One Man’s Flag

Title:                      One Man’s Flag

Author:                  David Downing

Downing, David (2015). One Man’s Flag. New York: Soho Crime

LCCN:    2015014946

PR6054.O868 O54 2015


  • “Spring 1915. As the Great War burns its way across Europe, Jack McColl, a spy for His Majesty’s Navy, is stationed in India, charged with defending the Empire against Bengali terrorists and their German allies. In England, meanwhile, suffragette journalist Caitlin Hanley begins the business of rebuilding her life after the execution of her brother, an Irish republican sympathizer whose plot Jack McColl—Caitlin’s ex-lover—had foiled. The war is changing everything, and giving fresh impulse to those causes—feminism, socialism and Irish independenc—which she as a journalist has long supported. The threat of a Rising in Dublin alarms McColl’s bosses as much as it dazzles Caitlin. It was one Irish plot which came between Jack and Caitlin in 1914, and it will take another to bring them back together, as both enemies and lovers”—Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 3, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

It’s 1915 and British intelligence agent Jack McColl is back, defending the far-flung Empire as the First World War rages in Europe. David Downing introduced McColl in Jack of Spies and he’s a likeable character, an English patriot who also sympathizes with the Indian and Irish nationalists chafing under imperial rule.

Jack has been tasked with disrupting plots against His Majesty’s control of British colonies, and that puts him in tight spots from Darjeeling to Dublin. At the same time, One Man’s Flag follows the travels of the feminist American journalist Caitlin Hanley—McColl’s estranged love interest—who chronicles the brutal war on the Western front.

One Man’s Flag is an engaging read, chock full of adventure and history. The British Empire held together until after the Second World War, when demands for independence and self-determination by its colonies could no longer be denied. Until then, the Foreign Service and intelligence agencies of the Crown fought a holding action, and Downing’s Jack McColl novels should offer an intriguing short course on this somewhat ignored history.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015,” accessed at

The Association of Small Bombs

Title:                      The Association of Small Bombs

Author:                 Karan Mahajan

Mahajan, Karan (2016). The Association of Small Bombs. New York, New York: Viking

LCCN:    2016479815

PS3613.A34925 A93 2016


  • After witnessing his two friends killed by a “small” bomb that detonated in a Delhi marketplace, Mansoor Ahmed becomes involved with a charismatic young activist, whose allegiances and beliefs are more changeable than he could have imagined.
  • When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bombone of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland. Karan Mahajan writes brilliantly about the effects of terrorism on victims and perpetrators, proving himself to be one of the most provocative and dynamic novelists of his generation. — Provided by publisher..


Date Posted:      December 14, 2016

Reviewed by Fiona Maazel[1]

Allow me to skip the prelude to judgment that usually begins a book review, and just get right to it: Karan Mahajan’s second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, is wonderful. It is smart, devastating, unpredictable and enviably adept in its handling of tragedy and its fallout. If you enjoy novels that happily disrupt traditional narratives—about grief, death, violence, politics—I suggest you go out and buy this one. Post haste.

That done, let’s get to the why of this novel’s excellence, which starts with its brio. After the terrorist attacks in Paris last November [2015], several articles were published about the equally horrifying attacks in Beirut and why few in the West had seemed to care or even to notice. In Beirut, 43 civilians were killed and over 200 injured by ISIS suicide bombers, but the carnage barely registered with the Western press, governments or thousands of people posting on Facebook. Why? Probably because violence in the Middle East and South Asia seems de rigueur for us, the same way mass shootings in the United States are being met with less outrage—and more apathy—every day.

Another thing most of us don’t care about? The inner lives of the people who commit terrorism, though this seems less problematic. We don’t want to know about a suicide bomber’s diabetic parents and belittling ex-girlfriend. We don’t want to know about his dreams—his fear and hurt and longing—because he killed our families and friends. He is a mass murderer, and that’s that. But as part of its mission to agitate these patterns of thought, The Association of Small Bombs (a) forces us to care about just another terrorist attack in a market in Delhi and (b) insists that we consider—and possibly even like—the people for whom terrorism exerts its appeal.

This is, needless to say, a gutsy move, especially since the novel begins not with a terrorist but with Deepa and Vikas Khurana, whose boys—11 and 13 years old—are killed in a market while fetching their father’s TV from an electrician. Such a stupid reason to die, which is the point: Tragedies are senseless and random unless you are their perpetrator. So the boys die, but their friend Mansoor survives with injuries to his wrist and arm, which thrusts at least some of the novel’s narrative structure into view: It will follow the Khuranas and Mansoor as they slog through the welter of their feelings after the blast.

Permutations of grief dominate a good part of the sections devoted to the Khuranas. We watch them grope for each other; repel each other; fight, make love and then decamp from whatever solaces each has to afford the other. Theirs are the most thrilling, tender and tragic parts of the novel, which are also periodically funny. It’s hard to know what to make of the novel’s flirtation with drollery, since it really is just a flirtation; no one would call this a tragicomic narrative. In some way, these moments of levity feel almost grossly misplaced, which has the strange effect of also making them feel just right. Drollery is exceedingly difficult to quote out of context, so you’ll have to trust me that when Deepa—the boys’ mother—thinks about her future with her husband but is “in denial too, convinced they would kill themselves,” it’s almost a laugh-out-loud moment. Or that when Mansoor’s mother, Afsheen, thinks about his future, becoming “sentimental and hysterical,” one gets the feeling the narrator is gently and lovingly mocking her for her outsize passion.

Notably, such moments are confined to the novel’s first 100 pages or so, as if to perch us atop its slide toward fatalism. As the narrative suggests, nothing recovers from a bomb—not our humanity, our politics or even our faith. Not entirely, in any case, which is best borne out by Mansoor, whose injuries appear relatively cosmetic but come to traumatize his life for the next six years in the form of debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome. He wants to be a computer programmer; you can imagine how good his chances are.

Of course, the most insidious effects of violence are psychological, and certainly Mansoor, who was only 12 when the blast went off, has not escaped them. His pain is physical and mental and unrelenting—the very sort of thing that makes a man vulnerable to persuasion. But not in the way I expected, which is another of the novel’s pleasures: It continued to surprise me. Mansoor adopts a way of life that seems perilously close to what we Westerners—what this Westerner—associate with a radicalized form of Islam that will not coexist with competing ideologies. But Mahajan’s take on what it means and how it feels to be a practicing Muslim is entirely more sophisticated and nuanced, which is what keeps Mansoor’s story riveting and sad.

Case in point: None of the terrorists in the novel are radicalized Muslims. None of them murder in the misappropriated name of Allah. Instead, they are political activists, some more disaffected than others, in pursuit of independence for Kashmir in one instance and an end to the persecution of Muslims in another (though this is a reductive summary). The violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002—what many call a pogrom orchestrated by then Chief Minister Narendra Modi—is a motivating force in the novel for several Muslims seeking justice, or even just peaceful coexistence. But both seem unattainable, the one because mistrust and rancor between Hindus and Muslims are not easily dispatched, and the other because justice doesn’t serve at the pleasure of the bomb. “A bomb was a child,” one terrorist thinks. “A tantrum directed at all things.” And since when does a child get its way?

At some point, in thrall to her grief, Deepa begins moaning at night, “a steady sob, like that of a dog.” Vikas, concerned, asks what’s wrong. And what follows is just one of several lovely passages that tell me Mahajan is the real deal:

“The house, closed in by the multiple cells of the relatives’ flats, was scary, lonely, dark. He shook her. Her eyes were open. She was not asleep. The sound was conscious. He was overcome, at that moment, by a panic he had never experienced before—the panic of a man alone in the world—and he put his hands on her small shoulders and shook her again. She wrapped her legs around his, still looking at the ceiling. Vikas pulled up her kurta and undid the drawstrings of her pajamas.

“Soon, they were making love.”

If The Association of Small Bombs has any weakness, it’s in the way it shuts down at the end, with haste and a somewhat perfunctory nod to its own fatalism. But this doesn’t make the ending any less tragic for all parties—victims and perpetrators both. This novel is generous without prejudice, which feels at once subversive and refreshing. It also contributes to its sadness. There are no heroes here. Just an association of small bombs ticking away in the guise of average people who feel intensely.

[1] Fiona Maazel, book review in The New York Times (March 15, 2016). Downloaded December 13, 2016. Fiona Maazel’s third novel, “A Little More Human,” will be published next year. A version of this review appears in print on March 20, 2016, on page BR10 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Road to Detonation”.

Slow Burner

Title:                      Slow Burner

Author:                 William Haggard

Haggard, William [pseud. for Richard Henry Michael] (1958). Slow Burner. Boston: Little, Brown

LCCN:    58007860

PZ4.C6225 Sl2

Date Posted:      November 29, 2016

William Haggard (11 August 1907–27 October 1993) was the pseudonym of Richard Henry Michael Clayton, an English civil servant and writer of fictional spy thrillers. He was born in Croydon.[1]

His books were set in the 1960s through the 1980s. Like C. P. Snow, he was a quintessentially British establishment figure who had been a civil servant in India, and his books vigorously put forth his perhaps idiosyncratic points of view. The principal character in most of his novels was Colonel Charles Russell of the fictional Security Executive. During the years of the fictional spy mania, initially begun by the James Bond stories, Haggard was considered by most critics to be at the very top of the field.


Slow Burner is a deadly form of nuclear energy, and the leakage of epsilon rays from a suburban villa suggests that it has been stolen—or duplicated—by an informer. Ex-commando Charlie Percival-Smith makes an entree into the house, via its attractive occupant, while a more dangerous game is played out between Sir Jeremy, Permanent Secretary, and William Nichol, physicist on the project, who does not suspect that his life is in jeopardy until it is almost taken. A mild adventure story, the rather meagre elements are disguised by the proprieties of the background and some niceties of style.

[1] From Wikipedia, downloaded November 29, 2016

[2] Kirkus, downloaded November 29, 2016

The Spies’ March

Title:                      The Spies’ March

Author:                 Rudyard Kipling

Kipling, Rudyard (1911). The Spies’ March Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page




  • Poem.

Date Posted:      March 3, 2015

The following is extracted from “The Spy Wise Blog” by Dr. Wesley Britton[1].

[In 1911] Kipling published …“The Spies March,” a unique poem often interpreted to be about the role of the spy in war. The eight stanza refrain first appeared in The Literary Pageant: A Charity Magazine issued July 12, 1911 in aid of Prince Francis of the Teck Memorial fund for Middlesex Hospital. Apparently, one inspiration for the poem was an “Extract from a private letter from Manchuria” as Kipling used the following as a motto for the poem:

“The outbreak is in full swing and our death-rate would sicken Napoleon . . . . Dr. M—died last week, and C—on Monday, but some more medicines are coming. . . We don’t seem to be able to check it at all . . . . Villages panicking badly . . . . In some places not a living soul . . . . But at any rate the experience gained may come in useful, so I am keeping my notes written up to date in case of accidents . . . Death is a queer chap to live with for steady company.”

According to Kipling expert John Radcliffe, why the writer used this note is not clear and, to date, few critics have commented on the poem. “It was written when Kipling was very conscious of the danger of war in Europe and the need to prepare for it, and—one assumes—to be alert to the possible infiltration of spies into England.” (Radcliffe) Kipling librarian John Walker adds the poem was probably instigated by Sir John Bland-Sutton, Kipling’s close friend and physician for many years, who “was associated with Middlesex Hospital. Presumably at Bland Sutton’s request, Kipling contributed ‘The Spies’ March’“ To the Literary Pageant (Walker). It was later collected in The Years Between (1919). The text reads:

The Spies’ March

There are no leaders to lead us to honour, and yet with out leaders we sally, Each man reporting for duty alone, out of sight, out of reach, of his fellow. There are no bugles to call the battalions, and yet without bugle we rally.

From the ends of the earth to the ends of the earth, to follow the Standard
of Yellow!

Fall in! O fall in! O fall in!

Not where the squadrons mass,
Not where the bayonets shine,
Not where the big shell shout as they pass
Over the firing-line;
Not where the wounded are,
Not’ where the nations die,
Killed in the cleanly game of war—
That is no place for a spy!
O Princes, Thrones and Powers, your work is less than ours—
Here is no place for a spy!
Trained to another use,
We march with colours furled,
Only concerned when Death breaks loose
On a front of half a world.
Only for General Death
The Yellow Flag may fly,
While we take post beneath—
That is the place for a spy.
Where Plague has spread his pinions over Nations and Dominions—
Then will be work for a spy!

The dropping shots begin,
The single funerals pass,
Our skirmishers run in,
The corpses dot the grass!
The howling towns stampede,
The tainted hamlets die.
Now it is war indeed—
Now there is room for a spy!
O Peoples, Kings and Lands, we are waiting your commands—
What is the work for a spy?
(Drums)—Fear is upon us, spy!

“Go where his pickets hide—
Unmask the shape they take,
Whether a gnat from the waterside,
Or a stinging fly in the brake,
Or filth of the crowded street,
Or a sick rat limping by,
Or a smear of spittle dried in the heat—
That is the work of a spy!
(Drums)—Death is upon us, spy!

“What does he next prepare?
Whence will he move to attack?—
By water, earth or air?—
How can we head him back?
Shall we starve him out if we burn
Or bury his food-supply?
Slip through his lines and learn—
That is work for a spy!
(Drums)—Get to your business, spy!

“Does he feint or strike in force?
Will he charge or ambuscade?
What is it checks his course?
Is he beaten or only delayed?
How long will the lull endure?
Is he retreating? Why?
Crawl to his camp and make sure—
That is the work for a spy!
(Drums)—Fetch us our answer, spy!

“Ride with him girth to girth
Wherever the Pale Horse wheels
Wait on his councils, ear to earth,
And say what the dust reveals.
For the smoke of our torment rolls
Where the burning thousands lie;
What do we care for men’s bodies or souls?
Bring us deliverance, spy!”

While the subject of “The Spies March” might seem, at first glance, about espionage, John Walker offers a different interpretation. “I think that this is one of the `layered’ pieces he enjoyed so much. The Society of Epidemiologists (originally a wartime group, I think) adopted part of the poem as theirs, interpreting the spies as

those needed in the battle against disease. Remember, this was written for a hospital fund raising publication, and for the Middlesex, where epidemiology was a specialty. It is

fever, and not the fight.” (Walker) To support this interpretation, in “Kipling and Medicine – Sanitation,” Gillian Sheehan connected the extract from the letters heading the poem to Kipling’s lifelong concern with proper sanitation (Sheehan). Putting the poem in this context, the stanzas clearly take on different meanings than commonly assumed. With this reading, espionage becomes metaphor giving readers a “layer” that was not the central theme of “The Spies March.”

[1] Dr. Wesley Britton, Rudyard Kiplingt’s ‘Great Game’: Kim, spy Stories, and ‘The Spies March’” Downloaded March 3, 20154

Nucleus and Nation

Title:                      Nucleus and Nation

Author:                  Robert S. Anderson

Anderson, Robert S. (2010). Nucleus and Nation: Scientists, International Networks, and Power in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

LOC:       2009036012

Q127.I4 A69 2010

Date Posted:      August 2, 2013

I served in Army Intelligence and my focus was on nuclear proliferation. Later I became a university professor, and in 1974 I was teaching courses on Science, Technology, and Human Values (along with my major discipline, physics.) On May 18, 1974 India caught my attention certainly, but more importantly, the attention of the entire world when the country conducted its first nuclear test in the desert in Rajasthan.

To most of the world it seemed inconceivable that a country beset with poverty and an impoverished industrial and technical infrastructure could achieve such a feat. My own immediate interpretation was that India felt insulted by the members of the nuclear club (U. S., U. K., USSR, China, France) who appeared to believe they were the guardians of morals and that the “lesser countries” did not have the fiber to control the possession of nuclear weapons. Further, India was at loggerheads with Pakistan, and needed to have a credible threat against invasion. Thirdly, India wanted, finally, to be taken seriously in the community of nations, and it seemed that having a nuclear weapon was the ticket to the membership of “serious powers.”

Indians certainly considered their “peaceful nuclear device” to be a source of national pride and a matter of international prestige. The reasons above, however, resulted in several nations placing severe sanctions on India, including a ban on technical equipment being shipped into the country. That put a sea anchor on India who could not even import medium-sized computers or advanced oscilloscopes from the U. S. during much of the period of the sanctions.

The test also led to the formation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a cartel of nuclear supplier countries that, according to its website, “seeks to contribute to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.” India’s nuclear weapons tests in May 1998 cemented its status as a world nuclear power; since then, subsequent agreements have been struck with the U. S. and the supplies group for civilian nuclear trade. India is now accepted as a de facto nuclear weapons state, even though it is not yet party to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

In Nucleus and Nation, Robert Anderson traces the history, starting in the 1920s, of India’s scientific research and institutions. He highlights what he believes are the efforts that formed the basis of India’s developments in nuclear power and space technology. It is a long book, nearly 600 pages of text, not including the extensive notes. It is based primarily on material the author collected during an extended stay in India in the late 1960s while completing his dissertation in anthropology. Anderson was given extraordinary access to scientific institutions and archival material that was not generally available even to India researchers at that time, and he had extensive conversations with the entire range of scientific workers, including students, technicians, scientists, laboratory directors, and even the then chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commissions.

With a huge amount of information, the book certainly contains much interesting and, at times, amusing details. However the book tends to be more anecdotal than analytical. He does have a long chapter on “Conclusions,” but it falls short of a coherent analytical narrative. Further, the book has numerous errors, including errors in physics. Many of these errors are trivial, but not all of them. It would have been a much better book if he had collaborated with a qualified physicist in preparing the final draft.

Despite some flaws, it seems likely that someone researching India’s nuclear program and wanting to compile a cogent and error-free narrative could certainly find the huge collection of data in this book highly useful.