t expect to add the William Monk series to that list.

The 15 best books of 2017 (plus 34 others)

Best books of 2017: Shattered by Jonathan Allen and Amie ParnesHere are my choices for the 15 best books of 2017. All were published in English in the United States from November 2016 through November 2017. They’re arranged within each section below in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Every title is linked to my review.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve listed 34 books I feel merit honorable mention.

Nonfiction

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

A searing account of the 2016 election that centers most of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss on the candidate herself and the people surrounding her.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

The astonishing story of a woman whose seminal work in developing the science of cryptology and identifying Nazi spies in World War II has only recently been recognized.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Then the richest people in America, the Osage of Oklahoma became the victims of a series of brutal murders in the 1920s by neighbors bent on stealing the oil wealth under their land.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret

To an extent that is only dimly understood, the histories of the US and China have been deeply intertwined ever since the founding of the republic.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

A lexicographer with a wicked sense of humor gives an inside look at the making of the most popular dictionary in America.

Mysteries and thrillers

A Single Spy by William Christie

A Soviet agent sent undercover in Nazi Germany proves that “a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The author of the long-running series of bestselling detective novels featuring Harry Bosch introduces a new leading lady, destined to have her own series.

A Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3) by Charles Cumming

A retired MI6 officer plots to avenge the murder of his lover by the KGB colonel who had undermined his work over the years.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

The iconic British spy, George Smiley, hovers in the background as a younger MI6 officer who had worked with him during the Cold War confronts a lawsuit about their work together.

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter

The Georgia-based novelist who writes the Grant County and Will Trent series of crime thrillers probes the depths of depravity that touch a family of lawyers in rural Georgia.

Trade fiction (including science fiction)

American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad

This debut novel tells the haunting, dystopian tale of a second American civil war set late in the twenty-first century.

Defectors: A Novel by Joseph Kanon

An American book publisher visits Moscow to edit the memoirs of his brother, who had defected to the Soviet Union decades earlier and joined the KGB.

Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz

In a future dominated by artificial intelligence and biotechnology, a military robot seeks to gain autonomy while on the hunt for a “patent pirate” who illegally manufactures medicine.

After Atlas (Planetfall, A) by Emma Newman

A police officer in the 22nd century investigates the death of a religious cult figure under the tight control of the company who has enslaved him.

Testimony: A Novel by Scott Turow

The author of the bestselling Kindle County courtroom dramas shifts his attention to the Hague and the war-crimes trial of a notorious Bosnian military leader.


Okay, now let’s get real. Nobody, and I mean nobody, including the army of reviewers who contribute to the New York Times Book Review, can possibly identify the “best” books published in any year. Believe it or not, more than one million titles were published in the United States alone in the most recent year for which statistics are available (2013). Some 304,000 titles were issued by “traditional” publishers in the US, and another 184,000 in the UK. In other words, in a single year, publishing companies brought out nearly half a million titles in just two of the biggest English-language publishing markets. (The numbers for India were substantially smaller.) And that’s only the data for traditional publishers. Self-published titles (in the US alone) numbered more than 700,000. So, don’t believe anyone who claims they’ve identified the “best” books of the year.

One other thing: reviewers are selective. I’m especially so. I don’t read cookbooks, poetry, romance novels, collections of short stories, self-help guides, or books about sports, art, philosophy, vampires, zombies, ghosts, or a dozen other topics that don’t come readily to mind. I do read mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, popular “serious” fiction, humor, and nonfiction about history, world affairs, biography, politics, science, and business. Broadly speaking, my reading falls into three categories: mysteries and thrillers, trade fiction, and nonfiction. Those are the three categories I’ve used above.

In a given year, I read about 200 books. Now, I recognize that speedreaders may consume far more than that. But I’ve tried speedreading, and I don’t like it. It’s not really reading: it’s mining for information. That may work for lawyers, scholars, or others reading with specific ends in mind. But it’s not fun, at least not for me. And I only review books that I’ve read from beginning to end.

Now you know.


Here, then, are the 34 books I thought were also excellent but warrant only honorable mention. As above, they’re all linked to my reviews.

Honorable mention

I’ve reviewed 21 recently published nonfiction books in the last year, all of which are good but not quite good enough to make the list of five top reads above.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan

Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes by Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl

Megatech: Technology in 2050 edited by Daniel Franklin

Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order by Richard A. Haass

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer

Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham

The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World by Brad Stone

The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World by Sharon Weinberger

During the past year I’ve read and enjoyed the following nine mysteries and thrillers in addition to the five top reads listed above.

Wolf on a String: A Novel by Benjamin Black

Origin (Robert Langdon #5) by Dan Brown

Two Kinds of Truth (Harry Bosch #20) by Michael Connelly

Vienna Spies by Alex Gerlis

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper

Righteous (IQ #2) by Joe Ide

The Dime by Kathleen Kent

The Crow Girl: A Novel by Erik Axl Sund

Here are four books I classify as trade fiction (including science fiction) that I found worthy of mention, in addition to the five top reads in this category above.

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

Tool of War (Drowned Cities #3) by Paolo Bacigalupi

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge Saga #3) by Ken Follett

The Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1) by John Scalzi

In “Paranoia,” Joseph Finder spins a devilishly clever tale

Paranoia by Joseph FinderParanoia by Joseph Finder

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In Paranoia by Joseph Finder, young Adam Cassidy works in a low-level job at the huge high-tech firm Wyatt Technologies. When he decides to game the system and transfer company funds to pay for a retirement party for a man in the shipping department, his troubles begin. Big troubles. Threatening to send him to prison for years for embezzlement unless Adam cooperates, the company’s nasty, paranoid owner Nicholas Wyatt forces him to become an industrial spy. Nick Wyatt is “a guy so crooked he’d cheat on a prostate exam.” Nobody says no to Nick. Nobody. Ever.

“Nick Wyatt slept three hours a nigh, seemed to eat nothing but PowerBars for breakfast and lunch, was a nuclear reactor of nervous energy, perspired heavily. People called him ‘The Exterminator.'”

“‘Of course I’m paranoid,’ Nick says. ‘I want everyone who works for me to be paranoid. Success demands paranoia.'”

Adam’s assignment is to secure a job at Trion Systems, Wyatt’s biggest competitor. There, after intensive training in industrial espionage by Wyatt’s chief of security, Adam is to ferret out information about a huge top-secret project at Trion that is rumored to be a game-changer. Adam is a slacker and has never applied himself, but it quickly becomes clear that he is highly intelligent, socially adept, and a slick talker. It doesn’t take long for him to get himself hired, luck into a relationship with a gorgeous coworker, and eventually gain the attention of Trion’s celebrated founder, Jock Goddard. The contrast between Goddard and Wyatt couldn’t be greater. Complications quickly ensue.

Paranoia is fast-paced and devilishly clever. Even if, like me, you get an inkling of what’s going on as Adam’s spying progresses, you’re unlikely to be prepared for the explosive ending.

Joseph Finder has been writing thrillers since 1983. Many of his books concern industrial espionage. Paranoia, which is set within the tech industry, displays considerable knowledge of technology and of the industry.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga continues

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster BujoldCetaganda (Vorkosigan Saga #6) by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Much of classic science fiction consisted of what came to be called “space opera”—and most of it was junk. With some notable exceptions, the format is rarely used today. However, the multiple-award-winner Lois McMaster Bujold has updated the space opera with a long (and ongoing) series of novels, novellas, and short stories about a brilliant military officer who happens to be a dwarf. His name is Miles Vorkosigan. He’s the son of the (now) former regent of the Empire of Barrayar, a backward planet on the fringes of galactic civilization about one thousand years in the future; the emperor is his cousin. The Vorkosigan Saga continues with book #6, Cetaganda.

In Cetaganda, Miles and his (much taller) cousin Ivan are dispatched to represent the Barrayaran Empire at the funeral of the Dowager Empress of their bitterest and longest-standing enemy, the Cetagandan Empire. However, to call both entities “empires” gives the lie to the vast difference between them. Barrayar, a single planet located off the main trade routes of the galaxy, has only recently become integrated into galactic civilization. Barrayarans, even the most noble, are considered barbarians elsewhere. The Cetagandan Empire is vast and wealthy beyond compare. Barrayar managed to survive an invasion by the Cetagandan military only through the brilliant soldiering of Miles’ father, then Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan. Thus, when Miles and Ivan arrive on Eta Ceta IV, “the heart and homeworld of the sprawling Cetagandan Empire,” they feel like country yokels visiting the big city for the first time.

The author paints a fascinating picture of Cetagandan society. Though an emperor rules, the empress (who is not necessarily his wife) wields what might be considered even greater power. She commands the Star Creche, where bioengineers have been tinkering for centuries with the genome of the ruling caste, the haut. (Think haute cuisine or haute couture.) Though the emperor reigns over the men who serve as governors of the eight satrap planets, their freedom of action is circumscribed by the haut women who are assigned to be their wives. The haut are effectively a super-race and possibly no longer truly human. The governors, by contrast, are members of a decidedly human and subordinate military caste called the ghem. 

Miles, now 22 and a lieutenant in Barrayaran Imperial Security, has been cautioned to avoid drawing attention to himself on his mission to Cetaganda. However, this is a difficult, if not impossible, assignment, since Miles is 4’9″ tall, hunchbacked, and wears braces to prevent the brittle bones in his legs from breaking. In any case, it’s not in his nature to play by the rules. It’s a sure thing that Miles will get into trouble—and drag Ivan along with him.

As is the case with all the previous novels in the Vorkosigan Saga, the action comes thick and fast from the very beginning of Cetaganda. As Miles and Ivan are docking in orbit around Eta Ceta IV, a mysterious local man bursts into their shuttle, apparently intent on assassinating them. They tackle the man and seize his weapon as well as a mysterious tubular object they’d thought was also a weapon. As they puzzle over the object, the Cetagandan escapes. Any discerning reader will be aware that this strange object will play a central role in the tale that follows. (It’s pictured on the cover of the edition I read.) Not long after arriving on the planet’s surface, Miles realizes that he and Ivan will be accused of stealing the object, whatever it is, presumably as a pretext for the Cetagandan Empire to go to war again with Barrayar.

In the complex series of events that follow, Miles becomes embroiled in a desperate search to understand why he and Ivan have been targeted, and who was behind the attack. The two cousins soon find themselves socializing with Cetagandans of the ghem caste. Although barbarians like them aren’t supposed to come into contact with the exalted haut, it doesn’t take long for that to happen, too. The story that unfolds involves a murder investigation and political intrigue of the highest order within the Cetagandan Empire. Bujold writes with a light touch. The dialogue is clever and sometimes very funny. The book is a great deal of fun.

For example, consider this exchange between Miles and Ivan:

Miles: “you have to stay absolutely cool. I may be completely off-base, and panicking prematurely.”

Ivan: “I don’t think so. I think you’re panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I’ve been panicking for days.” 

For some reason, when I read dialogue like this, I think of Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll enjoy my post, My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And if you want to access my reviews of the five preceding books in the Vorkosigan Saga, you can find them by searching for that name on this site.

The Quirke series of Dublin crime novels from Benjamin Black

Quirke series: Christine Falls by Benjamin BlackBenjamin Black is the pen name of Irish author John Banville, who is widely regarded as a consummate stylist of the English language. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for his fourteenth novel, The Sea. Banville insists that he writes the Quirke series of Dublin crime novels for the money, but it’s difficult to detect any evidence that he doesn’t give those books the same care he lends to his “serious” fiction.

Christine Falls (2006)—Corruption and mayhem in Dublin and Boston in a superior mystery novel

The woman whose name is on the cover of this engrossing tale of murder, betrayal, and corruption on high has arrived in Quirke’s morgue, deemed a suicide by the police. When Quirke comes across his brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin, doctoring the records of the young woman’s death, he develops an irresistible urge to examine the case more closely. Naturally, he finds that the reason for the woman’s death was anything but suicide . . . Read the full review.

The Silver Swan (2007)—A suspenseful novel that will keep you guessing until the end

Like many of the best crime writers, Black focuses on character, atmosphere, and language as much as on plot. The sure hand of a master stylist is very much in evidence in The Silver Swan. You’ll see it in the dialogue, where the individual speech patterns of his characters are distinctive, and in his lyrical descriptions of Dublin in the rain. If you read this book to the end, you might think you’ve gotten to know Quirke, and you may like him. You might also have a sense of Dublin, even if you’ve never been there . . . Read the full review.

Elegy for April (2010)—1950s Dublin: murder and the Church

Elegy for April is the third of Black’s seven novels about the alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin whom we know only as Quirke. These novels explore the tight grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society and the crimes so often committed in her name. Quirke, though he has no official role as an investigator, is drawn into what usually prove to be murder cases by virtue of his family’s involvement . . . Read the full review.

A Death in Summer (2011)—Murder in Dublin, and an unconventional sleuth who solves the case

The “death in summer” that gives this tale its title is the shotgun beheading of a ruthless Dublin businessman who leaves behind a French widow, a sister, and enough enemies to populate an Agatha Christie whodunit. However, despite a plethora of suspects, Quirke and Hackett, his collaborator in the Garda (the Dublin police), focus on those closest to the deceased. As the investigation unfolds, Quirke dives deeply into the complex relations within the victim’s family and becomes romantically involved with the widow . . . Read the full review.

Vengeance (2012)—Benjamin Black’s Quirke series: Is it “serious literature?”

In the Quirke novels, Banville comes to grip with the Irish elite, the underlying tension between Catholic and Protestant, the dead weight of the Church, and the veil of history. Quirke and his police collaborator, Inspector Hackett of the Garda, invariably find themselves caught up in the often violent conflicts roiling Dublin’s elite society. In Vengeance, two families are locked in combat for three generations, one Protestant, one Catholic, as partners in one of the country’s biggest businesses. The mysterious death at sea of one of the partners triggers an investigation by Quirke and Hackett that leads them to uncover long-hidden family secrets . . . Read the full review.

Holy Orders (2013)—From Benjamin Black, a mystery to savor for its gorgeous prose

The sixth of Banville’s novels (writing as Black) about the tortured Dublin pathologist who appears to be named only Quirke is a textbook example of dazzling prose. Any reader looking for nonstop action and sheer excitement won’t find them in Holy Orders. Black is concerned more with character development and scene-setting than with the usual conventions of the mystery genre. The story involves Quirke, his daughter Phebe, and his pal Inspector Hackett of the Garda in a complex plot with Irish “travelers” (called “tinkers” in Ireland) and a passel of very unpleasant priests and their enforcers . . . Read the full review.

Even the Dead (2015)—Dublin’s answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson?

Quirke and Detective Inspector Hackett bear not the slightest resemblance to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. But they have come together once again because a young man thought to have been a suicide has instead, apparently, been murdered. In the 1950s, Ireland is the same poor country it had been for centuries, long before the recent boom that first lifted its economy into the heights of prosperity and then sent it crashing below. In “this mean and mendacious little city,” as Quirke thinks of it, alcohol almost invariably fuels social interactions, and alcoholism is rampant. In this setting, the Catholic Church reigns supreme and untouchable—and yet when Quirke and Hackett deduce that the Church is somewhere in the background of this latest murder, they don’t hesitate to take it on, all-powerful or not . . . Read the full review.

I have also reviewed two other John Banville books published under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black:

If you enjoy fiction that illuminates the past, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies

woman codebreaker: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, “It’s too early to tell.” That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries pass before the most crucial evidence comes to light.

In fact, ironically, the exchange between Nixon and Chou reflects a misunderstanding that drives the point home even more strongly: they were both referring to the events of 1968, not 1789. Only now, much later, once a diplomat present at the scene clarified the exchange, can historians accurately interpret what the two men meant.

There are few areas in which the unavailability of documentary evidence has been more telling than in the history of espionage in the 20th century. Only in recent years have the archives of the CIA, the KGB, MI6, the NSA, and other leading intelligence agencies opened widely enough for us to understand what really took place in the world of espionage in World War II and the Cold War. (Doubtless, some explosive documents are still locked away and won’t surface until later in this century, if ever.) And there is no more dramatic example of how what has passed for history has misled us than what we have been taught about the FBI’s role in counterespionage in the 1920s and 30s (combating rumrunners and smugglers) and in the 1940s (catching Nazi spies).

Working with recently declassified files from the World War II era as well as long-ignored archival records and contemporary press reports and interviews, journalist Jason Fagone has brought to light at last the astonishing story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman. (Yes, her first name is spelled with three e’s.) As Fagone shows in his beautifully written story of this surpassingly brilliant couple, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, the Friedmans may well have been the most important 20th-century American codebreakers, and quite possibly the best and most successful in the world.

William Friedman is celebrated in cryptology circles as the man who broke the Japanese military code called Purple. “MAGIC became the top-secret moniker for these Japanese decryptions . . . MAGIC led directly to bombs falling on imperial ships at Midway,” the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Fagone notes, “Today historians of cryptology believe that in terms of sheer, sweaty brilliance, the breaking of Purple is a feat on par with Alan Turing’s epiphanies about how to organize successful attacks on German Enigma codes.” However, independently, before the US and Britain’s Bletchley Park were collaborating on the effort, Elizebeth Friedman broke not one but three different types of Enigma machines. Fagone makes abundantly clear that the two were at least equal in ability. In fact Elizebeth may have been just a bit smarter. (William always insisted she was.)

“William Friedman is . . . widely considered to be the father of the National Security Agency,” Fagone writes. But both he and Elizebeth came to loathe the practices of the agency not long after its formation in 1952. It’s very likely they would be scandalized by the indiscriminate collection of information about civilians by today’s NSA.

As Fagone notes, “Elizebeth and William Friedman unscrambled thousands of messages spanning two world wars, prying loose secrets about smuggling networks, gangsters, organized crime, foreign armies, and fascism. They also invented new techniques that transformed the science of secret writing, known as cryptology.” Although today Elizebeth isn’t nearly as famous as her husband, that was by no means always the case. During the 1930s, she become a celebrity for her work against rumrunners and other smugglers and gangsters during the Depression. The public attention halted when she was enlisted by the Coast Guard for a top-secret effort to identify the extensive Nazi spy network in South America—work at which she and her team were extraordinarily successful. Their efforts led to the dismantling of the Nazi network well before the end of the war. However, J. Edgar Hoover claimed the success for the FBI, ignoring their efforts, and he was able to get away with it because he had become so powerful. “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners,” Fagone writes. “It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.”

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an astonishing story that simply has to be read to be believed. His principal subject, Elizebeth Friedman, was an extraordinary woman he refers to more than once as a genius. (The evidence is there.) And Fagone writes the tale with often-elegant, metaphorical prose. He calls the book a love story, but it is of course far more than that

The same declassification of secret files that allowed Jason Fagone to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes has led to the publication of several other recent books about women in espionage. The most prominent of these was Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy.

Check out my post, 17 good nonfiction books about espionage, for other books that illuminate the business of spying. You might also be interested in My 10 favorite espionage novels, or in 17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era.

Jihadis, the Saudi royal family, and an American soldier-spy

soldier-spy: The Secret Soldier by Alex BerensonThe Secret Soldier (John Wells #5) by Alex Berenson

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Alex Berenson’s espionage novels about American soldier-spy John Wells are timely and topical. They invariably give the reader an intimate, insider’s look at the U.S. intelligence establishment. And they reflect Berenson’s extensive travels as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times as well as his superior research skills. The author’s descriptions of the exotic settings where he places his novels are minutely detailed. They’re seemingly impossible to describe unless he has spent time on-site. The Secret Soldier, the fifth book in the John Wells series, takes the reader behind the scenes inside the Saudi royal family, a radical Islamist organization bent on jihadi, and the complex web of decision-making in which the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon, and the White House are all involved when foreign crises erupt.

As The Secret Soldier opens, a Saudi jihadist cell massacres the young people at a popular bar in Bahrain. Simultaneously, two other sites, both inside Saudi Arabia, are attacked, with lethal consequences. These terrorist attacks represent a dangerous threat to the Saudi monarchy. King Abdullah must take action to forestall additional attacks—but he can’t trust his own security forces. Enter John Wells.

Now well into his forties and retired from the CIA, soldier-spy John Wells simply cannot resist any opportunity to chase after danger. Together with an old Special Forces colleague, Wells has gone off to chase a rogue CIA agent in Jamaica. Now a mysterious phone call draws him into the orbit of the Saudi royal family.

John Wells has years of experience both as a soldier and a spy. “He knew who he was,” Berenson writes, “what he’d done. After so much violence, killing came to him naturally. He’d always imagined that he could take off the killer’s mask as he wished. But he feared the mask had become his face.”

The scene shifts rapidly from Bahrain to Riyadh to North Conway New Hampshire to Montego Bay and on and on. Berenson’s story moves along all across the globe at a blistering pace.

The author writes at some length about the Saudi royal family and the divisions within it. The oil wealth the country’s fields generate is difficult to comprehend. As he explains, after all the expenses for running a country that covers almost as much territory as the United States east of the Mississippi, “at least fifty billion dollars remained every year for the family to divide. Every prince received a stipend. Third- and fourth-generation princelings got $20,000 to $100,000 a month. Senior princes received millions of dollars a year. At the top, Abdullah and the other sons of Abdul-Aziz had essentially unlimited budgets. Abdullah’s Red Sea palace complex in Jeddah had cost more than a billion dollars.” To put this information into perspective, note that the Saudi royal family consists of some 15,000 people, although most of the wealth goes to about 2,000 of them.

Berenson also offers a glimpse into the NSA, which in its early days was known as “No Such,” since its very existence was classified. “The NSA monitored phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, Facebook updates—a digital tidal wave. Tens of billions of messages, open and encrypted, were sent every day. The NSA spent massive energy just figuring out which ones to try to crack. At any time, one-third of its computers were deciding what the other two-thirds should do.”

If the topic of espionage intrigues you, take a look at my post, My 10 favorite espionage novels. You might also be interested in 17 good nonfiction books about espionage. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

November 27, 2017

Christopher Buckley’s satire on the U.S. Supreme Court

Christopher Buckley's satire: Supreme Courtship by Christopher BuckleySupreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley

@@@ (3 out of 5)

The President of the United States, Donald P. Vanderdamp, has an approval rating barely above twenty. Congress, and politicians of both parties, despise him, because he has vetoed every spending bill that reached his desk. In retaliation, the Senate has rejected the two eminently qualified jurists he nominated for an open seat on the Supreme Court. All he wants to do is move back home to Wapakoneta, Ohio, where he can go bowling as often as he wishes. His term is almost up. About all that remains is to find someone who can gain the approval of the Senate for that Supreme Court slot.

Enter Judge Perdita “Pepper” Cartwright, star of the top-rated reality TV show, Courtroom Six. While searching for a bowling show on television over a weekend at Camp David, President Vanderdamp chances upon Pepper’s show and is immediately enchanted. Now in her mid-thirties, Pepper is uncommonly facile with the English language—and uncommonly attractive. The President is convinced the Senate won’t dare reject her nomination, given her sky-high Q rating.

This is the set-up in Supreme Courtship, Christopher Buckley‘s satirical treatment of the U.S. Supreme Court. No reader will be surprised to learn that Pepper is, in fact, named to the Court. Then, of course, the real fun begins. The novel is amusing and even hilarious at times. On the whole, though, it’s not one of Buckley’s best.

Over the years, I’ve spent many hours laughing over Christopher Buckley’s novels. Here, for example, is my review of one I loved, The Relic MasterAn irreligious take on Catholic history. My review of Little Green Men is at Wondered where UFOs come from? Christopher Buckley has the answer. You’ll find God Is My Broker: A Monk-Tycoon Reveals the 7-1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth reviewed at Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley.

November 22, 2017

Troublemakers: the people who put Silicon Valley on the map

Troublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Any casual reader whose knowledge about Silicon Valley comes from the headlines or the news online might get the impression that Steve Jobs and the Google and Facebook guys invented the place. Obviously, this is far from true. But even more serious coverage tends to focus on a handful of high-profile individuals who have played outsize roles in the development of the high-tech industry. Stanford historian Leslie Berlin sets the record straight with her engrossing new book, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age. 

Troublemakers chronicles a critical period in the Valley’s history (1969-76). Those seven years witnessed “the most significant and diverse burst of technological innovation of the past 150 years . . . Five major industries were born: personal computing, video games, advanced semiconductor logic, modern venture capital, and biotechnology.”

“Innovation is a team sport,” Berlin writes in the introduction to her book. She makes clear that her intention is to tell the stories of more than just the usual suspects. “Troublemakers . . . feature[s] some of the most famous names in Silicon Valley history, while also profiling seven other individuals in depth.” More famous people such as Steve Jobs and Larry Page make brief appearances. Berlin’s account highlights:

  • Bob Taylor, who led the creation of the rudimentary computer network at the Pentagon, in a sense “inventing” the Internet;
  • Mike Markkula, the man who made it possible for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to launch and build Apple;
  • Sandra Kurtzig, a software pioneer who was “the first woman to take a technology company public;”
  • Bob Swanson, a cofounder of Genentech;
  • Al Alcorn, who designed the video game Pong that launched the game giant Atari; and
  • Niels Riemer, the man who patented recombinant DNA for Stanford University, thus kickstarting the biotech industry.

Every one of these seven people could be the subject of their own biography. Berlin brings their stories to life through one-on-one interviews—all but Bob Taylor and Bob Swanson are still alive—while placing their accomplishments into the context of their time and place. As a professional historian specializing in this region—Berlin is Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University—she deftly meshes personal accounts by her subjects with extensive archival research.

To my mind, the most impressive of these seven individuals is Bob Taylor. As a key player at ARPA (the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, now called DARPA) in the 1960s, he helped lay the foundation for the Internet. Later, in the 1970s, as the director of computer science research at Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), he assembled what was widely considered the most talented group of computer scientists anywhere in the world—and possibly the most talented ever brought together anywhere. These extraordinary men (and a handful of women) created the Alto, the world’s first personal computer with a graphic user interface (GUI), mouse, windows, and networking ability. It’s astonishing to most observers that the Xerox Corporation failed to commercialize the Alto. Only years later did Apple’s Macintosh begin to approach the capabilities of the Alto. (A former key player at PARC thought of the early Mac as a toy.)

You might also be interested in several other reviews I’ve posted: “The new Steve Jobs biography is terrific!,” “Confessions of a Silicon Valley techie,” “The iPhone: the world’s most profitable product?,” and “35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.”

The Cold War, the early CIA, and the McCarthy Era

An Honorable Man by Paul VidichThe early CIA: An Honorable Man by Paul VidichAn Honorable Man by Paul Vidich

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Half a century ago we learned from John le Carré about amorality and corruption in the world of espionage. Other authors have written hundreds of books about spies since then. Some, including Alan Furst, Charles Cumming, Olen Steinhauer, Dame Stella Rimington, and Joseph Kanon, for example, have made their own estimable contributions to the genre in recent decades. But only rarely has their work brought to light the sheer ugliness of the espionage craft and what damage it wreaks on those who practice it. However, there is an exception. In his first novel, An Honorable Man (2016), the American short story writer Paul Vidich brings to life a veteran officer in the early CIA who is honorable only in an ironic sense. The world he inhabits, and the life he lives, are fraught with dreadful expectations and impossible choices.

“Where once there was a struggle between good and evil,” Vidich writes in a vein reminiscent of le Carré, “the clarity was gone, and he was in a new gray-toned world where right and wrong blurred. The many innocent people who were collateral damage haunted him. He knew himself well enough to recognize the signs that he was becoming a burnt-out case.”

It’s January 1953. Senator Joseph McCarthy (identified in the novel only as “the senator”) is foaming at the mouth about alleged Communists and homosexuals in the State Department. General Dwight Eisenhower has not yet moved into the White House, and Allen Dulles is still bitterly serving as deputy director of the CIA (though never identified in the novel). The director is an admiral modeled on the man who actually held that office at the time—the three-star general who had served as Eisenhower’s chief of staff in World War II. The CIA, now just six years old, is still largely run by the freewheeling former OSS officers recruited upon the agency’s formation in 1947, but bureaucratic ways have begun to take hold. Younger recruits regard the old hands as past their sell date.

These same old hands, executives at the highest levels of the early CIA, are frantic with worry that there is a Soviet mole in their midst. They’re equally worried that the FBI will expose them to Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt if they learn the mole’s identity. George Mueller is one of four top CIA officers who have been tasked with identifying the double agent, code-named Protocol. He and his colleagues are investigating a list of suspects that is much too long for comfort, and it is troubling that none of the four is on the list despite obvious circumstantial evidence pointing to them.

George is profoundly unhappy with his life and his work. He has made clear to the director and to all of his close colleagues that he wants to leave the CIA. But the admiral refuses to accept his resignation, insisting that George is the only one of the four men on the top-secret Protocol task force that he can really trust. With great reluctance, George persists in pursuing the mole. He feels surrounded by enemies. One is FBI Special Agent Walker, who does not find it difficult to imagine that George himself is a Soviet agent. Another is James Coffin, the director of Counterintelligence, who sits on the Protocol task force with him. (Coffin somewhat resembles the real-life James Jesus Angleton, the brilliant paranoid schizophrenic who tore the CIA apart in his relentless search for a mole for two decades from the 1950s to the 1970s—a mole he never found.) As evidence mounts that there is indeed a traitor to be found, George finds himself under ever greater pressure.

Officially, the CIA would have us believe that the only traitor who turned up during Angleton’s reign as the agency’s counterintelligence chief (1954-75) was his close personal friend, the notorious KGB spy, Kim Philby of MI6. However, in the acknowledgments at the back of his novel, Paul Vidich writes the following:

“On the morning of April 1, 1953, James Speyer Kronthal was found dead in the upstairs bedroom of his red brick town house in Georgetown by Metropolitan Police, who had been summoned by his longtime housekeeper when she arrived at 8:30 and found the home suspiciously quiet. He was fully clothed, sprawled on the floor, an apparent suicide. He wasn’t shot, as [the mole] is in the novel, but in many other respects my character is based on the sad, troubled life of James Speyer Kronthal.” Q.E.D.

If you read espionage novels, you’ll enjoy my post, My 10 favorite espionage novels. You might also be interested in 17 good nonfiction books about espionage. For reviews of a series of other novels that overlap this historical period, see Olen Steinhauer’s brilliant Yalta Boulevard cycle set in Eastern Europe.

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