The Mark of The Assassin

Title:                      The Mark of The Assassin

Author:                Daniel Silva

Silva, Daniel (1998) The Mark of The Assassin. New York: Villard

LCCN:    9800526

PS3619.I5443 M37 1998

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      June 19, 2017


Silva, whose debut, The Unlikely Spy (1997)[2], put the WWII thriller back on the map, brings the genre up to date with a vengeance in an exhilarating story that roots razzle-dazzle espionage heroics in contemporary political headlines. The Islamic fundamentalist group Sword of Gaza has apparently claimed responsibility for the Stinger missile attack that brought down TransAtlantic Flight 002, and the President, lagging in the polls a month before the next election, has responded by recommending a costly new antimissile defense system. But wiser heads at the CIA don’t believe that Sword of Gaza shot down the plane. Michael Osbourne in particular has reason to remember the signature wounds in for their last chance to have children, he’s called away from her side to go after his bête noir, the freelance the face of the dead terrorist found near the Stinger launcher, since years ago his lover was killed in the same distinctive way. Now that Michael and his wife Elizabeth are trying assassin dubbed October, who all but pointed the Stinger at Flight 002, and who’s now agreed to execute all the accomplices to the deed. Michael would be even more worried if he knew about the troubles he had much closer to home—for example, the Society for International Development and Cooperation, those warmongers whose tentacles reach high up in the Agency and the White House itself. The closer Michael gets to October, who’s now taken out a Society contract to liquidate Michael, the greater the danger to himself, his wife, and—thanks to a gleefully inventive series of plot twists—the American political system as we know it. TWA Flight 800, Star Wars, Whitewater, Vince Foster—they’re all here, together with enough soothingly familiar spy stuff (the beautiful killer, the triple-cross, the conspiratorial military-industrial complex) to wring a sigh of pleasure and recognition from the most rabid paranoiac.

[1] Kirkus, downloaded June 19, 2017

[2] Silva, Daniel (1996). The Unlikely Spy. New York: Villard


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.

A Most Wanted Man

Title:                      A Most Wanted Man

Author:                  John Le Carré

Le Carré, John (2008). A Most Wanted Man. New York: Scribner

LCCN:    2008030704

PR6062.E33 M67 2008


  • A half-starved young Russian man claiming to be a devout Muslim, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, and a sixty-year-old scion of a failing British bank based in Hamburg form an unlikely alliance as the rival spies of Germany, England and America scent a sure kill in the “War on Terror,” and converge upon the innocents.


Date Updated:  April 11, 2017

Review by Julian Symons[1]

Few things are staler than a spy story with last week’s background. John le Carré, when planning his new book, had to devise a strategy for writing about a society in which, as one of his characters reflects, there is “no more Russian bear to fight, no more Reds under the bed at home.” Now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, and Mr. le Carré’s superspy Karla with it, what can replace them? The writer’s answer is to blend international arms dealers and the bosses of drug cartels into a single individual, make him a lazy-voiced, arrogant, stylish Englishman named Richard Onslow Roper, and give him the persuasiveness of Mephistopheles. The result is a brilliant performance, executed with an exuberance, a richness of detail and a narrative drive that have been absent from Mr. le Carré’s writing for a decade.

The Persian Gulf war, with its immense possibilities for arms dealing, is the background of The Night Manager, but at the heart of the story is Roper, reinforced by his entourage and his arguments in defense of his activities. Does he help to establish dictatorships? “Armed power’s what keeps the peace,” he replies, while “unarmed power doesn’t last five minutes.” Is the responsibility for death and starvation in Africa and South America to be laid at his door? Not so. “Who are the killers, then?” he asks. “It’s not the chaps who make the guns! It’s the chaps who don’t open the larder doors!”

Swept along in Roper’s wake, as he moves around by plane and helicopter from luxury yacht to luxury hotel to his fantasy palace made real in the Caribbean, is a sleazy and sinister group of acolytes headed by the extravagantly homosexual and deadly clever Major Corkoran. Opposed to Roper is Jonathan Pine, first encountered as night manager of Zurich’s Hotel Meister Palace, but with a past that includes undercover work in Northern Ireland. Pine is backed by one of those underfinanced oddball secret agencies met in other le Carré books. This one is run by the well-named Leonard Burr from dingy offices in London’s Victoria Street and supported by a Whitehall mandarin named Rex Goodhew, whose puritan conscience makes him implacably opposed to Roper, whom he sees as the embodiment of all drug-dealing and arms-selling evil. A bigger British agency devoted to “Pure Intelligence” (which means gathering information, but most often refraining from using it for fear of disturbing the status quo) cooperates with the “American Cousins” in keeping a watchful eye on Burr.

Pine’s character is built up with great care. The opening 50 pages, which show him as a super-flunky at the Zurich hotel, disturbed by Roper and overwhelmed by the beauty of Roper’s English mistress, Jed, are written with a deliberate panache designed both to emphasize Roper’s high style and to show us that Pine is in retreat from tragedy and violence in his own life. He had tried to protect the mistress of an Arab colleague of Roper’s, but she was quite casually killed. In the Meister Palace, Pine is really hiding from himself and the effect of his own actions. Locked one day by accident in the hotel’s wine cellar with no prospect of being found, he decides that if he is saved he will “abandon his morbid quest for order and treat himself to a little chaos.”

Pine is enlisted by Burr, given a new identity and a background of drug-running and apparent murder. Burr then arranges a mock kidnapping of Roper’s son, Daniel, from which Pine is to save the boy. In the event, Pine, seeing the frightened child, loses his cool and breaks the arm of one of Burr’s agents. He is then badly beaten by another, and becomes the temporary favorite of a grateful Roper.

This is Operation Limpet. Pine is to be the limpet bomb that will cling to and finally destroy Roper.

Put down so simply, such plotting may sound like the ordinary material of an espionage adventure. That is not at all the effect. For an outline inevitably ignores brilliant set pieces, like the arrival of Roper’s party at Hunter’s Island in the Caribbean, before the failed kidnapping. There the gigantic Mama Low is preparing a meal for the party; Pine, renamed Lamont and hired as a cook, is preparing his famous stuffed mussels. Nor can it convey the subtleties of Pine’s interrogations by the suspicious Major Corkoran when Pine is recuperating after the beating that was not in the script.

Nor can any plot outline take in the long description of what is justly seen as a madhouse in the Panama jungle, where weapons are demonstrated in the presence of potential buyers and Roper’s friends and agents are gathered, Frenchmen and Germans and an Israeli, men who have “fought every dirty war from Cuba to Salvador to Guatemala to Nicaragua.” The story is built up with the relentless simplicity of Victorian narrative, but it is elaborated and enriched with what are often terrifying gargoyles.

Roper and his crew are not the only villains. Mr. le Carré’s distaste for the intelligence agency game and its most enthusiastic practitioners has never been shown more clearly than in his depiction of the Pure Intelligence outfit in London and its counterparts in Washington. Both groups are chiefly concerned with discomfiting and outwitting rivals, and are ready to dispose of their own agents when they pose awkward questions.

One scene shows the master manipulator Goodhew threatened with ruin or death by a committee man he has always thought an amiable cipher, unless Goodhew abandons support for Operation Limpet. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ed Prescott breaks the news to Joe Strelski, an American drug-enforcement agent, who is another Limpet supporter, that Pine must be left to his fate, abandoned in Roper’s hands. This scene is written with a controlled savagery rare in Mr. le Carré’s work. Isn’t Roper inextricably linked with dope-running and illegal arms sales, Strelski asks? Prescott smiles ruefully as he says that can’t be proved, and Strelski responds with heavyweight irony: “Don’t change, Ed. America needs you as you are. . . . Keep fixing things for us. The decent citizen knows too much already, Ed. Any more knowledge could seriously endanger his health.”

Mr. le Carré is a finely ambitious writer, concerned with producing stories that can be considered on the same plane as Conrad’s Under Western Eyes or the best of Graham Greene and Robert Louis Stevenson. His finest books, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold[2] and The Little Drummer Girl [3] show that in the architectonics of writing—the construction, shaping and pacing of a plot—he has no superiors and few equals among living novelists. The framework of Spy could serve as a model for any novelist concerned with old-fashioned matters like a closely plotted narrative, although it is true that in some of Mr. le Carré’s other books Conradian complexity too often obscures the story line.

Is The Night Manager up to the best of John le Carré? The equivocal answer has to be: yes, but only where it concerns the worlds of Roper and the London and Washington agencies. Their activities are handled with total assurance and an evident and infectious enjoyment. Elsewhere, however, Mr. le Carré sometimes surrenders to the inescapably sensational nature of the espionage thriller, and also to a romanticism about women that leads to the creation of a pipe-dream fantasy rather than a character in Jed, Roper’s mistress.

But the saddest aspect of The Night Manager is the surrender to conventional thrillerdom of the upbeat ending, tacked on to a book that cries out for a tragic one. Perhaps Mr. le Carré bent before his publisher’s demand for a hero who might beat enormous odds; perhaps the artistic miscalculation was his own. Whatever the reason, the result is a highly implausible conclusion, damaging our belief in what for almost all the way has been a splendidly exciting, finely told story. T. S. Eliot said in praise of Wilkie Collins’ thrillers that in those Victorian days the best novels were thrilling. A book like this one, masterly in its conception and in most of its execution, confirms that they can still be thrilling today.

Reviewed by John Kavanagh and James Burridge[4]

The Night Manager—the Miniseries

Directed by Susanne Bier, based on a John le Carré novel

BBC, 2016, six 6o-minute episodes.

Eight of John le Carte’s espionage novels have been made into movies and four into BBC miniseries; Tinker, Tailor[5] was done as both. The ninth film, Our Kind of Traitor[6], opened in July 2016. The Night Manager is based on le Carré’s eponymous novel.

The story is about Jonathan Pine, a young British man who offers to infiltrate the entourage of an infamous British arms trader, Richard Roper, “the worst man in the world.” In describing this double-agent operation, le Carré reverses and neatly compresses the classic recruitment cycle and reduces it to the essentials—engagement, enticement, and entrapment. This is perhaps the most elaborate dangle ever concocted, even longer than that of Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold[7]. It is a textbook on building a legend to backstop a dangle.

Pine arrives dramatically in Roper’s life, saving Roper’s son from violent kidnappers in a meticulously staged ruse. Pine credibly risks life and limb (he is actually seriously injured), and Roper feels obligated to see to his care and recovery. Roper is a complete sociopath, but he is generous and loyal to those he trusts. Roper has survived thus far by trusting his instincts, and he carefully vets Pine–or Pine’s legend, as it turns out. He is drawn to Pine’s narrative–on the run from a criminal past and unwilling to acknowledge, much less share, his aspirations. Roper senses a native cleverness and ease in Pine, and, having successfully vetted him, brings him into the arms business. The dangle is grasped, and Pine manages to discredit Roper’s former number two and take his place. Roper’s eventual downfall is due in part to his genuine affection for Pine, whom he sees as a younger version of himself.

The intelligence back story is even more complex than le Carré’s usual “Good Brits versus Bad Brits and their evil CIA allies” storyline. Both Britain and the United States have established new agencies–hybrid law enforcement/intelligence agencies. Naturally they are despised and opposed by CIA and MI6 and therefore become allies. (The US organization is the “American Enforcement Agency.”) In case we miss the point that the US enforcement officers are uncultured cowboys, a senior US officer briefs the highest levels of British intelligence wearing a polo shirt. In this tale, the Bad Brits are really bad. Well beyond their usual eagerness to sacrifice the British national interest by currying favor with CIA, these Brits are criminals—completely in bed with Roper. And COS London–a virtual clone of the beautiful and treacherous COS Berlin in A Most Wanted Man[8] – is part of the conspiracy.

The politics of The Night Manager are fairly subdued. There is a brief reference to the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s abandoning the nascent democracies of the Arab Spring, and Pine (a veteran of the Second Gulf War) vaguely alludes to war crimes he witnessed. The biggest departure from the le Cané template is the happy ending–Roper and his allies go to prison, and Pine ends up with Roper’s beautiful mistress (events that would never happen in a le Carré novel). The fact that the villains are criminals depoliticizes the story–there are no pressing moral issues or ambiguities here.

All in all, the program is well worth watching—exotic locales, beautifully filmed; good acting; minimal political posturing; and a compelling plot. Those who insist on absolute accuracy will find plenty to criticize, but the lapses can be easily overlooked. Le Carré recently described the complete loss of creative control he endured in the making of this program, and it shows in lapses from verisimilitude,[9] which include live satellite videos feeds at the push of a button on the desk of every analyst, an American infantry battalion with unilateral freedom of action at the Turkish-Syrian border (all it took was one phone call from the cowboy in the polo shirt), and export licenses listing “Sarin Gas” as part of a shipment. And when the bad Brits put Pine’s case officer out of business and even confiscate her office furniture and computers, she still has the money and documentation to mount an operation in Cairo.

[1] Symons, Julian, “Our Man in Zurich,” New York Times (June 27, 1993), downloaded May 16, 2016

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

[3] Le Carré, John (2004). The Little Drummer Girl. New York: Scribner

[4] John Kavanagh and James Burridge, in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 131-132). James Burridge is a retired NSA officer now serving as a CIA contract historian. John Kavanagh is a retired CIA operations officer. The two are frequent and award-winning contributors and have contributed previous articles to Intelligencer. Reprinted from Studies in Intelligence, (60, 3, September 2016).

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

[6] Le Carré, John (2010, 2016). Our Kind of Traitor. New York, New York : Penguin Books

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

[8] Le Carré, John (2008). A Most Wanted Man. New York: Scribner

[9] John le Carre, “John le Carré on The Night Manager on TV: They’ve Totally Changed My Book—But it Works,” The Guardian (February 20, 2016), downloaded April 11, 2017


The Mission Song

Title:                      The Mission Song

Author:                  John le Carré

Le Carré, John (2006). The Mission Song. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

LCCN:    2006020099

PR6062.E33 M57 2006


Date Posted:      April 7, 2017

Review by Michiko Kakutani[1]

The hero of John le Carré’s clunky new novel, Bruno Salvador, a k a Salvo, seems at first glance like a perfect candidate to become another one of the author’s perfect spies. Like so many earlier le Carré characters, he’s an outsider by birth: his father was an Irish Catholic missionary, his mother a Congolese village woman. His job in London as a top-flight interpreter (proficient in English, French, Swahili and many lesser-known African languages) has amplified two qualities shared by many of the author’s heroes: a longing to be “all things to all men” and an “inextinguishable need to belong.”

When British intelligence, one of his part-time employers, outsources Salvo to a mysterious group known as the Syndicate, he suddenly finds himself working not in some boring backroom filled with other interpreters, but on a top-secret mission that he’s told is “good for the country, good for Congo, good for Africa.”

This chance to play at being a secret agent thrills the young man. He will have a chance to do great things: to help the country where he was born, as well as the country he now calls home, while playing an Important Role in History. At the same time, his excellent adventure will also help him impress the new love of his life, Hannah, who just happens to be from Congo, too.

Unfortunately for the reader, Mr. le Carré renders Salvo’s story with none of the nuance or chiaroscuro that distinguished his Cold War Smiley novels. Instead, his detestation of the West’s neocolonial ambitions has led him, as it did in his 2004 novel, Absolute Friends,[2] to write a high-minded but highly simplistic, black-and-white thriller, pitting some very good guys (i.e., Salvo and Hannah) against some very bad guys (in this case, a consortium of British politicians and multinational corporations, intent on mounting a coup in Congo to rob that long-suffering country of its mineral wealth).

The book’s epigraph, from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, bluntly lays out the story’s moral: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

Although Mr. le Carré has inhaled enough research to give the reader some vivid glimpses of Congo, his descriptions of Salvo’s childhood in this beautiful, troubled country feel oddly synthetic, as if his hero had been plucked from a Fielding or Defoe novel and summarily parachuted into 20th-century Africa. Salvo’s move to London and his social ascent there feel equally canned. As for his sudden recruitment by the Syndicate, it has all the plausibility of a contrived plot point in a cheesy straight-to-video movie.

From that point on, the narrative devolves into a static talkfest consisting largely of Salvo’s efforts, as an interpreter, to figure out just what the Syndicate is planning. He and the Syndicate leaders fly to a little island in the North Sea, where a conference has been convened with a Congolese leader named Mwangaza, who is supposed to represent a unification movement called the Middle Path.

Also present are three powerful warlords, who are supposed to be persuaded to put aside their differences and back the Syndicate’s plans: the ailing Dieudonné, who has ties to Rwanda; the suavely cosmopolitan Haj, the wealthy heir to a trading fortune, who “could instantly raise a miltia of 500 strong through his links with local headmen”; and the fearsome Franco, “an old-style Bembe warrior” who is a leader of the frightening Mai Mai militia. (We are talking, Salvo observes, “random, feckless murder, rape galore and a full range of atrocities under the influence of everything from leading-edge witchcraft to a gallon or two of Primus beer laced with palm wine.”)

Mr. le Carré gives us a tedious blow-by-blow account of what each of the conference participants has to say about the Syndicate’s proposal, and shows us, step by step, how Salvo figures out the Syndicate’s real motives. None of this is terribly suspenseful, since it’s pretty clear from the start what the nefarious Syndicate is really up to. And unlike many of the author’s earlier characters, who were torn between conflicting loyalties (to individuals, to countries, to assorted ideals and causes), Salvo has nothing to debate: on one side, there is the evil Syndicate; on the other side, there is Truth, Justice and the welfare of the country where he and Hannah grew up.

And so, the only remaining question becomes, How will Salvo try to thwart the Syndicate’s plans? To whom will he turn for help? Because this part of the novel pivots around Salvo’s rather shocking naïveté—his ability to continue to believe that two people he has long respected could not possibly be part of something wicked, despite heaps of evidence to the contrary—the reader is forced to feel irritation and pity for a character who could be so gullible: two emotions not exactly conducive to the making of a gripping thriller or a terribly engaging novel.

[1] Michiko Kakutani, “A Translator Searching for Words of His Own,” New York Times (September 26, 2006), downloaded April 7, 2017. A version of this review appears in print on , on Page E1 of the New York edition with the headline: “A Translator Searching For Words Of His Own.”

[2] Le Carré, John (2004). Absolute Friends. London: Hodder & Stoughton

The Black Tulip

Title:                      The Black Tulip

Author:                 Milt Bearden

Bearden, Milt (1998). The Black Tulip: A Novel of War in Afghanistan. New York: Random House

LCCN:    97037224

PS3552.E172 B58 1998


Date Updated:  April 14, 2015

In this novel, the craft of espionage, and the political clout needed to keep afloat in the game, are bared in ex-agent Bearden’s promising debut, a valentine to late CIA director Bill Casey set in the late 1980s during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Hounded by eager mole-hunter Graham Middleton, Russian-born American agent Alexander Fannin opts out of the Agency, but Casey enlists him to freelance as his cat’s paw in Afghanistan, supplying the mujahideen and planning sorties against the Russians. Capture of a Russian general’s son pits Fannin against his KGB counterpart Anatoly Klimenko, coincidentally a cousin, who decides to defect and helps Fannin speed Russia’s exit from Afghanistan barely a tense step ahead of a KGB official with a grudge against Klimenko. Bearden soft-pedals the horrors of the war and concentrates on the stringpullers from both sides as KGB and CIA field agents dodge each other and their own hierarchies as they maneuver Afghan and Russian pawns to win the game. Deft twists and battle scenes, crisply lucid technical details, hair-trigger tension and strong characters drive the plot, but the too-sparse dialogue slows the read. Still, the mechanics of Cold War espionage have seldom been so tangible.

The Black Tulip is a fast-paced thriller, based on real events, by the legendary spy who masterminded the plot to arm Afghan freedom fighters in their holy war against the Soviets. A longtime veteran of the CIA, Bearden knows the tricks of the trade, the price of honor, the bonds of blood, and the enduring lure of retribution.