January 9, 2018

A compelling spy novel by Paul Vidich set during the Cuban Revolution

The Good Assassin by Paul VidichThe Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In An Honorable Man, the debut novel by Paul Vidich, we meet George Mueller. In my review of the novel, The Cold War, the early CIA, and the McCarthy Era, I described him as “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.” In Vidich’s captivating second novel, The Good Assassin, Mueller has been retired from the agency for five years. He is teaching Shakespeare at his alma mater, Yale University, when the director of the CIA approaches him to take on an assignment in Cuba. There, he is to track down an old acquaintance, Toby Graham. The director seems to suspect that Toby may not be following orders. Mueller is to find out “what’s on his mind.”

The action unfolds in the closing weeks of 1958, as the Cuban Revolution is heading toward its climax on New Year’s Day, 1959. Traveling under cover as a travel writer for Holiday magazine, Mueller circulates through Havana with a freelance photographer in tow. She is an attractive young woman with whom, unsurprisingly, he ends up in bed. And it turns out that she is friendly with a married American couple who have purchased land for a cattle ranch nearby. Mueller knows them both: he and Jack Malone both attended Yale, as did Graham, and Jack’s unhappy wife, Liz, had once slept with Mueller. Together with Graham, the four—Mueller, Jack, Liz, and Katie Laurent, the photographer—wind up spending a great deal of time together as Liz and Jack’s marriage steadily disintegrates. The five are drawn closer together by the civil war spiraling out of control all around them.

Graham is the “good assassin” of the novel’s title. He is a veteran officer of the CIA with a violent past and a troubled mind. Among many other assignments, Graham had helped engineer the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, the elected socialist president of Guatemala. In a long conversation with Mueller, Graham conveys his discontent with the agency’s coup there. “I was in the room. Men died. It was all concocted by ambitious men thinking they were playing a Cold War board game. Do you know what I’m talking about? It was a feeling I got—hard to put into words—these perfectly decent Ivy Leaguers at their desks writing memos on extreme interrogation and assassination. We were given a manual on the best ways to extract a man’s eyes to keep him alive, but blind, one eye at a time, to get a confession. Decent men, ambitious men, who were asked to rationalize assassinations, so they wrote a manual on the most effective way to kill. I got the manual in Guatemala.” Sadly, as the author well knows, the CIA did indeed create such a manual. (You can read it here.) The manual was made public in 1997 as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.

In Cuba, however, Toby’s loyalties are unclear. He appears to be smuggling guns into the country—but it’s unclear for a time who is receiving them. Only gradually does Mueller learn the truth about Toby’s activities in the country.

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.

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 5, 2017

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

Paranoia by Joseph FinderParanoia by Joseph Finder

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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.”

For reviews of other books on this topic, read 13 eye-opening books about terrorism. If 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

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

The Increment by David IgnatiusA gripping novel: The Increment by David IgnatiusThe Increment 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 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.

October 12, 2017

Liz Carlyle stars in an outstanding British espionage novel

Liz Carlyle stars in Dead Line by Stella RimingtonDead Line (Liz Carlyle #4) by Stella Rimington

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Dame Stella Rimington served as Director General of Britain’s Security Service, MI5, from 1992 to 1996. Eight years later, in retirement, her first spy novel was published, launching the Liz Carlyle series. Dead Line (2008) is the fourth in the series, now nine strong.

Clearly, Rimington has intimate knowledge of MI5 and its sister agency, MI6. So it’s no surprise that every entry in the Liz Carlyle series rings with authenticity. What is unexpected is Rimington’s proficiency with plotting, characterization, and scene-setting. Like its three predecessors in the series, Dead Line is a pleasure to read.

In this suspenseful spy thriller, a high-level Middle Eastern peace conference is scheduled to take place in Scotland. The presidents of Israel, Syria, and the United States are all scheduled to attend. The conference is just weeks away when MI6 picks up a credible agent’s report that a plan is afoot to sabotage the conference. Thirty-five-year-old MI5 officer Liz Carlyle is assigned to work with MI6 to determine whether the threat is real and, if so, find out who’s behind it—and thwart it at all costs.

Together with her able young aide, Peggy Kinsolving, and senior MI6 officer Geoffrey Fane, Liz sets out on an investigation that intensifies as the deadline approaches. Other agencies become involved, including the CIA, Special Branch, Revenue and Customs, and Israel’s Mossad. Suspense builds steadily as the story unfolds, and it’s not until the very end that Liz—or the reader—understands what’s really happening. The novel concludes on a high note, but loose ends remain to be wrapped up in future stories.

After four novels in the series, Liz Carlyle is coming into sharp focus. She is professional to a fault, highly intuitive, and capable of facing down even the most formidable sexist male. Liz is also secretly in love with her (married) boss, Charles Wetherby, and fearful that the man her aging mother has paired up with is a gold-digger. And she’s frustrated that her job hasn’t allowed her to date. In other words, exceptional though she is, Liz Carlyle is an entirely credible thirty-something Englishwoman.

My review of the first novel in the Liz Carlyle series, At Risk, is at High stakes in an excellent espionage thriller. You’ll find my review of the second one, Secret Asset, here: An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage. The third, Illegal Action, is at An engaging spy novel from former MI5 director Stella Rimington. I have also reviewed Breaking Cover, the ninth book in the Liz Carlyle series, at Russian agents under cover in the UK.

You might also like to take a look at 17 good nonfiction books about espionage.

September 28, 2017

The Cold War reexamined in John le Carré’s terrific new novel

Cold War reexamined - A Legacy of Spies - John le CarreA Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The consummate British spy George Smiley originally appeared in 1961 in John le Carré‘s Call for the Dead, his first novel. The last time he was a central character was 1979 in Smiley’s People, nearly forty years ago. (His most recent appearance, but only as a supporting character, was in The Secret Pilgrim, published in 1990.) Now, decades later, Smiley surfaces again in the background in le Carré’s twenty-fourth novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017). Given the author’s six-decade career as a novelist, the decade he had spent as an intelligence officer for both MI6 and MI5, and the worldwide popularity of his work, Smiley’s reappearance in 2017 is a major event in the publishing world. And, luckily, A Legacy of Spies is worth all the fuss.

The Cold War reexamined

Decades earlier, late in the 1950s and early in the 60s, Peter Guillam had served as a young MI6 officer under the legendary George Smiley, then serving one step below Control as “Head of Covert.” Smiley and Control had involved him in a spectacularly devious operation named Windfall that targeted East Germany’s Stasi. Now, many years later, Guillam is an old man, retired to the family farm in Brittany. An urgent summons calls him to London, where he learns that he and Smiley have been sued by the children of two people who fell victim to that old operation—and, worse, Members of Parliament are threatening an investigation that has the potential to cause great damage not just to them personally but to the Secret Intelligence Service as a whole. Peter is sequestered in a run-down safe house and interrogated by an unpleasant pair of officers who are convinced that he and Smiley were responsible for the two deaths and for causing Windfall to fail in a disastrous fashion.

Complex and believable characters, palpable suspense

The action rapidly shifts back and forth from Peter’s recollections of Windfall and the hostile questioning he faces years later, illuminated by official documents that come to light in the files of MI6 as well as the Stasi. At the age of 85, le Carré has lost none of his considerable writing skill. His characters leap off the page, fully fleshed. Suspense builds steadily as the case against Peter grows ever stronger. And, in dialogue as well as memory, the ambiguous morality of the espionage game comes across just as clearly as it did in the novels le Carré wrote during the Cold War. A Legacy of Spies is a worthy successor to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the breakthrough bestseller that established the author as the premier spy novelist of the last half-century.

For my review of other recent le Carré spy novels, see John Carre’s latest, about anti-terrorism, is brilliant and John Le Carre on British espionage at the end of the Cold War.  You might also be interesed in 17 good nonfiction books about espionage.

September 21, 2017

Slough House spooks are on the loose again

spooks in Real Tigers by Mick HerronReal Tigers (Slough House #4) by Mick Herron

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

They’re all spooks. But Marcus is a gambling addict. Shirley’s a cokehead (“It was a weekend thing with her, strictly Thursday to Tuesday”). Catherine is a recovering alcoholic, Louisa a sex addict, Roddy a hacker with a toxic personality. And River screwed up a large-scale training mission so publicly that he caused all traffic to come to a halt at one of London’s busiest tube stations during rush hour. These misfits are the unwilling residents of Slough House, a crumbling old building far from the action in London where MI5 stashes the screw-ups it can’t find ways to fire. There, they all carry on meaningless secretarial tasks under the direction of the legendary Jackson Lamb. (“Nobody left Slough House at the end of a working day feeling like they’d contributed to the security of the nation.”) Jackson was once a high-level field operative who managed to get on the wrong side of the director general. Now he sits behind closed doors in a cluttered office on the top floor of Slough House, belching, farting, drinking, and growling at anyone who comes within his field of vision.

In Real Tigers, the fourth book in Mick Herron’s entertaining series about the misadventures of this motley crew of spooks, the so-called “slow horses” of Slough House come into conflict once again with the formidable Diana Taverner. “Lady Di” is a deputy director who runs MI5’s operations division when she’s not scheming to force her boss out of the agency and take on the directorship herself. Though forbidden from getting involved in any meaningful operations, the slow horses somehow always seem to get drawn, willingly or not, into some case that exposes them to real-world danger.

This time, in Real Tigers, the case begins to unfold when Catherine is kidnapped after leaving work one evening. Then River is confronted by one of the kidnappers and shown a photo on his phone of Catherine tied up and gagged. She will not live, he’s told, unless he steals a top-secret file from Regent’s Park the MI5 headquarters. When River himself disappears on this mission, Jackson and his charges at Slough House swing into action. Naturally, they don’t have a clue what they’re getting into. They will find themselves in conflict again with Lady Di; with her boss, Dame Ingrid Tearney; with her boss, the Home Secretary; with MI5’s enforcers, the Dogs; and with a small army of private security thugs. As the action plays out, Herron’s tale becomes increasingly complicated—but it’s all glorious fun. Herron is a masterful wordsmith with genuine talent at nonstop banter. Even if you lose track of the thread of the story, which is easy to do, you’ll enjoy the action while it lasts.

There’s a hint of the story in the novel’s opening sentence: “Like most forms of corruption, it began with men in suits.” And Herron’s descriptions of characters are frequently priceless. Here, for example, is the Home Secretary: “blue suit, yellow tie, artfully tousled haystack of hair and a plummy grin you’d have to be a moron or a voter not to notice concealed a degree of self-interest that would alienate a shark.”

In addition to the five books that now comprise the Slough House series, Mick Herron has written four other novels since 2003. He has twice won recognized awards for his fiction and been shortlisted for many others.

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

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