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 http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/01/reviews/970601.01thorntt.html . Lawrence Thornton’s final novel in the Argentina Trilogy, Tales From the Blue Archives was published in 1997.

Advertisements

A Divided Spy


Title:                      A Divided Spy

Author:                Charles Cumming

Cumming, Charles (2017). A Divided Spy. New York: St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:    2016037568

PR6103.U484 D58 2017

Summary

  • “Thomas Kell thought he was done with spying. A former MI6 officer, he devoted his life to the Service, but it has left him with nothing but grief and a simmering anger against the Kremlin. Then Kell is offered an unexpected chance at revenge. Taking the law into his own hands, he embarks on a mission to recruit a top Russian spy who is in possession of a terrifying secret. As Kell tracks his man from Moscow to London, he finds himself in a high stakes game of cat and mouse in which it becomes increasingly difficult to know who is playing whom. As the mission reaches boiling point, the threat of a catastrophic terrorist attack looms over Britain. Kell is faced with an impossible choice. Loyalty to MI6—or to his own conscience?”—Provided by publisher.

Date Posted:      October 30, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

It’s not easy to write a believable spy thriller set in the here-and-now, because these days reality (Russian hacking, the Deep State, jihadist attacks in Europe’s major cities, Wikileaks, etc.) often is stranger than fiction. Today’s headlines about real world espionage and clandestine skulduggery are hard to top. Charles Cumming’s latest novel, A Divided Spy, is very current in its concerns: Russian espionage directed against the West, and the threat ISIS-inspired violence poses to Western Europe. His protagonist, former MI6 officer Thomas Kell, returns to action, haunted by a lost love and eager to take revenge on the Russian FSB officer, Alexander Minasian, he holds responsible. When Minasian is spotted at an Egyptian resort with an older man in what appears to be a gay relationship, Kell sees an opportunity (through blackmail) to avenge the murder of Rachel Wallinger, his lover.

Resolving this plot line would be more than enough for most authors, but Cumming weaves in a further complication: a potential terror attack on British soil. A young British-Pakistani man, Shahid, has been recruited by ISIS for nefarious purposes, sent to the seaside resort of Brighton, where he blends into the community. When Kell is alerted to this jihadist plot, he must convince a skeptical MI6 establishment of the looming danger with time running out.

Cumming has researched the process by which young Muslim men in Great Britain are drawn into the sick jihadist fantasies of ISIS and this informs the novel in a powerful way. He provides a chilling portrait of Shahid, a man torn between new-found religious fervor and his upbringing in the secular West. Just as disturbing: Cumming suggests British counterintelligence is unprepared to deal with the threat of lone wolf terrorism. A Divided Spy can be read as a warning of what may lie ahead, and an implicit call for a ratcheting up of internal vetting and surveillance in the United Kingdom.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

Lenin’s Roller Coaster


Title:                      Lenin’s Roller Coaster

Author:                 David Downing

Downing, David (2017). Lenin’s Roller Coaster. New York: Soho Crime

OCLC:                    990105857

Summary”Autumn 1917: As a generation of Europe’s young men perish on the Eastern and Western fronts, British spy Jack McColl is assigned a sabotage mission deep in the heart of Central Asia, where German influence is strong and where he’ll be in completely unfamiliar territory. Despite his uncanny ear for foreign languages, there is much he doesn’t know about the cities he’s to infiltrate, or the people he’s to meet there. As he quickly realizes, the mission only becomes more dangerous the closer he gets to its heart. Meanwhile, the woman he loves, Irish-American suffragette journalist Caitlin Hanley, is in Bolshevik Russia, thrilled to have the chance to cover the Revolution. As the noose of anti-Russian government propaganda tightens around the American press, strangling the progressive and socialist workers’ movements, the Russians seem to be making strides toward equality, women’s rights, and real social change. Caitlin knows Moscow is where she is meant to be during this historic event–even if she is putting her own life at risk to bear witness. But four years of bloody war have taken their toll on all of Europe, and Jack and Caitlin’s relationship may become another casualty. Caitlin’s political convictions have always been for progress, feminism, and socialism–often diametrically opposed to the conservative goals of the British Empire Jack serves. Up until now, Jack and Caitlin have managed to set aside their allegiances and stay faithful to each other, but the stakes of their affair have risen too high. Can a revolutionary love a government spy? And if she does, will it cost one of them their lives? “– Provided by publisher.

Date Posted:      October 27, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

It’s been 100 years since the Russian Revolution, and David Downing has chosen the world-changing events of 1917 as the backdrop for his latest Jack McColl novel, Lenin’s Roller Coaster. His globe-trotting protagonist, McColl, a British spy, holds much more progressive political views than, say, John Buchan’s resolute Tory patriot, Richard Hannay (who had little use for the infernal Huns or for the subversive Bolshies!): McColl has his doubts about British colonial policy and Whitehall’s approach to the revolutionaries seeking reform in Russia.

As the novel opens in the winter of 1917, the Allies and Germans face a bloody stalemate in the trench warfare raging in France and Belgium. While the Tsar has been deposed, the British hope to keep the Russians fighting the Kaiser on the Eastern Front. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin wants Russia to withdraw from the war, which (along with his anti-capitalist ideology) make him persona non grata for the British and French.

McColl is sent on an undercover mission to Central Asia, ordered to stop supplies from reaching the Germans. After a series of harrowing adventures, he ends up in Moscow, where his lover, the Irish-American journalist Caitlin Hanley, has taken up residence covering the Revolution. There, London tasks McColl with a dangerous and morally-dubious mission—to assist the White Russians, the counter-revolutionaries conspiring against Lenin and his government.

Downing’s fictional account of the early days of the Russian Revolution in Lenin’s Roller Coaster is largely sympathetic, capturing the excitement and idealism of the feuding socialists and anarchists who thought they were on the brink of altering world history. They were, just not for the better—the 20th Century butcher’s bill for adopting Marx’s state socialism (Communism) approached 100 million dead. This creates a problem for Downing: readers in 2017 may find it difficult to empathize with those (like Caitlin Hanley) who fervently embraced the Bolshevik experiment with its inevitable descent into state terror. As historian Sheila Fitzpatrick noted recently in the London Review of Books, the current scholarly consensus is that: “If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Russian Revolution, it is the depressing one that revolutions usually make things worse, all the more so in Russia, where it led to Stalinism.”

In his concluding historical note, Downing acknowledges that the outcome of the “grisly Soviet experiment” makes it hard to understand “the inspiration provided by the original revolution—one that captivated millions of men and women in the interwar years and beyond…” Yet, there are disturbing echoes of that same ideological fervor in today’s challenges to liberal democracy mounted by populists of the extreme Right and Left in Europe and the United States. Radicalism is making a comeback. Sadly, the appeal of utopian solutions, whether socialist or nationalist, hasn’t died despite the sobering lessons of history.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

Prussian Blue


Title:                      Prussian Blue

Author:                 Philip Kerr

Kerr, Philip (2018).

OCLC:    995116333

PR 6061 E784 P79 2017

Summary Bernie Gunther, once Commissar of the Third Reich, is on the run from Erich Mielke, the deputy head of Stasi, and reminisces about a case he investigated seventeen years earlier in which someone shot an engineer on the terrace of Hitler’s private residence.
The French Riviera, 1956. Erich Mielke, deputy head of the East German Stasi, has turned up in Nice, and he’s calling in a debt. Mielke wants Bernie go to London with the vial of Thallium, to poison a female agent they both have had dealings with. Friedrich Korsch, an old Kripo comrade now working for Stasi, is there to make sure Bernie gets the job done. As Bernie bolts for the German border, he recalls the summer of 1939, when the body of a low-level bureaucrat was found at Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in Obersalzberg. Bernie and Korsch have one week to solve the murder.

Date Posted:      October 26, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

Philip Kerr’s latest thriller, Prussian Blue, features his battered hero/anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a former Berlin detective of the Weimar era, once again in peril because of his checkered past. The novel offers parallel storylines: Gunther is on the run in 1956 France, chased by the East German secret services after he has refused to assassinate a Stasi agent in England (who was his lover); he finds himself flashing back to his investigation of a murder at Berchtesgaden (Hitler’s Alpine lair, the “Eagle’s Nest”) in the late 1930s. There are twists-and-turns along the way, but the stories eventually overlap before they are resolved.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels is their clear portrayal of the top Nazis not as rulers of a modern nation state but instead as corrupt crime family bosses, intent on amassing money and power (justifying their brutal actions by a horrific ideology). Traditional histories sometimes miss this element. Prussian Blue captures this insight, as Gunther learn during this investigation that the local Nazis in Berchtesgaden are dealing drugs and running a prostitution ring. Kerr is also clear-eyed about his protagonist: Bernie has committed crimes, done horrible things to stay alive—but his moral compass is not broken, and this native Berliner does what he can to set things right in his rough-and-ready way.

Prussian Blue draws on recent historical research suggesting that the Third Reich’s leaders and soldiers were jacked up on stimulants, particularly Pertavin, a version of methamphetamine. There is some irony in the hypocrisy of Nazis high on meth when their Führer was a strident non-smoking vegetarian (with his own secret drug habit).

If there’s a weakness in the novel, it’s that Kerr asks the reader to suspend belief when it comes to Bernie Gunther’s colorful and often subversive verbal pyrotechnics, which are typically aimed at high-placed Nazis and other grim authority figures. The wise-cracking Bernie has “no filter” (to use a 2017 term), when expressing his views. In real life, his sarcasm, thinly-veiled political insults, and outright insubordination would have bought him a one-way ticket to a concentration camp, no matter how useful his talents as an investigator might be.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

Vienna Spies


Title:                      Vienna Spies

Author:                  Alex Gerlis

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

OCLC:    987379387

 

Abstract:

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.

Subjects

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 http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

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

The Good Assassin


Title:                      The Good Assassin

Author:                  Paul Vidich

Vidich, Paul (2017). The Good Assassin: a novel. New York: Emily Bestler Books/Atria

LCCN:    2016043656

PS3622.I37 G66 2017

Summary

  • “Paul Vidich follows up his acclaimed debut spy thriller with a suspenseful tale of Cold War espionage set in 1950s Cuba, as foreign powers compete to influence the outcome of a revolution. Former CIA Agent George Mueller arrives in Havana in August 1958–the last months before the fall of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista–to look into the activities of Toby Graham, a CIA officer suspected of harboring sympathies for the rebel forces fighting the unpopular Batista regime. Mueller knew Graham as an undergraduate and later they were colleagues in Berlin fighting the Soviet NKVD. Under the guise of their long acquaintance Mueller is recruited to vet rumors that Graham is putting weapons, covertly provided by the CIA to Batista, into the hands of Castro’s forces. Public exposure of the CIA weapons mission, and the activity of one rogue agent, threaten to embarrass the agency. Mueller uncovers a world of deceit as the FBI, CIA, and State Department compete to influence the outcome of the revolution in the face of the brutal dictatorship’s imminent collapse. Graham, meanwhile, is troubled by the hypocrisy of a bankrupt US foreign policy, and has fallen in love with a married American woman, Liz Malone. Paul Vidich has written a powerful story of ideals, passions, betrayals, and corrupting political rivalries in the months before Castro’s triumphant march into Havana on New Year’s Day 1959. This sequel showcases the widely praised talents of Paul Vidich, who Booklist says, “writes with an economy of style that acclaimed novelists might do well to emulate.”“– Provided by publisher.
  • “Paul Vidich follows up his acclaimed debut spy thriller with a suspenseful tale of Cold War espionage set in 1950s Cuba, as foreign powers compete to influence the outcome of a revolution”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      October 24, 2017

Review by Jefferson Flanders[1]

Paul Vidich’s second spy thriller, The Good Assassin, (a sequel to An Honorable Man[2]), sends his hero, former CIA officer George Mueller, to 1958 Cuba. Mueller undertakes an informal mission to assess whether one of the Agency’s men in Havana, Toby Graham, has “gone rogue” and is secretly assisting Fidel Castro’s rebels with arms shipments.

There’s much to like in Vidich’s novel: he captures the pervasive corruption of dictator Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, the grinding poverty, the dominance of American mobsters and corporate interests, and the fear of SIM, the brutal Cuban secret police. Then there’s sultry Havana, filled with casinos, bars, sex shows, brothels, and gawking tourists. (Vidich teases the reader with the prospect of Mueller meeting Cuba’s most famous foreign resident, Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, but the hard-drinking author remains off-stage.)

Vidich stretches the boundaries of the spy genre. He has a literary style, with longish ruminations by his characters, and he’s quite willing to drop readers into the middle of a scene and let them piece together the backstory. There are times when the novel seems unevenly paced, but The Good Assassin closes with a flourish.

On a historical note, Vidich is spot on in highlighting the covert support Castro received from some in the CIA. The conservative U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl E. T. Smith, later blamed the CIA and some diplomats in the State Department for enabling Castro’s victory. The Cuban Revolution had its admirers in the United States (not just Herbert Matthews of the New York Times who declared Fidel’s revolt to be “radical, democratic, and therefore anti-Communist.”) While Castro may not have started out as a Communist, by the end of the revolution, those close to him, his brother Raul and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, were determined to establish Latin America’s first Marxist-Leninist state. That they succeeded has been a tragedy for the Cuban people.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

[2] Vidich, Paul (2016). An Honorable Man. New York: Atria Books

A Single Spy


Title:                      A Single Spy

Author:                 William Christie

Christie, William (2017). A Single Spy. New York: Minotaur Books

LCCN:    2016055981

PS3553.H735 S56 2017

Summary

  • “A single spy—in the right place and at the right moment—may change the course of history.” Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, an orphan and a thief, has been living by his wits and surviving below the ever-watchful eye of the Soviet system until his luck finally runs out. In 1936, at the age of 16, Alexsi is caught by the NKVD and transported to Moscow. There, in the notorious headquarters of the secret police, he is given a choice: be trained and inserted as a spy into Nazi Germany under the identity of his best friend, the long lost nephew of a high ranking Nazi official, or disappear forever in the basement of the Lubyanka. For Alexsi, it’s no choice at all. Over the course of the next seven years, Alexsi has to live his role, that of the devoted nephew of a high Nazi official, and ultimately works for the legendary German spymaster Wilhelm Canaris as an intelligence agent in the Abwehr. All the while, acting as a double agent—reporting back to the NKVD and avoiding detection by the Gestapo. Trapped between the implacable forces of two of the most notorious dictatorships in history, and truly loyal to no one but himself, Alexsi’s goal remains the same—survival. In 1943, Alexsi is chosen by the Gestapo to spearhead one of the most desperate operations of the war—to infiltrate the site of the upcoming Tehran conference between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, and set them up to be assassinated. For Alexsi, it’s the moment of truth; for the rest of the world, the future is at stake”— Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      October 23, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

At the center of William Christie’s A Single Spy is the character of Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, an orphan who lives by his wits in the lawless desert of Soviet Azerbaijan and is recruited into the NKVD in 1936. The spymasters in Dzerzhinsky Square have selected Alexsi because he speaks German and they send him as a teenager to Germany as a deep penetration agent. Alexsi is a survivor, ruthless when cornered, and he successfully infiltrates the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and begins to feed Moscow vital intelligence, including Hitler’s plans for an attack on the Soviet Union (information which Alexsi’s superiors ignore).

Much of the tension in the novel revolves around Alexsi’s precarious position inside German intelligence circles and the risks he must take in communicating with his Soviet handlers. He becomes entangled in Operation LONG JUMP, the Nazi plot to kill Winston Churchill at the 1943 Teheran Conference of the Allied leaders. When Alexsi realizes that both German and Soviet intelligence agencies want the same outcome—the British leader eliminated—he also discovers that he has become expendable. (It’s a threatening situation perfect for a resilient and imaginative survivor to overcome.)

A Single Spy is reminiscent of Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans[2] with its depiction of the way the NKVD trained and handled its agents, and with its deeply-researched period detail. The novel is an entertaining and historically informative read, and Christie’s ability to build suspense is impressive.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

[2] Furst, Alan (2010). Spies of The Balkans. New York: Random House