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

Vienna Spies

Title:                      Vienna Spies

Author:                  Alex Gerlis

Gerlis, Alex (2017). Vienna Spies: London : 28 Studio

OCLC:    987379387



With the end of the Second World War in sight, the Allies begin to divide up the spoils and it proves to be a dangerous game. The British have become aware that, contrary to what’s been agreed, the Soviet Union is intent on controlling Austria once the Second World War ends. And Major Edgar is given the job of establishing an espionage unit in Vienna. He sends in a married Swiss couple–Rolf Eder and Katharina Hoch–who, in fact, have only met each other a week before their journey. Their job is to track down Austria’s most respected politician–in hiding from the Nazis–and bring him over to the British cause. But the feared Soviet spy Viktor Krasotkin is already in the wartorn city, embarking on exactly the same mission.


Date Posted:      October 25, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

Vienna Spies is set during the final months of World War II. It has become clear that Germany will lose the war and Austrians realize that their embrace of National Socialism will come with a heavy price. The Red Army is driving the Wehrmacht back toward the west, and it is only a matter of time before Vienna falls.

In Alex Gerlis’ taut thriller, British policy makers have become concerned that Soviet leader Josef Stalin will renege on promises made to support Austria’s post-war neutrality and independence. They decide that they need to find and protect Austria’s leading anti-Nazi politician, one Hubert Leitner, who is hiding in Vienna and who could lead a future government sympathetic to the Allies. MI6 sends two agents, Rolf Eder and Katharina Hoch, who pretend to be a Swiss married couple (he a banker from Zurich, she a nurse). At the same time, the Soviets have also dispatched an experienced NKVD field agent, Viktor Krasotkin, to locate Leitner.

Vienna Spies captures the unrelenting tension for spies living behind enemy lines. The threat of being denounced to the authorities is always present, and the Gestapo is eager to hunt down anyone resisting Nazi rule. Gerlis is aware that modern readers might be skeptical about the ability of foreign agents to survive in a hostile city filled with supporters of Hitler, and he highlights the immense difficulties of trying to establish a cell under such circumstances. (In his Author’s Note, Gerlis cites a scholarly work, The Austrian Resistance 1938-1945[2], and interviews with Austrian refugees from the time, to bolster his case that they were pockets of anti-Nazis in the city).

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at

[2] Neugebauer, Wolfgang (2014), translated from the German by John Nicholson und Eric Canepa. The Austrian Resistance 1938-1945. Vienna: Edition Steinbauer

The Girl from Venice

Title:                      The Girl from Venice

Author:                Martin Cruz Smith

Smith, Martin Cruz (2016). The Girl from Venice. New York: Simon and Schuster

LCCN:    2016017923

PS3569.M5377 G57 2016


  • “The highly anticipated new standalone novel from Martin Cruz Smith, whom The Washington Post has declared “that uncommon phenomenon: a popular and well-regarded crime novelist who is also a writer of real distinction,” The Girl from Venice is a suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied Venice. Venice, 1945. The war may be waning, but the city known as La Serenissima is still occupied and the people of Italy fear the power of the Third Reich. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman named Cenzo comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and soon discovers that she is still alive and in trouble. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia is on the run from the Wehrmacht SS. Cenzo chooses to protect Giulia rather than hand her over to the Nazis. This act of kindness leads them into the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon. The Girl from Venice is a thriller, a mystery, and a retelling of Italian history that will take your breath away. Most of all it is a love story”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      June 23, 2017

Review by Dennis Drabelle[1]

The publicity sheet for Martin Cruz Smith’s engaging new novel boasts that the author “does extensive research for all of his books,” including in this case “four trips to Italy.” Extensive but not always freewheeling. At the outset of his career, Smith dazzled Sovietologists by parlaying his background reading and one brief visit to Russia into Gorky Park[2] (1981), which was praised for its accurate insights into the heart of the Soviet police state.

Smith has since written seven more novels featuring the hero of Gorky Park, Arkady Renko, a Russian cop with a conscience. The Girl From Venice, however, is a non-Renko tale with a Western European setting. Two aspects of the new novel obviously drew upon Smith’s dogged research: the life of a fisherman in the Venetian backwaters; and conditions in Italy generally during early 1945, when Benito Mussolini continued to strut and declaim in the northern Italian town of Salo, headquarters of the Nazi puppet state that was all that remained of Il Duce’s empire.

Smith conjures the time and place with a generous dose of what the novelist Evan Connell called “luminous details.” The ubiquity of polenta, for one. Today it’s become something of a delicacy, at least in the United States, but during the war it was an all-too-familiar Italian staple. We learn how fascist propagandists try to poison Italian minds against invading soldiers: “through posters of lecherous Americans with virginal Italian women.” And Smith sketches the sociological complexity of Venice and its environs: “She was from Venice and he was from Pellestrina, which was like saying they were not only from opposite sides of the lagoon but from different worlds. When she spoke she had an elegantly lazy Venetian accent. When he spoke, consonants disappeared.”

“She” is Giulia Silber, a young Jewish woman whom our fisherman, Cenzo (short for Innocenzo) Vianello, pulls out of the water while plying his trade one night. At first she seems to have drowned, but he soon discovers that she is very much alive. Her wealthy and well-connected father—“no Jews were more assimilated into Italian society than the Silbers”—had saved himself and his family by cooperating with the fascists. At this point in the war, with the Allies inexorably seizing Italian territory, the Silbers should have been safe, especially since they’d gone into hiding. But someone betrayed them, Giulia alone has survived, and Cenzo decides to protect her. You won’t be surprised when the consonant-dropping fisherman and the heiress with the lazy accent fall in love along the way.

Cenzo’s task is complicated by the enraging presence of his brother Giorgio, a war hero turned movie star turned fascist spokesman. More to the point, Giorgio recently made Cenzo a cuckold, stealing Cenzo’s wife by promising to make her a movie star—a betrayal that led to the smitten woman’s death. The brothers’ rivalry forms a skillfully interwoven subplot to the main action.

Some of the novel’s most piquant scenes center on the behavior of Mussolini and his hangers-on as their world collapses. Pretense, denial, wishful thinking—these are among the stages in the downfall of a duce. Smith tantalizes us with brief glimpses of Mussolini himself, who among other last-minute vexations must choose what to take with him in the small plane dispatched to spirit him away from hemmed-in Salo: his wife, his mistress or a stack of gold bars.

Smith can write evocatively, as in this description of one of his Nazi villains: “There was no avoiding the colonel’s gaze. One side of the man’s face was ruined and gray and his ear was cut to a stub, but his eyes were bright blue and the impression he gave was of a noble bust that had fallen and been chipped but was still imposing.”

At times, though, Smith seems to let up on the pedal when he should be pressing down—Mussolini’s ignominious death, for example, takes place offstage. Go ahead and manipulate me a bit more, this reader wanted to signal the author.

For the most part, though, Smith makes fine use of his material, including the fishing lore, which Cenzo puts to memorable use at the novel’s climax. The Girl From Venice may not be the most heart-pounding thriller of the year, but its vivid treatments of a timeless trade and certain little-known aspects of World War II make it well worth your time.

[1] Dennis Drabelle, “Martin Cruz Smith brings us wartime Italy in Girl from Venice,” (October 16, 2016), Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.

[2] Smith, Martin Cruz (1981). Gorky Park. New York: Random House

The Divided City

Title:                     The Divided City

Author:                Luke McCallin

McCallin, Luke (2016). The Divided City. New York: Berkley

LCCN:    2016037707

PR6113.C3585 D59 2016


  • “Luke McCallin, author of The Pale House and The Man from Berlin, delivers a dark, compelling thriller set in post-World War II Germany featuring ex-intelligence officer Captain Gregor Reinhardt. A year after Germany’s defeat, Reinhardt has been hired back onto Berlin’s civilian police force. The city is divided among the victorious allied powers, but tensions are growing, and the police are riven by internal rivalries as factions within it jockey for power and influence with Berlin’s new masters. When a man is found slain in a broken-down tenement, Reinhardt embarks on a gruesome investigation. It seems a serial killer is on the loose, and matters only escalate when it’s discovered that one of the victims was the brother of a Nazi scientist. Reinhardt’s search for the truth takes him across the divided city and soon embroils him in a plot involving the Western Allies and the Soviets. And as he comes under the scrutiny of a group of Germans who want to continue the war–and faces an unwanted reminder from his own past–Reinhardt realizes that this investigation could cost him everything as he pursues a killer who believes that all wrongs must be avenged”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      June 10, 2017

Post-World War II Berlin has attracted the attention of noted thriller authors Joseph Kanon, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr. In The Divided City, Luke McCallin brings his protagonist, ex-intelligence officer Captain Gregor Reinhardt, back to Berlin in 1947. Like Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, Reinhardt served on the Weimar-era city police force and has a checkered wartime past (in Reinhardt’s case, involving his actions in the Balkans).

The Divided City captures the Hobbesian-environment of Berlin in the early years of the Allied occupation. With much of the city in ruins, residents do what they have to in order to survive. Reinhardt, back on the police force, is tasked with solving a series of gruesome murders of former Luftwaffe personnel. In doing so, he attracts the interest of British, American, and Soviet intelligence—to say nothing of a band of embittered German veterans.

McCallin’s considerable strengths as a novelist lie in his evocative prose and memorable characterizations. His plotting, is, in a word Byzantine; I’ll confess to having gotten lost at times in following the complex twists and turns of the story. Yet The Divided City is still an intriguing read, filled with suspense and a compelling cast of characters.

Herblock A Cartoonist’s Life

Title:                      Herblock A Cartoonist’s Life

Author:                 Herbert Block

Block, Herbert (1958). Herblock’s Special for Today. New York: Simon and Schuster. LOC: 58013755, E835 .B56

Block, Herbert (1964). The Herblock Gallery. New York: Simon and Schuster. LOC: 68055952, E846 .B55

Block, Herbert (1968). Herblock’s State of the Union. New York: Simon and Schuster. LOC: 70189745, E855 .B55

Block, Herbert (1968). Straight Herblock. New York: Simon and Schuster. LOC: 64024335, E841 .B58

Block, Herbert (1993). Herblock: A Cartoonist’s Life: Self-portrait and vies of Washington from Roosevelt to Clinton. New York: Macmillan. LOC: 93010098, NC1429.B625 A2 1993

Date Posted:      May 1, 2017

The prize-winning Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herblock is feared by erring politicians and admired by others for his humorous and pointed drawings on issues of the day. Along with 200 examples of his graphic style and ingenious ideas (Nixon holding the GOP elephant hostage, Carter viewing his own “Fuzzy” TV image, Ollie North turning shredded evidence into lucrative contracts), the artist here engagingly recalls a baseball-and-trolley-car Chicago boyhood followed by his start as a poorly paid cartoonist, a career which ultimately won him nation-wide recognition. Block includes hard-hitting capsule histories of Nixon, Reagan and Bush administration scandals he chronicled. His quietly told press corps anecdotes, such as helping a colleague authenticate a letter from President Truman, his insider bits on the famous and descriptions of correspondence he has received from people he has criticized are all pure delight.


The Spies of Warsaw

Title:                      The Spies of Warsaw

Author:                 Alan Furst

Furst, Alan (2008). The Spies of Warsaw. New York: Random House

LCCN:    2008274799

PS3556.U76 S75 2008b


Date Posted:      April 11, 2017

Reviewed by Alessandra Stanley[1]

In Alan Furst’s (2008) spy thriller, a French diplomat keeps a nervous eye on Hitler’s troops.

The queasy thrill of prewar espionage doesn’t come from the prospect of war, or even the spying; it comes from the moral compromises forced by fear and accommodation.

Alan Furst has always had a knack for conveying how the one begets the other. “The light had gone out, it seemed, the very notion of heroism excised,” is how he described Stalinist Russia in Dark Star,[2] an early novel. That world was “now filled with soft, bruised, frightened people scheming over a few lumps of coal or a spoonful of sugar.”

Spy novels tend to focus on the few people who rise above self-interest, but the best also give voice to those who don’t. Furst’s [2008], The Spies of Warsaw, begins with just such a specimen: Edvard Uhl, a plodding, middle-aged German engineer with business in Poland who on the eve of the war is seduced, then blackmailed into slipping military secrets to French intelligence. Uhl feels the occasional pang of fright, but not guilt. “In such chaotic times,” his French handler reasons with him, “smart people understood that their first loyalty was to themselves and their families.”

Characters who are braver or more farsighted have a special doomed poignancy. Furst’s tales, usually set in Paris and Eastern Europe and entwined around the Nazis or the Soviet secret police, are infused with the melancholy romanticism of “Casablanca,” and also a touch of Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon.”

The Spies of Warsaw follows Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, a French aristocrat and veteran of World War I who, as the military attaché in Warsaw, studies German preparations for war. He runs agents and conducts some risky fieldwork of his own, but it doesn’t take much for him to deduce that Hitler plans to go around the Maginot Line and invade through Belgium: articles in German military journals all but spell it out. Official France pays no heed.

Most assignments in historical thrillers are futile: readers know what’s coming, while those characters who suspect the worst cannot fully comprehend the looming cataclysm even as they risk their lives trying to forestall it. The mission in a Furst novel is never as interesting as the men and women who volunteer—or are forced—to complete it. Polish counts, SS officers, French film producers, damsels and demi-mondaines[3] are drawn into the action, but so are Jewish Bolsheviks, Slav partisans, Hungarian diplomats and Bulgarian fishermen.

From Lisbon to Malmo, Furst’s novels are full of stark contrasts and weird congruities: he links the Bulgarian National Union marching along the Danube to expatriates in Paris ordering Champagne and another platter of oysters at the fashionable Brasserie Heininger.

As in Balzac’s Human Comedy, characters who loom large in one novel reappear as minor figures in another, sometimes at the next table in Heininger’s, where one mirror, cracked by a bullet, is left unrepaired as a memorial to the day thugs shot up the dining room and left the Bulgarian headwaiter dead in the ladies room.

It is there, in fact, over choucroute[4] and Champagne, that Mercier briefs one of the few French generals who share his mistrust of Pétain’s defense strategy. The other, of course, is Charles de Gaulle, after whom Furst has clearly modeled Mercier; the fictional Mercier is an old friend of de Gaulle’s and shares much of his life story. Like de Gaulle, Mercier has aristocratic roots, graduated from military school in the class of 1912, spent time in a German prison camp during World War I and helped Polish troops fight the Red Army in 1920. But whereas de Gaulle eventually returned to Paris, Furst’s hero is redeployed to the French Embassy in Poland.

Furst’s early works were thickly braided with history, subplots and dozens of vividly drawn minor characters. But even masters of the genre can slow down, stretch material and fall back on formula. His previous novel, The Foreign Correspondent[5], about an Italian newspaperman in Paris and Berlin, was not very convincing. The Spies of Warsaw is more satisfying, but it too seems thin: the plot is spare, and Mercier —a tall, handsome, rich widower—is de Gaulle as Harlequin romance hero.

Furst is often likened to Graham Greene and John le Carré, in part because he delves so persuasively into the darker corners of history, marking the ambivalence and moral ambiguities of those who play a part in shaping it. He is equally at ease describing the hors d’oeuvres at an embassy party and the Soviet spy schools where recruits are taught to undermine the West but quickly discover that more fearsome enemies lie in the next cot or cubicle.

His most memorable heroes turn to clandestine operations not because they are honorable or dutiful but because they have little choice. In Night Soldiers[6], Khristo Stoianev, on the run from local fascists, is recruited by a Soviet agent and finds himself trapped in the paranoid and murderous N.K.V.D. at the time of the purges—he is pushed, like tumbleweed in a storm, from Moscow to the Spanish Civil War, then to the shady émigré community of Paris, French prison, the French resistance and eventually New York. In Dark Star, André Szara, a foreign correspondent for Pravda in the 1930s (modeled on the Russian journalist Ilya Ehrenburg), knows better than to say no when his government’s security services request favors in Ostend, Berlin and Prague.

Writers sometimes save the best for first. The Spies of Warsaw is not as richly complex as earlier Furst novels, but it is still smarter and more soulful than most espionage novels being written today.

[1] Alessandra Stanley, “Intrigue of Nations,” New York Times (June 29, 2008). Downloaded April 7, 2017. Alessandra Stanley is the chief television critic for The Times. A version of this review appears in print on p. BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Intrigue of Nations.”

[2] Furst, Alan (1991). Dark Star. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

[3] “Demimonde” (pl. demimondaine): a distinct circle or world that is often an isolated part of a larger world a night in the disco demimonde; especially :  one having low reputation or prestige

[4] “Choucroute,” is a corruption of the German Sauerkraut.

[5] Furst, Alan (2006). The Foreign Correspondent: A Novel. New York: Random House

[6] Furst, Alan (1988). Night Soldiers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin


Dark Star

Title:                      Dark Star

Author:                 Alan Furst

Furst, Alan (1991). Dark Star. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

LCCN:    90019217

PS3556.U76 D37 1991


Date Posted:      April 10, 2017

Reviewed by Herbert Mitgang[1]

The place and time is Paris in 1938, as Franco is driving to victory in Spain and before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which would draw all of Europe into World War II. Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass in Germany, has shattered any illusions that the Third Reich might halt its murderous persecution of the Jews. Andre Szara, a 40-year-old Polish-born Soviet Jew working as a Paris correspondent for Pravda and a spy for the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs, better known by its more terrifying initials NKVD, is invited by an aristocratic Frenchman to his private club in Neuilly. It is raining.

Joseph de Montfried, a titled French Jew who resembles a Rothschild right down to owning a vineyard that bears his name on an excellent Beaune, has a proposition. If Szara can use his intelligence network to trade information about German bomber production to the British in return for British passports, thousands of Jews will be saved by escaping to Palestine. Neither money nor favors are involved in the deal. The only aim is humanistic—to rescue Jews in Germany before they are shipped to concentration camps. Does the Pravda correspondent dare to break ranks, risk his neck and secretly pass on the vital information? After De Montfried shakes his hand, the club steward gives Szara his umbrella, “which apparently had been dried with a cloth.”

That little touch of the dried umbrella is one of a hundred similar touches of authenticity of place and character that linger in the mind while reading Alan Furst’s Dark Star. It is a rich, deeply moving novel of suspense that is equal parts espionage thriller, European history and love story. Mr. Furst, whose previous novel, Night Soldiers[2], also looked behind the inner workings of Soviet intelligence in the years leading up to and during World War II, has surpassed himself in Dark Star. The time frame of the late 1930s on the Continent was once the special property of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene; Mr. Furst has ventured into their fictional territory and brought out a story that is equally original and engaging. Because Szara is a Soviet agent with soul, Dark Star may remind readers of a similar Russian personality in Martin Cruz Smith’s police procedural, Gorky Park.[3]

The historical background and intelligence information are woven into the novel seamlessly. It’s as if Mr. Furst obtained documents under a Freedom of Information Act—which, of course, doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union—about NKVD activities. The paranoia of Stalinism looms over the story; spies and counterspies tap into each other’s networks all over central and western Europe. Idealistic true believers serve as couriers and murderers, only to be executed themselves. All intellectuals and Jews are suspected of treason. Hitler’s overt anti-Semitic actions are almost matched by Stalin’s covert trials and disappearances.

Again and again in this long and occasionally repetitive novel, Mr. Furst emphasizes that the only people Stalin trusts are his fellow-Georgians. One of the protagonist’s superiors in Moscow warns him against the duplicity of the Georgians, “After all, they are our Sicilians, these southerners, and their feuds end only one way.” While there is no apparent subtext to the story, an impression remains that has a certain current relevance—that the people in the restless Soviet Republics, some of whom are encountered in the novel in wonderful party scenes, working for the NKVD, differ greatly in their attitudes toward the central government.

Dark Star is more than history and arrivals and departures across European borders with false passports. The author places Andre Szara at the center of events. He is present during Kristallnacht in Berlin, visiting the woman he loves, when the bestial SS bullyboys destroy shops and synagogues, and he is in Poland when the German Stukas and tanks attack. Eventually, Szara is on the run himself, tracked by his former intelligence masters in Moscow. Though it takes a leap of faith, the author is so adept at revealing the inside stuff of espionage that he almost succeeds in making the reader believe that a German aristocrat will save the Pravda correspondent-turned-spy and make a private pact with him to help stop Hitlerism in the midst of the war.

Mr. Furst is particularly effective on the subject of intelligence, salting his narrative with references to tradecraft that add flavor to his story. “That was the nature of the intelligence landscape as he understood it,” he writes. “In a world of perpetual night, a thousand signals flickered in the darkness, some would change the world, others were meaningless, or even dangerous. Not even an organization the size of the NKVD could examine them all, so now and then it called on a knowledgeable friend.” And: “He calmed himself down, decided not to think about it, and left the embassy with a pocket full of money and a determined heart, the twin pillars of espionage.”

The Pravda correspondent’s inner thoughts are set down in italics. The technique has a kind of “Strange Interlude”[4] effect, but it works well. Mr. Furst is a stylist, very much in command of his material, who succeeds in making a dozen men and women come alive in times past. His Dark Star casts a strong new light on the old world of espionage.

[1] Herbert Mitgang, “Books of The Times; Spying for Russia in Prewar Europe,” New York Times (June 12, 1991), downloaded April 10, 2017

[2] Furst, Alan (1988). Night Soldiers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

[3] Smith, Martin Cruz (1981). Gorky Park. New York: Random House

[4] Strange Interlude is an experimental play in nine acts by American playwright Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill finished it in 1923, but it was not produced on Broadway until 1928, when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was included in Burns Mantle’s The Best Plays of 1927-1928. The play’s subject matter, very controversial for the 1920s, led to it being censored or banned in many cities outside New York.


Title:                      Enigma

Author:                 Robert Harris

Harris, Robert (1995). Enigma. New York: Random House

LCCN:    95011335

PR6058.A69147 E53 1995


Date Posted:      March 10, 2017

Review by Alan Riding[1]

KINTBURY, England— The immense success of Robert Harris’ first novel, Fatherland,[2] enabled him to give up his job as a newspaper columnist and buy a rambling Victorian mansion in an idyllic corner of Berkshire 60 miles west of London. It also left him with the challenge of writing a second novel that would not be considered a letdown.

After all, Fatherland, a thriller built on the premise that Nazi Germany won World War II, was something of a happy accident. He wrote the book because he needed the money to pay his mortgage, but no newspaper bothered to interview him before its publication; no one was waiting for it. Published in 1992, the book went on to sell four million copies worldwide.

But with his next novel, Enigma, set among British intelligence officers trying to break Germany’s wartime codes, he faced the pressure of expectations even before he began writing. It was the first of a lucrative three-book contract with Random House, it was already sold in many countries and it was the subject of a BBC documentary on the making of a best seller.

Finally, Enigma has been published here with a roar of publicity, and this 38-year-old writer can relax. To judge by reviews in the British press, he has passed the “second-novel” test. More than one reviewer said he was a thriller writer in the British tradition of Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, John le Carré and John Buchan. The book, which was published this month [October, 1995] in the United States by Random House, is at the top of the British best-seller list.

“Harris has fashioned a story that is as humane, intelligent and gripping as documentary fiction can get,” the critic Anthony Quinn wrote in The Financial Times.

Other reviews were equally warm. “This is a story of intelligence, romance, twisted logic and necessary compromise,” Peter Millar wrote in The Times of London, adding that it was “altogether top-class stuff.”

Approval also came from Lord Jenkins, a former Labor Party minister who was among those who struggled with the German codes at a remote country estate called Bletchley Park. “Enigma totally gripped me and made me feel that I must have missed a few things at Bletchley,” he said in The Sunday Times.

The setting for Enigma is in a sense familiar to many Britons; since the secret life of Bletchley Park was revealed 20 years ago [1975], innumerable newspaper articles and several nonfiction books have recounted the role played by the motley gang of anonymous decoders in winning the war.

Mr. Harris’ inspiration, however, was simply to recognize the fictional possibilities in a story. “I loved the idea of a code breaker as detective, of a man searching out for meaning in what appears to be random and chaotic,” he said in an interview at his home here. “This is the heart of all mysteries.”

The story also brought him back to a subject—World War II—that had long absorbed him. Already in the mid-1980s, he had delved into that period in the most successful of his five nonfiction books, Selling Hitler, the story of the forging of the Hitler diaries. And even Fatherland was first conceived as a nonfiction book, this time about the Europe that Hitler dreamed of creating.

But a summer vacation in Sicily in 1987 changed his plan. “There were a lot of German tourists on the beach,” he said, “and if you closed your eyes, you could just imagine you were in the victorious German empire. Suddenly, everything came to me as a novel, the idea of a cover-up, a sequence of deaths, someone investigating them. I went splashing into the water, and by the time I came back onto the beach I had it written in my mind.”

But the next stage proved more tricky. After more than a decade as a journalist for the BBC, The Observer and The Sunday Times, the transition to fiction was not easy. “The virtues of journalism—clarity, simplicity and all those sorts of things—are the enemy of thriller writing, where you have to use language to mislead, to be more elusive,” he said.

Still, his near-obsession with World War II kept him going. “It was a period so much more epic than the times we live in now,” he said. “For my generation, there is a sense of something not having happened, that we have not been tested. When people ask me why I am so fascinated with that period, I just say, ‘Why aren’t you?’ “

German publishers were not persuaded. “One after another turned down Fatherland, often in insulting terms,” Mr. Harris said. “They said: ‘This is a disgrace. This is not something we can be associated with.’ My agent told me there were 25 rejections.” But in the end, a Swiss publisher brought the book out in German, and to date it has sold 200,000 copies in Germany.

Now Mr. Harris has returned to World War II. But Enigma, which was also the name of the German code machine, required extensive new research. He studied the history of the naval war, notably the allies’ Battle of the Atlantic against German U-boats. He interviewed many people who worked at Bletchley Park in the early 1940s. And, most challenging, he had to wrestle with complex mathematics to explain how the codes were broken.

The drab, ultra-secretive war front at Bletchley, he discovered, had as many as 6,000 employees in 1943, but the elite comprised an eccentric band of British and refugee intellectuals, aided by young women carefully picked from upper-class British families. Paradoxically, they often gathered crucial information that could not be used for fear of revealing to the Germans that they, too, had a captured Enigma machine.

Having learned all he could about this “real” world, Mr. Harris then introduced his story about Tom Jericho, a brilliant young mathematician who collapsed from exhaustion after breaking one crucial code and who is recalled after the U-boat codes are suddenly changed. It is at this point, with tension mounting as a million-ton convoy sets off from the United States, that Jericho concludes there is a spy at Bletchley.

So, Mr. Harris was asked, is the book a celebration of British amateurism? “There’s a bit of that,” he conceded. “Just as the British benefited from that tradition, the Germans were undone by the ruthless military efficiency, which made it easier to read their messages. The idea of brains taking on brute strength does have a certain romantic appeal.”

[1] Alan Riding, “An Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery,” The New York Times (October 11, 1995). Downloaded March 10, 2017

[2] Harris, Robert (1992). Fatherland. New York, NY: Random House [LCCN: 91051026]

Assignment in Brittany

Title:                      Assignment in Brittany

Author:                 Helen MacInnes

MacInnes, Helen (1942, 2013). Assignment in Brittany. London: Titan Books

LCCN:    2013431878

PS3525.A24573 A94 2013


Date Posted:      February 10, 2017

Review by Tom Nolan[1]

This review is located at Above Suspicion, also by Helen MacInnes.

[1] Tom Nolan, “The Lonely Lives of Shadow Warriors,” The Wall Street Journal (Feb 15, 2013). Downloaded December 28, 2016. Also reviewed is Helen MacInnes, Assignment in Brittany.

Presidential Mission

Title:                      Presidential Mission

Author:                  Upton Sinclair

Sinclair, Upton (1947). Presidential Mission. New York: The Viking Press

LCCN:    47030286

PZ3.S616 Po

Date Posted:      January 17, 2017

For a review of the Lanny Budd series, see Presidential Agent.[1]

Review at[2]

Presidential Mission is the eighth book in the epic World’s End Lanny Budd series written by Upton Sinclair in 1947. This thrilling book covers the period of history between 1942 and 1943. The reader has read of the many adventures of Lanny Budd, world citizen extraordinary, who has used his art expertise and Fascist and Nazi sympathies as camouflage for his work as Presidential Agent 103 for President Roosevelt since 1938.

The beginning of the end of Nazism and Fascism has begun with the weight of the United States military entering the World War at the end of 1941. Now as US troops, planes, ships and political will escalates, particularly in North Africa, Lanny is sent by FDR to Algiers in advance of the American and British African invasion with an ingenious plan to fool the German High Command as to where the United States will strike first. The Allies are preparing for the massive invasion of Germany across the English Channel Lanny is sent to Algiers to convince the French to stand together as the Allies prepare for the North African. This is no small task. France is half controlled by Nazi Germany and the rest under semi German control under the Vichy Government. The large industrialist and bankers want to make peace with Germany so that they can continue to control the economy and their way of life, while the underground, the liberals, socialists and workers in general want a free democratically run government, if not a socialist one.

There is an interesting interview Lanny has with the devilish Juan March, the financier of Franco and his gangsters who have taken control of the previously democratically elected Spanish government. As a Nazi sympathizer he attempts to get Lanny to convince FRD and Churchill that a truce with Germany would be the best for Europe and the United States. All that Hitler wants is to end the “Red Menace” (Russia) and maintain the countries which he has already seized and the British Empire can remain as is. The United States can have Central and South America as well as Japan. This type of intrigue is prevalent throughout the entire book The ultra-rich aristocrats who simply want to retain their money and power and keep the unions and workers down. (Does this sound eerily familiar?)

Lanny is instructed by FDR to visit General Stalin[sic. Stalin was a Marshall, not a general] to enlist the Russians as allies in the war against the Nazi’s and Fascists. In one of the most spectacular of Lanny’s adventures, he must parachute from a damaged airplane taking him to Moscow into the Sahara desert. For Lanny this is the most danger he has ever been in. He nearly dies of thirst until rescued by a caravan of Arab camel drivers. He is then forced back into Germany as the caravan approaches a German road block. In Germany Lanny plays his usual role with Hitler and the Nazi’s. By now Hitler has made his fatal decision to make war on two fronts, against Britain and now his former ally, Stalin and the Russians. In an amusing scene, Lanny having visited Hess in his prison cell and having asked Hess for something to prove that he has met Hess, is given Hess’s wedding band, given to Hess by Hitler, that is specifically engraved. This piece of jewelry is priceless to Lanny’s work for FDR as he attempts to gather information as to how far along the Germans scientists are with atomic fission and heavy water and jet propulsion. All of this intrigue goes on as Berlin is incessantly bombed,

If the reader wishes to fully appreciate this great historical narrative I strongly encourage the reader to begin with World’s End and read the series in the order in which Upton painstakingly and meticulously wrote the eleven books. There are only three books left after Presidential Mission and you will hardly be able to wait to read them.

[1] Sinclair, Upton (1944). Presidential Agent. New York: The Viking Press

[2] Review posted at