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Posts Tagged ‘spy fiction’

Infamous Cambridge spy Guy Burgess had a cameo earlier this year in Joseph Kanon’s Cold War novel Defectors, but he practically steals the show in John Lawton’s excellent new Inspector Troy tale, Friends and Traitors (Grove/Atlantic, library e-book). It’s the eighth book in the crime series where history regularly meets mystery as Scotland Yard’s Frederick Troy dodges bombs in World War II London (Black Out), or protects Khruschev on a 1956 UK visit (Old Flames), or is tangled in the political scandals of the  early ’60s (A Little White Death).

In this entry, Lawton plays the long game, beginning with police cadet Troy first meeting Burgess at a family dinner in 1935. Both his Russian emigre/press baron father and his older brother warn him that the charming Burgess is bad news, “queer as a coot,” a notorious gossip, a possible spy. Still, Troy is intrigued by Burgess, who keeps showing up at various venues and times before, during and after the war. Then in 1951, Burgess and Donald MacLean defect to the Soviet Union, and their betrayal, along with that of Kim Philby, upends the British intelligence community for years. And that’s still the case in 1958 when a sad and pathetic Burgess approaches Troy during a family trip to Europe and says he wants to return to England. The ensuing imbroglio in Vienna results in the shooting of an MI5 agent, and Troy must defend himself against charges of murder and treason. All of this plays out in a string of atmospheric set pieces and charged exchanges of dialogue among the well-drawn cast of friends, family, lovers and spies.

The Troy books can be read out of order as stand-alone thrillers, but you run the risk of finding out the fate of characters and cases featured in other stories. Sudden death and reversals of fortune mark Troy’s complicated professional and private life, but that just makes the series all the more rewarding.

In 1939 Prague, with the Nazis on the doorstep, a woman named Otylie hopes to save her most treasured possession — an inherited musical manuscript of unknown authorship — by tearing it into three pieces. One movement of the sonata goes to her best friend Irena, the second goes to her husband in the Resistance, and the third she keeps for herself as she flees the country. Some 60 years later, Meta, a young musicologist who trained as a concert pianist, chances on one of the sonata’s movements and sets out to find the missing pieces and reunite them with their rightful owner. She also must prove the manuscript’s authenticity and perhaps discover who authored the haunting composition.  Bach? Beethoven? Maybe Mozart or Salieri?

Bradford Morrow details Meta’s daunting quest in his new historical novel The Prague Sonata (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), and I do mean details.  The premise is fascinating, the characters interesting, the plot hopscotches in time and place — Prague, London, New York, Nebraska. But the pace is uneven, the transitions often jarring, and the narrative so weighted with detail that it tested my will to read on. Students of music and history may well be enthralled, and I was at times because Morrow is an accomplished storyteller.  (I love Trinity Fields, thought The Forgers was clever and entertaining). But, at least in this case, too much of a good thing was still too much.

Nicola Upson’s detective series featuring real-life mystery writer Josephine Tey just keeps getting better as she artfully mixes history and fiction. Fear in the Sunlight played out against the set of an Alfred Hitchcock film, while London Rain‘s backdrop was the 1937 coronation of King George VI. In the seventh book, Nine Lessons (Crooked Lane Books, digital galley), Upson draws on the real-life crimes of the Cambridge Rapist, although she has him terrorizing women in 1937 Cambridge. Josephine is house-sitting for her lover, actress Marta Hallard, who is away on business. The tension and unease in town and at the colleges is palpable as the attacks on women escalate to include murder.

At the same time, Josephine’s great friend, Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose, is investigating a gruesome murder in a London graveyard. The trail eventually leads him to Cambridge, a college choir and a long-ago death. What makes this second story especially chilling is the discovery that the London murder is tied to a series of ghost stories by M.R. James, who taught at Cambridge. The vengeful killer takes cruel delight in replicating disturbing details of James’ spooky tales. Then there’s the big secret that Josephine is keeping from Archie that could profoundly alter their relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

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letterwriterNew York City, 1942. The war overseas plays out in the homeland, too. The very day Woodrow Cain, a former North Carolina cop with a tarnished reputation, takes a job with the NYPD, the luxury liner Normandie burns on the waterfront. There’s a black smudge on the skyline, and Cain feels his new life is “as full of loss and betrayal as the one he’d left behind.”

Betrayal, of course, is the very stuff of spy fiction, and Dan Fesperman expertly meshes crime and espionage, corruption and conspiracy in The Letter Writer (Knopf, paperback galley). An unidentified body in the Hudson has Cain stymied until a mysterious man calling himself Danzinger directs him to the city’s “Little Deutschland” of Nazi sympathizers. Danzinger is the title character, an older, well-educated immigrant fluent in five languages, who deals in information while translating and writing letters for his fellow immigrants on the Lower East Side. Over the last few months, he has become increasingly aware of the peril looming overseas as his clients’ secrets darken and more of their letters go unanswered. Cain initially resists Danzinger’s help, but he has trouble trusting anyone in New York, including his colleagues at the 14th precinct and the wealthy, well-connected father of his ex-wife.

The plot is wonderfully complicated, but Fesperman’s crisp scenes reveal one secret after another, both those involving the murder investigation, and personal back stories. Cain’s young daughter arrives in New York, and he begins seeing a woman he meets through Danzinger. The war breeds “creative alliances” — as Danzinger puts it — and offers new opportunities for the Mob. Cain’s encounters with real-life gangsters Albert Anastasia and Meyer Lansky bristle with tension and suspense. Still, danger rises from an unexpected quarter. Bullets find a target.

Despite the high-wire action near end, The Letter Writer is more like Danzinger, a thoughtful, learned risk-taker holding secrets close. My kind of thriller.

cityofsecretsJerusalem, 1945. Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazi death camps, drives a taxi through the winding streets. He tries to be casual at British checkpoints as he hands over his forged identity papers, supplied, like his name and car, by the Jewish underground. A member of a small cell tied to the Haganah, he is haunted by his past and memories of his lost family, including his beloved wife Katya. By day, he drives tourists from one historic sight to another. At night, he chauffeurs the widow Eva, a fellow cell member, to her assignations. When it rains, he still can smell the blood in the backseat leftover from the unknown man he ferried to the Belgian hospice under cover of darkness.

Stewart O’Nan takes a noir turn in his compact new novel, City of Secrets (Viking, review copy), which is taut as a trip wire. Although narrow in scope, it is morally complex as Brand is further drawn into the Zionist resistance and his missions become more dangerous and potentially violent. Questions are discouraged, paranoia flourishes. Brand learns how to use explosives. He comes under suspicion as an informer. The British crack down on suspected illegal refugees, sending them by bus to detention camps. The militant Irgun retaliate by planning an attack that will have profound consequences for the future of Palestine. Brand wonders if this is any way to live.

O’Nan provides some historical context in an afterwards, but it helps if you’ve heard of the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, or at least have read Leon Uris’ Exodus. But while I’m sure his research was meticulous, the names of the streets aren’t what give the book its authenticity. It’s the way O’Nan gets inside his characters’ heads. In his last novel, West of Sunset, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Songs for the Missing, it was the family of a missing teen, and in Last Night at the Lobster, the workers at a closing chain eatery. Here it is Brand, a survivor who drifts into terrorism, a  man who has lost everything but hope. “He wanted the revolution — like the world — to be innocent, when it had never been.”

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