The Defector


Title:                      The Defector

Author:                  Daniel Silva

Silva, Daniel (2009). The Defector. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons

LCCN:    2009017613

PS3619.I5443 D44 2009

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 4, 2017

Reviewed by Jerry Harkavy[1] Associated Press Aug 30, 2009

Gabriel Allon’s big mistake at the close of Daniel Silva’s 2008 spy thriller, Moscow Rules, was to spare the life of Ivan Kharkov, the ruthless Russian oligarch and arms supplier to al-Qaida.

But it was an astute decision for Silva, one that set the stage for another confrontation between the two mortal enemies and demonstrates anew that the collapse of the Soviet Union doesn’t leave authors short of material to craft suspense-filled conflicts between Russia and the West.

The Defector is the perfect book for fans of well-crafted thrillers, the kind of page-turner that captures the reader from the opening chapter and doesn’t let go.

It’s Silva’s 12th novel and the ninth to showcase the brilliance and daring of Allon, the noted art restorer who occasionally takes an assignment from the Office, Israel’s secret warfare agency modeled after the Mossad.

Allon gets his marching orders while on an extended honeymoon at an Italian villa, where he also is restoring a 17th-century altarpiece for the Vatican. He learns that Col. Grigori Bulganov, the Russian intelligence officer who saved his life and then defected to the West, has gone missing and faces the prospect of execution and burial in an unmarked grave.

The stakes grow higher when Kharkov’s thugs kidnap Allon’s wife, Chiara, herself an Israeli Special Ops agent, from the villa in Umbria, where her two security guards are found dead.

Allon’s assignment takes him at warp speed to the Russian exile community in London, a little-known bank in Switzerland and a villa on Italy’s Lake Como to which he lures Bulganov’s wife to obtain details of her husband’s abduction.

The globe-trotting continues with a visit to a lodge in New York’s Adirondacks that provides sanctuary for Kharkov’s wife and children, then to a dacha in a snowbound birch forest in Russia that offers haunting testimony to Stalin’s butchery 70 years earlier.

Allon and his team get help from the Israelis’ well-placed contacts in Britain’s MI5, which at first suspected that Bulganov was a double agent who defected yet again, this time back to Russia, and in the CIA, which plays a key role in the daring rescue.

As the Cold War becomes a distant memory, spy novels have been forced to adapt.

Silva draws from undisputed master John Le Carré, but without the British author’s projection of moral ambiguity. Silva’s readers can always tell the good guys from the bad.

There’s also a smidgen of James Bond.

Silva, a former wire service correspondent and CNN producer who’s known for the research that informs his novels, spent some time in Russia while working on Moscow Rules. That book and its sequel indicate that the country has a way to go to come to terms with its KGB past.

 

Review by Kate Ayers[2]

“For Gabriel Allon—a child of Holocaust survivors, a gifted artist and restorer, an assassin and spy—life had been anything but normal.”

How could life possibly be normal, when he possesses the skills of 20 men and the courage to use them? He started young and, from the outset, has fought for what he believes in, winning battles against crushing odds. And he has lost much of what he loved.

Now, months after Gabriel’s daring feats in Moscow Rules[3], in which he rescued the world from a terrifying future, he and his team deserve a well-earned respite. So Gabriel retreats to the rented villa in Umbria, picking up the paint brush once again to continue his art restoration, and taking time to enjoy his wife, Chiara, an Italian woman of striking beauty. She is also a deadly agent for the same Israeli organization Gabriel works for, referred to as simply the Office. Their last harrowing assignment has them both thinking of retirement. Maybe they could settle in, start a family and try to capture a life that at least borders on normal.

Amid such pleasant dreams comes news that Russian defector Grigori Bulganov has vanished from his safe house in London. Grigori saved Gabriel’s life as they fled Russia together. There has been speculation that he returned to his homeland, but Gabriel cannot believe Grigori would go back—at least not voluntarily. That means that he has been snatched or coerced somehow.

The Office gives Gabriel strict orders to stay out of it, but Gabriel owes Grigori. Big time. If not for Grigori, Gabriel might never have been reunited with Chiara, and the world might be a very different place. As always, Gabriel plays by his own rules, following an intuition so keen it could be said he has a sixth sense. He starts with a simple plan, one that should yield maximum benefit for minimum risk.

Grigori’s disappearance starts to look like a form of revenge. He should have kept a low profile, but his craving for attention got the better of him. And he got attention, only not the kind of attention he wanted. Gabriel’s information points him toward Ivan Kharkov, a more than formidable foe. The big problem is that Kharkov is in Russia, and Russia is forbidden ground for Gabriel. Of course, that never stopped him before, nor will it now. It’s all a matter of time. But time is running out.

“Always the waiting…Waiting for a plane or a train. Waiting for a source. Waiting for the Sun to rise after a night of killing. And waiting for Ivan Kharkov…”

There is no question that Gabriel will go after him. But will he succeed? Kharkov is not your average bad guy. This fellow is rich, cunning, well connected, spiteful, malicious, plain nasty, and downright mean. And it’s no surprise that he doesn’t take well to being crossed. The tiniest slight sends him into a dangerous, sometimes fatal, rage. Gabriel may have to retire after this, if he survives. It’s touch and go. Last assignment? Daniel Silva’s fans hope not.

The Defector blends the worst of Russia’s past with the best of her future. Put your hopes on the women. And sidestep the politicians. Loyal citizens, particularly those with extraordinary abilities and tenacity, will get things done. Especially if they’re anything like Gabriel Allon. But beware; this may be his toughest case yet. It certainly is his most thrilling.

[1] Jerry Harkavy Associated Press, “Book Review: Daniel Silva’s ‘Defector’ is well-crafted thriller,” Billings Gazette (Aug 30, 2009), downloaded January 6, 2017

[2] Kate Ayers at Book Reporter, accessed December 3, 2017 at https://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/the-defector

[3] Silva, Daniel (2008). Moscow Rules. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

 

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The Quantum Spy


Title:                      The Quantum Spy

Author:                   David Ignatius

Ignatius, David (2018). The Quantum Spy: a thriller. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

LCCN:    2017015373

PS3559.G54 Q36 2018

Date Posted:      December 1, 2017

Reviewed by Marisha Pessl[1]

A similar widespread villainy lies at the heart of David Ignatius’s The Quantum Spy, a somber espionage procedural about the race to build the world’s first quantum computer—a theoretical frontier at the intersection of computer science and quantum physics. Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist who has long covered the C.I.A., and he happily takes us for a jaunt through a world of anonymous hotel rooms and conference tables across Beijing and Vancouver and Dubai, where decisions to take someone off “the shelf” (i.e., bring him or her back into action) are blankly relayed and executed. American start-ups on the brink of game-changing innovation are visited by a C.I.A. officer, a “lean, putty-faced man with a bad haircut” who quietly demands for the United States government to be their only client. Operatives aspire to the “highest art” of their profession: to “appear ordinary.”

Here, the ostensible enemy is a mole inside the C.I.A. known as RUKOU, or the DOORWAY, whom the C.I.A. must ferret out and eliminate, all the while keeping the Chinese away from their technological breakthroughs—a Sisyphean exercise if ever there was one.

The mood is mournful and restrained. The C.I.A.’s vibe feels like a highway motel with thin walls, a smell of chlorine, a vending machine where your Twix gets stuck on the glass. The most delightful aspect of the book is the characterization of the Chinese—their expletive-ridden insults, downbeat perspective (“Bad luck is always hiding inside the doorway, down the next hutong”), and quirks. Chinese agents carry a mijian with them at all times, “a small, leatherbound diary” in which they write things “that were never, ever to be shared.” In one fascinating scene set in Mexico, a Chinese agent with a Spanish accent unnerves the Chinese-American hero, Harris Chang, by unveiling Chang’s own secret political Chinese ancestry to him. It proves to be a surprisingly powerful interrogation technique: “He was uncomfortable. It was as if someone else had taken possession of his life story.”

It comes to light that the mole is motivated by a desire to build “one world”—a single borderless country that brings to mind Facebook’s hope to “bring the world closer together.” But infinitely more devastating than any double agent is the operating hollowness at the heart of the C.I.A. When superiors question Chang’s loyalty, he submits to three polygraphs; however no lie detector can resolve the problem. Neither innocent nor guilty, he is afflicted by a lack of resolve: “He occupied a space where things are ambiguous, where people are simultaneously friend and foe, loyal and disloyal, impossible to define until the moment when events intervene and force each particle, each heart, to one side or the other.” The agent is a spinning electron in the atom, eluding capture by a Heisenberg uncertainty principle. There is the probability of an exact location, which holds true only during the nanosecond of perception. Then he is at large again, careening around a moral fog.

[1] Marisha Pessl, “Our Villains, Ourselves: A Thriller Roundup,” The New York Times Book Review. Marisha Pessl is the author of the novels Night Film and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Her next book, Neverworld Wake, will be published in 2018. A version of this article appears in print on October 29, 2017, on Page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Thrillers.

The Assassination Option


Title:                      The Assassination Option

Author:                 W.E.B. Griffin

Griffin, W. E. B. (2014) and William E. Butterworth IV. The Assassination Option: a clandestine operations novel. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

LCCN:    2014040663

PS3557.R489137 A94 2014b

Summary

  • “From the #1 New York Times– and Wall Street Journal-bestselling author comes the dramatic second adventure in the brand-new Clandestine Operations series about the Cold War, the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency-and a new breed of warrior. In Top Secret, W.E.B. Griffin introduced a remarkable new cast of heroes as they found themselves on the front lines of an entirely different kind of war. Now, these men and women are going to find out what they’ve really gotten themselves into. James Cronley thought he had done well-he didn’t know he’d done this well. His first successful mission for the about-to-be-official new Central Intelligence Directorate has drawn all kinds of attention, some welcome, some not. On the plus side, he’s now a captain; promoted to Chief, DCI, Europe; and in charge of a top secret spy operation. On the minus side, a lot of people would like to know about that operation, including not only the Soviets, but his own Pentagon, as well as a seething J. Edgar Hoover. Cronley knows that if just one thing goes wrong, he’s likely to get thrown to the wolves. As if that weren’t enough pressure, complications are springing up on all sides. He’s discovered a surprising alliance between the former German intelligence chief and, of all things, the Mossad. A German family that Cronley never knew he had has suddenly, and suspiciously, emerged. And he’s due for a rendezvous with an undercover agent against the Soviets known only as Seven K. It’s when he meets Seven K that he gets the real surprise. “– Provided by publisher.
  • “From the #1 New York Times-bestselling author comes the dramatic second adventure in the new Clandestine Operations series about the Cold War – and a new breed of warrior”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 30, 2017

KIRKUS REVIEW[1]

In their second Clandestine Operations spy thriller, Griffin and his son and co-author, Butterworth (Top Secret, 2014, etc.), delve into the down-and-dirty work necessary to turn the OSS into the CIA.

Griffin’s regular cast of thousands—Cronley, young captain from a rich Texas ranching family; Dunwiddie, African-American Norwich graduate commissioned into the officer corps just in time to join the CIA; Gehlen, current POW, former chief of Abwehr Ost, a so-called “good German” with the scoop on the rotten Red Menace; and Adm. Souers, Truman’s friend named Director of Central Intelligence—is charged with building a viable spy organization to succeed Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS while keeping the new gang out of the clutches of the Pentagon and FBI. Young Cronley is “Chief, Directorate of Central Intelligence, Europe” in case higher-ups need a fall guy if something goes wrong in unstable occupied Germany. There are new players: Maksymilian Ostrowski, Free Polish Air Force veteran now displaced person; and (next adventure, perhaps?) Cronley’s cousin Luther Stauffer with suspected links to Odessa, a program to “help SS officers get out of Germany.” Griffin employs big shots like Bedell Smith, Ike’s right-hand man; covers internecine jealousies over bureaucratic fiefdoms; and suggests Israel’s Mossad benefited from Russian triple-agent Seven-K, who spied for Abwehr Ost for quid pro quo release of Zionists from concentration camps. Griffin slips enough historical factoids—Katyn Forest massacre, Hoover’s botched attempt at Manhattan Project’s secrecy—to assure history buffs he’s still got the right stuff but—whoops!—again has the USAF in action one year prior to its founding. Characters communicate in repartee, bend rules like Bavarian pretzels, and aren’t above dropping a bad guy in an unmarked grave, no paperwork required, so that a turned NKVD colonel’s family can escape Leningrad.

Another Griffin adventure to bring out the Walter Mitty in every red-white-and-blue–blooded American male.

[1] Kirkus, accessed November 30, 2017 at https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/web-griffin/assassination-option/

One Man’s Flag


Title:                      One Man’s Flag

Author:                  David Downing

Downing, David (2015). One Man’s Flag. New York: Soho Crime

LCCN:    2015014946

PR6054.O868 O54 2015

Summary

  • “Spring 1915. As the Great War burns its way across Europe, Jack McColl, a spy for His Majesty’s Navy, is stationed in India, charged with defending the Empire against Bengali terrorists and their German allies. In England, meanwhile, suffragette journalist Caitlin Hanley begins the business of rebuilding her life after the execution of her brother, an Irish republican sympathizer whose plot Jack McColl—Caitlin’s ex-lover—had foiled. The war is changing everything, and giving fresh impulse to those causes—feminism, socialism and Irish independenc—which she as a journalist has long supported. The threat of a Rising in Dublin alarms McColl’s bosses as much as it dazzles Caitlin. It was one Irish plot which came between Jack and Caitlin in 1914, and it will take another to bring them back together, as both enemies and lovers”—Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 3, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

It’s 1915 and British intelligence agent Jack McColl is back, defending the far-flung Empire as the First World War rages in Europe. David Downing introduced McColl in Jack of Spies and he’s a likeable character, an English patriot who also sympathizes with the Indian and Irish nationalists chafing under imperial rule.

Jack has been tasked with disrupting plots against His Majesty’s control of British colonies, and that puts him in tight spots from Darjeeling to Dublin. At the same time, One Man’s Flag follows the travels of the feminist American journalist Caitlin Hanley—McColl’s estranged love interest—who chronicles the brutal war on the Western front.

One Man’s Flag is an engaging read, chock full of adventure and history. The British Empire held together until after the Second World War, when demands for independence and self-determination by its colonies could no longer be denied. Until then, the Foreign Service and intelligence agencies of the Crown fought a holding action, and Downing’s Jack McColl novels should offer an intriguing short course on this somewhat ignored history.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2016/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2016/

Leaving Berlin


Title:                      Leaving Berlin

Author:                 Joseph Kanon

Kanon, Joseph (2015, 2016). Leaving Berlin: a novel: New York: Washington Square Press

LCCN:    2015478203

PS3561.A476 L43 2016

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 2, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

Leaving Berlin may be the most suspenseful of Joseph Kanon’s historical spy thrillers, a beautifully-crafted and evocative novel set in the ruins of 1949 East Berlin. Kanon’s The Good German[2] took place a few years earlier, in 1945 Berlin, and he has an affinity for the city and its culture (just as novelist Alan Furst does for Paris between the wars.)

The novel’s protagonist is Alex Meier, a German-Jewish author who has spent the Second World War in Hollywood but has now run afoul of Congressional investigators who want him to “name names,” which as a matter of principle he won’t. No longer welcome in America, Meier finds himself warmly welcomed by the Soviet authorities ruling Berlin. But Meier has struck a secret, Faustian bargain with the CIA—in exchange for his eventual readmission to the U.S., where his twelve-year old son lives, he will spy on the Russians and their German Stalinist helpers.

Meier is not the only literary exile returning to post-war Berlin; Kanon includes two real-life figures—Bertolt Brecht, the German Marxist poet and playwright, and the anti-Fascist writer Anna Seghers (the pseudonym adopted by Anna Reiling)—who have also decided to live under Communism in the hopes of building a new society, a Workers’ Paradise.

Meier finds a city full of contrasts. Berliners can still travel between the Soviet, American, French, and British sectors. At the same time, however, the Soviets are trying to force the Allies to leave by cutting off access to the food and coal necessary for the city’s very existence. The West has responded with the Berlin Airlift, and the sight and sound of airplanes flying overhead is a constant reminder in Leaving Berlin of a growing Cold War tension that Meier can’t escape.

The novel explores the moral and psychological costs of betrayal. The CIA expects Meier to spy on his German friends from the past, including the beautiful aristocrat Irene von Bernuth, once his lover; the German secret police (the K-5, later known as the Stasi) are recruiting informants; and the Russians are setting the stage for a purge of Party members who suddenly find themselves labeled as counter-revolutionaries because they’ve made the wrong joke.

Kanon has fashioned a suspenseful and engaging story against this backdrop. As Dieter, a former Berlin cop now working for the Americans, and one of the more appealing characters in the book, explains to Meier “in this business at some point you have to trust somebody.” Who Meier can trust—and how the personal can trump the political—becomes the fascinating question at the heart of Leaving Berlin, and one that commands the reader’s attention until the very last page.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2015/04/top-spy-thrillers-espionage-novels-of-2015/

[2] Kanon, Joseph (2001). The Good German: a novel. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

The Good German


Title:                      The Good German

Author:                  Joseph Kanon

Kanon, Joseph (2001). The Good German: a novel. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

LCCN: 2001016968

PS3561.A476 G66 2001

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 2, 2017

Review by Neil Gordon[1]

In the midsummer of 1945, Jake Geismar, a journalist made famous—though “not as famous as Murrow”—by his coverage of the war, arrives in Berlin. Ostensibly, he has come to write a series of articles for Collier’s magazine on the Allied occupation. In fact, he is searching for his prewar lover, Lena Brandt, the wife of a prominent German rocket scientist. It is two months after Germany’s surrender, and Geismar finds Berlin shattered, nearly unrecognizable, displaying “the visible fury of the final assault, a destructive madness.” He also finds Lena, sick and miserable and alone. Her husband has disappeared; she has been raped by the invading Russians; her 2-year-old son has been killed in an air raid. And Geismar finds a murder as well: a dead American soldier, his pockets filled with money, floating in a lake outside the mansion housing the Potsdam Conference.

None of this is surprising in postwar Berlin, a place where everything—from hookers to phony testimonials attesting to the bearer’s attempts to help Jews in the camps—is for sale on the black market, where everyone is armed and life is so tenuous as to be utterly disposable. But running through the American and Russian sectors is something that shocks even a cynical war correspondent. As Geismar slowly discovers, the American soldier was murdered while brokering Lena’s husband’s freedom within the world of secretive programs designed to bring Nazis and war criminals to justice. And within this world there is a powerful, efficient and absolutely ruthless corporate and military network that is trying not to capture Nazis but to exonerate scientists like Lena’s husband, to expunge their compromised past.

Why? Because, as it prepares for its former ally the Soviet Union to become its Cold War enemy, our military feels it must have, at any price, the rocketry expertise of the Wehrmacht. “I don’t care if he was Hitler’s best friend,” an American officer says of Lena’s husband, Emil. “We just want to know what’s up here,” he explains, tapping a finger to his head. In such a historical and ethical quagmire, Geismar is faced with three interlocking questions: Who killed the American soldier? Why is the Army trying to prevent Geismar from finding out? And where is Lena’s husband?

A common and often fatal failing of this kind of book—a suspense novel set against epic atrocities like the Holocaust and World War II—is the trivialization of the historical framework with a fictional story. But Joseph Kanon, whose first thriller was set at Los Alamos[2] during the Manhattan Project and whose second dramatized the issues raised by McCarthyism and Vietnam[3], has woven his plot seamlessly into the historical background. As the hunt for the missing scientist gathers speed, the moral and emotional dimensions of the story become more complex.

Was the murdered soldier saving Lena’s husband or delivering him to the Russians? Are the Americans, so ready to forgive German war criminals in the interests of military and corporate competition, any better than the Russians, who seem not to care about anyone’s political past? Was Lena’s husband a nominal Nazi or was he more profoundly implicated in the administration of Nordhausen, the rocket works staffed by horrifically abused slave labor? What is the ethical status of those who became Nazis simply to protect themselves and their families? And how will the truth regarding Emil’s complicity affect the fact that Geismar is in love with his wife?

The mystery takes on the weight of the deepest questions of right and wrong as the novel’s action moves through a ravaged Berlin so exactly depicted that one feels Kanon must have traveled in time to witness this landscape himself. At its best, in its articulation of a personal experience of the war and its aftermath, and in the plain power of its prose, The Good German rivals Irwin Shaw’s novel The Young Lions, its history imaginatively accessible, its plot historically inevitable.

No one is innocent in Kanon’s Berlin: the Americans are corrupted by denazification, as are the Russians, whose war heroes are guilty of terrible cruelty. Bystanders are accused of witnessing deportations; military courts try Jews who turned on other Jews. Above all, however, Geismar—who is not Jewish—keeps running up against the subtle, ever-present anti-Semitism not of the Germans or the Russians but of the Americans, a social anti-Semitism that is all the more chilling in this immediate postwar context.

“We don’t want people to think a minority is using this program to get revenge,” says a visiting congressman, discussing the Army’s procedures for identifying war criminals. “We’re an even smaller minority here,” answers an American soldier who happens to be Jewish, one of the few functionaries who actually try to ferret out Nazis and camp guards among the hordes of Germans looking for jobs with the occupying army. “Most of us are dead,” he reminds the congressman. “I didn’t mean you personally, of course,” is the hasty reply. “Save it,” the soldier answers. “I know what you mean. I don’t want to join your country club anyway.”

It is this level of historical insight that goes beyond the current vogue of technical exactitude in movies about World War II and rises to the poetic truth of, say, the filmmaker Axel Corti’s shocking depiction of postwar Vienna. Occupied Berlin is a place where the sentimental triumphs of Spielberg’s World War II pale before the moral depravity of denazification. The Allied victory is rendered hollow on both sides of the fast-dropping Iron Curtain as the good fight against fascism is corrupted by the bad dictates of the emerging cold war and anti-Semitism is, unbelievably, more than tolerated in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

The Good German is by no means a perfect book: there are a few genuine flaws in plot, in motivation, in balance, in voice. At times the gears of the story fail to mesh; some conversations contain more information than communication; sex scenes are neither erotic nor pornographic, just a bit anatomical. These are all details of craftsmanship, however, and no one who has followed the remarkable progress of Kanon’s three politically engaged thrillers can doubt that this new book is a quantum leap toward real mastery of the genre.

Even with its occasional lapses, The Good German is thoroughly captivating, a novel that brings to life the ambiguities at the heart of our country’s moral legacy. It also offers the promise of a writer who is fast approaching the complexity and relevance not just of le Carré and Greene but even of Orwell: provocative, fully realized fiction that explores, as only fiction can, the reality of history as it is lived by individual men and women. Kanon’s vision of postwar Germany is not only enthralling but troubling, suggesting that for Germany, Russia and America alike, compelling questions about guilt and righteousness are the ultimate legacy of the Third Reich.

[1] Neil Gordon, “Love Among the Ruins,” New York Times (October 14, 2001), accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/14/books/love-among-the-ruins.html

[2] Kanon, Joseph (1997). Los Alamos: a novel. New York: Broadway Books

[3] Kanon, Joseph (1998). The Prodigal Spy. New York: Broadway Books

The Prodigal Spy


Title:                      The Prodigal Spy

Author:                 Joseph Kanon

Kanon, Joseph (1998). The Prodigal Spy. New York: Broadway Books

LCCN:    98035767

PS3561.A476 P76 1998

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 2, 2017

Review by Morton Kondracke[1]

Three defenestrations punctuate this thriller about a traitorous State Department official.

Nick Warren, the hero of this moderately engrossing novel, has spycraft in his genes. He inherits it from his father, Walter Kotlar, a high-ranking State Department official who is reeled in to Moscow by his Soviet masters in 1950, when Nick is 10. In the end, he far surpasses his father in courage, wile and capacity for violence.

Joseph Kanon, whose Los Alamos[2] won an Edgar Award as the best first novel of 1997, establishes Nick’s aptitude for spying in the first chapter of The Prodigal Spy, when the boy discovers and destroys evidence that could prove his father has lied to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He also eavesdrops on and briefly tails his father, whom he dearly loves, on the day he defects—the day that Rosemary Cochrane, a salesgirl who received Kotlar’s secrets and who turned him over to the committee, dies in a fall from a Washington hotel window.

But the main action occurs in 1969, after Nick has served a tour in Vietnam and is at the London School of Economics researching McCarthyism. His surname is Warren because he was adopted by his stepfather, an old family friend who is now one of Richard Nixon’s chief negotiators at the Paris peace talks. At an embassy dinner party, Nick encounters an engaging young woman, Molly Chisholm, who says she has met Kotlar in Prague and conveys an urgent request that the son cross to the Eastern bloc to visit.

They travel together, with only implications that they may fall in love sustaining the reader through a desultory journey. In Prague, Nick discovers that his father is terminally ill, is disillusioned with Communism and—the prodigal spy—is determined to return to the United States to expose the people who killed Rosemary Cochrane and are still manning a Communist spy network in the capital. He thinks he was forced to leave Washington to protect the identity of another agent, code-named “Silver.” It’s not a political awakening, newfound appreciation for the West or even anger at his handlers that fuels Kotlar’s determination. He just wants to go home, and he thinks that turning in Communists will win him welcome.

But Kotlar doesn’t make it, and Nick and Molly—after a thrilling escape from Czechoslovak security agents—take up his mission back in Washington, where the action, though exciting, is a bit implausible. Armed with Kotlar’s list of the spies’ old addresses—no names—Nick and Molly randomly follow people who come and go from the buildings and strike pay dirt. Silver passes his secrets to a saleswoman at the same department store counter where Rosemary Cochrane collected Kotlar’s in 1950. Retired cops and F.B.I. agents—even the chairman of HUAC and J. Edgar Hoover—tell Nick secrets simply because he asks.

Besides plausibility, this novel lacks a sense of stakes. Kotlar claims to Nick that he never really did the United States any harm, that he just passed on his in-box. Yet the position he held—No. 2 in the State Department—meant he would have known major diplomatic secrets. Silver, too, is in a position to do significant damage, but nothing is made of the fact.

There’s a sense about this book that the whole business of spying and treason—indeed, the whole Cold War—wasn’t about very much, nothing that people ought to die over. Kanon isn’t exactly mired in moral equivalence. Communists are responsible for most of the perfidy and all three of the defenestrations that punctuate the book. But Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia are portrayed as parallel blunders. Stalin’s purges are rendered as brutal, but American anti-Communist “witch hunts” are presented, just as negatively and more vividly, as the work of imbeciles.

To be sure, a spy novel need not be politically correct to be readable. But a novelist ought to make readers care what happens. The best Kanon does is to have Nick and Molly be an attractive pair of adventurers and to keep some suspense going about Silver’s identity. It’s not enough to win prizes.

[1] Morton Kondracke, “ Fall Guys,” The New York Times Books (February 28, 1999), accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/02/28/reviews/990228.28kondrat.html . Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, a Washington newspaper.

[2] Kanon, Joseph (1997). Los Alamos: a novel. New York: Broadway Books