The Travelers

Title:                     The Travelers

Author:                Chris Pavone

Pavone, Chris (2017). The Travelers. New York: Broadway Books

LCCN:    2016479944

PS3616.A9566 T74 2017


  • When a woman with whom he has shared a harmless flirtation shows up at his hotel door with a gun, travel writer and food expert Will Rhodes discovers the real reason his job occasionally requires him to assume different names and deliver mysterious parcels.
  • Travel writer Will Rhodes is on assignment for Travelers magazine in the wine region of Argentina when a beautiful woman makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Soon Will’s bad choices and dark secrets are taking him across Europe as he is drawn into a tangled web of international intrigue. And the people closest to him may pose the greatest threat of all.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      June 26, 2017

Review by Janet Maslin[1]

There are two kinds of spy-hopping in The Travelers, Chris Pavone’s third and most furiously peripatetic novel. The first is what an inquisitive whale does when it shoots its head above water. The second is what this espionage novel does when it jumps from Paris to London; the Gulf of Maine to Husavik, Iceland, in the space of three pages; then back to Paris, Husavik and New York City shortly thereafter. Mr. Pavone keeps his readers’ heads spinning and his main character, the travel writer Will Rhodes, on the run.

This author’s sly debut, The Expats, was more notable for suspense and sub rosa ingenuity than for wall-to-wall action. His second, The Accident, turned up the heat. With an insider’s knowledge of publishing—he worked as an editor before turning to novels of intrigue—Mr. Pavone wrote about an editor who landed the hottest unpublished tell-all manuscript in world history. Plausibility was a slight problem, but excitement was not. You barely caught your breath for long enough to wonder what kind of tell-all could live up to that hype.

Now he has raised the ante again. Even the prologue to The Travelers is frenzied. It has Will Rhodes waking up in a hotel room in Mendoza, Argentina, at 2:50 a.m. A menacing male intruder is in his room, wielding … a smartphone? The phone plays a quick clip of a sex scene. Then the woman from the clip materializes for just long enough to clobber Will with a right hook and leave him unconscious. And we’re off to the races.

What was all that about? Will lives with his wife, Chloe, in New York and works as a correspondent for Travelers magazine. This seems like an ordinary job. (“So tell me, Rhodes—are you ever going to turn in that sidebar on the Swiss Alps?”) But it isn’t. When Will makes one of his frequent trips to the airport, he is jokingly called 007 by the check-in guy, Reggie. He “likes to kid that Will isn’t a writer, he’s a spy; that his magazine is just a cover,” Mr. Pavone writes. “Over the years, Reggie hasn’t been the only person to make this tongue-in-cheek accusation.”

Not-exactly-spoiler alert: Reggie’s a smart guy.

And so is Will, or else he’d be dead before The Travelers got very far. The book keeps him on the run through countless efforts to recruit, frame, manipulate, trick and kill him. Readers have to be willing to believe that Will Rhodes is worth all this effort and scheming, even though he is no 007 and has no clandestine duties. Nor does he know about anyone else’s. Mr. Pavone carefully withholds any explanation for the morass that surrounds Will until very late in the game. And this author is so crafty about diversionary tactics that he gives readers no time to wonder what the hot pursuits are really about.

Some of those tactics involve Chloe. Early in the story, while Will is off getting himself permanently compromised and ripe for blackmail in Argentina, Chloe begins pursuing her own furtive career. Some of the people in this book turn out to have espionage connections, but Mr. Pavone would never dream of keeping things that simple: The reader must also sort out the real agents from the impostors. Will has the same problem, but in his case, the stakes are considerably higher. He’s never sure which, if not all, of these contingents want to use him and then get rid of him.

It’s not easy for a writer to maintain the intense kinetic energy that runs throughout The Travelers. It may not be entirely well advised, either. The pacing is so relentless that it feels unmodulated; Mr. Pavone’s other protagonists were given more down time to calculate and assess their situations than Will has. He is constantly driven by serial emergencies, to the point where a huge action scene involves a knife, a crossbow, explosives, a ringing telephone and a cliff, off which at least one character falls. The characters’ thinking? Strictly tactical. The conversation? Just taunts.

Granted, this is no moment for small talk. But the small details in Mr. Pavone’s work are always welcome. Connoisseurs of such stuff should enjoy the book’s 18-point list of instructions for the woman who’d like to lure a man to a romantic terrace restaurant, stab him with a switchblade and push him off a cliff.

There’s room for a lot more of this than the book includes. It’s gratifying to find Will casually noticing a man’s watch and later realizing that it belies something important about the man’s supposed identity. It’s nice to find that Malcolm Somers, the man who edits Travelers and has other, more secretive business to attend to, knows exactly what to pick up at a service station while being tailed by hostile strangers. Why buy coffee when he can leave them with flat tires on their cars?

The Travelers does confirm what Mr. Pavone’s first two books have established: that when it comes to quick-witted, breathless thrillers that trot the globe, his are top-tier. But if he chooses to let the next one breathe more deeply, that would work, too.

[1] Janet Maslin, “In ‘The Travelers,’ Danger at Every Destination,” New York Times (March 15, 2016). A version of this review appears in print on March 16, 2016, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: “Danger in Every Destination for a Peripatetic Travel Writer”.


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

Sweet Tooth

Author:                                Ian McEwan

McEwan, Ian (2012). Sweet Tooth. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

LCCN:    2012515700

PR6063.C4 S94 2012


Date Updated:  April 14, 2015

This is one of the books picked by the readers and editors of Newsweek as their favorite books of 2012. John Le Carrè meets Jane Austen in this utterly beguiling espionage novel in which a callow, beautiful Engilsh Girl comes of age as a spy and a seasoned woman. Few books have evoked quite so perfectly the disconcerting shabbiness of 1970s Britain.

A review by Kurt Andersen[1] says the following.

Ian McEwan’s work falls into two distinct periods. His early stories and novels were all cool post-1960s perversity, a high-end parade of deadpan macabre and kink and sideshow eccentricity: ghastly death, corpses and butchery, bestiality, incest and pedophilia, insanity, dwarves. But since he turned 50, around the turn of the century, he’s published lovely historical fiction about the disastrous sexual misunderstandings of youth (Atonement, On Chesil Beach), and contemporary fiction about an ­alternative-energy researcher (Solar) and a deeply sane, happily married surgeon (Saturday). It’s as if Johnny Rotten had changed into Bono. And in the same way I like both the Sex Pistols and U2, I’ve enjoyed the best of McEwan’s fiction in both modes.

Sweet Tooth, his new novel, is definitely mature McEwan, intermittently funny and much more sweet than bitter, about as entertaining as a very intelligent novel can be and vice versa. Even though the story is set inside a cold war espionage operation, no violence occurs—indeed, only one (secondary) character dies, of natural causes, and only after he’s exited the story.

The narrator and heroine, Serena Frome, is the elder daughter of an Anglican bishop who, she says, “I don’t think . . . had ever been in a shop.” “Nothing strange or terrible happened to me during my first 18 years” in the 1950s and ’60s, “and that is why I’ll skip them.” She “was both clever and beautiful,” and reminds us again 10 pages later: “I really was pretty.” Her mother persuades her to fulfill her “duty as a woman to go to Cambridge to study maths,” where she promptly learns “what a mediocrity I was in mathematics.”

What Serena really enjoys is reading fiction. “Reading was my way of not thinking. . . . I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in.” Her tastes are defiantly un-snobbish: she amuses university friends with her insistence that “Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote,” and she discovers Solzhenitsyn right after reading Ian Fleming’s Octopussy.

Although she “took the orthodox view of our generation” concerning the Vietnam War, the fiction she reads turns her into a young anti-Communist in the soft-on—Communism academia of the early ’70s. “I was also the first person in the world to understand Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” She’s not quite Emma Bovary, ruined by the fiction she inhales, but “those books delivered me to my career in intelligence.” She has a brief affair with a-middle-aged history tutor who in turn gets her recruited by MI5, the domestic counter­espionage service.

Compared with the lavish attention Mc­Ewan often devotes to physical description, Sweet Tooth is light on telling period detail. “It pleased us, the general excitement in the air in 1969,” Serena says early on, and again, not many pages later: “A seedy, careless insurrection was in the air.” But we’re mainly obliged to take the countercultural atmosphere on faith, with the exception of some funny passages involving Serena’s hippie sister, Lucy, who lives “rent-free with another woman, a circus-skills instructor.” “Without asking too many impertinent questions, the state paid the rent and granted a weekly pension to artists, out-of-work actors, musicians, mystics, therapists and a network of citizens for whom smoking cannabis and talking about it was an engrossing profession.” Lucy’s boyfriend is one of these, doing “that inexcusable thing that men who liked cannabis tended to do, which was to go on about it. . . . Our parents had the war to be boring about. We had this.”

Yet Serena’s distaste for “this inglorious revolution” is more a matter of sensibility than ideology; she is a young fogy on instinct rather than principle. “I believed in nothing much—not carols, not even rock music.” Against the conformist nonconformity of her fellow youth, she enjoys being a (secret) nonconformist. “It gave me some innocent pleasure to think how horrified the counterculture crowd around us would be, to know that we were the ultimate enemy from the ‘straight’ gray world of MI5.”

Organizing an undercover operation code-named Sweet Tooth, this fictional MI5 contrives to pay long-term stipends, through a front foundation, to 10 up-and-coming writers. They didn’t need to be cold war fanatics, merely “skeptical about utopias in the East or looming catastrophe in the West.” The hope, one of the bosses tells her, is that they’d “turn out well and become, you know, important. This is a slow-burn thing.” Because Serena knows contemporary literature, she gets the assignment to recruit the young fiction writer Tom Haley.

They promptly begin an affair and fall in love. She keeps him in the dark about his true patrons. Meanwhile, her adulterous “old MI5 hand” turns out to have been a Communist asset, putting his protégé Serena under suspicion. As in any spy story, it’s unclear who’s lying to whom until late in the game. For all the modish noir of his early work, McEwan has always been a good old-fashioned teller of tales, and the suspense and surprises in this book are well engineered.

Most big-time novelists sooner or later write a novel or two about books and writers, and this is not McEwan’s first iteration. Its true subject is not espionage but, as in Atonement, the porous boundaries between the imaginary and the real—and, as in Atonement, he’s got a large metafictional trick up his sleeve. In other words, if I may indulge in my own meta-nonfictional swerve, Sweet Tooth is “a novel about the powerful influence literature can exert on life”—as a reviewer last summer wrote in these pages about my [Kurt Andersen ] own latest book, also a circa-1970 story concerning an upper-middle-class fiction-besotted baby boomer girl who reads Ian Fleming and plays at espionage with duplicitous friends, also narrated by the rueful heroine four decades later.

Serena tells Tom (and us) again and again that she has no use for the illusion-busting postmodern novelists he adores. “I wasn’t impressed by those writers . . . who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions. . . . I believed that writers were paid to pretend.” And, later: “No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and self-consistent as the actual.”

McEwan, however, has his cake and eats it, until the last chapter keeping us unaware of the metafictional con under way. Instead of flaunting it, in 20th-century spoilsport fashion, he uses his game to reinforce and deepen the pleasurable illusions of reality, thereby satisfying conservative readers like Serena as well as those like Tom with a taste for the literary fun house.

Even before the reveal, Sweet Tooth playfully hops and skips along the borders of make-believe and reality. Unlike her co-workers, who tell family and friends they work for MI5, Serena unnecessarily gives a cover story, turning herself into a kind of fictional character. A colleague warns her that in intelligence work “the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. . . . You imagine things—and you can make them come true.” She’s happy to indulge Tom’s masochistic sexual conceit that she’s cuckolding him with Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, “a deliberate and shared fantasy . . . usefully diluting my own necessary untruths.” But sex with a writer also unnerves her: “I couldn’t banish the thought that he was quietly recording our lovemaking for future use, that he was making mental notes.”

McEwan studs the novel with well-known Britons, both named (his former publisher, his former editor, his friend Martin Amis) and lightly fictionalized. The future MI5 director Stella Rimington is “Millie Trimingham”; the book’s ambitious undergraduate editor Rona Kemp (“She went on to Vogue . . . and then to an incendiary rise and fall, starting new magazines in Manhattan”) seems highly Tina Brownian; and Tom Haley is almost indistinguishable from McEwan himself. Serena summarizes a half dozen of Haley’s short stories, several of which are recognizable as versions of McEwan’s fiction from the 1970s.

Sweet Tooth is sort of a younger sibling to Atonement, less epic and grave, with lower stakes, more fun and an apparently happier ending. Tom is a self-consciously autobiographical figure, but one throwaway line of Serena’s—“And feeling clever, I’ve always thought, is just a sigh away from being cheerful”—could be an animating truth for McEwan as a writer. “Sweet Tooth” is extremely clever in both the British and American senses (smart as well as amusingly tricky) and his most cheerful book by far.

[1] Kurt Andersen is the author, most recently, of the novel True Believers. A version of this review appeared in print in the New York Times (November 25, 2012), p. BR15 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “I Spy.”