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The Cold War reexamined in John le Carré’s terrific new novel

Cold War reexamined - A Legacy of Spies - John le CarreA Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The consummate British spy George Smiley originally appeared in 1961 in John le Carré‘s Call for the Dead, his first novel. The last time he was a central character was 1979 in Smiley’s People, nearly forty years ago. (His most recent appearance, but only as a supporting character, was in The Secret Pilgrim, published in 1990.) Now, decades later, Smiley surfaces again in the background in le Carré’s twenty-fourth novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017). Given the author’s six-decade career as a novelist, the decade he had spent as an intelligence officer for both MI6 and MI5, and the worldwide popularity of his work, Smiley’s reappearance in 2017 is a major event in the publishing world. And, luckily, A Legacy of Spies is worth all the fuss.

The Cold War reexamined

Decades earlier, late in the 1950s and early in the 60s, Peter Guillam had served as a young MI6 officer under the legendary George Smiley, then serving one step below Control as “Head of Covert.” Smiley and Control had involved him in a spectacularly devious operation named Windfall that targeted East Germany’s Stasi. Now, many years later, Guillam is an old man, retired to the family farm in Brittany. An urgent summons calls him to London, where he learns that he and Smiley have been sued by the children of two people who fell victim to that old operation—and, worse, Members of Parliament are threatening an investigation that has the potential to cause great damage not just to them personally but to the Secret Intelligence Service as a whole. Peter is sequestered in a run-down safe house and interrogated by an unpleasant pair of officers who are convinced that he and Smiley were responsible for the two deaths and for causing Windfall to fail in a disastrous fashion.

Complex and believable characters, palpable suspense

The action rapidly shifts back and forth from Peter’s recollections of Windfall and the hostile questioning he faces years later, illuminated by official documents that come to light in the files of MI6 as well as the Stasi. At the age of 85, le Carré has lost none of his considerable writing skill. His characters leap off the page, fully fleshed. Suspense builds steadily as the case against Peter grows ever stronger. And, in dialogue as well as memory, the ambiguous morality of the espionage game comes across just as clearly as it did in the novels le Carré wrote during the Cold War. A Legacy of Spies is a worthy successor to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the breakthrough bestseller that established the author as the premier spy novelist of the last half-century.

For my review of other recent le Carré spy novels, see John Carre’s latest, about anti-terrorism, is brilliant and John Le Carre on British espionage at the end of the Cold War.  You might also be interesed in 17 good nonfiction books about espionage.

Propulsive action in a tale of World War II espionage

World War II espionage

Bodyguard of Deception, by Samuel Marquis

@@ (2 out of 5)

In a foreword, Samuel Marquis opens his historical novel Bodyguard of Deception with the assertion that the book “is the story of Operation Cheyenne precisely as it happened during the Second World War and has been concealed for the past seventy years by the U.S. and British governments.” This operation, which according to the author unfolded between May 24 and June 6, 1944, involved the theft by German spies of the Allies’ most closely guarded wartime secrets. (As anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge will know, those were the days leading up to the fateful Normandy landings that set the Allies on the road to the annihilation of Nazi Germany.) Marquis even cites specific recently declassified documents with lengthy filenames that have the ring of authenticity. Yet the events as he describes them in the novel stretch credulity to the breaking point: the coincidences are jaw-dropping. And they never happened. Google Operation Cheyenne. You won’t find anything.

When I finished reading the book, those seemingly impossible coincidences forced me to rush to the author’s note at the end. There, Marquis writes that “more than fifty historical figures populate the pages of Bodyguard of Deception.” He then precedes to list them individually. Some of those listed do not appear as characters in the book. (They’re simply mentioned in passing.) But the main characters whose interrelationships give rise to the coincidences that bothered me are not included in that list. In other words, the story as Marquis tells it simply didn’t happen. He even admits in the end that “the novel is ultimately a work of the imagination and entertainment and should be read as nothing more.” In other words, this is not historical fiction.

Oh, more thing: this tale of World War II espionage rests on the successful infiltration of a German spy in England in 1944, where he is shown to have stolen the Allied plans for the invasion of Normandy—among other closely guarded secrets. To the best of my knowledge, that never happened. Accumulated evidence over the years, as memoirs have been written and historical documents declassified, indicates that the British captured and turned every single German spy sent to the United Kingdom. And the FBI captured every German spy operating within the United States during the war.

In other words, I feel cheated. I could have done without that bogus foreword—or those exceedingly unlikely coincidences that any self-respecting novelist should be ashamed to concoct.

Furthermore, the book is not well written. The narrative is awkward at times, and the dialogue forced. There is a scene toward the end of the book in which Adolf Hitler is portrayed in a way that history doesn’t support. Literature, this isn’t.

So, why didn’t I give up in disgust somewhere in the middle of the book as those improbable coincidences began to appear? I was sorely tempted, again and again, but I soldiered on in the belief that Marquis was describing actual events. And, the book’s abundant flaws aside, the action is propulsive. Marquis tells a suspenseful story. If that’s enough to induce you to read the book, have at it. But don’t expect to learn anything about the history of World War II espionage.

There are many novels on the same subject that are solidly grounded in historical fact. In a recent post, 75 readable and revealing historical novels, I included a section on World War II that contains links to my reviews of nine novels about that period.

 

 

75 readable and revealing historical novels

historical novels - all the light we cannot see - anthony doerrThough I read a great deal of historical fiction, I gravitate toward certain topics, as you can see in the list below of the 75 historical novels I’ve, read, enjoyed, and reviewed over the past seven years. My favorite subjects are European history, including many historical spy novels; World War II; American history, especially political history; and Asian and African history.

You’ll also find that several authors show up multiple times: Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Fallon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon—in the last three cases, because of especially insightful series they’ve written.

I’ve grouped the 75 novels below in the categories indicated above. Within each category, the books are listed in alphabetical order of the authors’ last names. (For a much longer list of historical novels categorized by country, click here.)

World War II

The human cost of World War II (Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave)

A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust (The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa)

In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England (SS-GB, by Len Deighton)

This novel richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr)

An extraordinary World War II spy story grounded in historical fact (The Best of Our Spies, by Alex Gerlis)

A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance (The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah)

A brilliant novel explores life in Nazi Europe (The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer)

A well-written novel about British espionage in World War II (Tightrope, by Simon Mawer)

A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto (The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepherd)

 

US politics

Who wields the real power in Washington, DC? (Echo House, by Ward Just)

A terrific political history novel (Dewey Defeats Truman, by Thomas Mallon)

America’s third Red Scare (Fellow Travelers, by Thomas Mallon)

Ronald Reagan deconstructed in a new Thomas Mallon novel (Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon)

Watergate through a novelist’s eyes (Watergate, by Thomas Mallon)

Was politics during the Great Depression really like this? (All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren)

 

American history

Isabel Allende’s triumphant new novel spans the Western Hemisphere (Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende)

James Bond, lies within lies, and coming of age in the 1960s (True Believers, by Kurt Andersen)

Revisiting black humor (not Black humor) (Sneaky People, by Thomas Berger)

In Colonial America, the first Native American goes to Harvard (Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks)

The untold tale of the absent father in “Little Women” (March, by Geraldine Brooks)

Hired killers, the California Gold Rush, and lots of surprises (The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt)

Unforgettable characters in 19th century San Francisco (Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue)

A hilarious tale of Colonial America by two history professors (Blindspot: A Novel, by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore)

Love, disease, and self-deception: the life of Typhoid Mary (Fever: A Novel of Typhoid Mary, by Mary Beth Keane)

Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and the Red Scare (The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver)

Suspenseful historical fiction that’s hard to put down (World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane)

A thoughtful, action-packed crime story (Live by Night – Coughlin #2, by Dennis Lehane)

American history, laughing all the way (The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride)

A clever detective novel set in Colonial America (The Constable’s Tale: A Novel of Colonial America, by Donald Smith)

She was the country’s first female deputy sheriff (Girl Waits With Gun, by Amy Stewart)

Sex, drugs, and revolution: Berkeley in the 70s (All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff)

 

European history

Geraldine Brooks’ outstanding novel about England and the Plague (Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks)

The strange story of the Sarajevo Hagadah (People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks)

A gripping historical thriller (The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr)

A suspenseful tale of Holocaust survivors in post-war London (The List, by Martin Fletcher)

Cicero, witness to history (Dictator – Ancient Rome Trilogy #3, by Robert Harris)

The Dreyfus Affair, reenacted in a suspenseful spy novel (An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris)

Ancient Rome, before the fall (Conspirata – Ancient Rome Trilogy #2, by Robert Harris)

The IRA, the KGB, MI5, and the Corsican mob all conflict (Touch the Devil – Liam Devlin #2, by Harry Patterson writing as Jack Higgins)

An engrossing novel about Irish terrorists’ real-life attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher (High Dive, by Jonathan Lee)

A searing inquiry into life during the Chechnyan War (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra)

A beautifully written tale of love, courage, and faith (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell)

A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe (The Bridge of Sighs (Ruthenia Quintet #1), by Olen Steinhauer)

An historical thriller set under Communism in Eastern Europe (The Confession – Ruthenia Quintet #2, by Olen Steinhauer)

Inside the mind’s eye of Eastern European Communism in the 1960s (36 Yalta Boulevard – Ruthenia Quintet #3, by Olen Steinhauer)

Love, betrayal, and terrorism behind the Iron Curtain (Liberation Movements – Ruthenia Quintet #4, by Olen Steinhauer)

A powerful tale of life in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism (Victory Square – Ruthenia Quintet #5, by Olen Steinhauer)

 

European espionage history

Still a lively read among classic spy novels (A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler)

Niccolo Machiavelli, private eye (The Malice of Fortune, by Michael Ennis)

Alan Furst’s superb novel, “Spies of the Balkans” (Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst)

At the dawn of World War II, a Hollywood film star in an espionage novel (Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst)

Arms merchants and spies in a thriller set during the Spanish Civil War (Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst)

Vive la Resistance! (A Hero of France, by Alan Furst)

One of the best espionage novels of recent years (Kingdom of Shadows, by Alan Furst)

A brilliant novel of the French Resistance (Red Gold, by Alan Furst)

Romance intrigue and betrayal in post-World War II Istanbul (Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon)

A Nazi-hunter in post-war Venice in a suspenseful novel of intrigue (Alibi, by Joseph Kanon)

From Joseph Kanon, one of the best of today’s spy novels (Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon)

An author of spy novels to rival John Le Carre (The Prodigal Spy, by Joseph Kanon)

German emigres in Hollywood in a captivating historical novel (Stardust, by Joseph Kanon)

 

Asian history

A brilliant novel that spans a thousand years of Chinese history (The Incarnations, by Susan Barker)

A biblical story, brilliantly retold (The Secret Chord: A Novel, by Geraldine Brooks)

A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War (River of Smoke – Ibis Trilogy #2, by Amitav Ghosh)

An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War (Flood of Fire – Ibis Trilogy #3, by Amitav Ghosh)

Khaled Hosseini in Berkeley, in person and in print (And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini)

A haunting tale of love and loss spanning India and America (The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri)

Sheer reading pleasure, with a dollop of magic, in a historical novel (The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas)

A superb novel digs for roots in Israel’s modern history (The Debba, by Avner Mandelman)

The human toll of social change (The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee)

The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes (The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen)

Inside the fight for Israeli independence (City of Secrets, by Stewart O’Nan)

 

African history

Love, loss, and war in post-independence Africa (Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie)

A brilliant novel of love, hope, and the Rwanda genocide (Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron)

African Roots through African eyes (Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi)

An historical novel set in East Africa early in the 20th Century (Assegai, by Wilbur Smith)

 

A stirring tale of spies in wartime Vienna

wartime ViennaVienna Spies, by Alex Gerlis

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In The Secret War, his illuminating revisionist history of secret intelligence in World War II, the British journalist Max Hastings questions the value of what has come to be called “humint,” the product of spies working undercover. In Hastings’ view, spies had little effect on the outcome of the war. “Intelligence gathering is inherently wasteful,” Hastings writes. “Perhaps one-thousandth of 1 percent of material garnered from secret sources by all the belligerents in World War II contributed to changing battlefield outcomes.” Even code-breaking, including the deciphering of high-level Nazi and Japanese codes, played a relatively small role in the Allies’ victory, though one that was much greater than that of undercover operatives.

Even if Hastings doesn’t overstate his case—some argue he does—the romance of espionage has captured the public imagination. The exploits of spies have encouraged the growth of a veritable cottage industry in espionage fiction ever since the end of the Second World War. Graham Greene, John le Carré, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Alan Furst, Eric Ambler, and scores of others have generated thousands of stories about spies. Some, like most of Fleming’s, are fanciful and often laughable, pitting a superhero against supervillains, none of them bearing the slightest resemblance to real people. Others convey an impression of the true experience of undercover work, as many former intelligence agents have attested.

Alex Gerlis, a BBC researcher, has written three spy novels in recent years: The Best of Our Spies (2012), The Swiss Spy (2015), and Vienna Spies (2017). In his most recent book, Gerlis explores the contending forces of British intelligence, the NKVD, and the Gestapo in the closing years of World War II in Vienna.

Gerlis’ tale revolves six principal characters. Rolf Eder, who is Viennese, and Katharina Hoch, a German, are matched by British intelligence for a sensitive mission in Vienna, masquerading as a married couple. To assist them, they are to locate and meet with Sister Ursula, an Austrian nun who has been helping the British since the war started. Viktor Krasotkin, one of Moscow’s top spies, is dispatched to Vienna, in part to undermine their mission. His handler is Ilia Brodsky, a senior Soviet official who has “the ear of Stalin.” Above all, the spies from both nations must elude capture by the sadistic Kriminaldirektor Karl Strobel, the Gestapo’s top investigator of Communists and resistance fighters.

The British spies’ mission is two-fold: to find and eliminate Viktor and to rescue Austria’s most prominent anti-Nazi politician, Hubert Leitner, who has been hiding in the city for seven years. Meanwhile, Rolf has a private mission of his own: to learn the fate of the fiancee he left behind in Vienna when forced to flee to Switzerland several years earlier. And Viktor hopes to reunite with his lover, who is now married to a Nazi army officer. All these conflicting aims play out over the course of two years in Vienna, “a city that rivaled and possibly outdid Munich in its enthusiasm for the Nazis.”

Gerlis successfully captures the mood of wartime Vienna, with his detailed descriptions of life on the streets and the ever-present pall cast over the city by the Nazi occupation. On the surface, the leading characters might appear to be cartoonish. But Gerlis succeeds admirably in making them believable, with the possible exception of Karl Strobel (although other Gestapo officers appear more lifelike). In action that shifts rapidly from London to Zurich to Vienna to Moscow and back, the plot moves forward at a rapid clip. Vienna Spies is a satisfying read. My only complaint is that no one seems to have proofread the book. It’s full of missing prepositions, transposed words, and other glaringly obvious errors.

Russian sleeper agents and the misfits of MI5

sleeper agentsDead Lions (Slough House #2), by Mick Herron

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

A long-retired former British secret service officer named Dickie Bow recognizes a face from the past. He impulsively sets out to follow the man on a train from London to Worcester, and later on the bus passengers boarded when the train ground to a halt. Soon, sitting a few rows behind the familiar Russian “hood,” he keels over dead on the back seat. Dickie had never noticed the sharp pain in his thigh that occurred when close behind the man as they crowded onto the bus. Though a routine autopsy ruled Dickie’s death the result of a heart attack, Jackson Lamb is convinced otherwise. Dickie was a relic and never much of an operative, but Jackson can’t be persuaded that any former spook could simply die on a bus so many miles from where he was expected to be. Dickie didn’t even have a ticket for the train.

Jackson is not your run-of-the-mill spook. Despite his extensive field experience in MI6 and a later career in MI5, he has been put out to pasture running Slough House. This run-down London facility houses a motley collection of Secret Service misfits. Jackson, now fat and slovenly, holds forth from his top-floor office with undisguised ill will toward his hapless charges. Every one of them has been exiled to Slough House because of some disastrous misstep. “They called them the slow horses. The screw-ups. The losers.” Now “they belonged to Jackson Lamb.” And no one at Slough House has ever been reassigned to Regent’s Park, where MI5 is headquartered.

Screw-ups they may be. But the slow horses still possess the advantages that brought them to MI5. There’s Roderick Ho, a misanthrope to be sure, but a computer hacker of unsurpassed skill. River Cartwright, with his unfailing memory—and a grandfather who was a legend in the agency. Catherine Standish, who virtually ran MI5 as assistant to the late former managing director. Min Harper, an otherwise talented officer who had mislaid a computer disk containing top-secret material on an underground train, only to wake up to a discussion of its contents on the morning BBC news. He’s sleeping with Louisa Guy, who is very tough indeed, an ability that no doubt explains her presence at Slough House in some undesirable way. Two newcomers round out the crew, replacing two who died in Slow Horses, the first volume in Mick Herron’s beautifully executed series of espionage novels.

Now, in the second book, Dead Lions, the misfits are drawn into the investigation of Dickie Bow’s death and a seemingly unrelated assignment to provide protection for a visiting Russian oligarch. Since this is fiction, we will not be surprised to learn that the two assignments will turn out to be related. They both involve a surprising collection of Russian sleeper agents (the “dead lions” of the title). But there’s a great deal of fun to be had in the telling. Oh, by the way, all this work—these “assignments”—are off the books. Slow horses are expected to expire of terminal boredom at their desks or move on to other jobs.

Dead Lions, like its prequel, is a thoroughly successful espionage novel. It’s very funny, too.

My 10 favorite espionage novels

espionage novels - The Trinity Six - Charles CummingOver the past seven years, I’ve read and reviewed 60 espionage novels. My ten favorites are listed below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by three authors (Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, and Ross Thomas), I’ve limited myself to a single title from every writer. I gave every one of these ten titles a score of @@@@@ (5 out of 5) on its review. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

Twelve Days (John Wells #9), by Alex Berenson

Alex Berenson is a former New York Times reporter whose novels are distinguished by deep research as well as a convincing mix of character development and plotting. In Twelve Days, Berenson’s hero, John Wells, formerly of the Special Forces and the CIA, rushes to head off a U.S. war with Iran. The novel drips with suspense.

The Trinity Six, by Charles Cumming

Few episodes in the history of espionage have attracted so much attention as the betrayal of the Trinity Five, the five former Cambridge University scholars who turned to Communism in the 1930s, became spies for the USSR, and defected in the years following World War II. Charles Cumming skillfully posits a sixth man in the conspiracy in The Trinity Six.

Kingdom of Shadows (Night Soldiers #6), by Alan Furst

The “Night Soldiers” series is the collection of Alan Furst’s loosely connected espionage novels set in Europe in the years leading up to and during World War II. In Kingdom of Shadows, the sixth book in the series, a young Hungarian aristocrat living in Paris in 1936 takes on a dangerous mission to Budapest at the behest of his uncle, a Hungarian diplomat.

The Ways of the World (James Maxted #1), by Robert Goddard

A young English aristocrat becomes embroiled in a complex international plot when he sets out to investigate the mysterious death of his father following World War I. The Ways of the World is one of the more than two dozen thrillers Robert Goddard has written. His novels usually have an historical element and settings in provincial English towns and cities, and many plot twists. All that’s certainly the case in The Ways of the World.

The Eagle Has Landed, by Jack Higgins

The Eagle Has Landed has sold more than 50 million copies, but it’s just one of the more than 80 thrillers Jack Higgins has written. His work has been translated into 55 languages. This iconic thriller, set in wartime England, dramatizes a Nazi plot to assassinate Winston Churchill. The tale is told from the perspective of the German soldiers sent to kill the wartime Prime Minister.

Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon’s spy novels reek of authenticity. Set in the years immediately following World War II, they conjure up the fear and desperation that hung over Europe in the early days of the Cold War, when it seemed as though open war might well break out between the two emerging superpowers. For Leaving Berlin, Kanon has chosen as his setting the bleakest possible time and place: rubble-strewn Berlin in 1949 as the Allied airlift to embattled West Berlin was underway.

A Delicate Truth, by John LeCarré

On the cover of A Delicate Truth, Gibraltar looms like the vast bulk of reality weighing down on the idealism and sense of duty that preoccupy the novel’s protagonist, as they do in so many of the works of John Le Carré. The subject of this story is a shady joint UK-US anti-terrorism operation in Gibraltar. The caper is executed under cover of darkness by a combined force of handpicked British Special Forces and mercenaries in the employ of a mysterious American defense contractor. It all sounds unlikely—but so does much else that is happening in this unlikely world of ours! In any case, it’s a lot of fun to read.

The Travelers: A Novel, by Chris Pavone

In The Travelers, Chris Pavone weaves a tale so baffling that you’re likely to be shocked again and again as the truth at the heart of the story gradually floats to the surface. Pavone’s subject matter is espionage. The scene shifts rapidly and frequently from New York City to Mendoza, Argentina; Falls Church, Virginia; Paris; Capri; Istanbul; and other spots around the globe, including the Spanish Pyrenees and rural Iceland. The suspense is intoxicating.

At Risk (Liz Carlyle #1), by Stella Rimington

Dame Stella Rimington retired in 1996 as Director General of MI5, Britain’s counter-intelligence service, the only woman ever to have served in the post. Her first novel, At Risk, introduces her alter ego, MI5 officer Liz Carlyle. In At Risk, Carlyle is tasked with thwarting a terrorist who is about to enter the country—an “invisible” capable of blending perfectly into English society. The terrorist’s identity, and his or her intentions, are unknown. Not only does Rimington know how the counterespionage business works, she’s able to describe it with great skill — and create a great deal of suspense in the process. At Risk is an espionage thriller that fulfills its promise.

The Singapore Wink, by Ross Thomas

Set late in the 1960s, The Singapore Wink features two retired Hollywood stuntmen, a disheveled veteran FBI agent, an aristocratic classic car salesman, the head of Singapore’s part-time security service, a greedy left-wing Singapore politician and his “Dragon Lady” daughter, plus several assorted mobsters. Together, they make for a very fine mess. Ross Thomas died twenty years ago at the age of 69, leaving behind a much-praised body of work that included twenty-five novels about political corruption, crime, and espionage as well as two nonfiction books.

The latest from a latter-day John le Carre

John le CarreA Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3), by Charles Cumming

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The British espionage novelist Charles Cumming is sometimes compared to John le Carre, who is 40 years older. Le Carre writes in the same genre but is celebrated as the author of several novels regarded as among the best ever written. I’m usually suspicious of such analogies. But this one is apt. Cumming’s protagonist Thomas Kell brings to mind the jaded George Smiley of le Carre’s early spy novels. Both constantly wrestle with moral questions and frequently reflect that the difference between MI6 and its Russian counterparts is fuzzy at best. And both are deeply skeptical of the importance or effectiveness of their efforts. As Kell reflects in A Divided Spy, “In his twenty-year career in the secret world, Kell—in common with many of his colleagues—had developed a theory that most of the Service’s greatest successes had come about, in part, because of cock-up and human error. He had never been a believer in perfect plans and immaculate conspiracies.”

Cumming describes his protagonist as a man with “a facility for deceit and manipulation [that] was as much a part of Kell’s character as his decency and capacity for love.” And Kell’s Russian counterpart notes that “[t]he constant process of lying, of subterfuge, of concealment and second-guess, is exhausting. It is bad for the soul.”

In A Divided Spy, Kell at age 46 has left MI6 after a bruising run-in with the bureaucrats who made his life miserable. He is brooding over the murder of his lover, Rachel Wallinger, at the hands of a Russian spy named Alexander Minasian. When Minasian unexpectedly surfaces, Kell resolves to avenge her death. He plans an elaborate entrapment scheme to “turn” Minasian. This plan brings Kell into conflict with Amelia Levene, an old friend who is the Director General of MI6.

Meanwhile, a high-profile terrorist plot is unfolding. A young British man who has fought for ISIS in Syria has reentered England on a false passport and is establishing his new identity in the seaside resort of Brighton. Though it may seem unlikely, these two plotlines are destined to intersect. As they do, Kell is tested in ways he has never before been required to face.

Like le Carre, Cumming grounds his tales in the realities of spycraft. Just as CIA officers were said to devour the George Smiley novels, I imagine that operatives for both the CIA and MI6 are reading the saga of Thomas Kell. Or perhaps they should be.

A Divided Spy is the third book in Charles Cumming’s compelling series of espionage novels featuring MI6 officer Thomas Kell. It may be the last.

 

An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga

Bernie GuntherThe Other Side of Silence (Bernie Gunther #11), by Philip Kerr

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The Other Side of Silence is the 11th novel in Philip Kerr‘s bestselling series of detective stories featuring Bernie Gunther. (A 12th is forthcoming as I write.) However, unlike the books that precede it in the series, this suspenseful and well-crafted tale is primarily a post-war spy story. MI6, the East German Stasi, and the Soviet NKVD are all involved. For the most part, the previous 10 books have centered on crimes committed in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and in Nazi-occupied territory during World War II.

The action in The Other Side of Silence takes place in 1956 on the French Riviera, where former Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther is working as the concierge at a luxury hotel under an assumed name. The year 1956 is an interesting and obviously deliberate choice. That was the eventful year when Britain and France went to war against Egypt after Gamal Abdel Nasser seized the Suez Canal. Almost simultaneously, the USSR squelched the Hungarian Revolution. And the wedding of Monaco’s Prince Rainier and Hollywood star Grace Kelly is about to take place nearby. These events in the background anchor and help generate the urgency of the tale.

Like every one of the novels that precede it in the Bernie Gunther series, The Other Side of Silence is grounded in history. Real-world personalities play central roles in the story: the 82-year-old W. Somerset Maugham, then the world’s most famous and wealthiest author; the British Soviet spies, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean; former Nazi spymaster Markus Wolf, number two in the Stasi; Sir John Sinclair, then Director General of MI6; and Roger Hollis, who became Director General of MI5 during the period depicted in the novel. Maugham himself was for many years a British spymaster, so this story is chock full of espionage agents.

As always, Bernie stumbles into a beautiful woman, with whom he (predictably) falls hopelessly in love. Her name is Anne French. She’s a writer who for some unstated reason is desperately eager to meet Somerset Maugham. She’s convinced that Bernie can find a way to introduce them. Bernie calculates that he might be able to wangle an invitation if he teaches her to play bridge. Though Bernie is a reasonably skilled amateur player, Maugham is fanatical about bridge and supremely skilled at it. Naturally, Bernie’s maneuvering to pull this off is merely the prelude to a complex story that brings him face to face with a mass murderer with whom he had a run-in in 1937. It also involves him with many of the aforementioned spies. The Other Side of Silence is another thrilling tale in the saga of Bernie Gunther.

 

A spy story that will keep you guessing

spy storyThe Travelers: A Novel, by Chris Pavone

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In his third novel, The Travelers, Chris Pavone weaves a tale so baffling that you’re likely to be shocked again and again as the truth at the heart of the story gradually floats to the surface. Once again, as in his previous books, Pavone’s subject matter is espionage. The scene shifts rapidly and frequently from New York City to Mendoza, Argentina, Falls Church, Virginia, Paris, Capri, Istanbul, and other spots around the globe, including the Spanish Pyrenees and rural Iceland. The suspense is intoxicating.

Will Rhodes writes about food for a 70-year-old New York-based business that operates a high-end travel magazine and a bespoke travel agency under the name Travelers. When he started at the company three years earlier, his wife Chloe left her job there because she thought their marriage would suffer if they both worked at the same place. She now works freelance. Will is deeply in love with her and committed to the marriage, but the allure of a strikingly beautiful and seductive woman he meets on the road is irresistible. However, shortly after the two fall into bed together he learns that she isn’t who she said she was. (Yes, we saw this one coming.)

As the tale unfolds, Will finds himself repeatedly confused, betrayed, battered, and caught up in a high-stakes game of global espionage. Along the way, we meet rogue agents, a scheming corporate raider, hired assassins, a massive worldwide conspiracy, and enough surprises to fuel a dozen mysteries. Chris Pavone has written a spy story that ranks with the best of them.

 

An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage

British counter-espionage - Secret Asset by Stella RimingtonSecret Asset (Liz Carlyle #2), by Stella Rimington

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Sohail Din, a young Pakistani-British man, has postponed entry into law school for a year to serve as an undercover source for MI5. His agent runner, Liz Carlyle, returns from leave to find that Din has reported a visit by a notorious radical Pakistani imam to the Islamist bookstore where he works. There, the sheikh met with three young British men of Pakistani origin who are suspected of radical sympathies.

Suddenly, the inter-agency Counter-Terrorist Committee finds itself with a high-priority case. The Committee links MI5 (the Security Service) with MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service), GCHQ (Britain’s NSA), the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), and the Home Office (Britain’s Justice Department). MI5, responsible for British counter-espionage, takes the lead.

British counter-espionage takes the lead

Suspecting an imminent terrorist attack on British soil, MI5 swings into action. As an officer in the counter-espionage department, Liz hopes to become involved in the investigation. But the Director of Counter-Terrorism, Charles Wetherby, pulls her aside for a secret assignment: determine whether one of the men or women working for MI5 is a mole. In the ensuing investigation, she uncovers suppressed old relationships to the IRA and suspicious circumstances involving several of her colleagues. Liz’s journey toward the truth takes her to Oxford University and to Queens University in Dublin as well as to a succession of towns in southern England. Eventually (no surprise!) the two investigations merge, rushing toward a tragic climax.

Secret Asset, like the other novels in the Liz Carlyle series, is a compelling read. In the manner of a police procedural, Rimington paints a detailed picture of the complex way in which a counter-terrorist investigation plays out. Practically no one who writes spy novels can match her for knowledge about the craft.

About the author

Dame Stella Rimington served in Britain’s Security Service (MI5) from 1969 to 1996. In the course of her career, she served in every major field of responsibility. She became director in succession of all three branches and became Director General in 1995. She turned to fiction in 2004 at the age of 69. She has since written a total of nine Liz Carlyle novels. Secret Asset was the second.

I have also reviewed At Risk, the first novel in the series. My review is at High stakes in an excellent espionage thriller.

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