Archive for the ‘spy story’ Category

In the past few weeks I have read three thought provoking John le Carre novels; The Night Manager [1993] Our Game [1995] and Absolute Friends [2003] all of which I enjoyed immensely despite reservations about their politics. 

635878802254689284-The-Night-Manager-AMCThe TV series based on John le Carre’s book The Night Manager reached it’s climax last week. As with many television adaptions of a novel you realise how good the author is when the TV version plot starts to deviate from the original. The classic case of this phenomenon was the Dalziel and Pascoe series based on the novels of Reginald Hill which when the original plots were exhausted, and some of the great characters abandoned, was a shadow of the earlier programs. 

In The Night Manager’s tv adaptation the alterations in the plot and the changes in chronology, geographical locations, and the sex of Burr had worked quite well up to the last episode. In the final episode the novel’s plot was totally abandoned with the result that much of the political message was lost. Of course  the female audience was was catered for with scenes featuring Tom Hiddlestone, and if you have an elegant beauty such as Elizabeth Debicki constantly wandering around in floaty dresses and expensive lingerie you are likely to have a television success on your hands. But I did not approve of the scenes where her character Jed was water-boarded, this was totally unnecessary. There is enough violence towards women in real life without having to watch this sort of thing on TV.

A lot of le Carre’s emphasis in the novel was lost, and although I disagree with most of his politics, I felt the novel’s ending should have been retained. If a book is good enough to put on television surely the key message should be retained. But overall this was a gripping series, but I would respectively request there is no Night Manager Two, or we may face another Broadchurch Two debacle. 

gameOur Game was the next book le Carre wrote and apparently it was not as successful as some of his previous books, only reaching number 3 on the NY Times bestseller lists.

I have to admit finding most of this novel hysterically funny, although I am not sure le Carre intended it to be a black comedy. Perhaps I was amused by the fact that most of the book is set in North Somerset rather than the North Caucasus.

Bath University, Bristol, the Mendips, and Priddy, where retired civil servant Tim Cranmer tries to batter his old friend Larry Pettifer into submission are fairly familiar to me.

The story begins with the disappearance of Larry, a double agent whose dedication to left wing causes includes the seduction of Tim’s mistress the beautiful young Emma. Tim has inherited a run down estate with a failing vineyard from his uncle, and more luckily a large amount of money from an aunt. He and Larry were at school together at Winchester. In the past our security services were overrun by the alumni of Westminster, Greshams, Marlborough and Eton, which did not work out too well. 

The only possible benefit in having these people as spies was that if they were thrown into the Lubyanka, however badly they were treated the food was bound to be superior to that served up in an English Public school in the 1950s and 1960s.

The police investigate Larry’s disappearance……

Yet who did they think he was? -Larry, my Larry, our Larry?-What had he done? This talk of money, Russians, deals, Checheyev, me, socialism, me again- how could Larry be anything except what we had made him: a directionless middle-class revolutionary, a permanent dissident, a dabbler, a dreamer, a habitual rejector, a ruthless, shiftless, philandering, wasted semi-creative failure, too clever not to demolish an argument, too mulish to settle for a flawed one? 

Strangely this passage from a 1995 novel instantly made me think of one of today’s leading British politicians. 

Tim is questioned by both the police and his old employers in the security service, as they suspect he is involved in a financial scam.

In a minute you’re going to tell me it’s all in Checheyev’s weaselly imagination, he forged Larry’s signature. You’ll be wrong. Larry’s in it up to his nasty neck, and for all we know, so are you. Are you?

Tim naturally begins a convoluted search for a missing 37 million quid and the beautiful young Emma, both of which have been expropriated by Larry and Tim’s former agent Konstantin Abramovich Checheyev.

The money is intended to help the oppressed Chechen and Ingush people in the Caucasus. Tim’s search takes him from to Bristol, Paris, and Moscow and eventually to the conflict in the Caucasus. John le Carre views the situation there as very black and white but in these far away conflicts things are usually shades of grey. I wonder what the author felt when nearly decade after this novel the events took place at a place in North Ossetia called Beslan. 

Absolute Friends, le Carre’s first post 9/11 political novel also had me laughing out loud on many occasions, and perhaps again I wasabsolute not supposed to find this novel so amusing. The narrative tells of the long running friendship between Ted Mundy, son of a British army officer, conceived in India and born in Pakistan on partition day; and Sasha, a son of Nazi Germany brought up in the GDR. The friendship begins among the revolutionary students of West Berlin in the turbulent 1960s, and ends in ………..I won’t spoil the ending.

Endings are not John Le Carre’s strong point, and however nuanced the narrative he seems to want to leave the reader feeling somewhat bruised, and hopefully convinced that the Americans and British are responsible for every evil in the world. 

Mundy becomes a secret service agent by chance after his experiences in Berlin.

“What is the purpose of our revolution, comrade?”

Mundy had not expected a viva voce, but six months of Ilse and her friends have not left him unprepared. ” To oppose the Vietnam War by all means…To arrest the spread of  military imperialism….To reject the consumer state….To challenge the nostrums of the bourgeoisie…To awaken it, and educate it. To create a new and fairer society ….and to oppose all irrational authority.”

” Irrational? What is rational authority? All authority is irrational, arsehole.”

The Soviets classified these fellow travellers as useful idiots, and unfortunately they are still around today even in the UK waving Mao’s Little Red Book and forgetting the millions who died under Communism, and it’s close relative National Socialism.

Sasha’s father was a Pastor who became a Christian Nazi, and later decamped to the obnoxious West from the GDR socialist paradise, installing a deep personal and political hatred in his son. The story explores both men’s relationship with their fathers, and the secrets they uncover. 

This is a long, but highly readable book, that has many complexities as the friends frequently lose touch and then meet up again after several years and catch up with events. Mundy is never sure which side Sasha is on, or even at times which side he is on. 

As a prized Stasi agent, Mundy receives a fat retainer, bonuses and incentive payments. The conventions of the trade, however require him to turn those sums over to his true masters, whose remunerations are more modest, since London unlike the Stasi, takes his loyalty for granted. 

These books are well written, and are fascinating reading perhaps enhanced by our knoweledge of recent events. 

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night managerFrom the back cover:

At the start of it all, Jonathan Pine is merely the night manager at a luxury hotel. But when a single attempt to pass on information to the British authorities – about an international businessman at the hotel with suspicious dealings – backfires terribly, and people close to Pine begin to die, he commits himself to a battle against powerful forces he cannot begin to imagine.

In a chilling tale of corrupt intelligence agencies, billion-dollar price tags and the truth of the brutal arms trade, John le Carré creates a claustrophobic world in which no one can be trusted.

The Night Manager was written in 1993, and tells of the efforts by a small section of British Intelligence lead by Leonard Burr to bring down a ruthless international arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper. Jonathan is involved because the exotic Madame Sophie confides in him a document listing arms deals with her lover, Freddie Hamid, who with his brothers owns a large chunk of Cairo. Jonathan passes the information on to a “friend” at the British Embassy, and becomes very close to Sophie. She is murdered, and Jonathan leaves Egypt, becoming night manager of the Hotel Meister Palace in Zurich. It is there that he meets Roper, his young mistress Jeds, and his thoroughly unpleasant entourage.

‘Roper?’ Mama Low retorted incredulously. ‘You mean you don’t know?’

‘I mean I don’t know.’

‘ ‘Well sure as hell, Mass’ Lamont, I don’t. And I sure as hell don’t ask. He’s some big company from Nassau that’s losin’ all its money. Man’s as rich as that in recession time, he sure as hell some mighty big crook.’

Burr begins to construct a background for Jonathan that will allow him to infiltrate Roper’s organisation. The action moves from Cornwall, where Jonathan “murders” a man, to Canada, where he obtains a false passport, and on to the Caribbean where he stops a kidnapping and enters the Roper organisation.

The Night Manager is a very good book and hidden within my edition’s 472 pages is a probably a great 350 page story. John Le Carre is a very clever author, he gives his readers great descriptions, memorable characters, and wonderfully convoluted plots. But sometimes the machinations of the intelligence agencies, who seem to spend more time plotting against each other than planning to bring down Roper, just hold up the action.

After the Royal & Ancients came Burr’s pet hates, and probably Roper’s too, for he called them the Necessary evils, and these were the shiny-cheeked merchant bankers from London with eighties striped blue shirts and white collars and double-barrelled names and double chins and double breasted suits, who said ‘ears’ when they meant ‘yes’ and ‘hice’ when they meant ‘house’ and ‘school’ when they meant ‘Eton’;

Le Carre’s extremely clever suave dialogue, which he puts into the mouths of  public school educated Englishmen is almost timeless, as are the arrogant characters.

Richard Onslow Roper, Major “Corky” Corkoran, and Lord Langbourne could be regarded as modern versions of the bully Flashman  in Thomas Hughes novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. We have another literary link when Roper’s entourage of upper class Englishmen finds itself in a Central American base reminiscent of the movie Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. 

But the maddest part of Faberge was not the walldaubings or the voodoo statues, not the magic words of Indian dialect sprinkled between Spanish slogans or the rush roofed Crazy Horse saloon with its bar-stools and juke boxand naked girls cavorting on walls. It was the living zoo.

It certainly seems that John Le Carre’s view of the world has become one where  duplicitous Englishmen and Americans from intelligence agencies and big business persue personal pride and self gratification at the expense of the downtrodden. This view is certainly emphasised in some of the later novels.

A fine wordy novel, and I suspect that if the television series is edited down and the novel’s extraneous padding is removed it will be a big success.

nate nashThanks for the good wishes I have received for a continued recovery.

Palace of Treason is the sequel to Red Sparrow and features the return of those memorable characters Domenika Egorova and Nate Nash. The book’s author Jason Matthews was for 33 years an operations officer for the CIA, and the story is packed with details of espionage trade craft. Various aspects of the work of the CIA are covered. Nate is running a “walk in” disaffected Russian General given the code name LYRIC. While Domenika, a Captain in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service the SVR, is deep undercover attempting to turn an Iranian nuclear scientist, and sabotage their program to create a bomb. The story is incredibly complex with treachery from a passed over American official likely to expose Domenika as a double agent, despite her past successes and closeness to one of the major characters in the book, Vladimir Putin.

There are some very interesting features in this novel, some make it an easy interesting read, for instance the recipes at the end of the chapters that refer to food eaten or mentioned in the preceding section. Others become irritating and detract from the progress of the narrative.

Firstly there is too much descriptive violence and sex, which probably means I am not the target demographic for the novel.

Secondly there is an enormous amount of detail which results in the book coming in at 533 pages. It almost seems as if Jason Matthews has so much information and has done so much research he doesn’t want to waste it. Everything is described at great length, frequently when it refers to violence at too great a length. 

Thirdly the book does feel like soemthing from the past with a Cold War antagonism to the Russians going beyond that period back to the time of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond novels, where racism and xenophobia were normal. In Sapper’s novels the bad guys began at the Channel, or sometimes even Goldaming, and the villains were always nasty looking foreigners. Matthews’s  Russian bad guys are uniformly ugly, the short vicious dwarf like Zyuganov, the hairy ape Yevgeny, and the repulsive brutal female assassin Eva Buchina, while Domenika, Nate and young agent Hannah are attractive and sexy. Perhaps it is this immature attitude that makes the story so readable? 

But more important than the ridiculous fictional uglies is the very unflattering use of a real life character Tsar Vladimir Putin. Legal Eagle Bill Selnes of that intelligent blog Mysteries  and More in Saskatchewan discusses the legal ramification of using real life characters here

In Palace of Treason the Tsar is venal, corrupt and only interested in his persoanl wealth and power. I suspect in real life all is not as black and white as in the novel. He and his crew do enrich themselves at the expense of the Russian people, but Putin does seem to care for Russia and her interests. British politicians might learn something about putting their own country first.

And of course some of our British politicians have allegedly greatly enriched themselves after leaving office, and others seem to conduct their affairs with one eye on future jobs in the United States. 

Despite my criticisms I did enjoy Palace of Treason especially the Russian humour, and the food. It may not be subtle and not reach the standards of maturity set by John Le Carre, or Joseph Kanon, but it is a fine espionage story.

The Cold War never ended. Rebuild Russia’s former power and majesty. Putin himself liked to tell the story:

It is discovered that Stalin is alive and living in a cabin in Siberia. A delegation is sent to convince him to return to Moscow, assume power and restore Russia to greatness. After some reluctance, Stalin agrees to come back. 

‘Okay, ‘ he says, ‘but no Mr Nice Guy this time.’

I am in danger of becoming a television addict and my reading is suffering. My excuse is the plethora of great miniseries dominating our screens in the last few weeks. My recorder has been overworked, and I have even discovered Van Veeteren lurking among the mysteries on my Tivo boxed sets.

BBC 4 are playing the second series of Young Montalbano. I have now got accustomed to the youthful Salvo, Livia, Mimi, Favio and Catarella and even Mrs Crime Scraps is a fan of this excellent series.

More Four have also gone continental with the French policial thriller Spin [Les Hommes de l’Ombre] which stars the gorgeous Nathalie Baye, as a Presidential candidate, Bruno Wolkowitch, and Gregory Fitoussi. Fitoussi played Pierre Clement in Spiral, and sent many female hearts of my acquaintance throbbing, so it is nice to see him playing a real nasty piece of work managing the presidential electoral campaign of the Prime Minister, an even nastier guy. The sexual relationships of these fictional characters are nowhere near as intricate as those of the last two French presidents, Nicholas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. Obviously true life is stranger than fiction and power must be the ultimate aphrodisiac. 

On Channel Four we have the spy thriller Deutschland 83 in which we see both that the GDR [East Germany] was part of the evil empire and the FDR [West Germany], or at least their army, seems to have been part of an incompetent empire. Some people are rooting for the GDR spy Martin in this series seemingly failing to see his predicament as the ruthless cynical exploitation of a decent person by a foul regime. Part of Ronald Reagan’s evil empire speech is used in the trailer and it is unfortunate that the fall of the Berlin Wall has not changed the ideas of many influential politicians in this country. They still won’t accept that Chairman Mao and Uncle Joe killed more people before breakfast on any single day than the British Empire in the last three centuries. 

I have seen that it won’t be long before a new series of Happy Valley will be back on our screens, and I was surprised to realise that the rapist from that series Tommy Lee Royce was played by James Norton, who stars as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in the visually magnificent War and Peace currently on BBC One. I am really enjoying that series although it would be nice if Pierre Bezukhov, played with great intensity by Paul Dano, sent his slutty wife Helene [Tuppence Middleton] off to a convent somewhere near Irkutsk.

War and Peace has lead me to start reading a book that has lived on my bookshelves for nearly twent years. I have decided it is time I read How Far From Austerlitz by Alistair Horne so less crime fiction and a bit of history for a change. In my pre-Crime Scraps days I read Alistair Horne’s magnificent trilogy on modern French History, The Price of Glory:Verdun 1916;  To Lose a Battle: France 1940, and A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. 

dimitriosOne of the books I read during the last few weeks of 2015 was The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler which was originally published in 1939. It was the third or fourth time I had read this masterpiece, and because it was about a decade since my previous reading I noticed some interesting features in the novel. There is a blurb on the front cover ‘The source on which we all draw” by John le Carre, and it appeared to me that many of the techniques used by Ambler have been taken up by so many crime writers especially the Swedish school.

The Mask of Dimitrios is the story of how an English crime novelist Charles Latimer becomes fascinated, almost obsessed, by the story of  master criminal Dimitrios, whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Latimer retraces Dimitrios’s steps across Europe hoping to gain material for a new book. The simplicity of this plot device is quite brilliant as it allows the author to include passages about the history of the various locations.

Unable to destroy the Turkish army, the Greeks turned with frantic savagery to the business of destroying the Turkish population in the path of their flight……………….Assisted by the few half-crazed Anatolian peasants who had survived, they took their revenge on the Greeks they were able to overtake……….

But the main Greek army had escaped by sea…… the Turks swept on. On the ninth of September 1922, they occupied Smyrna.

For a fortnight, refugees from the oncoming Turks had been pouring into the city to swell the already large Greek and Armenian populations. They had thought that the Greek army would turn and defend Smyrna. But the Greek army had fled. Now they were caught in a trap. The holocaust began.

We have to remember that this was published in 1939. The destruction of Smyrna, a multicultural community, was a sad prediction of what was to happen to so many communities in Europe between 1939-1945, and what is happening to many in the Middle East today. 

The assassination of politicians arranged by corrupt banks, spies, murders and the activities of criminal drug distributing organisations are contained in a narrative that packs more events and details in a mere 226 pages than many of today’s heavy 600 page doorstops. The very detailed slow paced descriptions of how master spy Grodek, and Dimitrios, while working for Italy entrap a Yugoslav civil servant into getting hold of top secret information, and the activities of Dimitrios’s drug gang in Paris, are almost a blueprint for this detailed approach in later novels for example those by le Carre and Stieg Larsson. 

Any discussion of this novel without mentioning the enigmatic loquacious Mr Peters would be unacceptable. He is one of the great characters of spy/crime fiction, and when a movie of the book was made his part was taken by the portly Sydney Greenstreet. Greenstreet had starred in The Maltese Falcon, as the villainous Gutman, and was an fine choice. He had been accompanied in that movie by Peter Lorre, they made an excellent combination. But someone thought he should play opposite Greenstreet in The Mask of Dimitrios, and so Charles Lambert was changed into Cornelius Leyden to explain Lorre’s central European accent. I thought Peter Lorre was miscast as he was too good a villain to play the hero. But Sydney Greenstreet was the quintessential Mr Peters…..

The fat man spread out large, soft hands on one of which twinkled a rather grubby diamond ring. ‘I am a citizen of the world,’ he said. “To me, all countries, all languages are beautiful. If only men could live as brothers, without hatred, seeing only the beautiful things. But no! There are always Communists, etcetera. It is, no doubt the Great One’s will.”

There is a brooding almosphere of corrupt evil that permeates the narrative, because we are as it states in the introduction in a Europe that is a jungle and its rules set by the Stock Exchange Year Book and Mein Kampf.

Ambler succeeds brilliantly in informing a population that had been fed a diet of cosy country house murders, and village green cricket matches, about the harsh realities of life across the Channel. 

Almost as Ambler finished the book the Nazis marched into Prague in the spring of 1939.     

Mid EuropeAlan Furst’s espionage novels set during the turbulent years of the 1930s encapsulate so many features that 350px-PicassoGuernicashould be in a good thriller that I usually read them in one of two sittings. Midnight in Europe was no exception, and seemed an appropriate title to read at the time of the dreadful Paris terrorist attacks.

The book’s dedication page is a quote by Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, on the eve of the Great War, 3 August 1914.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Europe has faced great threats in the past but let us hope we have learned a little from the traumas suffered during the twentieth century by our parents and grandparents generations.

Midnight in Europe begins in late 1937 when Cristian Ferrar, a handsome Catalan lawyer, is recruited to work for the Spanish Republic’s arms buying agency. He is a senior partner at the well respected firm of Coudert Freres, fluent in several languages he is an anti-Fascist and a good candidate to deal with the numerous problems he will face. Along with Max de Lyon, a former arms trader with a Swiss passport, Ferrar will travel across Europe to Gdansk, Berlin and Odessa dealing with gangsters, spies, and Fascist agents in various attempts to obtain arms for the doomed Republic.  The Spanish Civil War was like most civil wars a dreadful conflict in which both sides committed atrocities. The  disunited Republican left backed by Stalin’s Russia proved no match for Franco’s Nationalists backed by Hitler and Mussolini. The real tragedy was that Britain and France refused to sell arms to either side, which in reality meant the Republicans were always short of weapons and planes. [above right Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting depicting the bombing of Guernica] 

Ferrar will manage to meet beautiful seductive women along the way, and the reader will learn about Europe’s dire situation in the late 1930s. The book is full of great characters, exciting incidents, historical information and the accurate atmosphere of that terrifying time. 

Defiance? The stationmaster would not stand for it. His face knotted with anger, his voice raised, he said, ‘Don’t you dare contradict me, Monsieur Cohen or Levy or whatever your name is. I say what goes on here, so don’t you try any of your sneaky little tricks on me! We’ve had more than enough of your kind in Poland.’

Crack. The speed of the blow was astonishing. De Lyon’s hand, as though on a coiled spring, swept backhand across the stationmaster’s face. Shocked, his mouth open with surprise, the stationmaster put his hand to his cheek. 

‘How’s that for a little trick? de Lyon said.

Furst’s thrillers are unequivocal in their stance that evil must be confronted. The plots are thrilling but not overcomplicated, the characters well drawn, the locations varied, and the clarity of the writing means that the social and political commentary is easily absorbed by the reader. 

‘To fight Franco, to  fight them all; Hitler, and those who aspire to be Hitlers……..I don’t mean to give a speech but the subject forces you to, doesn’t it?………

From de Lyon a dry laugh. Then, ‘True. And if a time comes when the phrase to fight turns into fight back, it will by that time be too late.’   

AmblerCrime fiction not only can cover today’s important topics, such as immigration [The Defenceless by Kati FurstHiekkapelto], but also take the reader into the past to discover what went wrong, and why. 

Two very different books  published seventy four years apart both deal with the subject of the methods by which Nazi Germany degraded France’s will to defend itself. Spies, payments for influence, threats of violence, and ruthless exploitation of weakness were the methods used. 

In Eric Ambler’s 1938 classic thriller Josef Vadassy, a Hungarian refugee and language teacher in Paris, is holidaying in a small hotel on the French Riviera. When he takes his holiday photographs to the chemist to be developed he is arrested as a spy, the photographs show Toulon’s naval defences. Vadassy has picked up the wrong camera in his hotel lounge. Beghin, a sweaty individual from the Surete Generale attached to the Department of Naval Intelligence sums up the situation.

“The Commissaire and I agreed”, he said at last, “that you were one of three things-a clever spy, a very stupid one or an innocent man.

I may say that the Commissaire thought you must be the second. I was inclined from the first to think you are innocent. You behaved far too stupidly. No guilty man would be such an imbecile.”

One of the other guests at the hotel, or the owner or his wife, must be the spy. Vadassy is sent back to discover who among the twelve suspects is guilty in an Agatha Christie type, who did it investigation. He is not a master detective or even a passable one and his blunders make for an interesting story as he surreptitiously gathers information about his interestingly varied fellow guests. Each of them has a secret and we learn something about the Europe of the 1930s. One of the guests tells him about post -war German social-democracy…

Its great illusion was its belief in the limitless possibilities of compromise. It thought that it could build Utopia within the Constitution of Weimar……

Worst of all, it thought you could meet force with good will, that the way to deal with a mad dog was to stroke it. In nineteen-thirty-three German social-democracy was bitten and died in agony.

Mission to Paris by Alan Furst, is much more of a modern style political thriller but also set in the corrupt France of 1938.

…but a small bureau in the Reich Foreign Ministry undertook operations to weaken French morale, and degrade France’s will to defend herself…..

Or rather German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs-tens of millions of dollars-had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933.

Frederic Stahl, an emigre from Europe, now an American movie star is sent to Paris to make a film. Frederic had spent the Great War in the Austro-Hungarian legation in Barcelona after having run away to sea at seventeen. The Nazis want to use his Austrian ethnicity as a propaganda weapon, and make various efforts to recruit him. The narrative moves rapidly and Stahl’s love affairs, clashes with German agents ,and meetings with American diplomats lead him to get more involved in very dangerous situations.

‘Excuse me , sir’ she said to Stahl in French, ‘but there is finally good news. Very good news.’

‘Hello, Inga,’ Renate said. ‘Hello, Klaus.’

‘They’ve made a deal with Hitler,’ Inga said, now back in German. ‘He takes the Sudetenland, but promises that’s the end of it, and he signed a paper saying so.’

In another quote from the book, but something that many people thought at the time, 

You appease a thug like Hitler, it just makes him greedy for more, because he smells fear.

Have we learned anything from the past?

I don’t think so our politicians still allow vast amounts of foreign money to enter the country. They “kowtow” to foreign leaders, who run various forms of dictatorships, and appease loud minority groups, while ignoring the silent majority. Recently the Labour Party members and their associates voted in a leader, who advocates a “kinder gentler politics”. His “friends” and those who he has gone the extra mile to support over the years have a somewhat different agenda, and are not kinder gentle people.

My worries about this man becoming Prime Minister are lessened by the fact that he and his crew appear from recent events not to be able to run a bath, yet alone a Gestapo or a Stasi. 

But our present Conservative government can not be trusted to look after my budgie, or even the British steel industry, and I fear for the future. 

Eric Ambler and Alan Furst are always worth reading, and these two books are excellent examples of their work.  

leaving berlinJoseph Kanon’s best known book is The Good German, which was made into a movie starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire. Leaving Berlin would probably make an even better movie. I would agree with distinguished author Alexander McCall Smith’s back cover blurb that this is a very exciting book. But it is also a thriller for grown ups, which discusses political topics that are still extremely relevant today.

From the back cover:

Berlin 1949….a city caught between political idealism and the harsh reality of Soviet occupation………Alex Meier is a young Jewish writer who fled the nazis before the war….in the cross hairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of family, Alex makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin.

Of course things are never that straightforward, Alex has a son in America and a back history in Berlin which he left in 1935. The Russian military government, and their German fellow travellers, have invited “socialist” writers, playwrights, architects to work in the New Germany. Many of them in a similar situation to Alex.

“You still have family in Germany?” Martin was asking.

“No. No one,” Alex said. “They waited too long.” He turned to Martin, as if it needed to be explained.

“My father had the Iron Cross. He thought it would protect him.”

I read a lot of historical political thrillers simply because I enjoy learning about the past and perhaps being able to judge current trends. This novel is full of lessons for us and future generations. I loved the way Alex is given his Kulturband membership documents and told the food is excellent there, but for members only. In 1949 Germany had not yet formally split into two states but much of the structure of the oxymoronic German Democratic Republic, GDR, was in the process of being created. 

Alex’s aunt Lotte married into the von Bermuth family, who lived a life of comparative luxury before the war, and he had indulged in a secret affair as a young man with the beautiful Irene von Bermuth. Irene is now the mistress of Russian officer Sasha Markovsky, deputy to Maltsev an important cog in the Soviet Military Administration. Alex’s American minders want him to revive his relationship with Irene, and question her about Markovsky’s pillow talk. 

This novel is well written in an easy to read style, but the plot is very complex because such a lot happening. German POWs working in terrible conditions in a secret uranium mine. Decent men and women facing trial for treason for expressing deviation from the Party approved line, or simply it seems being Jewish.

Espionage. Shady deals. Murder. Betrayal upon betrayal. The use of old Nazi camps to house prisoners.

When Erich, Irene’s brother escapes from the uranium mining camp, and seeks her help in Berlin, and Sasha, Irene’s protector, is suddenly recalled to Moscow. The danger begins to escalate.

For all the excitement of the car chases, espionage and murders, it is the educational value of the story that makes this such a good book. Were the dedicated socialists who returned to work in their hoped for utopia very naive?

Herb Kleinbard, an architect makes fun of the plans for rebuilding the new Berlin. He calls the structures “Stalin wedding cakes”, and Alex discusses his situation with his wife.

“He could go to the West. A German. They take in any German.”

“The West? And work for the old Nazis? Another Speer? No, thank you. This is the Germany he wants. You’re here too. You understand how he feels. You don’t go.”

“I’m not in Sachsenhausen.”

This novel is a reminder that there is not a cigarette paper between Fascism and Communism, and in the long term very little between hard left Socialism and National Socialism. I am old enough to remember how the German Democratic Republic was admired by some as the new socialist Germany, the artistic achievements a revival of German culture, the sporting success one of the results of a true socialist state.  These people ignored the existence of the Ministry of State Security [Stasi] with its hundreds of thousands of secret informers, which must have seemed so familiar to those who had lived through the National Socialist years.

In the long history of walls from The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Israeli separation wall, the fence round the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, to the Hungarian razor wire, walls were designed to keep people out. 

Only the German Democratic socialist utopia had a wall to keep people in!  

Leaving Berlin is a great book well worth reading as both a fine thriller, and a warning from history.    

childsI read Personal by CWA Diamond Dagger winner Lee Child as a bit of light relief after the dark Nordic angst of The Silence of the Sea. It would perhaps be impertinent of me to review a book by the author of so many best sellers, and this is only the second Jack Reacher I have read.

But here are a few comments……….

That first Reacher I read was not particularly memorable, and this one after a great start faded away and the ending was rather weak. 

I also found it amusing that Personal seemed to be written for an American readership who know next nothing about England. 

‘Don’t you think? MI5 could trace it.’

‘To a cash payment in Boots the Chemist. Doesn’t help.

‘ ‘What’s Boots the Chemist?’

‘Their pharmacy chain. Like CVS. John Boot set it up in the middle of the nineteenth century. He probably looked just like the guy who built the wall around Wallace Court. It started out as a herbal medicine store, in a place called Nottingham, which is way north of here.’

Do American CIA/state department agents operating in England not know where Nottingham is, and do they need a geography and history lesson every few pages?

….then I saw the arch of a big soccer stadium, which meant we had made it to a place called Wembley.

Jack Reacher, an American, actually seems to me to be descended from a long line of British thriller heroes such as Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and James Bond. The style of the narrative, action packed reminded me a lot of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond books although obviously without the xenophobia, that distinguished those novels. For Sapper anywhere west of Godalming was bandit country.

In Personal Reacher sets out to save the ministers of the G8 from a sniper. There are only a few men in the world who could hit a target from 1,400 yards, and Reacher knows one of them personally. He sent him to prison years before. The reader is taken from Arkansas and Paris to exotic Romford, with Reacher leaving bodies in his wake, and we learn the unfortunate truth.

The problem with Personal is that any book that starts with the attempted assassination of a French President is going to be compared, by readers of my age, with The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Perhaps not a fair comparison one is a great crime fiction thriller, the other a pleasant read for a couple of sunny afternoons.

Lee Child is great fun to read if you treat the books as enjoyable beach novels that don’t strain the intellect too much. 

 

galvestonwencelaskolymskyprovidenceI managed to read four books in March, three and two thirds actually but I will count it as four.

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto [reviewed here]

The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson [1960]

Kolymsky Heights also by Lionel Davidson [1994]

Providence Rag by Bruce De Silva

It was  interesting to read Lionel Davidson’s first and last thrillers. He won the CWA Gold Dagger on three occasions, and the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement award in 2001. Both books were excellent exciting reads in very different styles.

The Night of Wenceslas was full of fun, despite the Cold War setting, as Nicolas Whistler tells the reader of the way he was “persuaded” to travel to Prague, in what was then Communist Czechoslovakia a country from which his parents had emigrated, to obtain a secret formula for an unbreakable glass.  Of course things aren’t as straightforward as they seem, and Nicolas has a very difficult time despite the amorous attentions of Vlasta Simenova, the girl with the bomb-shaped breasts. 

‘I haven’t any qualifications, Mr Cunliffe,’ I told him slowly and desperately.’Before you go any further, you’ve got to understand that. I am not qualified to do anything. I am also a coward. I don’t know what it is you want me to do, and I don’t want to know. I’d be less than useless to you.’

Kolymsky Heights  is a very different animal. This is a great adventure story, called by Philip Pullman in the introduction the best thriller he’s ever read, and compared by him and others to the The Lord of the Rings, Smiley’s People, Treasure Island and Casino Royale it is indeed a superb book. It is also a very complex story, packed full of detail some of which is inclined to slow the narrative slightly. But the quest by the Native Canadian Jean-Baptiste Porteur, a brilliant linguist among his other skills, to discover the purpose of a top secret establishment is full of excitement and action. The reader is taken from the dreaming spires of Oxford to British Columbia and Canada’s Far North, and then to Japan and Siberia, among the various peoples of that region. 

The house of Dr Komarov had stood a hundred years-a long time for a simple one of wood, but the wood was good. It had seen out Tsar Alexander III and Tsar Nicholas II, and also the entire communist regime.

Providence Rag by Edgar Award winning author Bruce DeSilva is a serial killer novel, but one that is very different and far superior to the usual run of the mill efforts. The book explores the vast gulf between the law and justice, and the chasm between the letter of the law and plain common sense.

In 1989 the police with the help of reporter Liam Mulligan arrest the serial killer, a fifteen year old, who has slaughtered five people including young children. When the cops and reporters are celebrating their success, state prosecutor Malcolm Roberts spoils things.

“There is something you all need to know,” he told the revelers. “Rhode Island’s criminal codes haven’t been updated in decades. When they were written , no one envisaged a child as twisted and dangerous as ****** ***** . The law says juvenile offenders no matter what their crimes, must be released and given a fresh start at age twenty-one. The attorney general is going to ask the legislature to rewrite the law so this won’t happen again. But they can’t change it retroactively. “In six years, the bastard will get out and start killing all over again.”

The narrative jumps forward to 2012 when the killer is being held illegally for crimes that he is supposed to have committed inside the prison. The authorities realise he is a psychopath and are desperate not to release him. Crimes have been fabricated with false evidence by prison officers, and when Mulligan’s reporter pal Mason decides that the Dispatch should campaign for the killer’s release, the failing newspaper is faced with a difficult ethical issue. 

An excellent read although the stupidity of the law is not such a shock to a British reader, where someone can kill five people be released after 16 years, and are then able to build up an arsenal of weapons.