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


  • “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


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

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


  • “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

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

[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

[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 . Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, a Washington newspaper.

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

Los Alamos

Title:                      Los Alamos

Author:                 Joseph Kanon

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

LCCN:    96044055

PS3561.A476 L6 1997

LC Subjects

World War, 1939-1945–New Mexico–Los Alamos–Fiction.

Atomic bomb–Fiction.

Los Alamos (N.M.)–Fiction.

Date Posted:      November 1, 2017

Review by Lawrence Thornton[1]

“A Mrs. Rosa Ortiz found the body”. The flat, casual tone established by the indefinite article opening Los Alamos”—patented by the grandfathers of noir and imitated by countless successors—signals us that the novel we are about to read is a detective thriller whose narrative possibilities will be limited by formulas of the genre. But the job of such books is to amuse us, and that is exactly what Joseph Kanon does in this first novel, a tale of murder set against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project. From the discovery of the body on the first page through the machinations of plot that culminate in a car chase across the New Mexico desert, Mr. Kanon manipulates the familiar elements of delay, false leads, cold trails and hot sex in the service of a diverting, if occasionally long-winded, entertainment.

Los Alamos takes place in the spring of 1945. Scientists are working day and night to complete the first atomic bomb before the Germans and Japanese do. To that end, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and a sprinkling of other geniuses populate a town that has no official existence. If you want to get in touch with someone there, you send a letter to a post office box in Santa Fe.

The highest level of security is maintained behind the fences of Los Alamos. Outside, however, events spin out of control when Karl Bruner, a security officer and refugee from Europe, is found murdered in Santa Fe, possibly the victim of a homosexual encounter gone bad. The question is whether his death is merely a private tragedy or a sign of espionage. Has the Manhattan Project been compromised? Since Washington fears that a public scandal could shut down the project, the truth needs to be ferreted out quickly. Gen. Leslie Groves, the Army commander of Los Alamos, one of several characters cloned from historical figures, calls in Michael Connolly, an intelligence officer who replaces Bruner and begins an undercover investigation.

Determined though he is to track down the killer, Connolly still has time to become involved with the wife of a scientist working on the project, Emma Pawlowski, a beautiful and mysterious woman whose shadowy past includes a stint of fighting in the Spanish Civil War. When he isn’t bedding Emma in various picturesque positions and locales, Connolly is running into an array of problems. The local sheriff, Doc Holliday, seems only a notch above a hayseed. Scientists and military personnel are reluctant to talk. But Connolly persists, slowly building a theory that whoever smashed Karl Bruner’s skull in is connected to the project.

Although Mr. Kanon is working in a genre that does not especially emphasize character, he does a good job developing Connolly and Emma. Their relationship is plausible, if predictable. He is less successful with others, particularly Oppenheimer, whose historical reality, approaching mythic proportions in the public mind, is too unwieldy for the role assigned him here. The dialogue and action Mr. Kanon invents for him jar against our memory or knowledge of the man. A similar problem interferes with our response to the first atomic explosion. Mr. Kanon’s description of the mushroom cloud and its significance is underwhelming.

The writing in Los Alamos is generally workmanlike, yet there are lapses that weaken the enterprise: “It was when she glanced down from the sky, temporarily blinded, that she saw the shoes.” Of the many clever twists Mr. Kanon works into his story, the most interesting raises such sophisticated ethical questions that I can easily imagine the book freed from its thriller trappings. Little of its real drama would be lost in the service of a deeper inquiry into one of the most chilling moral choices of the 20th century. But in Los Alamos, Mr. Kanon has carefully subordinated his more serious intentions, as well as the inherent complexity of his material, to the demands of nonstop action.

[1] Lawrence Thornton, “Bomb Squad,” New York Times  Books (June 1, 1997), accessed at . Lawrence Thornton’s final novel in the Argentina Trilogy, Tales From the Blue Archives was published in 1997.