The Man from G-2


Title:                      The Man from G-2

Author:                 Francis van Wyck Mason

Mason, Francis van Wyck (1941). The Man from G-2: Three of Major North’s Most Important Adventures. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock

ISBN10:                9997522931

Date Posted:      January 10, 2017

This is an omnibus of novels by Francis Van Wyck Mason. The work includes The Cairo Garter Murders, The Yellow Arrow Murders, and The Rio Casino Intrigue

Review by Peter Kenney[1] (The Yellow Arrow Murders, 1932Ca)

Hugh North is sent to either buy or steal plans for an advanced torpedo which are being sold by its inventor in Cienfuegos. The seller of the plans calls himself Alvarado but his real name is Doelger. He is a disgruntled American who was discharged from the U.S. Navy for dereliction of duty in 1918. When North arrives in Cienfuegos, he finds plenty of competitors already there seeking the prize. Some are agents of their governments while others are merely adventurers in the game for profit. In one role or another there are representatives from England, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, Portugal and Italy. This is the first novel in the series in which North operates in a foreign country under orders from G-2 on a matter of international intrigue.

KIRKUS REVIEW (The Cairo Garter Murders, 1938 )[2]

International characters in this Hugh North yarn, laid in Cairo. This forms the scene for a series of unpleasant murders and tense moments for the British. Bruce Kilgour and Stag Melhorne again on hand, and North through unscrupulous methods snatches victory for the British. Good adventure.

KIRKUS REVIEW (The Rio Casino Intrigue, 1941)[3]

Major Hugh North on the trail of Axis infiltration in Brazil works against time to prevent a major push to take over the country, as an unknown freighter, bearing money, and a leader, approaches for The Day. Using means not approved by the Embassy, harassed by the Carnival, North finally blasts his way to success. O. K.

[1] Amazon, downloaded January 10, 2017

[2] Kirkus, downloaded January 10, 2017

[3] Kirkus, downloaded January 10, 2017

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The Girl Who Played with Fire


Title:                      The Girl Who Played with Fire

Author:                  Stieg Larsson

Larsson, Stieg (2009). The Girl Who Played with Fire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LCCN:    2009014053

PT9876.22.A6933 F5713 2009

Notes

  • Originally published: Stockholm : Norstedts, 2006.

Date Posted:      January 2, 2017

Review by Michiko Kakutani[1]

Lisbeth Salander, the angry punk hacker in Stieg Larsson’s 2008 best seller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo[2], was one of the most original and memorable heroines to surface in a recent thriller: picture Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft endowed with Mr. Spock’s intense braininess and Scarlett O’Hara’s spunky instinct for survival. She and the middle-aged, down-on-his-luck reporter Mikael Blomkvist made quite the odd couple, and their chemistry fueled that earlier novel, driving it through its hurried, contrived ending.

Now Salander is back in The Girl Who Played With Fire in an even more central role. This time she is less detective than quarry, as she becomes the chief suspect in three murders. Hunted by the police and enemies from her past, she goes underground, while Blomkvist, one of the few people to believe in her innocence, races to find her—and clues to the real killer.

Though this novel lacks the sexual and romantic tension that helped spark Dragon Tattoo—Salander and Blomkvist share few scenes here—it boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larsson’s improved plotting abilities, a story line that simultaneously moves backward into Salander’s traumatic past, even as it accelerates toward its startling and violent conclusion.

The three people murdered are Nils Erik Bjurman, a lawyer and Salander’s guardian, who once brutally raped her; Dag Svensson, a writer finishing an explosive article about the sex trade for Blomkvist’s magazine (an article that threatens to ruin the reputations of several policemen, five lawyers, a prosecutor, a judge and three journalists); and Svensson’s girlfriend and researcher, Mia Johansson. In his last conversation with Blomkvist, Svensson mentioned he had a new lead on a mysterious gangster, known as Zala, whom he wanted to track down before his article went to press.

Like many thriller writers, Mr. Larsson—who died in 2004, shortly after turning in this novel, Dragon Tattoo and a third companion volume—is overly fond of coincidence, and this is certainly the case here. Salander has just come back from a year of traveling: she had left Stockholm after falling in love with Blomkvist, who had taken up with another woman, and was furious with herself for falling prey to an emotion that goes against her image of herself as unsentimental and tough as nails.

Upon returning, she hacks into Blomkvist’s computer to check up on him and discovers an e-mail message from Svensson mentioning Zala, who just happens to be a dreaded figure from her own past. Hours before Svensson and Johansson are found dead—by Blomkvist, of all people—Salander pays them a surprise visit, determined to find out what they know , about Zala. The police discover her fingerprints on the gun used to kill them—a gun, we learn, that belonged to her former guardian, Bjurman, who is later found dead in his apartment, naked and draped over his bed.

By cutting cinematically from one set of characters to another, Mr. Larsson builds suspense, while tracking the progress of several simultaneous investigations: the campaign of a likable criminal inspector named Bublanski and his team to track down Salander, whom they regard as their chief suspect; Blomkvist’s quest to exonerate Salander and find the real killer, who he suspects must have had something at stake in the pending publication of Svensson’s exposé; the efforts of a private security investigator named Armansky, who once employed Salander, to track down her whereabouts; and Salander’s own crusade to find Zala, exact revenge and finally come to terms with the horrors of her childhood.

As he did in Dragon Tattoo, Mr. Larsson—a former journalist and magazine editor—mixes precise, reportorial descriptions with lurid melodramatics lifted straight from the stock horror and thriller cupboard. He gives us an immediate sense of the sleek, yuppified world inhabited by Blomkvist and his married business associate and sometime lover, Erika Berger and the daily rigors of publishing a monthly magazine. He gives us a detailed, “CSI”-type understanding of the investigative methods employed by the police and the computer pyrotechnics performed by Salander. At the same time Mr. Larsson has his characters talk in portentous tones of things like “All the Evil.” And he gives us two cartoony James Bondian villains: a hulking blond giant, incapable of feeling pain, and his evil, physically disfigured master, who happens to be a former Soviet agent with ties to the underworld.

The ending of The Girl Who Played With Fire—like the revelation about Salander’s past, which gives the book its title—comes straight out of a horror movie: it’s gory, harrowing and operatically over the top. The reason it works is the same reason that Dragon Tattoo worked: Mr. Larsson’s two central characters, Salander and Blomkvist, transcend their genre and insinuate themselves in the reader’s mind through their oddball individuality, their professional competence and, surprisingly, their emotional vulnerability.

Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

A version of this review appears in print on July 17, 2009, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: Suspected, Pursued. Innocent?. Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

 

[1] Michiko Kakutani, “Suspected, Pursued. Innocent?” The New York Times (A version of this review appears in print on July 17, 2009, on page C21 of the New York edition). Downloaded January 2, 2017. Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

[2] Larsson, Stieg (2008). The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. London: MacLehose Press

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo


Title:                      The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo

Author:                Stieg Larsson

Larsson, Stieg (2008). The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. London: MacLehose Press

LCCN:    2008411003

PT9876.22.A6933 M3613 2008b

Subjects

Notes

  • Originally published as: Män som hatar kvinnor. Stockholm : Norstedt, 2005.

Date Updated:  December 31, 2016

Reviewed by Alex Berenson[1]

A few years ago, Ake Daun, a professor of European ethnology, posted an article on Sweden’s official national Web site, Sweden.se, arguing that Swedes are not in fact gloomy or suicide prone. “Sweden is quite far down in the European suicide table, in 15th place,” Daun wrote, blaming a 1960 speech by Dwight Eisenhower for leaving outsiders with the impression that Swedes tended toward “sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide.”

Maybe so. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist who died of a heart attack in 2004, won’t help the country’s image any. The novel offers a thoroughly ugly view of human nature, especially when it comes to the way Swedish men treat Swedish women. In Larsson’s world, sadism, murder and suicide are commonplace — as is lots of casual sex. (Sweden isn’t all bad.)

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” published in Sweden in 2005, became an international best seller. The book opens with an intriguing mystery. Henrik Vanger, an octogenarian industrialist, hires Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who has just lost a libel case under murky circumstances, to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet. Nearly 40 years earlier, Harriet vanished from a small island mostly owned by the Vanger family, and Henrik has never gotten over it.

Blomkvist takes on the case, despite serious misgivings, after Henrik promises him 2.4 million kronor (about $372,000 at the current exchange rate) for a year’s work. Henrik says he’s certain that someone in his family murdered Harriet. “I detest most of the members of my family,” he tells Blomkvist. “They are for the most part thieves, misers, bullies and incompetents”—a description that will prove to be, if anything, too kind.

The girl of the title isn’t Harriet but Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old computer hacker with a photographic memory, a violent temper and some serious intimacy issues. After a nasty plot detour involving a lawyer foolish enough to try to take advantage of her, Salander teams with Blomkvist to solve the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance.

The novel perks up as their investigation gains speed, though readers will need some time to sort through the various cousins and nephews and half-brothers and–sisters who populate the Vanger family. Harriet’s case turns out to be connected to a series of murders in the 1950s and ’60s. When a cat is killed and its tortured corpse is left outside the cottage where Blomkvist is living, he and Salander realize they may not be working on a cold case after all.

But if the middle section of Girl is a treat, the rest of the novel doesn’t quite measure up. The book’s original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women, a label that just about captures the subtlety of the novel’s sexual politics. Except for Blomkvist, nearly every man in the book under age 70 is a violent misogynist.

Nor will Girl win any awards for characterization. While Blomkvist comes to life as he’s investigating the murder, his relationships with his daughter and with Erika Berger, a co-worker who is his occasional lover, seem half-formed and weak. Even after 460 pages, it’s not clear whether Blomkvist cares, whether he’s troubled by his lack of intimacy or simply resigned to it. Is he stoic or merely Swedish? Either way, he seems more a stock character than a real person.

But the real disappointment in Girl comes in its final section, after the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance has been solved. Without any warning, “Girl” metamorphoses into a boring account of Blomkvist’s effort to take down the executive who originally won the libel lawsuit mentioned at the start of the novel. The story of his revenge is boring and implausible, relying heavily on lazy e-mail exchanges between characters. And so Girl ends blandly. Only Ake Daun and the Swedish tourist board can be happy about that.

[1] Alex Berenson, “Vanished,” in The New York Times (September 14, 2008). Alex Berenson is a reporter for The Times. His most recent novel is The Ghost War. A version of this review appears in print on , on Page BR27 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Vanished. Downloaded, December 30, 2016

A Murder of Quality


Title:                      A Murder of Quality

Author:                John Le Carré

Le Carré, John (1962, 2012). A Murder of Quality. New York: Penguin Books,

LCCN:    2012019593

PZ4.L4526 PR6062.E33

Subjects

Date Posted:      December 2, 2016

Reviewed by George P. Elliot[1]

Earlier, John Le Carré wrote a couple of passable murder mysteries. A Murder of Quality has nothing much to do with spies, and is also rather routine. Call for the Dead[2], though it concerns the murders of spies by spies, is not properly a spy tale. The interest is focused on the British secret agent, George Smiley, near but not of the police, who functions in this story conventionally as a super-rational detective.

Then, in the celebrated The Spy Who Came In From the Cold[3], Le Carré wrote a spy thriller par excellence. Smiley has faded into the background. Suspense is generated by information withheld–not from the reader artificially as in a detective story, but from the hero as it would have been withheld from such a man in life. Formally, The Spy is altogether satisfying. Moreover, it says something worth saying about international politics, about the cold war, about a modern state’s attitude towards the individual citizens for whose sake it is supposed to exist.

But a thriller does not–by its very form it cannot–explore the depths of personal relationships, as realistic fiction does. Take Leamas’ love affair in The Spy. Because it is of considerable importance to the plot, we are given enough of the affair to make it structurally valid. We are reminded every so often that it will re-enter the story at the denouement, and this is exactly right for a thriller of any sort, whether spy or other. But by the standards of realistic fiction, of a proper novel, this love affair is too simple, too thin, too manipulated to be satisfactory. In The Looking Glass War[4], Le Carré has written a story with some of the suspense of a spy thriller and also with some of the psychological, social density of a novel. But the two modes do not mingle well: a thriller relies upon speed and artifice, whereas a novel needs subtlety and truth of motive, which are attainable only in meditative leisure.

The spy part of The Looking Glass War is, of course, excellent. It concerns a former military espionage department in London (small, left over from the glorious days of World War II) and its struggle to train one of its former agents for a mission into East Germany. The technical background for the mission is well presented. The action itself, once it finally gets under way, is tense and doomed in a gratifying manner; we are given just the right sort of sketch-portrait of Leiser, the special agent. Moreover, as in The Spy, we are given a strong sense that all this tension, duplicity and personal betrayal exist within the little world of espionage mostly for their own sake and not very much for the sake of the greater political good they are supposed to serve.

We are not in the least persuaded, nor does the author try hard to persuade us, that it makes any significant difference, politically or militarily, whether the Russians have installed a medium-range war missile in Kalkstadt, near the border between the two Germanys. On the contrary, we are persuaded by the story that the military significance of this installation by no means justifies the appalling betrayal of Leiser.

The betrayal is essentially human and not just political, since it is out of personal love for Avery (the agent who makes a preliminary “run” to check out details) and personal respect for the Head of the Department, not for money or any political idealism, that Leiser takes the job.

This much the story does and does well. But Le Carré also has novelistic pretensions, and in this respect — as a novel whose subject is people who happen to be spies–it is no better than it ought to be.

After a conventional opening in which a British spy is murdered in a foreign country, the novel settles into a long account of interdepartmental rivalry and the retraining of Leiser for his “run.” The central character of this story is Avery. Like Leamas in The Spy, Avery is a very sound man. He is high enough in the hierarchy to understand what goes into the policy decisions that he executes and that devastate his humanity. He is not high enough to make the decisions or to have been entirely dehumanized by having made them.

Avery is developed as a character far beyond the formal requirements of a thriller. For example, his estrangement from his wife, and her bitterness toward him for holding out on her in favor of the service, are of no real consequence in the development of the thriller. A touch of it would have been enough to highlight the depersonalization and estrangement which espionage demands of its servants. But Le Carré gives us so much of this relationship that it takes on a life of its own, yet not enough to be satisfying in itself.

The same criticism applies to the way the author handles the machinations of two secret services against one another. Avery’s group and the Foreign Office’s “Circus.” For a good half of the book this is the main conflict. Then, instead of developing the struggle in its own right, the author subordinates it to the spy tale which concludes the book. The result is that the novel, by being required to do less than it promised, looks weasened–and the thriller, by being asked to do more than it can, is in danger of inflation.

It is a question of emphasis. As the writer of a thriller that says something about the world, Le Carré ranks with Greene and Chandler. But as a true novelist he has a long way to go.

[1] George P. Elliott, “It’s the Spy Who Counts,” The New York Times (July 25, 1965).

[2] Le Carré, John [pseud. for David John More Cornwall] (1962, 2102). Call for the Dead. New York : Penguin Books

[3] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York: Coward-McCann

[4] Le Carré, John (1965). The Looking-Glass War. London, Heinemann

The Da Vinci Code


Title:                      The Da Vinci Code

Author:                 Dan Brown

Brown, Dan (2004). The Da Vinci Code. New York : Doubleday

LCCN:    2004055276

PS3552.R685434 D3 2004b

Subjects

Date Posted:      September 11, 2015

Reviewed by Mark Lawson[1]

The conspiracy thriller, it can be argued, is the purest kind of bestseller. The premise of such books is that there’s no such thing as a random happening; meanwhile, though bestsellers aren’t exactly conspiracies, most huge publishing successes can be traced back to a web of connected events, so that form and content collide to an unusual degree.

For example, Peter Benchley’s Jaws was probably a good enough story to find readers at any time, but became a mid-70s sensation because the implications of the plot—horrible, sudden death in a holiday resort—reflected the neuroses of an affluent American generation enduring both a cold war and an oil war. Helen Fielding spotted that young unmarrieds were a social grouping without a literature; Allison Pearson noticed the same gap for working mums.

And coming up to two years after September 11, 2001—roughly the time it takes conventional fiction publishing to respond to cultural shifts—what did we find unstoppably atop the American fiction charts? Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, 450 pages of irritatingly gripping tosh, offers terrified and vengeful Americans a hidden pattern in the world’s confusions.

When bad things happen, Brown reassures us, it is probably because of the machinations of a 1,000-year-old secret society which is quietly running the world, though often in conflict with another hidden organization. There are probably a couple of verses in Nostradamus predicting the triumph of The Da Vinci Code: “As the painted French woman smiles/The Brown man will top the heap”, or something similar. Certainly, the novel’s success can be attributed to those who read Nostradamus and believe that the smoke from the blazing twin towers formed the face of the devil or Osama bin Laden.

What happens in The Da Vinci Code is … alert readers will have noticed a delay in getting round to plot summary, but it takes time to force the face straight. Anyway, my lips are now level, so let’s go. Art expert Jacques Sauniere is discovered murdered in the Louvre, having somehow found the strength in his last hemorrhaging moments to arrange his body in the shape of a famous artwork and leave a series of codes around the building.

These altruistic clues are interpreted by Robert Langdon, an American “professor of religious symbology” who, by chance, is visiting Paris, and Sophie Neveu, a French “cryptologist” who is the granddaughter of the artistic cadaver in the Louvre.

As they joust with authorial research—about the divine proportion in nature and the possibility that the Mona Lisa is a painting of Leonardo himself in drag—a thug from the secretive Catholic organization Opus Dei, under orders from a sinister bishop, is also trying to understand the meaning of the imaginative corpse in the museum.

It all seems to be connected with the Priory of Sion, a secret society. Reading a book of this kind is rather like going to the doctor for the results of tests. You desperately want to know the outcome but have a sickening feeling about what it might prove to be. In this case, the answer was as bad as I’d feared.

Recently, crime and thriller fiction has been increasingly easy to defend against literary snobs at the level of the sentence. Not here. Brown keeps lugging in nuggets from his library: “Nowadays, few people realized that the four-year schedule of modern Olympic Games still followed the cycles of Venus.” Otherwise, he favors clunking, one-line plot-quickeners: “Andorra, he thought, feeling his muscles tighten.” French characters speak in American, while occasionally throwing in a “précisement” to flap their passport at us.

Criticism won’t hurt Brown, who can probably now buy an island with his royalties and a second one with the film rights. The author has, though, recently found himself on the end of an unwanted conspiracy theory: another writer has accused him of plagiarism. In strongly denying this, Brown employed a striking defense: that the points of overlap were clichés which were part of the genre of the thriller and therefore belonged to no one writer.

This admission of unoriginality may further anger readers and writers annoyed by seeing something as preposterous and sloppy (one terrible howler involves the European passport system) as The Da Vinci Code on its way to selling millions. But the success of this book is due not to the writing but to post-9/11 therapy. It tells so many Americans what they want to hear: that everything is meant. In doing so, Brown has cracked the bestseller code.

[1] Mark Lawson in The Guardian (July 26, 2003). Downloaded September 11, 2015. Mark Lawson’s novel Going Out Live is published by Picador

Divine Justice


Title:                      Divine Justice

Author:                 David Baldacci

Baldacci, David (2008). Divine Justice. New York: Grand Central Pub.

LCCN:    2008033072

PS3552.A446 D58 2008

Subjects

Date Updated:  June 23, 2015

Divine Justice is set in Divine, Virginia, the heart of coal mining country. It is an obviously prosperous town but so far off the beaten track that not even the local buses run there. It is a Mayberry town as imagined by Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Although spic and span on the outside, it causes the hairs on the back of one’s neck to rise early on. There are mysterious suicides and deaths, and it is home to a federal supermax prison.

This is the fourth in the Camel Club series of novels that have enjoyed immense popularity. Each novel has asked what secrets the federal government is keeping from citizens? Notice that the question is “is keeping” not “might be keeping.” It is not paranoia if there really are secrets, and any one of us who has served in certain governmental agencies is very well aware that secrets do exist, some benign, some malignant.

This novel opens where Stone Cold ends, just after Oliver Stone has assassinated Carter Gray, head of the CIA, and Roger Simpson, who had raised Stone’s daughter after his wife was murdered. Both men had conspired to ruin Stone’s life and force him underground courtesy of a fake grave at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a righteous kill within the world of the series. He is headed to New Orleans on Amtrak, leaving his friends in the dark as to his destination, when a young man on the train is attacked by three hoodlums. Stone rescues the young man, but they have to leave the train. He accompanies the man to Divine, which at first seems to be a good place to hide.

Unfortunately, he is being tracked by an agent with skills nearly equal to his. Will Joe Knox find Stone? If so, will Knox kill him or turn him over to General Macklin Hayes who has an earlier connection to Stone. Then, there is the town itself. Why is it prosperous? The reason given early on seems reasonable at first blush. Why do the miners drive an hour each way every morning for a methadone fix prior to entering the mines? Why is there a supermax prison in this tiny town and what is the relationship between the warden and the local sheriff? Will his friends be able to track him down?

All these questions are resolved in a realistic and thrilling conclusion. Additionally, Divine Justice seems to resolve many of the issues raised in the series in such a way that we may have seen the last of Oliver Stone/John Carr and his friends. We shall miss them.

At a recent book signing, Baldacci indicated that he likes to entertain and inform in his fiction. He writes about what he wants to know, and he “hopes the passion comes through.” That is certainly the case in this novel. It truly is a page turner as Baldacci skillfully interweaves the multiple plot lines and characters. Asked about the number of lawyers writing fiction these days, Baldacci said that some of the best fiction he ever wrote was as a lawyer. He went on to compare lawyers and writers since both must research and write persuasively within ethical considerations. At the end of the day, it is important to know the details. Again, Divine Justice excels in keeping straight the details of this story and the details of the back story of Stone/Carr.

Baldacci has reached such stature within the security community that agencies come to him asking for various scenarios—blowing up the Super Bowl, for example. Despite that level of “importance” he is still able to tell stories on himself. While in law school he began writing short stories and screenplays, but was not particularly adept at the latter. A friend came to him for help on a screenplay. Baldacci told him it “sucked.” The jokes were sophomoric, the humor too scatological. The friend persevered without him and today we have the Austin Powers movies.

Baldacci, a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, has written 17 novels and 3 children’s books. He is active in a number of charities, including the Wish You Well Foundation that he and his wife created to support and promote family literacy. He and his wife live in Virginia.

Finished Reading: September 15, 2014

Cold Harbour


Title:                  Cold Harbour

Author:                Jack Higgins

Higgins, Jack (1990). Cold Harbour. New York: Simon and Schuster

LCCN:    89026198

PR6058.I343 C58 1990

Subjects

Date Updated:  April 10, 2015

Publishers’ Weekly says, In his latest [1989] thriller, Higgins (The Eagle Has Landed ) returns to familiar territory with nothing very new to offer. As D-day approaches in Europe, the Allied command learns of a German staff conference to be held in Brittany at the Chateau de Voincourt, where the Nazis will discuss their Atlantic Wall defense strategy. Foreknowledge of these plans could mean the difference between success and failure for the Allied invasion, and as luck would have it, the chateau happens to be the home of an undercover French Resistance agent, beautiful Anne-Marie Trevaunce, so there is every chance that the good guys will succeed in stealing them. When Anne-Marie is incapacitated, luck comes to the fore once again: she just happens to have an identical twin sister living in England who is persuaded to take her place. Fortuitous turns are the norm in this improbable story, as cardboard heroes pull off miraculous rescues, double agents lurk everywhere and villains in uniform serve on both sides of the conflict. The author’s reputation for entertaining thrillers will not be enhanced by this effort.