Target Utopia

Title:                     Target Utopia

Author:                Dale Brown

Brown, Dale (2015) and Jim Defelice. Target Utopia: A Dreamland Thriller. New York: HarperCollins

LCCN:    2016659184


  • After tracking a mysterious UAV to a group of Muslim extremists in Borneo, the Whiplash team race against time to recover their stolen technology and discover who is bankrolling the group before they start World War III.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      June 28, 2017

Dale Brown has a series, “Dreamland” of which this is one of 13 (there will undoubtedly be more). Readers need to be familiar with the series to get full enjoyment from this book. The characters are somewhat established, the concept of Dreamland has been well laid out, and the weapons technology is at times dense.Terr

Review by William D. Curnutt[1]

Dale Brown gives us another good military novel. This time he tackles the art of fighting via drones, but not just the slow drones that fly high and drop ordinance from the sky to take out terrorist. This time it is drones that are fast, highly maneuverable and capable of fighting in pairs or groups in air to air combat that will drive most pilots to land and never go up again.

The artificial intelligence capability of a drone in comparison to the human brain seems to be no contest. The AI can process faster, deliver more options and well, learn. Then put into place a drone without a pilot that can pull an enormous amount of G-Forces in sudden turns, dives, flips, etc. and you have a weapon that can’t be beat. A human pilot would black out from the G-force of the turns of the drone. Thus, while blacked out he is shot out of the sky.

Brown brings his own flying with the military to bear on this novel and knows what he is talking about. With a rogue agent doing his best to build and fly his own drone air force we have an enemy that may be beyond our ability to take out. Thus, the President of the United States must turn to its clandestine group of elite technicians, computer developers and military personnel to find and destroy this rogue operation.

All the while they are having to do this while not starting a war with China who is not happy with the USA for being in their backyard and flying what appears to be military operations that could endanger the Chinese.

The book is well written, the technology is well documented, the air to air fighting tactics are fabulous. All in all if you love Military Novels you will find this most enjoyable.

[1] At Amazon,


The Manchurian Candidate

Title:                      The Manchurian Candidate

Author:                  Richard Condon

Condon, Richard (1959). The Manchurian Candidate. New York: McGraw-Hill

LCCN:    59008533

PZ4.C746 Man


Date Posted:      January 20, 2017

Review by Louis Menand[1]

Most people know John Frankenheimer’s movie “The Manchurian Candidate,” which stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury in the story of an American soldier who is captured in Korea and programmed by Chinese Communists to kill on command. And most people probably think of the movie as a classic of Cold War culture, like “On the Beach” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”—a popular work articulating the anxieties of an era. In fact, “The Manchurian Candidate” was a flop. It was released in the fall of 1962, failed to recover its costs, and was pulled from distribution two years later, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It turned up a few times on television, but it was not shown in a movie theatre again until 1987, which—nearly the end of the Cold War—is the year its popularity dates from. The true artifact of Cold War culture is the novel, by Richard Condon, that the movie was based on.

Condon’s book came out in 1959 and was a best-seller. It was praised in the Times (“a wild, vigorous, curiously readable melange”) and The New Yorker (“a wild and exhilarating satire”); Time named it one of the Ten Best Bad Novels—which, from a publisher’s point of view, is far from the worst thing that might be said about a book. The novel’s success made Condon rich; he spent most of the rest of his life abroad, producing many more works in the genre that Time had identified, including Winter Kills, in 1974, and, in 1982, Prizzi’s Honor. His adaptation of that novel for the John Huston movie received an Academy Award nomination in 1986. He died in 1996.

Condon was a cynic of the upbeat type, not unlike Tom Wolfe: his belief that everything is basically shit did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it. He learned that attitude in the finest school for it on earth, Hollywood. Before he was a novelist, Condon was a movie publicist. He began, in 1936, at Walt Disney Productions, where he promoted “Fantasia” and “Dumbo,” among other animated masterpieces, and moved on to a succession of studios, finishing up at United Artists, which he left in 1957. He didn’t know what he wanted to do next; he just wanted out. “The only thing I knew how to do was spell,” he later explained, so he did the logical thing and became a writer. Condon claimed that his work in Hollywood had given him three ulcers. He also claimed that he had seen, during his years there, ten thousand movies, an experience that he believed gave him (his words) “an unconscious grounding in storytelling.”

Frankenheimer called The Manchurian Candidate “one of the best books I ever read,” but admirers of Frankenheimer’s movie have not been so gracious. Greil Marcus, in a characteristically overheated appreciation of the movie in the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series, calls the novel a “cheaply paranoid fantasy,” and he goes on, “That the story would lodge in the nation’s psyche and stay there was the work of other hands.” The film historian David Thomson describes it as “a book written so that an idiot could film it.” No doubt Condon wrote The Manchurian Candidate with a movie deal in mind. It was his second novel; his first, called The Oldest Confession, was also made into a movie—“The Happy Thieves,” starring Rex Harrison (a flop that stayed a flop). But the claim that Condon’s Manchurian Candidate is not much more than a draft for the screenplay (which was written by George Axelrod, the author of “The Seven Year Itch”) is peculiar. Michael Crichton writes books that any idiot can film; he practically supplies camera angles. But Condon’s is not an easy book to film, in part because its tone is not readily imitated cinematically, and in part because much of it is, or was in 1962, virtually unfilmable. Strange as the movie is—a thriller teetering on the edge of camp—the book is stranger.

Time, a magazine whose editors, after all, have daily experience with overcooked prose, was not wrong in seeing something splendid in the badness of Condon’s book. The Manchurian Candidate may be pulp, but it is very tony pulp. It is a man in a tartan tuxedo, chicken à la king with shaved truffles, a signed LeRoy Neiman. It’s Mickey Spillane with an M.F.A., and a kind of summa of the styles of paperback fiction circa 1959. The writing is sometimes hardboiled:

The slightest touchy thing he said to her could knock the old cat over sideways with an off-key moan. But what could he do? He had elected himself Head Chump when he stepped down from Valhalla and telephoned this sweaty little advantage-taker.

Sometimes it adopts a police-blotter, “degree-zero” mode:

“Thank you, Major. Dismiss,” the general said. Marco left the office at four twenty-one in the afternoon. General Jorgenson shot himself to death at four fifty-five.

Occasionally, and usually in an inconvenient place, it drops a mot recherché:

Raymond’s mother came out of her chair, spitting langrel. [“Langrel”: irregular pieces of iron loaded into shell casings for the purpose of ripping the enemy’s sails in naval battles; obsolete.]

He clutched the telephone like an osculatorium and did not allow himself to think about what lay beyond that instant. [“Osculatorium”: medieval Latin, for a tablet that is kissed during the Mass. There appears to be no connotation involving clutching.]

It signals feeling by waxing poetic:

Such an instant ago he had paddled their wide canoe across that lake of purple wine toward a pin of light high in the sky which would widen and widen and widen while she slept until it had blanched the blackness.

It signals wisdom by waxing incomprehensible:

There is an immutable phrase at large in the languages of the world that places fabulous ransom on every word in it: The love of a good woman. It means what it says and no matter what the perspective or stains of the person who speaks it, the phrase defies devaluing. The bitter and the kind can chase each other around it, this mulberry bush of truth and consequence, and the kind may convert the bitter and the bitter may emasculate the kind but neither can change its meaning because the love of a good woman does not give way to arbitrage.

And, when appropriate, it salivates:

Her lithe, solid figure seemed even more superb because of her flawless carriage. She wore a Chinese dressing gown of a shade so light that it complemented the contrasting color of her eyes. Her long and extremely beautiful legs were stretched out before her on the chaise longue, and any man but her son or her husband, seeing what she had and yet knowing that this magnificent forty-nine-year-old body was only a wasted uniform covering blunted neural energy, might have wept over such a waste.

Some people like their bananas ripe to the point of blackness. The Manchurian Candidate is a very ripe banana, and, for those who have the taste for it, delectable.

The magnificent forty-nine-year-old body in the last passage belongs to the mother of Raymond, the assassin, who in Frankenheimer’s movie is played by Angela Lansbury as a proper and steely middle-aged matron. For Condon, though, Raymond’s mother is no matron. She is a sexually predatory heroin addict who commits double incest. She is the serpent in the suburban garden of Cold War domesticity, and, in imagining her and her history, Condon almost certainly had in the back of his mind the book that, three years earlier, had become the first blockbuster in American publishing, Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place—a story that also had to be sanitized for the movies. The plot of Peyton Place turns on incest (as, for that matter, does the plot of Lolita, a sensation when the American edition came out, in 1958). But the luridness of Condon’s novel did not make it to the screen. There is no equivalent in the movie, for example, of the proto-Pynchonesque sequence in which Raymond’s stepfather, Johnny Iselin, attempts to have sex with an Eskimo. Frankenheimer’s idea of satire was a lot more conventional than Condon’s. He was also a Hollywood filmmaker, of course, and obliged to observe a different decorum.

Counterintuitive as it sounds, the secret to making a successful thriller, as Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy have demonstrated, is to slow down the action occasionally with disquisitions on Stuff It Is Interesting to Know—how airplanes are made, how nuclear submarines work, how to build an atomic bomb. Ideally, this information is also topical, food for the national appetite of the day. In The Manchurian Candidate, the topic is brainwashing.

Fear of Communist brainwashing seems an example of Cold War hysteria, but in the nineteen-fifties the fear was not without basis. United Nations ground forces began military action in Korea on July 5, 1950. On July 9th, an American soldier who had been captured just two days earlier delivered a radio speech consisting of North Korean propaganda. Similar broadcasts by captured soldiers continued throughout the war. At the end of the war, the Army estimated that one out of every seven American prisoners of war had collaborated with the enemy. (The final, generally accepted estimate is one out of ten.) Twenty-one Americans refused to return to the United States; forty announced that they had become Communists; and fourteen were court-martialled, and eleven of those were convicted.

The term “brainwashing” was coined by a journalist named Edward Hunter, who had served in the Morale Operations section of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War, which he spent mostly in Asia, and who became an outspoken anti-Communist. Hunter’s book Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds appeared in 1951. In it, he explained that “brainwashing” was his translation of the Chinese term hsi-nao, which means “cleansing of the mind,” and which he said he had heard frequently when speaking with Europeans who had been caught inside China in 1949, the year of Mao’s revolution.

In 1955, two years after the armistice ending the Korean War, the Army issued a huge report on the treatment of American prisoners called POW: The Fight Continues After the Battle. The Army had interviewed all surviving prisoners of war on the ships that brought them back across the Pacific—more than four thousand soldiers—and had learned that many of them underwent intensive indoctrination by Chinese Communists. The Chinese had carefully segregated the prisoners they had identified as incorrigibles, sometimes housing them in separate camps, and had subjected the prisoners they judged to be potential converts to five hours of indoctrination a day, in classes that combined propaganda by the instructors with “confessions” by the prisoners. In some cases, physical torture accompanied the indoctrination, but in general the Chinese used the traditional methods of psychological coercion: repetition and humiliation. The Army discovered that a shocking number of prisoners had, to one degree or another, succumbed. Some were persuaded to accuse the United States, in signed statements, of engaging in germ warfare—a charge that was untrue but was widely believed in many countries.

The Army report instigated a popular obsession with brainwashing that lasted well into 1957. Stories about the experiences of American prisoners appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Life, the Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. The term itself became a synonym for any sort of effective persuasion, and writers struggled with the question of whether aspects of contemporary American life, such as advertising and psychiatric therapy, might really be forms of brainwashing. Condon must have read much of this material; he did know Andrew Salter’s Conditioned Reflex Therapy (1949), a book he has the Chinese psychiatrist in his novel, Yen Lo, cite in the speech in which he announces his successful brainwashing of the American prisoners. Yen Lo names a number of other studies of hypnosis and conditioning, including “The Seduction of the Innocent,” by Frederic Wertham, an alarmist account of the way comic books corrupt the minds of American youth. (Yen Lo evidently has, in addition to his other exceptional powers, a crystal ball, since “Seduction of the Innocent” was not published until 1954, after the Korean War was over.) These books and articles apparently persuaded Condon that brainwashing, or psychological conditioning using a combination of hypnosis and Pavlovian methods, was a real possibility—as the recent experience of the Korean P.O.W.s had persuaded many other Americans that it was.

Condon’s book played on the fear that brainwashing could be permanent, that minds could be altered forever. By the time Frankenheimer’s movie came out, though, it had become clear that most conditioning is temporary. In 1961, in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China,” the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who had conducted some of the shipboard interviews with returning P.O.W.s, concluded that the indoctrination of prisoners was a long-term failure. All of the “converts” eventually returned to the United States, and the former prisoners who had come home praising the good life to be had in North Korea soon reverted to American views.

Still, conditioning is the theme (if “theme” is not too grand a term) of Condon’s novel. Even before Raymond falls into the hands of Yen Lo, he is psychologically conditioned, by his mother’s behavior, to despise everyone. His mother is conditioned, by her early incest, to betray everyone. And the American people are conditioned, by political propaganda, to believe her McCarthy-like husband’s baseless charges about Communists in the government. It is not, in Condon’s vision, the Communist world on one side and the free world on the other. It is just the manipulators and the manipulated, the conditioners and the conditioned, the publicists and the public. In such a world, it’s probably better to be the publicist, if you can deal with the ulcers.

Frank Sinatra, who plays Marco, the only friend Raymond has, is supposed to have asked his friend Jack Kennedy for his approval before Frankenheimer’s movie was released. United Artists was apparently afraid that the assassination scene might give some nut an idea. Kennedy, as it happened, loved the movie; he was, after all, the world’s most famous Ian Fleming fan. He was killed a year after The Manchurian Candidate came out. Did Lee Harvey Oswald see it? The problem has been examined in depth by John Loken, in a book called Oswald’s Trigger Films (2000). Loken concludes that although the evidence is not definitive, Oswald almost certainly did see it. “The Manchurian Candidate” opened in Dallas in November, 1962, and played there for several months; Oswald, who was living in Dallas at the time, had a habit of going to the movies by himself (he was in a movie theatre when he was arrested on November 22, 1963); and Loken has determined that the bus Oswald probably took to work passed within ten yards of a theatre where the movie was playing. (Loken is much struck by the fact that references to “The Manchurian Candidate” are almost nonexistent in the literature, official and otherwise, on the Kennedy assassination. He concludes, in the spirit of all scholars of that assassination, that “the probable Oswald connection, so utterly obvious if one but thinks about it, has been suppressed for decades by a powerful conglomerate that might aptly be called the ‘media-entertainment complex.’ “)

Immediately after Kennedy was shot, Condon got a call from a newspaper reporter asking if he felt responsible. Condon couldn’t see the relevance, and he was not being defensive. He had not introduced political assassination to popular American culture. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men was published in 1946 and was made into a movie in 1949; a version for television, directed by Sidney Lumet, was broadcast in 1958. Assassination is the subject of John Huston’s “We Were Strangers” (1949) and Lewis Allen’s “Suddenly” (1954), also starring Frank Sinatra. Oswald might easily have seen those movies as well. More to the point: The Manchurian Candidate is the story of a man programmed to kill at the command of other people. What self-respecting assassin would take such a character for his role model? Either Oswald acted according to his own wishes, in which case he wasn’t imitating Condon’s killer, or he really was programmed by the Communists, in which case the question isn’t whether Oswald saw Frankenheimer’s movie but whether his Communist masters did.

United Artists withdrew “The Manchurian Candidate” from theatres in 1964, although the movie could occasionally be seen on television and in art houses. In 1972, Sinatra bought the rights and, in 1975, removed it from circulation entirely. Whether or not he was motivated by guilt over Kennedy’s death is unclear. He did, however, give his daughter Tina permission to produce a remake, and it is being shot, this fall [2003], by Jonathan Demme. (Demme’s previous movie, “The Truth About Charlie,” was also a remake, of Stanley Donen’s “Charade,” of 1963. His method, judging from that effort, is to update the story and then salt it with allusions to the period of the original. “Charade” was filmed in Paris at the time of the French New Wave, and so in Demme’s version there are appearances by Charles Aznavour, Agnès Varda, and the grave of François Truffaut—none of which have anything to do with the story. Demme has reportedly set “The Manchurian Candidate” in the time of the Gulf War; Liev Schreiber plays Raymond, Meryl Streep is his dragon mother, and Marco is played by Denzel Washington. We can be fairly confident that at some point Denzel Washington will be seen listening to a Frank Sinatra song.)

The Kennedy assassination does not fulfill Condon and Frankenheimer’s prophecy. On the contrary, it buries it. If any assassin might plausibly have been a Communist puppet, it was Oswald, a man who had lived in the Soviet Union for three years, who had a Russian wife, and who once handed out leaflets for an outfit called the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. These facts were widely known within hours of Oswald’s arrest, and yet the theory that he was an agent who was directed, wittingly or not, by Communist handlers has never been an important part of the folklore of the Kennedy assassination. Until the late nineteen-seventies, the official line (endorsed, incidentally, by Condon at the time) was that Oswald acted alone. Dissenters from that view have been drawn mainly to theories involving the Mafia and the Central Intelligence Agency, even though hooking Oswald up with those entities requires a far greater imaginative stretch than associating him with the Soviets. Almost no one thinks of Kennedy (except in some convoluted way) as a casualty of the Cold War, and his death does not represent the culmination of the national anxiety about Communist infiltration. It represents the end of that obsession, and of the panic that Condon’s novel and Frankenheimer’s movie both so happily exploit.

[1] Louis Menand, “A Critic At Large, ‘Brainwashed: Where the Manchurian Candidate’ Came From,” The New Yorker (September 15, 2003) Louis Menand has contributed to The New Yorker since 1991, and has been a staff writer since 2001.. Downloaded January 20, 2017

The Nearest Exit

Title:                      The Nearest Exit

Author:                Olen Steinhauer

Steinhauer, Olen (2010). The Nearest Exit. New York: Minotaur Books

LCCN:    2009047486

PS3619.T4764 N43 2010


  • Now faced with the end of his quiet, settled life, reluctant spy Milo Weaver has no choice but to turn back to his old job as a ‘tourist.’ Before he can get back to the CIA’s dirty work, he has to prove his loyalty to his new bosses, who know little of Milo’s background and less about who is really pulling the strings in the government above the Department of Tourism – or in the outside world, which is beginning to believe the legend of its existence. Milo is suddenly in a dangerous position, between right and wrong, between powerful self-interested men, between patriots and traitors – especially as a man who has nothing left to lose.



  • Sequel to: TheTourist.

Date Posted:      November 24, 2016

Review by Joshua Hammer[1]

Olen Steinhauer’s 2009 thriller, The Tourist[2], introduced a tantalizing new word to the lexicon of espionage fiction. Steinhauer’s “Tourists” are members of a tiny fraternity of C.I.A. operatives who move ceaselessly around the world, cultivating informers, ferreting out double agents and assassinating America’s enemies. Like black-ops versions of Ryan Bingham, the corporate hit man played by George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” these covert agents exist unencumbered by relationships or a home. The novel’s main character, Milo Weaver, is a secret operative with multiple identities who has grown sick of the rootlessness, duplicity and amorality of Tourism. One of the few members of the group who are also family men, Weaver longs to settle down in Brooklyn with his librarian wife and 6-year-old stepdaughter, but he’s drawn back repeatedly into a life of murder and deceit.

The Nearest Exit, Steinhauer’s follow-up novel, reprises the themes of The Tourist, with even more success. As the story begins, Weaver’s latest stab at domesticity is cut short when he’s dispatched on a mission designed to test his loyalty to the organization. His orders come in “a white spongy envelope” that he opens in a seedy hotel in a bohemian neighborhood of Berlin: “Two photographs, from different angles, of a pretty olive-skinned girl, blonde from a bottle. Girl: 15 years old. Adriana Stanescu, only child of Andrei and Rada Stanescu, Moldovan immigrants. . . . Kill the child, and make the body disappear. He had until the end of the week.”

Unable to summon the resolve to complete the operation, Weaver arranges a complicated deception. When Adriana is found dead anyway, her body dumped in a forest, Weaver is quickly identified, captured and brutally interrogated by German intelligence agents. Although he manages to exonerate himself, this encounter leads him into the sordid world of human trafficking, a blackmail plot involving German intelligence officials and the search for a mole within the Tourism department.

Like John le Carré, with whom he is often compared, Steinhauer skillfully renders the game of espionage in the post-Cold-War, post-9/11 era. “The other side was multifaceted,” Steinhauer wrote in The Tourist. “Russian mafias, Chinese industrialization, loose nukes and even the vocal Muslims camped in Afghanistan who were trying to pry Washington’s fingers off the oil-soaked Middle East. . . . Anyone who could not be embraced or absorbed by the empire was anathema and had to be dealt with, like barbarians at the gates.”

But the rules of spycraft remain essentially unchanged: almost nothing is what it seems, enemies often masquerade as friends, and those closest to the action are often farthest from the truth. In The Nearest Exit, Weaver roams Europe trying to unravel half a dozen interlocking conspiracies, wrestling with ambiguities at every turn. Are the “shadows” following him agents of German intelligence? Have they been sent by the Chinese? Or is a devious United States senator keeping tabs on him? Does the mole exist? Or is the entire operation an ingenious illusion meant to sow confusion and fear among the Tourists and their deskbound analyst colleagues called Travel Agents?

Weaver learns that even his own identity has been stolen to serve the organization’s sinister ends: a fellow Tourist, a cold-blooded assassin who derives “real pleasure in planning a murder,” has employed it to eliminate a nosy reporter in Budapest. Weaver traces this strand of the plot to a Hungarian strip club, where he “watched the endless parade of flesh and, though he would soon leave it, hated everything to do with his lousy business.”

Like le Carré’s George Smiley, Weaver is a richly imagined creation with a scarred psyche and a complex back story that elevates him above the status of run-of-the-mill world-weary spook. The son of a former K.G.B. agent and an American member of a Baader-Meinhof-type gang who hanged herself in a Munich prison, Weaver was raised by adoptive parents and recruited by the C.I.A. just after he graduated from college. His father, Yev­geny Primakov, now a United Nations intelligence operative, turns up periodically as a savior, a potential liability — and a reminder that Weaver can’t escape his past.

Weaver is at once a loving father and a coolly efficient killer. At one moment he’s reading his stepdaughter a bedtime story, at another breaking the leg of a pursuer with a lead pipe and forcing the man’s boss to listen via cellphone to his victim’s screams. The tension between those parallel lives begins to overwhelm him. “In the end Milo Weaver wasn’t outside the moral universe, no matter how well the Company had trained him,” Steinhauer observes. “He couldn’t escape the continual reminders that his universe had become imbued with morality — bathing his infant daughter’s fat, squirming body, later walking her to school and listening to her rambling stories, making curry for his wife, vacuuming on the weekends.”

Steinhauer’s tale has its weaknesses. His cardboard villains, including the conspiratorial senator and a Chinese spymaster who may be running the mole, will make readers long for an opponent like Smiley’s Karla. Steinhauer also has a tendency to delineate his characters with a few trademark idiosyncrasies, then repeat them over and over, to annoying effect. The unhappy German spymaster Erika Schwartz (“a big woman since the 70s, an obese one since the fall of the Wall”) snacks incessantly on Snickers bars and washes them down with bottles of cheap riesling. Weaver’s own eccentricities—he pops Dexedrine like Pez, struggles with an addiction to Davidoff cigarettes and carries an iPod loaded with the music of Serge Gainsbourg and David Bowie—sometimes feel more like tacked-on ­accessories than genuine outgrowths of his personality.

Yet these minor drawbacks are far outweighed by Steinhauer’s brisk pacing, sharp dialogue and convincing evocation of a paranoid subculture. In a terrifying conclusion, he brings together the myriad aspects of his plot and catches many of his characters—the father of the murdered Moldovan schoolgirl; the man who killed her; the German intelligence officer who hatched the plot; and Milo Weaver himself—in a spasm of violence that passes for a kind of moral reckoning. “We are taught, and we learn through experience, that everything and everyone is a potential hazard,” Tourists are told in the handbook of their profession. It’s a destiny that Weaver is desperate to escape, but that may well consume him.

[1] Joshua Hammer, “Milo’s People,” New York Times. Joshua Hammer, a former bureau chief for Newsweek, is a freelance foreign correspondent. He is writing a book about German colonialism in southern Africa. A version of this review appeared in print on May 23, 2010, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review.

[2] Steinhauer, Olen (2009). The Tourist. New York: Minotaur Books

China Bomb

Title:                      China Bomb

Author:                   Richard Tregaskis

Tregaskis, Richard (1967). China Bomb. New York, Washburn

LCCN:    67018206

PZ3.T71504 Ch

Date Posted:      November 21, 2016


In the beginning Guadalcanal diarist Tregaskis’ first novel seems to be part of the literary overkill initiated by Messers. Burdick, Knebel and Bailey—a pushbutton-panic button alert: the Chinese not only have the H-bomb but are ready to drop it on the U.S. 7th Fleet. Hank Musgrave, fresh from the “vibrant masses of hips and thighs” of charming Mary Wu (who is attacked by the enemy later) is enlisted to help stop the drop. From here on, the story inches into Green Beret country as a group of commandos move on land, sea and underwater (via submarine) to locate and dismantle the bomb in its storage vault—a rough reconnaissance through brush and barbed wire and the best as well as better part of the novel. There are lots of people from the President of the U.S. down, but scarcely a character in sight, and it is all teletyped in a precipitous prose. May do for a masculine market now, but probably better in paper the second time around.

[1] Kirkus, downloaded November 21, 2016

The Honourable Schoolboy

Title:                      The Honourable Schoolboy

Author:                  John le Carré

Le Carré, John (1977). The Honourable Schoolboy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

LCCN:    78313201

PZ4.L4526 Ho


Date Posted:      December 31, 2016

Review by John Leonard[1]

George Smiley says: “A lot of people haven’t these days. They will. Specially in England. A lot of people see doubt as a legitimate philosophical posture. They think of themselves in the middle, whereas, of course, really they’re nowhere.” Of George Smiley, failed priest, lonesome man, it is said: “One day, one of two things will happen to George. He’ll cease to care or the paradox will kill him. If he ceases to care, he’ll be half the operator he is. If he doesn’t, that little chest will blow up from the struggle of trying to find the explanation for what we do.” And George Smiley writes to his wife, whom he has finally left: “These people terrify me, but I am one of them. If they stab me in the back, then at least that is the judgment of my peers.”

At the Circus, they are impatient with and embarrassed by Smiley’s philosophizing. The Circus, as we learned in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy[2], has enough trouble. Having been penetrated at the very highest level, it knows its entire system of undercover agents, or “moles,” is compromised. Smiley’s job is to patch things up, to salvage something from the long season against the Bolsheviks. He ought not to be wandering around alone at night in the rain. It is as if a football coach in the middle of a losing streak had left the field to cry and read Rainer Maria Rilke.

Shade of Conrad

But, of course, Smiley and the Circus will make a comeback. The Honourable Schoolboy is a remarkable sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. If it falters at the end, what book wouldn’t under the weight of so many ambitions? John le Carré seems to have gotten tired of being compared to Graham Greene, and decided instead to be Joseph Conrad. What, he asks, is honor, anyway?

They come back by backtracking. They look in their archives for what is missing, a line of inquiry deflected or aborted by the double-agent who betrayed their Service. They find a “gold seam” of Russian money, amounting to $500,000, variously laundered and pouring into Hong Kong. Surely this is the work of Karla, the super spymaster of Moscow Centre. But what is he buying?

The “schoolboy” of the title, Jerry Westerby, second son of the press baron Lord Westerby, a failed novelist as Smiley is a failed priest, several times married and a guilty father, ex-agent prepared to do his duty–“You point me and I’ll march”–is dispatched to the Far East: “He had never seriously doubted, in his vague way, that his country was in a state of irreversible decline, or that his own class was to blame for the mess.” No sooner does he arrive in Hong Kong than he falls in love with the dumb-blond consort of the Chinese businessman who is receiving all the Russian money.

There are more than several novels inside The Honourable Schoolboy. There is the novel of Jerry and Lizzie, who is one of those inexplicable femmes fatale who simply don’t understand the world they live in–a sort of English Judith Exner. There is the novel of Ko and his brother, of Smiley’s marriage and England’s rot, of the paper chase at Circus and parliamentary committee work, of the greedy “Cousins” from Langley, Va. and the pack of journalists in Southeast Asia. We also get Tuscany, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the Sino-Soviet split and the opium trade.

And the huggermugger is appropriately elaborate. To act is to betray, either the self or someone else, or the past or the idea of civilization. In Smiley’s metaphysical scheme, Karla is the great red whale. According to Jerry, as to Ko, one honors one’s contract. Lizzie will dream on. The Cousins, as ever, arrive by helicopter. Smiley is spared, because someone must be left to feel bad.

Measure of Achievement

But the achievement of The Honourable Schoolboy is not in its huggermugger: With the plots of so many novels to resolve, Mr. le Carré is bound to leave us unsatisfied in a number of particulars. The achievement is in the characters, major and minor, and the correspondences, the private lives, erotic depths, furious guilts, mute understandings of hunter and hunted, expert and amateur, the war within, hot and cold.

A retired missionary and his daughter, a Hong Kong policeman, an Italian orphan, an English schoolmaster, an American narcotics agent, a slovenly Kremlinologist, a mad bodyguard, the quite splendid Craw — all are burned on the brain of the reader. If they are not marooned in loneliness, their cynicism corrodes or they go blank when there are no explanations, only helicopters. Loneliness, in fact, rather than betrayal, is the leitmotif. It is the leper’s bell around their necks. They have only themselves to be true to, and they are no longer sure who they are. Not a page of this book is without intelligence and grace. Not a page fails to suggest that we carry around with us our own built-in heart of darkness.

If, with James Bond, Ian Fleming gave us a pop-up Kennedy, all Fifties flash and missile crisis, for the Seventies Mr. le Carré has George Smiley waiting for Godot.


The aftermath of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy[4] the ascendancy of spychief George Smiley, the wholesale dismantling and piecemeal rebuilding of Britain’s betrayed intelligence service, and Le Carré’s longest, deepest, and quietest incisions into the gentlemen who steal secrets, hide bodies, and rarely blink. When Smiley’s tetchy crew searches the fries for salvageable plums (which investigations did the traitor squelch?), they come up with a “golden seam”—thousands of dollars fed from Moscow into the numbered Hong Kong account of Drake Ko, president of China Airsea, Ltd. and one of the colony’s leading humanitarians. Query: for what purpose is this cash being hoarded on the border of Mao’s China? Among the agents sent East to “shake the tree” is the aging honourable schoolboy, Jerry Westerby, called in from pasture in Italy to assume his convenient cover—hack journalist (“Seven-day coverage, wars to tit-shows”) for the London rag that his father founded. While Smiley’s burrowers research and deduce, Jerry, his oafishness and cries of “Super!” all part of his disguise, tracks Ko’s dealings from Hong Kong through Thailand and Laos. But by the time that Ko’s secret is understood and ready to be exploited—he plans to rescue his Soviet-agent brother from China-expendable Jerry, bewitched by Ko’s British mistress and rattled by the two innocent-bystander deaths that his inquiries have caused, is ready to scrap all loyalties except those between lovers, brothers, and friends. The final pages here offer no switcheroos of unmasking or decoding; instead of twists, Le Carré slowly unwinds spirals that go haywire just when you expect them to form a neat helix. And for some readers, the intricacies of “tradecraft,” the loaf-and-lurch lives of newsmen abroad, the anti-travelogue Asian backgrounds, and the brisk but massive waves of elegant prose may prove an unacceptable substitute for more obvious sources of spy-tale energy. But if Le Carré is the Henry lames of spy novelists, firing more nuances than bullets, this is his Golden Bowl—dense, hard, and gleaming on the outside, clark within, and worth possessing whatever the price.

[1] John Leonard, “Books of The Times,” The New York Times (September 22, 1977).Downloaded December 30, 2016 .

[2] Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

[3] Kirkus, downloaded November 18, 2016

[4] Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton