December 12, 2017

Alan Furst: spies at work in WWII Istanbul and Rumania

WWII Istanbul: Blood of Victory by Alan FurstBlood of Victory (Night Soldiers #7) by Alan Furst

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Blood of Victory is the seventh of the fourteen historical novels to date in the celebrated Night Soldiers series by Alan Furst. Written in the tradition of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, the Night Soldiers stories are set in Europe during the period 1933-44. The action ranges all across Continent, from Warsaw to Istanbul to Paris and numerous points in-between. Most of the novels involve espionage in the long, often futile resistance to Nazi domination.

In Blood of Victory, a Russian émigré writer named I. A. (Ilya) Serebin is drawn into an ambitious British plot to deny Nazi Germany the oil (“the blood of victory”) that flows from the Rumanian oilfields at Ploesti. “Half Russian aristocrat, half Boshevik Jew, . . . Serebin was forty-two, this was his fifth war, he considered himself expert in the matter of running, hiding, or not caring . . . He was, after all, I. A. Serebin, formerly a decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, Second Class, currently the executive secretary of the International Russian Union, a Paris-based organization for émigrés.” Like so many Europeans in the early years of World War II, Serebin no longer has a permanent home. He is living in Paris as the story opens in 1940, shortly after the Nazi invasion of France. But work and a desire to check in on a former lover taken him to the Balkans and to Istanbul. There, he is recruited by Janos Polyani, formerly Count Polyani, a shadowy Hungarian intelligence operative in the service of the British (and a recurring character in the Night Soldiers series).

In 1940, the Balkans are in turmoil—“as always,” some might say. Serbia is about to explode—again—with pro-Nazi and Communist forces fighting for dominance in a bitter political struggle. Mussolini’s legions have made the mistake of invading Greece and are steadily in retreat. Rumania has just joined the Tripartite Pact with Germany as civil war rages on; the Soviet Union has seized two eastern provinces, the fascist Iron Guard roams the streets like Hitler’s brownshirts, loyalists to the old regime are fighting back, and grim young Nazi “tourists” are moving into the country in large numbers. Turkey attempts to stay neutral but is in a steadily more delicate position as pressure mounts on all sides, from the Germans, the British, and the Russians.

Control of Rumania is a key to Hitler’s strategy. The oil at Ploesti fuels the German war machine because I.G. Farben cannot produce synthetic gasoline fast enough. Rumanian land is on the path to the upcoming Nazi invasion of the USSR, and Rumanian divisions are needed to flesh out Germany’s southernmost army group. To hamper Hitler’s invasion plans, slow down the Panzer divisions wreaking havoc in the West and Northern Africa, and possibly delay the invasion of the Soviet Union, Britain has identified the Ploesti oilfields as one of its highest priority targets on the continent. And Winston Churchill has established the top-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) to conduct sabotage behind enemy lines. Ploesti is one of its first targets. Serebin is drawn into an ambitious and high-risk plan by SOE to disrupt the shipment of oil from the region up the Danube to Germany. The action that unfolds is compelling.

Like so many of Furst’s protagonists, Serebin is a man in early middle age, successful in his field, and what in that era was called a “ladies’ man.” He is rarely without the warming presence of a beautiful woman. Furst writes in an arresting style. His work conjures up the dark mood that had fallen over Europe in the late 1930s.

If this book intrigues you, you might enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included. You might also check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

December 11, 2017

A disappearing magician, Area 51, and a sex-starved problem-solver

disappearing magician: So Damn Lucky by Deborah CoontsSo Damn Lucky (Lucky O’Toole #3) by Deborah Coonts

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

So Damn Lucky is the third entry in Deborah Coonts‘ Lucky O’Toole series about the beautiful young Las Vegas hotel executive who solves problems, some of them invariably including murder. It’s also the third novel I’ve read in the series. I reviewed the first book, Wanna Get Lucky?, as A funny, sexy, well-written novel about misdeeds and passion in Las Vegas. The second, Lucky Stiff, is at Deborah Coonts on murder and mayhem in Las Vegas (it’s all fun). Though I enjoyed all three, I doubt I’ll be reading any more in the series. As I made my way through So Damn Lucky, I found myself getting tired of all the “delicious” men and their attractive backsides. (Yes, I also tire of books by male writers who only include gorgeous female characters with “ample bosoms.”)

Lucky O’Toole has only one problem she can’t handle. She hasn’t been laid in six weeks. She can manage to untangle the knottiest challenges a huge Las Vegas “megaresort” can present. Impossibly demanding guests . . . a French chef who throws tantrums . . . the Big Boss nobody can say no to . . . nothing fazes Lucky. But when a hunky male presents himself within her line of vision, she melts. And this tends to happen a lot, since Lucky is six feet tall and extremely attractive. Practically nobody who is male ignores Lucky O’Toole.

This weakness proves to be a problem when the aforementioned French chef turns out to be “delicious” and attentive beyond the bounds of politeness. The same goes for the officer from the Nevada Gaming Commission who has turned in his notice, in part because he wants to have a go at Lucky. And these are only two of the problematic characters in So Damn Lucky. The cast also includes Lucky’s mom, the owner of “Mona’s Place, the self-styled ‘Best Whorehouse in Pahrump”; Big Boss Albert Rothstein, the imperious billionaire who has only recently revealed himself to be Lucky’s father; Detective Romeo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, who is (fortunately) too young for Lucky; a gaggle of professional magicians; and an astronaut who recently experienced an alien abduction. There are more. Coonts creates characters who are interesting even if they strain the bounds of credibility.

The world starts spinning faster when a magician performing a seemingly impossible stunt at Lucky’s hotel dies on-stage, or at least appears to do so. Soon, top-secret experiments in extrasensory perception at Area 51 enter the mix. It’s all a glorious mess. So Damn Lucky is fun to read, if your humor tends to the sophomoric (as does mine).

If you’re looking for less outrageous reading in the mystery genre, you might enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

December 7, 2017

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.

December 5, 2017

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.

November 28, 2017

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 21, 2017

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.

November 16, 2017

Russian mobsters and crooked lawyers in the latest Harry Bosch

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

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Harry Bosch can’t catch a break. He was forced into retirement from the LAPD, where he served for more than forty years. His wife was murdered.  Now his integrity is being called into question when a three-decade-old case is reopened by the LAPD. Meanwhile, as a volunteer detective for the tiny San Fernando Police Department, he’s looking into a cold case and getting nowhere. Then an active double-homicide investigation sidetracks him from his other worries.

This is the setup in Two Kinds of Truth, the twentieth Harry Bosch thriller from Michael Connelly. Even well past retirement age, Harry hasn’t lost his touch. Nor has Connelly. The novel is tautly written, compulsively suspenseful, and timely to boot: one of the central lines of the plot concerns Russian mobsters running a huge opioid scam that the DEA hasn’t been able to crack. The details about how they operate are jaw-dropping—and no doubt based on fact, given Connelly’s consistently strong research.

Harry faces three investigations simultaneously. Fifteen years ago a young mother had disappeared, leaving her infant sleeping in a crib. The case haunts the San Fernando police chief, who has never turned up a clue—and nor has Harry. Two pharmacists, a father and son, have been brutally murdered at work in San Fernando. The two masked men who executed the pair have left no clues. And Preston Borders, a serial rapist-murderer Harry brought to justice twenty-nine years ago seems about to be freed from death row because DNA evidence has turned up implicating another man in the one rape and murder for which he was convicted.

Harry broods a lot. That’s always been his way. Now he reflects that “there were two kinds of truth in this world. The truth that was the unalterable bedrock of one’s life and mission. And the other, malleable truth of politicians, charlatans, corrupt lawyers, and their clients, bent and molded to serve whatever purpose was at hand.” The events that unfold illustrate this distinction to a T.

If you wonder where Harry Bosch started out, take a look at Michael Connelly’s first Harry Bosch novel: the backstory. You might also be interested in reading my post, “15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).”

November 16, 2017

From David Ignatius, a gripping novel about Iran and the CIA

The Increment by David IgnatiusA gripping novel: The Increment by David IgnatiusThe Increment: A Novel by David Ignatius

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Washington Post columnist and editor David Ignatius has covered wars, diplomacy, and the intelligence community in a long journalistic career. His reporting infuses the ten suspense and espionage novels he has written over the past thirty years. The Increment, published in 2009, dramatizes the hysteria in the Bush Administration about Iran’s program to build nuclear weapons. This engrossing and well-informed novel preceded by several years Barack Obama’s successful initiative to contain the program by treaty.

The central figures in The Increment are a young Iranian nuclear physicist who remains nameless for much of the tale and Harry Pappas, the senior CIA officer who runs the agency’s Iran division, reporting to the director. The young Iranian, disgruntled about both life and work, “walks in” online to the CIA with high-level information about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. An alert young officer routes the information to Harry, triggering a massive effort to contact the sender directly that involves the CIA Director and the White House. Officials at the National Security Council and the President himself leap to conclusions on the basis of the information the young man has sent—and quickly begin moving to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Convinced that the information from the walk-in is ambiguous, and terrified by the President’s haste, Harry scrambles to delay the attack, in hopes of squelching it entirely. To do so, he must team up with an old friend who is now the chief of staff of MI6, with only flimsy cover from the director of his own agency. He’s putting his career on the line by reaching out to another government.

One of Harry’s primary concerns is that anything the US does may jeopardize the life of the young Iranian. “‘He’s trusting the agency,’ in other words . . . Not to f— it up, I mean.'” His assistant responds, “‘What an idiot . . . Doesn’t he read the newspapers?'” It would seem that David Ignatius’ respect for the CIA is not boundless.

It’s all too easy for Americans (probably including some in the White House today) to assume that Iran is just another little Middle Eastern country that’s easy for the US to push around. In fact, Iran is the world’s 18th most-populous country and the 17th largest by landmass. It’s home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. For many centuries, the country’s historical predecessor, the Persian Empire, dominated the ancient Mediterranean. And, as American government military historian David Crist demonstrated in 2012 in The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, the US engaged in a low-level shooting war with Iran until only a few years ago, when bilateral diplomacy at last took center stage. (I reviewed Crist’s book at “The ugly US-Iran war, past, present, and future.”) In other words, it’s important to acknowledge the consensus among US military leaders who have contemplated the prospect of invading Iran that it would be a very bad idea.

You might also be interested in “My 10 favorite espionage novels.” For additional insight, see “17 good nonfiction books about espionage.”

 

 

November 14, 2017

A ghetto detective, a Las Vegas loan shark, and a Chinese triad

Righteous by Joe Ideghetto detective: Righteous by Joe IdeRighteous (IQ #2) by Joe Ide

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Isaiah Quintabe, known as IQ, was a brilliant 17-year-old high school student in East Long Beach on the path to Harvard when his beloved older brother, Marcus, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Marcus’ death upended IQ’s life. At first, he turned to burglary, then gravitated toward using his extraordinary analytical powers to help friends and acquaintances in the ghetto solve the problems facing them. “He stopped the guy that was going to rape Néstor’s daughter, and he caught the guy that was setting the fires and he got the school’s computers back, and he busted the cops so they had to let Jorge go.” IQ’s string of successes caught the attention of the local news media. Thus he came to be the famous ghetto detective everyone turns to when problems come up.

Now, in Righteous, Joe Ide‘s second IQ novel, it’s eight years after Marcus’ death. The ghetto detective finally comes across a clue to the killing. In the auto wrecking yard where he worked in years past, the car that killed his brother turns up. The discovery triggers a frenzied investigation that brings IQ into dangerous confrontations with several leaders of a powerful local gang. Shortly afterward, Marcus’ old girlfriend, Sarita Van, calls to ask him to rescue her sister from a merciless loanshark in Las Vegas. Sarita’s younger sister is a gambling addict, and she and her idiotic boyfriend have gambled themselves into a debt they can never repay.

IQ’s twin investigations in Righteous bring him into conflict with the loan shark and his seven-foot-tall enforcer, the violent gang that terrorizes East Long Beach, and a Chinese triad‘s enormous human-trafficking operation. In the end, IQ solves the mystery of his brother’s death and, of course, saves the girl as well. All the fun lies in getting there. The tale is suspenseful, a successful thriller.

If you enjoy reading detective novels, check out my post, 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others). You might also be interested in 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

November 9, 2017

MI5’s Slough House spies uncover a decades-old conspiracy

Spook Street by Mick HerronSlough House spies: Spook Street by Mick HerronSpook Street (Slough House #5) by Mick Herron

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In a television series, the denizens of Mick Herron’s Slough House series would be known as an “ensemble cast.” From one episode (or book) to the next, the same characters keep appearing,, playing their expected roles. Typically, on TV, none of these characters leaves the scene, unless an actor decides to depart for better terms elsewhere or an idiosyncratic author elects to retire a character for reasons of her own. But Slough House is not like that. Characters die. The ensemble cast mutates from book to book. And that’s a good thing, since it keeps readers guessing.

In Spook Street, the fifth novel in the series, five of the original cast soldier on: Jackson Lamb, the obnoxious old spook who runs the place with a heavy hand; River Cartwright, grandson of the legendary spymaster David “Old Bastard (the O.B.)” Cartwright; Catherine Standish, the alcoholic secretary to MI5’s late, disgraced former Director General and now Lamb’s assistant; clueless computer hacker Roderick Ho, who knows all the secrets that brought his colleagues to Slough House’s version of purgatory for British spies; and Louisa Guy, “who Ho couldn’t look at without thinking of a pressure cooker, steam coming out of her ears.” The other characters who had labored at make-work projects in the house at the series’ outset are gone. Mostly dead and gone. Even Catherine has left. Retired.

Spook Street opens with two entirely new characters in the house: a young man who looks capable of mass murder and an officious new office manager. It’s a new day at Slough House—and not a good one. Roddy Ho is fantasizing about his new girlfriend, who has yet to accommodate him with promised favors. River Cartwright is terrified about his grandfather, the O.B., who is rapidly slipping into dementia—and whose head is full of dangerous agency secrets going back decades. Marcus Longridge, who joined the crew in an earlier novel, is about to lose his house and his family because of his gambling addiction. Louisa Guy can barely be restrained from snapping the neck of anyone who gets close to her. Shirley Dander (another relative newcomer) is in a fog from booze and cocaine, as usual. And, even stranger, Jackson Lamb is nowhere to be found.

Oh, and a suicide bomber has just murdered hundreds of young people he had attracted to a London plaza by organizing a flash mob. No, these are not good days for Slough House or MI5.

Then things start to get really funky.

Like the four novels that preceded it, Spook Street is engagingly written, suspenseful to a fault, and often very, very funny. I loved the book.

In addition to the five novels to date in the Slough House series, British mystery and thriller writer Mick Herron has written five other novels.

Previously, I reviewed the first book in the Slough House series, Slow Horses (British satire about misfit spies in MI5); the second, Dead Lions (Russian sleeper agents and the misfits of MI5); the third, a novella, The List (Bumbling spies again in Mick Herron’s Slough House series); and the fourth, Real Tigers (Slough House spooks are on the loose again). You may also be interested in reading about My 10 favorite espionage novels.

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