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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Kanon’

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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berlinJoseph Kanon is one of my favorite writers of historical espionage, right up there with Alan Furst in evoking the spy’s world of shadows, way more than fifty shades of gray. Last year’s Istanbul Passage was a layered tale of the crossroads of East and West in 1945. Now, in Leaving Berlin (Atria, digital galley), Kanon’s back in divided post-war Germany in the rubble-strewn Soviet sector during the blockade of 1948-49.

Alex Meier is a Berlin native and novelist who escaped the city for California before the war. Standing up to the McCarthyites earns him a job with the CIA in lieu of deportation or prison. If he’ll spy on his fellow cultural emigres in East Germany, he can return to the States and the young son living with his ex-wife. Alex isn’t too happy with the arrangement, especially when he finds out his old flame is the consort of his main target, a Russian major. His life becomes infinitely more complicated when her brother escapes from a POW labor camp and needs to get medical help in the West, and when the East German police insist he become an informer. His loyalties will be tested more than once; betrayal lurks in every dark corner. There’s a shoot-out early on, then a murder and a cover-up, but the story’s less concerned with action than with discerning the traitors on all sides. The characters, with their varying backstories, are believable, even if Alex can’t believe what they say.

knivesOlen Steinhauer signals what he’s up to at the very beginning of his clever All the Old Knives (St. Martins/Minotaur Books, paperback ARC) when CIA agent Henry Pelham discusses the state of contemporary spy fiction with a fellow airline passenger. She’s reading an old Len Deighton. “They just don’t make stories like this anymore. … You knew who the bad guys were back then.”

Actually, they do still write traditional spy novels — see Joseph Kanon, above — and Steinhauer’s new book isn’t as different as one might suppose, despite its up-to-the-minute terrorist-flavored plot and its unconventional framework. Almost all of it takes place over dinner at a quiet restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., where Henry is meeting former lover and agent Celia Favreau for the first time in five years. Both were stationed in Vienna during the catastrophic takeover of a passenger plane by a radical Islamic group. Celia left within months after the debacle to marry an older man and start a family. Ostensibly, Henry just happens to be in her neck of the woods and Celia is catching him up on her two small children, but much more is revealed in their conversation and in flashbacks. Henry’s involved in an inquiry about the hijacking — there’s lingering suspicion that a mole tipped off the terrorists — and he wants Celia’s version of events. Of course, it’s all in the official report. Or is it?

Halfway through the book, Steinhauer switches perspectives from Henry to Celia, and while her memories overlap his, they also differ on crucial points. So, who are you going to believe? Both are well-trained liars and unreliable witnesses. The narrative switches back and forth as dinner progresses. Wine flows. Delicious food consumed. The veal hardly needs a knife, but the talk becomes more pointed. In the end, a good spy tales turns on deceit and betrayal. All the Old Knives is very good indeed.

dreamingspiesLaurie R. King’s novels mix atmosphere, history and intrigue, whether she’s writing suspense novels like 2013’s The Bones of Paris or one of her entries in the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series, say, 2012’s Garment of Shadows, which started out in in 1920s Morocco. Her latest, Dreaming Spies (Bantam/Random House, digital galley) finds Mary and Sherlock on a steamer bound for 1924 Japan, where they disguise themselves as Buddhist pilgrims as part of a secret mission to help the royal family. It all stems from a meeting aboard ship with a young Japanese woman, who turns out to be economist, acrobat and real-life ninja, and an English lord who turns out to be a blackmailer. The leisurely narrative, stuffed with all sorts of fascinating cultural asides, is occasionally punctuated by action scenes, but it’s Mary and Sherlock’s wits that make the story so entertaining. Their Japan adventure is only partially resolved, however, and there’s more mystery a year later when their Japanese friends and foes come calling in Mary’s beloved Oxford with its “dreaming spires.”

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Alan Furst’s historical espionage novels unreel like classic black-and-white films, so it’s fitting that Frederic Stahl, the hero of Mission to Paris (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley) is a handsome Hollywood actor. Loaned out by Warner Bros. to Paramount France in the summer of 1938, Stahl will play a soldier returning from the Great War, a role like many of his others, “a warm man in a cold world.” But because he was born in Vienna, and Germany is now allied with Austria, Stahl is of particular interest to the Nazi propagandists who want to use him in their “rapprochement” campaign with the French. Repelled by the Germans and Hitler, Stahl takes on another role for the American embassy, passing on information gleaned from cocktail parties, “pillow talk” and a Berlin film festival. Not surprisingly, he finds he has talents as a spy and becomes caught up in more pre-war intrigue threatening the cast and crew of his film as they shoot on location in Morocco and Hungary.

This is all familiar, beloved territory for Furst fans. No one is better at evoking the shadows falling across Europe “as the lights go out,” and ordinary souls reacting to extraordinary circumstances. A few characters from previous books make appropriate cameos, and, of course, there is the requisite scene at the Brasserie Heininger and its most-requested Table 14. The atmosphere is thick with secrets, romance, unease, suspicion. Stahl plays the lead, but Paris is again the star.

Joseph Kanon expertly evokes the crossroads of Europe and Asia in Istanbul Passage (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley). It’s 1945, and the war is pretty much over, but Turkey continues its precarious balancing act of “neutrality,” spying on everyone. American expat businessman Leon Bauer, whose hospitalized German-Jewish wife has retreated from the real world after witnessing a tragedy, is an”irregular,” an off-the-books occasional spy. But then an appointed meeting with a Romanian defector that should have been routine goes awry, shots are fired, and suddenly Leon is a secret agent for real. “The  lies got easier, one leading to the next until you believed them yourself.”

Kanon’s story is as layered as Istanbul itself with history, religion, politics and culture. The Americans want to find the leak in their intelligence headquarters. The Russians want the Romanian, implicated in wartime atrocities. The Turkish police are looking for a killer, and the Turkish secret service is keeping tabs on the old boats in the harbor filled with Jewish refugees looking for safe passage to Palestine. How much is a human life worth, and does it matter if that life belongs to a former enemy? Leon has choices to make as an American, a spy, a husband and a lover, but all are risky, physically and morally. Kanon is right there with Furst and le Carre in depicting the spies’ world of smoke and mirrors, way more than fifty shades of gray.

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