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Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

The Russia of Joseph Kanon’s Defectors (Atria, digital galley via NetGalley) is the Soviet Union circa 1961, gray and grim as the Cold War. Even the Party faithful have to wait in long lines for food and depend on the black market for basic amenities. Simon Weeks has often wondered why his older brother Frank, a CIA golden boy, chose to defect in 1949. Was it money, ideology, gamesmanship? Now Frank has written his KGB-approved memoirs and asks Simon, who became a publisher after his brother’s defection ended his State Department career, to edit the manuscript. Simon discovers his brother is as charming and wily as ever, even though he is accompanied everywhere by a minder, and the restricted, isolated lifestyle has turned his beautiful wife Joanna into an alcoholic. They consort only with other defectors, from famous figures like Guy Burgess to anonymous research scientists. A recent death in the group is presumed a suicide. When Frank begins to show his hand, Simon senses something is up and must fall back on old tradecraft. Betrayal is in the air, murder in a cathedral.

Kanon, who has written spy thrillers set in Istanbul, Berlin and Los Alamos, is at the top of his game. Defectors offers suspense and atmosphere galore, but it also explores the perplexing nature of a double agent, as well as enduring questions of loyalty to family and country. A timely tale.

I didn’t know much about World War I spies beyond Mata Hari until I read Kate Quinn’s compelling The Alice Network (HarperCollins, digital galley via edelweiss). The title comes from the name of a real-life group of female agents who operated in France during the Great War. American college student Charlie St. Clair first learns about the network in 1947 when she tries to find her cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the more recent war. Eve Gardiner, a reclusive, ill-tempered alcoholic and former Alice spy living in London, initially resists Charlie’s entreaty for help — she draws a gun on her — before setting out for France in her vintage roadster driven by charming ex-con Finn.

Quinn expertly propels parallel storylines, alternating between the 1947 road trip with its twists and dead ends, and Eve’s recruitment as a spy in 1915 and her dangerous work for the Alice network. Both stories, which eventually connect, are absorbing adventures, although Eve’s is the more harrowing as she becomes the unwilling mistress of a powerful German sympathizer. Still, Charlie also proves to be a resourceful, conflicted character with a not-so-little problem. Suspense increases as secrets come to light in both narratives. The Alice Network is sad and heart-breaking but also hopeful and redemptive.

In Mark Mills’ deft cat-and-mouse game of a thriller, Where Dead Men Meet (Blackstone Audio, digital galley via NetGalley), someone is trying to kill Luke Hamilton. Or it could be a case of mistaken identity in 1937 Paris, where Hamilton is assigned to the British Embassy. He is grieving at the news of the murder in England of Sister Agnes, the nun who took him in as an abandoned baby 25 years ago. Readers already know Sister Agnes’ murder is connected to the attempt on Luke’s life, but it is the appearance of the mysterious Bernard Fautrier who warns Luke he is in real danger.  The race — to escape the killers and to find out their motives — takes Luke to Nazi Germany, to neutral Switzerland, to enigmatic Venice. There are moments of exquisite tension, although the resolution of the main mystery comes a little too early. Still, complications ensue as table turns. Revenge is cold and deadly.

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If you know where to find Checkpoint Charlie, how to follow Moscow Rules, and can quote from The Third Man, then Dan Fesperman has a book for you. In The Double Game, he pays homage to the classic espionage novels of the Cold War era even as he constructs a clever spy tale.

Former reporter Bill Cage begins to feel like he’s fallen down the rabbit hole of one the espionage tales he read as a Foreign Service brat growing up in Prague, Berlin, Budapest and Vienna in the 1960s and ’70s.  Someone is leaving him cryptic clues harking back to Cage’s old interview with Edwin Lemaster, in which the CIA spook- turned- spy novelist admitted he had toyed with the idea of being a double agent. The anonymous writer suggests there’s more to the story, and his intriguing missives send Cage off from his boring PR job to visit his diplomat father in Vienna. Soon, he’s puzzling over more literary clues in the surprise company of an old girlfriend, Litzi, who may know more than she’s telling.

The Double Game wears its knowledge lightly, thanks to Fesperman’s twisty plot and play on the classic themes of deceit and betrayal. Still, readers of le Carre, Deighton, and earlier greats, will appreciate the numerous literary references, as well as the visits to antique bookstores in European capitals where the mysterious “Source Dewey” plied his tradecraft. An eccentric book scout, Lothar, keeps turning up, as well as the cohort of a retired agent. And a former CIA researcher named Valerie (!) decries her similarities to le Carre’s fictional Connie Sachs, but she sounds just like her as she recalls one secret operation: “Then, in early sixty-five, Headlight struck gold. A man he met in Budapest. On a tram car of all places, right as he was rolling across the Danube on the Margit Bridge. Source Nijinsky.”

Charles Cumming’s nimble A Foreign Country takes its title from the famous L.P. Hartley line from The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When designate MI6 chief  Amelia Levene goes off the grid, the service taps disgraced former agent Thomas Kell to find her. Given this chance to get back in the game, Kell reluctantly agrees and rather quickly tracks down Levene in a Tunisian resort. But that’s just one byway on a winding route taking Kell (and readers) into the long-ago past, where a French expatriate in Tunis had an affair with a British nanny, as well as more recent events — the murder of a French couple in Egypt, and a kidnapping in Paris. Even if you guess where the story’s going, it’s fun to follow the cat-and-mouse game from a Marseilles ferry to an English country house.

Love and loyalty are also called into question in Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off, a different kind of Cold War tale, narrated by a young PLO operative posing as a student in 1989 London. Michel details his day-to-day errands as a courier for Abu Leila, the mentor who picked him from a Lebanese refugee camp after his his parents were murdered, and who supervised his schooling in Cyprus and his training in East Berlin and the Soviet Union. (KGB agents, we learn, read le Carre for the tradecraft.) As Michel gets to know his rooming-house neighbor Helen, a prickly graduate student, he splices more of his lonely past into the procedural-like narrative. When a routine operation goes tragically awry,  Michel is left holding a sealed envelope his enemies are willing to kill for. He and Helen escape to Scotland, where his education as a spy is tested and a thrilling chase ensues.

Open Book: Dan Fesperman is an old friend and colleague, and I thank him again for the hardcover copy of The Double Game (Knopf). I also had access to a digital version on NetGalley, where I obtained the e-galley of Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off (Little, Brown). I read a paperback advance reading copy of Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country (St. Martin’s Press), after signing up for a giveaway on Shelf Awareness.

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Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and, oh, yes, Cairncross. The infamous Cambridge Five, the spy ring that upended British intelligence in the 20th century. Now, name the Sixth Man.

 Right, there wasn’t one. Or was there? Espionage aficionados, historians and conspiracy theorists have long speculated that perhaps another Trinity College student was recruited in 1930s Cambridge by Moscow Centre. The Brits covered so long for Blunt and Cairncross, perhaps they covered for another mole. What if this ancient agent is still alive?

Charles Cumming uses this unlikely premise as a springboard for his new thriller, The Trinity Six, which reminded me how much I love a good spy novel in the tradition of early John le Carre and Len Deighton. I reread Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carre’s classic mole hunt, every few years even though I know its secrets. Alec Guniness and Ian Richardson starred in the excellent 1979 British miniseries; I’m not sure the new film version due out later this year is needed, even with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth among the stellar cast.

On the other hand, Cumming’s novel appears tailor-made for a film, with its engaging characters and atmospheric scenes in European capitals. It’s written cinematically, too. When history professor Sam Gaddis excuses himself from the bar in Budapest just as his source is primed to spill all, you want to yank him back to his seat. No, don’t go write up notes for your book in the men’s room. Don’t you know about the assassin just waiting to pick off the man you’re with? 

Readers do, of course, because they’ve seen him outside on the street. Shots are going to ring out. Sam’s going to be on the run again, hunted by both the British and the Russians because he’s getting to close to identifying ATTILA, the sixth man with the really big secret. Didn’t Sam learn anything after the fiasco in Berlin? Has he counted the bodies piling up in his wake? Can he really trust the lovely and efficient Tanya, who has betrayed him before? Just as well Sam doesn’t know the British have tagged him POLARBEAR, as in soon to be extinct.

Cumming knows the conventions and tradecraft of the spy novel inside out. The movie The Third Man figures in a code; Sam reads the spy novel Archangel on a train. In the end, he even invokes the Moscow Rules in a kind of rueful homage to a past that didn’t include e-mail and throwaway cell phones.

The Trinity Six is as old-fashioned and entertaining a Cold War thriller as you can find in the age of Google and the Taliban. As one old spymaster instructs Sam, “Never underestimate the extent to which SIS and the Russians loathe one another. It’s a blood feud.”

Still, I wish the story held better secrets and surprises, that the foreshadowing wasn’t so heavy, that betrayal came like a knife to the heart. Ah, where have you gone George Smiley?

Open Book: I received an advance readers’ edition through a web promotion of Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six (St. Martin’s Press). Now, I want to read  Cumming’s previous three thrillers as I eagerly await his next.

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