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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.”



From Ross Thomas: con men, a $5 million bribe, and a Philippine rebellion

con men - Out on the Rim - Ross ThomasOut on the Rim, by Ross Thomas

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Ross Thomas‘ inimitable thrillers were originally published between 1966 and 1994. (Ross died the following year.) More recently, most of his work has been brought out in new editions, each with an introduction by a prominent contemporary of his who wrote mysteries and thrillers, too. Introducing Out on the Rim, one of Thomas’ last novels, Donald E. Westlake comments “The dialogue zings, the story twists like a go-go dancer, and you often can’t tell the players even with the program.” Amen to that.

Published in 1987 and set a year earlier, Out on the Rim is a roller-coaster of a tale that moves from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, to Manila and Cebu City in the Philippines, to Hong Kong, and back to Washington, DC, for a typically ironic and very satisfying conclusion. The focus of attention is Booth Stallings, a “terrorism expert”—he holds a Ph.D. and wrote a book on the subject—but Thomas shifts the point of view from Stallings to each of a number of other intriguing characters whose principal occupation seems to be double-crossing each other.

There’s Artie Wu, the brilliant and corpulent “Pretender to the Chinese Imperial Throne.” (He claims to be the illegitimate son of the illegitimate son of Pu Yi, the Last Emperor.) Wu’s partner in crime is Quincy Durant, a sociopath who works cons with him. Others frequently refer to him as “that f***ing Durant.” Maurice Overby, “House-sitter to the Stars,” known to most as Otherguy Overby (the other guy always did it), is also a con man. He always works at an angle about 45 degrees off course from everyone else. Georgia Blue, a cashiered former Secret Service agent, may not be licensed to kill, but it’s clear she is fully capable of doing it. Alejandro (Al) Espiritu, who fought the Japanese with Stallings, is now the leader of a rebel movement in the south of the Philippines. Also appearing are Al’s wife and sister, assorted CIA agents, a Philippine homicide detective, and an Australian expatriate in Manila who is selling secrets to so many governments that he can’t keep them all straight. As Donald Westlake says, “you often can’t tell the players even with the program.”

Shortly after his 60th birthday, Booth Stallings is recruited to return to the Philippines after more than 40 years to reconnect with Al Espiritu. His assignment is to persuade the rebel leader to accept a $5 million bribe to leave the islands for exile in Hong Kong. Stallings will be paid a fee of $500,000 for the job (about a million dollars in 2017). To help carry out this dangerous assignment, he turns to Otherguy Overby, who connects him with Wu and Durant. Stallings plans to fly to Manila with the other three men, but then the man who recruited him insists that his bodyguard, Georgia Blue, join the team. Immediately after their arrival in the Philippines, the trouble starts—and it doesn’t let up until the very end of this delightfully convoluted story.

The latest from a latter-day John le Carre

John le CarreA Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3) by Charles Cumming

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The British espionage novelist Charles Cumming is sometimes compared to John le Carre, who is 40 years older. Le Carre writes in the same genre but is celebrated as the author of several novels regarded as among the best ever written. I’m usually suspicious of such analogies. But this one is apt. Cumming’s protagonist Thomas Kell brings to mind the jaded George Smiley of le Carre’s early spy novels. Both constantly wrestle with moral questions and frequently reflect that the difference between MI6 and its Russian counterparts is fuzzy at best. And both are deeply skeptical of the importance or effectiveness of their efforts. As Kell reflects in A Divided Spy, “In his twenty-year career in the secret world, Kell—in common with many of his colleagues—had developed a theory that most of the Service’s greatest successes had come about, in part, because of cock-up and human error. He had never been a believer in perfect plans and immaculate conspiracies.”

Cumming describes his protagonist as a man with “a facility for deceit and manipulation [that] was as much a part of Kell’s character as his decency and capacity for love.” And Kell’s Russian counterpart notes that “[t]he constant process of lying, of subterfuge, of concealment and second-guess, is exhausting. It is bad for the soul.”

In A Divided Spy, Kell at age 46 has left MI6 after a bruising run-in with the bureaucrats who made his life miserable. He is brooding over the murder of his lover, Rachel Wallinger, at the hands of a Russian spy named Alexander Minasian. When Minasian unexpectedly surfaces, Kell resolves to avenge her death. He plans an elaborate entrapment scheme to “turn” Minasian. This plan brings Kell into conflict with Amelia Levene, an old friend who is the Director General of MI6.

Meanwhile, a high-profile terrorist plot is unfolding. A young British man who has fought for ISIS in Syria has reentered England on a false passport and is establishing his new identity in the seaside resort of Brighton. Though it may seem unlikely, these two plotlines are destined to intersect. As they do, Kell is tested in ways he has never before been required to face.

Like le Carre, Cumming grounds his tales in the realities of spycraft. Just as CIA officers were said to devour the George Smiley novels, I imagine that operatives for both the CIA and MI6 are reading the saga of Thomas Kell. Or perhaps they should be.

A Divided Spy is the third book in Charles Cumming’s compelling series of espionage novels featuring MI6 officer Thomas Kell. It may be the last.

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

Going undercover for the CIA in ISIS

ISISThe Prisoner (John Wells #11) by Alex Berenson

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To uncover the identity of a mole in the CIA, John Wells must go undercover again. A long time earlier, he had spent years with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the time, he was the CIA’s only source of first-hand information from the scene. This time, the plan is for him to revert to his terrorist identity, contrive to be captured by American forces in Afghanistan, and then rendered by the CIA to a black prison site in Bulgaria. There, his assignment is to befriend a fellow prisoner, a senior officer in ISIS. The agency believes that this man can identify the mole.

Meanwhile, a potentially catastrophic terrorist operation is being planned in Syria. ISIS is attempting to produce a large quantity of the nerve agent sarin. We can be sure that this plot will intersect with the story of the CIA mole—and that John Wells will become involved in thwarting it.

Wells is uniquely well suited for this assignment. He is fluent in Arabic and the southern Afghanistan dialect of Pashto. He is a Muslim, having converted from Christianity while embedded in Al Qaeda. A former Special Forces soldier and CIA officer, Wells is as tough as they come, even now that he is past 40 years of age. And his handler, Ellis Shafer, is brilliant—and he has the President of the United States on the latter-day equivalent of speed-dial.

Despite his unwavering commitment to protect his native country, Wells is reluctant to confront ISIS. He is long retired from the CIA. He has a two-year-old daughter, who is living with his ex-girlfriend. She has refused to let him move in with them, but he has rented a small home near hers in the hills of New Hampshire. Wells wants nothing more than to bury himself in the northern woods and the love of his family. Still, when he learns of the mole from an old friend in the Bulgarian intelligence service, he feels he has no choice but to help.

Working with Shafer and directly with the President, former CIA Director Vinny Duto, Wells sets out for Afghanistan and another perilous and punishing job for the agency. This is the set-up in The Prisoner, the 11th thriller in Alex Berenson’s extraordinary series of spy novels.

The John Wells novels invariably build suspense to the very end, with surprises around every corner. However, what sets them so far apart from other spy stories is the intimate knowledge Berenson has gained about his subject matter. He covered the occupation of Iraq for the New York Times in 2003-4, and his research skills are obviously considerable. The Prisoner is an excellent example of fiction grounded in fact.

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

An entertaining if puzzling sci-fi novel

sci-fi novelSleeping Giants (Themis Files #1 of 2) by Sylvain Neuvel

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Every once in a while you come across a work of fiction so puzzling that you simply can’t put it down. No matter that the story seems not just farfetched but downright silly. The narrative drive, the sheer suspense, keep you turning the pages all the way to the end. If you can’t figure out why, it’s probably that you keep wondering whether the whole thing makes any sense at all. At any rate, that was the experience I had when reading Sleeping Giants by the Canadian author Sylvain Neuvel. This debut sci-fi novel is strong on plotting but weak on plausibility. Hard science fiction it’s not.

Here, more of less, is how the novel opens. Rose Franklin, an 11-year-old girl living in South Dakota, walks across a field one day only to find the ground vanishing from under her. Much later, when she regains consciousness, she sees a photo of herself lying far down at the bottom of a perfectly square hole in the palm of an enormous metal hand. Scientists learn that the hand is made from an alloy unknown on Earth and is 6,000 years old. The four walls of the hole where it lies are covered with strange symbols that correspond to no language known to humankind.

Twenty years later, Rose holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago and works at the Enrico Fermi Institute. There she heads a team attempting to interpret the symbols and learn more about the hand. In an interview conducted by a mysterious, unnamed government official, she reports that the hand weighs 32 metric tons. But the hand consists mostly of the extremely heavy metal iridium and should weigh ten times as much. The only possible conclusion based on all these facts is that the hand is the product of an extraterrestrial intelligence. Unsurprisingly, the US government has seized control of the investigation. Rose’s interviewer, who may or may not be a senior official of the CIA or NSA, has become the director of the project. Soon the goal becomes to find the arm and, presumably, later, the other parts of the enormous body the team is convinced they’ll find.

Sleeping Giants is the first of two books that comprise the “Themis Files.” The text consists of a series of “files,” brief interviews conducted by the director and oral diary entries by Rose and other members of the team assembled to work with her. The story centers around the work of five central characters: Rose, the unnamed director, two US Army helicopter pilots, and a young linguist from Quebec. Suffice it to say that their interaction is eventful. I won’t spoil the story by explaining any more. After all’s said, it’s a good story.

About the author

Like one of the principal characters in Sleeping Giants, Sylvain Neuvel is a Québécois. He was a high school dropout who later received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago. Sleeping Giants in his first novel.

The 5 best books of 2016

best booksI’d already written up my list of the 10 best books of the year when the editors of Berkeleyside asked me to supply them with a list of my five top picks. (I’ll post the longer list next week.) Picking just five is a tough assignment, to put it mildly. But here goes, gritting my teeth all the way. All these books were published in 2016 or late in 2015.

Homegoing: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi

In a searing exploration of the history of slavery, an African-born American woman traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States.

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings

A British historian’s revisionist view of military intelligence in World War II,  debunking the many myths that have inspired dozens of books and taking their exaggerations down a peg with a long-lacking sense of perspective. In short, Hastings demonstrates that virtually all human intelligence (“humint”) was useless.

The Sympathizer: A Novel, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A Vietnamese-American won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with this complex novel of the Vietnam War, viewing the conflict from those who took part both in the South and the North. It’s a perspective unfamiliar to most of us and could only have been written by a Vietnamese-American. The book is crammed with insight, and it’s beautifully written.

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman

A science journalist traces the history of autism throughout the twentieth century, when it first became the subject of close study. It’s a fascinating story of myths and misunderstandings long held both among psychiatrists and the public. The psychiatric profession does not come off well in this telling.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot 

A veteran investigative journalist explores the time in the 1950s and 60s when the CIA ran amok, assassinating foreign leaders and intervening in the affairs of other countries in the belief that the USSR was bent on world domination. The focus is on the legendary CIA Director, Allen Dulles. You won’t think more highly of him if you read this book.

27 biographies worth reading


One of the very best ways to gain insight into history and the ways of the world around us is to read biographies. Which explains why I read them so frequently. Over the more than six years since I began writing this blog, I’ve read dozens. Here I’m listing 27 that stand out in my mind.

The 27 books below are arranged in no particularly order. You’ll see, too, that they cover a lot of territory. However, apart from Stacy Schiff’s biography of Queen Cleopatra and Robert Massie’s celebrated work on Catherine the Great, they’re all set in the 19th and 20th centuries. I occasionally read history set far in the past, but I’m far more interested in the modern era that began with the Industrial Revolution.

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles

T. J. Stiles won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for this outstanding biography of one of the seminal figures in American economic history. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the model for the generation of capitalists who came to be known as Robber Barons.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

The amazing story of a 19th century superstar, little remembered today, who was regarded as a genius by Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders of Western civilization during and after his lifetime. This is the man who first laid down the principles of ecology — more than 200 years ago.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

If any one person was most responsible for today’s divisive politics in America — and for the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump — it’s Roger Ailes. As the longtime chairman of Fox News, Ailes steadily made Right-Wing extremism ever more respectable. We’re all paying the price for that now and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.

Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

Few Americans today can imagine the abject fear that stalked summertime America when polio epidemics were an annual occurrence. Jonas Salk solved the problem. Often shunned by his fellow scientists, Salk was a true pioneer. He ignored the limitations of medical science as it was known in his day to fashion drug trials that gave us the first (and safest) polio vaccine.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Hollywood’s portrayals of Queen Cleopatra bore little resemblance to the reality, as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this extraordinary original biography. More historiography than simple history, Schiff examines how the legend of Cleopatra grew over the centuries — and was steadily distorted in the process.

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye

John F. Kennedy’s younger brother was showing the potential to eclipse him when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on his path to the White House. Apart from the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Bobby Kennedy played a significant role at the side of his brother, and the goal he set of landing a man on the moon, it’s difficult to point to much in JFK’s presidency that history will regard as truly significant. Bobby seemed prepared to do much more.

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson

Social change movements don’t start by themselves. Someone leads them. And often that person is what today we call a community organizer. Cesar Chavez was one such man, and this excellent biography is about the gifted teacher who taught him the tricks of the trade.

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles

This surprising biography of the Civil War hero and famous failure won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History. As Stiles makes clear, the jealousy of Custer’s fellow officers was probably in large part responsible for the general’s defeat at the Little Big Horn.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable

Though mainstream society shunned him as a criminal, most African-Americans in his time looked on Malcolm X as a hero. Along with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm must be considered one of the most significant figures in recent American history.

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber

The real-life Karl Marx was very different from the caricature created by Lenin, Stalin, and their minions. He was, in fact, a man of his time and not really a revolutionary in the manner of Lenin, much less Stalin or Mao.

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, by Michael Hiltzik

Today we take for granted that scientific advancement comes from huge, well-funded teams, not solitary individuals laboring away in white coats. This biography of the remarkable atomic physicist Ernest Lawrence tells the story of how Big Science came to be — and how he was a central figure in its creation.

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Few of us know any more about the Wright Brothers than the image lingering in our minds of that flimsy biplane lifting off the dunes at Kitty Hawk. Here, the prize-winning biographer David McCullough tells their remarkable story. What’s especially interesting are the years after Kitty Hawk, when the brothers became world famous.

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

David McCullough’s intimate biography of Steve Jobs grabbed the headlines, and it was beautifully done, as is all of McCullough’s work. But this later entry from two journalists who followed Jobs closely for many years gives a far more accurate and balanced picture of the man and his life. He was even more complex than we knew.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw

In his time, Joe Kennedy was considered by some (especially himself) as a possible contender for the Presidency. When his hopes were frustrated, he transferred his ambitions to his sons. This is the insightful story of a remarkable man who established one of the most important families of 20th-Century America.

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell

In his own time, Clarence Darrow was one of the most famous men in America. As an attorney — the country’s leading attorney — for unpopular people and causes, he was probably loathed at least as widely as he was loved. But no one would ever have dreamed of dismissing him as inconsequential.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

Among the Tsars of Russia, only Peter the Great can be considered as a peer to the Prussian woman who married an heir to the throne and came to be called Catherine the Great when she succeeded her husband after a few years. Catherine ruled over the country for 34 years, expanding its borders and modernizing its institutions along Western European lines.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre

Espionage is, of course, a risky business. Few spies manage to operate undiscovered for more than a few years. Those who gain access to secrets at the highest level tend to be in even greater jeopardy. Kim Philby was a rare exception. For three decades, he worked undercover in the UK as a spy for the Soviet Union inside the British intelligence establishment. Even after his English colleagues became convinced he was a spy and isolated him from access to sensitive information, the CIA continued to defend him.

American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, by Alex Beam

In its own time, and into the present day, the Church of Latter-Day Saints was one of the world’s fastest-growing religions. For decades, the religion founded early in the 19th century by an uneducated young man in Upstate New York defended the practice of polygamy, a practice which the founder himself indulged in to an extreme degree. Eventually, the Mormon church abandoned its defense of plural marriage, but the mystifying fantasy at the heart of the beliefs expounded by Joseph Smith nearly two centuries ago live on.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk

Much of what the public knows about poverty in the Global South comes from the work of an American economist who gained fame at an early age working a “miracle” in Bolivia. Unfortunately, there were no miracles to follow in any of his work over the following three decades. As Nina Munk makes clear through diligent research, Jeffrey Sachs is no miracle-maker, and the path he described out of poverty is a dead end.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Geffen

A Russian-American journalist unmasks the former KGB agent who has set out to reconstruct the Soviet empire and is now aggressively taking on the world. His intervention in Syria and his meddling in the 2016 American elections are just two of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to work his way on the world. And, by the way, he’s stolen enough to amass a personal fortune of $40 billion. While Putin and his cronies have become absurdly rich, the Russian economy is in a shambles.

The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro

Robert Caro is one of America’s most celebrated political biographers. Though not without its critics, his multi-volume portrait of Lyndon Johnson is widely regarded to be one of the best presidential biographies ever written — and it’s yet to be finished. The Passage of Power is the fourth volume, and it brings Johnson’s story only up to 1964, when he was elected in his own right to the White House.

And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields

Like so many clowns, Kurt Vonnegut lived a sad life. His satirical take-downs of war, corporations, and life in mid-century America in his books were sometimes hilarious. But it doesn’t appear that the man laughed a lot. And even though for many years Vonnegut was regarded as one of America’s most important writers, it remains to be seen whether that reputation can endure much longer.

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, by Thomas Blass

Any educated person in America today is likely to be familiar with two of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in social psychology. One was the “obedience” experiment, in which he proved that Yale undergraduates could be persuaded to induce extreme, and even life-threatening, pain on others simply because they were told to do so. The other was the “small world” experiment, in which Milgram proved that we are separated from one another by no more than “six degrees of separation.”

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor to the CIA, was responsible for much of the partisan activity behind Nazi lines in Europe. Though later evidence suggests it was only marginally helpful to the war effort, Donovan and his work had the confidence of FDR and became world famous.

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer

The historical record is shocking enough: the future Secretary of State and future CIA director helped steer Wall Street capital and American business to Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. The older brother, Foster, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with his diplomatic brinksmanship. The younger, Allen, first helped Nazi war criminals escape to the US and South America after World War II, sometimes with the fortunes they plundered. Later, he led US efforts to assassinate heads of government in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, and probably many others. Yet, as David Talbot showed in his later book (listed just below), even worse was to come.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot

Digging much more deeply into the historical record, including interviews with contemporaries of Dulles and recently opened secret files, San Francisco investigative journalist David Talbot paints a much darker and more credible picture of Allen Dulles than Kinzer did in The Brothers. Even after JFK fired him as CIA Director, Dulles continued to meddle in political affairs at the highest level — with catastrophic consequences.

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, by Rich Cohen

The astounding-but-true tale of how a penniless Eastern European immigrant founded the United Fruit Company, helped engineer the murder of the President of Guatemala, and became one of the richest men in the world. It was Samuel Zemurray whose efforts shaped the history several of what came to be called “banana republics.”

An historical thriller that doesn’t thrill

historical thrillerA review of Black Water: A Novel, by Louise Doughty

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Imagine: you’re going to write a book about a man nearing the age of 60, who was born in 1942 in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia. (Yes, it’s 1998 now.) His mother was Dutch, his father a dark-skinned Dutch-Indonesian soldier in the Dutch Army. At the age of five, his mother moved with him to Los Angeles to marry a World War II veteran with PTSD. The two disappear, leaving him with the man’s parents, an African-American attorney and his common-law wife. Twelve years later, he is unexpectedly summoned to Holland by his mother to live with her and her third husband.

An American-owned “consulting” firm

Later, after service in the Dutch Army, he goes to work for the “Institute,” an American-owned Dutch “consulting” firm that works with the CIA in Indonesia and elsewhere in the developing world. Because his boss believes he speaks “all the languages there,” he is transferred to Jakarta in 1965. There he is assigned to serve as a courier for the CIA, conveying lists of “Communists” to the Indonesian generals who are murdering them — and almost anyone who is of Chinese extraction — by the hundreds of thousands.

From Jakarta to Bali

More than thirty years later, after working at a desk in Amsterdam for the company, he is transferred back to Jakarta to help assess the chaotic conditions in Indonesia in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. He badly misreads the situation, which leads to the overthrow of the Indonesian government. Having disappointed the company and its clients, he is exiled to Bali — Bali! — to rest in a company safe house in the countryside. Now, the man lies in wait, expecting that the company will send someone to kill him.

That could be a fascinating book, right? Think about how you might describe life during the Indonesian genocide in 1965, the difficulty of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s as a mixed-raced child with an African-American “grandfather,” the recurrence of large-scale violence in Indonesia in 1998, and life in rural Bali. The possibilities are endless, right?

An historical thriller that doesn’t thrill

So, why on earth would you devote 352 pages largely to the man’s self-pitying inner dialogue and his clumsy and largely unsuccessful connections with women? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Louise Doughty did in Black Water. From the very beginning she suggests much more: the title appears to refer to a notorious American company of mercenaries that bears some resemblance to the Institute that figures in the novel. But that analogy is completely missing in the story. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. If this book is an example of what today’s critics call “literature,” I’ll stick to nonfiction. And if I want to read made-up stories, give me mysteries, thrillers, and science fiction any time instead of pretentious books like this.

The historical background

The story in Black Water is grounded in historical fact. Genocidal violence did break out in Indonesia under Sukarno in the mid-1960s, and his successor, Suharto, was in truth driven from office in 1998 by a recurrence of large-scale violence. The CIA was deeply involved in 1965, and probably in 1998 as well. After all, in the 1960s, the CIA considered that assassinating popular leaders and supporting Right-Wing dictators were the essence of its business — and if its actions could be packaged under the banner of anti-Communism, that was all to the good. Too bad Louise Doughty didn’t make more of these facts.

Louise Doughty is a popular English author and playwright, the author of eight novels and five plays. She should have known better.


Russian agents under cover in the UK

Russian agents in Breaking Cover by Stella Rimington Breaking Cover (Liz Carlyle #9) by Stella Rimington

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A prominent civil liberties advocate named Jasminder Kapoor is saved from muggers on a London street late at night by a passerby. Within weeks, she has fallen in love with the man, a Norwegian banker. There is something a little strange about him, but she can’t put her finger on it.

Russian agents enter the scene

Meanwhile, a Russian officer stationed in Ukraine witnesses the mangled bodies strewn about by the crash of a Malaysian airliner downed by a Russian missile. Disgusted by the experience, he approaches the CIA and volunteers to pass along information. A high-ranking CIA officer flies to Ukraine to interview him. The soldier has insisted on speaking with a “British expert,” and Miles Brookhaven fits the bill. In a short, tense meeting, Miles learns that the FSB has begun placing undercover Russian agents — “illegals” — in the West. One is in England.

The CIA immediately informs MI5, where Liz Carlyle heads counterespionage. With no additional information to go on, Liz is stymied. Then Miles meets again with the Russian officer and learns there are two illegals in the UK, one a man, the other a woman, and that they work together. Both, he’s told, are getting close to successful penetration of MI5 and MI6. Liz’s search for the undercover agents begins, with the assistance of her resourceful aide, Peggy Kinsolving.

As Jasminder is recruited into a senior post at MI6, in the agency’s new policy of openness, the tension mounts. No reader will be shocked to learn that her lover is one of the Russian illegals. But there are many other surprises in store as Liz and Peggy’s investigation — and the suspense — unfold over the weeks. Though the story is a little slow on the uptake, it steadily gains in momentum and rushes to an exciting climax.

About the author

It’s hardly unusual for a former intelligence agent to capitalize on a secret life by writing novels. After all, examples are abundant, from Ian Fleming to Howard Hunt. But it’s rare for the former director of a major intelligence agency to break cover in fiction. Dame Stella Rimington was the Director General of the UK’s Security Service, or MI5, from 1992 to 1996. In fact, she was both the first woman to hold the job, the first to be publicly identified, and the first to appear on-camera. Since leaving the agency she has built a new career as an espionage novelist. Breaking Cover is the ninth book in her series about MI5 agent Liz Carlyle.

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



Cold War espionage in search of the H-bomb

Cold War espionageA review of The Whitehall Mandarin (William Catesby #4), by Edward Wilson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The Whitehall Mandarin, Edward Wilson’s complex and sophisticated novel of Cold War espionage, is the fourth book in a series that began with the The Envoy. That first book centered around the life of one Kit Fournier, an American intelligence officer who rose to become head of the CIA mission in London in the fateful year of 1956. The Darkling Spy followed, featuring Britain’s Will Catesby of MI6 and his boss, Henry Bone. In The Whitehall Mandarin, Fournier’s story lies in the past and the focus shifts to Catesby, Bone, and a new American character, Jeffers Cauldwell. Apart from the overlapping cast of characters, the connecting thread in all three novels is the three-way race among the USSR, Great Britain, and China to produce an H-bomb to rival the Americans’.

Paranoia and class conflict in Cold War espionage

In all three books of Wilson’s trilogy, as I wrote in reviewing The Darkling Spy, “paranoia is endemic. Everyone suspects everyone else, nobody seems sure who’s working for whom, and the only certainty is uncertainty.” The Whitehall Mandarin adds to the confusion by rapidly shifting the scene both geographically and over time. The action spans England, Malaya, the US, Cuba, China, the USSR, and Vietnam. It opens in 1957 and concludes in 1969. And the cast of characters is large.

Class conflict joins paranoia as a second dominant theme in the novel. Catesby grew up poor but gained a superior education through hard work and scholarships. Both Bone and Cauldwell are the product of wealthy, aristocratic families. The distrust and resentment that arises among them colors and complicates their relationships.

About the author

The biographical sketch of Edward Wilson that appears on his website reveals that he was an honored American Special Forces officer in Vietnam. Given the prominent role in The Whitehall Mandarin of Will Catesby’s time in Vietnam during what appears to be the same period, this experience of the author’s is clearly significant. Wilson gave up his US nationality to become a British subject and has lived principally in England but also in Germany and France for more than thirty years. It doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to think that his experience in the Vietnam War, and the disgust with US policy that seems to have led him to renounce his American citizenship, is reflected in his description of the conditions confronting Will Catesby in the novel. Here is Wilson commenting on the war through one of his characters, a senior CIA officer in Vietnam: “This war is America’s Stalingrad. And just like the Germans, we believe our own propaganda of invincible power and have grossly underestimated the enemy.” He might just as well have been commenting on US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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