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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 Accumulated evidence over the years, as memoirs have been written and historical documents declassified, indicates that the British captured and turned every single German spy sent to the United Kingdom.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.
@@ (2 out of 5)
I’m a big fan of satire. For instance, I love Christopher Buckley‘s books. Some of them make me laugh almost nonstop. But there’s nothing worse than a satirical tale that. Just. Isn’t. Funny. Unfortunately, that’s what I found in Bellwether by Connie Willis. Apparently, Willis wrote the novel to satirize scientists and corporate bureaucracy. But the characters and their behavior are over the top. To call them outrageous might be a compliment. A little restraint would have gone a long way.
So, how did I get sucked into reading this book in the first place, much less read it all the way to the end? Connie Willis is an extraordinarily talented science fiction and fantasy author. She has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards—more major awards than any other writer in the field. Years ago, I was greatly impressed by her 1992 Nebula Award-winner about time travel, Doomsday Book. And the cover of Bellwether characterizes her (justifiably) as “one of science fiction’s best writers.” Unaccountably, Bellwether, published five years after Doomsday Book, was itself nominated for a Nebula Award. Suffice it to say that if I had been voting—I’m a long-time member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, though no longer a voting member—I would have gone for something much more in line with my idea of science fiction. Bellwether doesn’t cut it.
The novel’s protagonist is one Sandra Foster. She calls herself a scientist and engages in lots of mathematical calculations to prove it. She is analyzing fads and fashions for the unimaginatively named HiTek Company, presumably in an effort to discover how fads start and “how scientific discoveries come about.” (The connection between these two lines of inquiry is not obvious to me.) Management (capital “M”)—a person, not a category—of HiTek is interested in her work, she believes, because he is eager to learn how to start fads himself. Sandy is plagued by the rudeness and incompetence of the “interdepartmental assistant” who misdelivers mail, starts ugly rumors, and refuses to take on routine assignments such as photocopying. Compounding problems for Sandy, Management is obsessed with impossibly long forms on paper, which are impossible to understand, and with the latest acronym-laden management theory, which changes every few days. As I said, the story is over the top. But the situation becomes even more intolerable when Management decides that the entire scientific staff must bear down in an effort to win the prestigious, million-dollar Niebnitz Grant.
Each chapter in Bellwether begins with a brief description of one or another fad that has captivated humanity through the ages, from the hula hoop to quality circles, miniature golf, hot pants, coonskin caps, chain letters, and many more. Some of this material is interesting. But there’s entirely too much of it.
Eventually, Sandy teams up with a researcher in chaos theory named Bennett O’Reilly. Absurdly, Ben is attempting to learn what sets chaotic conditions in motion, apparently believing there must be some logic in a complex system. Will Sandy and Ben fall in love? Will they win the Niebnitz Grant? You shouldn’t have to read this book to figure it out.
For a successful effort at satire, see Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley or Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel of politics and diplomacy today.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
1936. Soviet Azerbaijan. Alexsi, in flight from the violence of an orphanage since the age of thirteen, is living on the streets of Baku when he falls in with a gang of tribesmen who live by smuggling goods over the border between the Soviet Union and Iran. “After a few trips he had more rubles hidden away than most party bosses in the Soviet Union, let along sixteen-year-olds.” Thus opens William Christie‘s gripping espionage novel, A Single Spy, his eighth book.
Alexsi is no ordinary Azeri teenager: he is educating himself by reading books in libraries; he speaks Russian, Persian, German, and some English; and he is a resourceful and ruthless fighter who carries a knife hidden away in his clothing. Then, while reading at the Baku General Library he is seized by Soviet secret police (NKVD), tossed into a crowded railcar, and shipped off to Moscow. There, after days of deprivation in the depths of the Lubyanka, he is taken to be interrogated by a humorless older man with an air of authority. The man’s name is Lukashev, and he is senior NKVD officer.
Lukashev poses a choice to Alexsi: either enter training as a Soviet spy or face execution for his crimes—which, of course, is no choice at all. Thus the young man enters adulthood through a grueling, months-long education in spycraft and survival skills. Following a real-world test in Moscow infiltrating a group of dissident students, Alexsi learns about the assignment for which he has been so carefully selected: he is to go undercover in Germany, impersonating a childhood friend with an uncle in Munich who is a high-ranking Nazi diplomat. As the Nazi’s long-lost nephew, whom he’d last seen as an infant, Alexsi is to worm his way into the Nazi world and seek out ways to gain access to valuable secrets. Lukashev, counting on Alexsi’s resourcefulness, tells him, “We gather information by many means, but a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”
In A Single Spy, we follow Alexsi’s life from 1932, when he was an abused child in an Azeri village, to 1943, as a double agent working for the Soviets within the Abwehr. The action rockets from Azerbaijan to the Iran to the USSR to Germany, then to Switzerland and Turkey en route back to Iran. Christie paints a convincing picture of every location where he sets his story, and he steadily builds suspense toward a climax full of surprises. His command of details about the German military in World War II is impressive. The book contains information I’ve read nowhere else about German weaponry and the organization of the German general staff. It’s an impressive performance. Christie’s tale is grounded in history, hinging on two well-established facts. First, though Soviet spies and Winston Churchill himself informed Stalin well in advance of the German invasion, the Soviet leader refused to believe them—with millions of Russians dying as a result. And the Nazis did mount an elaborate (and of course unsuccessful) plot to assassinate Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin when they met at the Tehran Conference late in 1943. Christie seems to get it all right.
Recently, I posted an article entitled “My 10 favorite espionage novels.” You can find it here.
I suppose sixty-five seems like a lot of books to most people, but it’s far from all the books I’ve read in 2016. Listed here are only those that I rated @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5). Keep in mind that I’m very selective in choosing books (emphasis on very), and I review only those that I read from start to finish.
I’ve grouped these 65 books (a little arbitrarily) into five sections: new entries in mystery and espionage series; politics and current affairs; trade fiction; history; and science. The titles below are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names within each section.
You won’t find any poetry here, or books about sports, the arts, or cooking. As you can see, a disproportionate share of these books are nonfiction. The explanation is simple: in 2016, I began reading from the beginning of my favorite mystery and thriller series; that accounts for a large share of the books I’ve read this year, yet none of those early titles are included in this list. All those listed here were published in 2016 or during the last half of 2015 at the earliest. In any case, I hope you’ll find at least one or two that reflect your own interests.
New entries in mystery and espionage series
The nine titles listed here represent a broad range of style, subject matter, and locale. Tana French writes thrillers set in Ireland, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis in Denmark, Stella Rimington and Edward Wilson in England. Michael Connolly’s novels are set in Los Angeles, John Sandford’s in Minnesota, Karin Slaughter’s in Georgia, and Joseph Finder’s in Boston or Washington, DC. Rimington and Wilson explore the realm of intelligence. The rest focus on crime. Of these nine books, my favorite is The Considerate Killer by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis.
Biography and autobiography
The only thing these twelve books have in common is that their subjects lived in the 19th or 20th century. Some of the subjects are familiar to nearly all Americans: Jonas Salk, Allen Dulles, George Armstrong Custer, Patricia Hearst, and Bobby Kennedy. The others are less well known. In the case of the three autobiographies—those by Antonio Garcia Martinez, William J. Perry, and J.D. Vance—all the subjects are still alive. (So, for that matter, are those of two of the others: Paul English (Tracy Kidder’s subject) and Patricia Hearst (Jeffrey Toobin’s). David Talbot’s biography of Allen Dulles is the best of this lot, in my opinion; it’s certainly the most important.
The twenty-one novels listed represent a very wide range of styles and subject matter. Eleven are works of historical fiction: Matthew Carr, Helen Dunmore, Louise Erdrich, Alan Furst, Yaa Gyasi, Kristin Hannah, Robert Harris, Thomas Mallon, Simon Mawer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Stewart O’Nan. However, the topics of these eleven books could hardly be more different from one another. The other books range from science fiction, religion, and humor to crime and politics. It’s extremely difficult for me to pick a favorite from among these twenty novels. If I’m forced to do so, however, I have to name The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Politics and current affairs
The ten titles in this section cover a lot of territory. They explore the Great Recession, urban poverty, liberal politics, Right-Wing politics, drug cartels, and federal whistleblowers, as well as developments in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money struck me as the most powerful of these ten books.
In the ten books listed below, you can learn how Earth’s geological history has shaped the course of human affairs . . . how an Egyptian spy saved Israel from destruction in the Yom Kippur War . . . how the world’s largest construction company has acted as a law unto itself . . . how espionage failed to achieve much of anything of note in World War II . . . how Americans fought and died in the Spanish Civil War . . . how the United States Postal Service became the crippled giant it is today . . . how Britain’s Special Air Service in World War II became the model for special forces the world over . . . how today’s Right-Wing politics grew out of resistance to labor organizing in California’s fruit and cotton fields in the 1930s . . . how American advertising evolved from Snake Oil promotions to pop-up ads . . . and how FDR’s decision to take the US off the gold standard played a far more significant role in ending the Depression than anything else in the New Deal. The Secret War by Max Hastings strikes me as the most significant of these ten books.
These three titles have nothing in common other than that they’re all grounded in science. Mary Roach is a humorist who finds a way to laugh about the absurdities that abound in military science. Sonia Shah examines the history of epidemic disease—and the existential threat it poses to the world’s people. Steve Silberman writes about the slow and painful development of psychiatrists’ understanding of the autism spectrum. Though it seems pointless to pick a favorite from among just three books, I’ll do it anyway. I choose Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
If your taste in crime fiction runs to blood, guts, and gore, you’re unlikely to enjoy reading Jacqueline Winspear‘s Maisie Dobbs series. If, instead, you favor a more cerebral approach focused on three-dimensional character development and psychological insight, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for in Winspear’s outstanding work.
Maisie Dobbs is a brilliant young working-class woman who gained an elite education under the sponsorship of the aristocratic family that employed her as a maid. Cutting short her university studies, she volunteered as a nurse in World War I, where she witnessed the conflict’s senseless carnage first-hand and was wounded by the same artillery shell that eventually killed her fiance. Now, after years of apprenticeship with a physician who was involved in top-secret intelligence work, she is on her own. Maisie bills herself as a “psychologist and investigator,” and she quickly proves her skill in both arenas.
In Among the Mad, the sixth novel of twelve (so far) in the series, 33-year-old Maisie finds herself and her sidekick, Billy Beale, pressed into service by New Scotland Yard’s secretive Special Branch. Together with her on-again, off-again friend and collaborator, Inspector Stratton, and the head of Special Branch, she is charged with finding the man who has threatened the Prime Minister himself. The wide-ranging search takes her and her colleagues into the worlds of Britain’s emerging Fascist Party, the militant labor movement, the country’s growing chemical-warfare program, and the network of asylums where shell-shocked soldiers and others deemed “mad” are locked away.
The action in Among the Mad unfolds over the last week of 1931 and the first month of 1932, a time when Britain was experiencing the worst of the Great Depression. As its title suggests, one of the book’s overarching themes is the primitive care of mental illness in that era. As in previous novels in the series, the persistent impacts of World War I loom large, too. But equally important is the emphasis on the desperation of the millions of men now out of work, many of them veterans of the war. With cameo appearances by two prominent historical figures—Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and future Fascist Party founder Sir Oswald Mosley—Among the Mad qualifies as a superior historical novel as well as first-class detective fiction.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
I find historical fiction grounded in fact irresistible. When a plot rests on events that really took place and characters who really lived, I’m prepared to give the author a little slack if the writing style is less than engaging.
Fortunately, I don’t have to make any such compromise when it comes to Philip Kerr’s series of novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther. I’ve just finished reading Prague Fatale, the eighth book in the series. I’m still in thrall to the author and his protagonist. Bernie stands comparison to Philip Marlowe or any other fictional hard-boiled detective in mid-century America. Yet his beat was Berlin under Hitler.
In more ways than one, Bernie resembles Marlowe. He’s tough, of course. He’s a big guy who appeals to women. And his wisecracks are nonstop. For example, he refers to Nazi Germany as “the least democratic European state since Vlad III impaled his first Wallachian Boyar.” And this: “Investigating a murder in the autumn of 1941 was like arresting a man for vagrancy during the Depression.” Then there’s this about his relationship with Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust: “from time to time I’m useful to him in the same way a toothpick might be useful to a cannibal.” And Bernie actually talks like this. His wisecracks aren’t limited to the narrative. Admittedly, some of this humor is far from universal, but I find it supremely entertaining.
Prague Fatale opens with Bernie on a train from Prague to Berlin, accompanying Heydrich’s corpse. It’s June 1942, and Czech partisans have finally succeeded in killing him. Against this background, the action shifts back to the autumn of 1941. Heydrich has summoned Bernie to Prague to protect him against an assassination attempt — from within his own ranks. Bernie learns that the assassin might be any one among the large assembly of high-ranking Nazi officers the General has brought together in the country villa he commandeered. This brings him face to face with many of the leading war criminals in the Nazi hierarchy, each seemingly more monstrous than the last.
The plot in Prague Fatale revolves around the murder of a Dutch “guest worker,” the death of a presumed Czech spy, and Bernie’s affair with a beautiful prostitute. (There’s always a beautiful woman at Bernie’s side.) As his investigation proceeds in the villa, all these threads of the story eventually come together. The suspense builds, and the surprises mount. This is truly a superior crime thriller. It’s also well worthwhile reading as historical fiction alone. Philip Kerr does great research.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Robert van Gulik’s series of 16 Judge Dee mysteries are set in China sometime during the era of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They’re grounded in his intensive scholarly study of ancient Chinese detective stories, some of which he has translated into English. The Chinese Maze Murders was the first novel in the series.
In a postscript to the book, Van Gulik explains that the character of Judge Dee is loosely based on a Chinese magistrate who achieved fame as a detective some hundreds of years before the Ming Dynasty. Judge Dee was a favorite protagonist in detective novels written for hundreds of years thereafter. He also explains that “In most Chinese detective novels the magistrate is engaged in solving three or more totally different cases at the same time.”
In The Chinese Maze Murders, there are six interwoven mysteries that Judge (magistrate) Dee must solve with the help of his four trusted lieutenants. However, the judge himself recognizes only “three real cases. First, General Ding’s murder [in a locked room]. Second, the case Yoo versus Yoo [over an inheritance]. Third, the disappearance of [blacksmith] Fang’s daughter. [The other three] must be viewed as local background. They are separate issues and have nothing to do with the substance of our three cases.” Nonetheless, every one of the six cases posed a puzzling mystery.
Oh, and by the way, there are two additional problems confronting Judge Dee and his colleagues: a criminal has seized power in the border town where Judge Dee has been assigned and is terrorizing the populace, and a conspiracy is afoot to enable the hostile “barbarian” tribes to invade and plunder the town. In other words, The Chinese Maze Murders is unlike any present-day detective novel. No contemporary writer of detective fiction would attempt to maneuver through so many plots and subplots in a single volume. But Van Gulik pulls it off.
Van Gulik’s depiction of the customs and the criminal justice system of ancient China is fascinating. As a mystery story, it’s less successful, if only because Judge Dee proves to be impossibly discerning, combining the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes with the combat skills of a Special Forces officer. The author’s writing is also annoying at times. The book is laced with typos and hard-to-explain grammatical errors, and Van Gulik has the exasperating habit of placing an exclamation mark after almost every sentence uttered by Judge Dee.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Though marketed as an espionage thriller, this suspenseful thriller is more precisely about the fragility of gay life in the UK half a century ago. It quickly becomes obvious that this will turn out to be a major underlying theme in the action that follows. Espionage also emerges as central in a significant way.
The novel opens with the inner dialogue of an inmate in a British prison in the winter of 1960. Nearly all the rest of the book consists of flashbacks. Immediately after the opening, we enter into the thoughts and feelings of a woman named Lily Callington, a mother of three young children. She is in her 30s, owns a heavily mortgaged house, and holds a job as a schoolteacher. Then we enter into the private life of Giles Holloway, a senior officer in the Admiralty. Giles reports to Julian Clowde, who has ensnared him in a mysterious activity that somehow involves government secrets. Simon Callington, Lily’s husband, is Giles’ protege, just as Giles is Julian’s. Now we have met all four principal characters in Exposure. The novel delves into the complex relationships among them.
A prizewinning British poet and novelist, Helen Dunmore is the author of 14 adult novels, three short story collections, eight young adult novels, 13 children’s books, and 10 poetry collections — and she’s still writing at the age of 63. She’s published four books in the past five years. In other words, she’s both prolific and and unusually versatile writer.
Enjoy thrillers? See 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.
@@@ (3 out of 5)
1693. New France (later eastern Canada). Two indentured servants from the old country, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, have arrived to start work felling trees in the wilderness on behalf of a titled Frenchman. Over the subsequent 320 years, the innumerable descendants of the two men have multiplied and spread throughout the Maritime Provinces of Canada, deep into the United States, and abroad
Rene Sel fathered children with a Mi’kmaq Indian woman, and his numerous descendants have predominantly Indian blood. Meanwhile, the Duquet family — now Anglicized to Duke — has moved to the U.S. and grown wealthy in the timber business. As Annie Proulx tells their tale in Barkskins, circumstances have taken members of both families to distant lands: the Netherlands, China, New Zealand, Brazil. Along the way, they have experienced nearly every imaginable variety of tragedy, from forest fire to shipwreck, smallpox, cholera, domestic abuse, murder, and embezzlement. In a sense, however, the central theme of Barkskins isn’t human history. It’s not primarily an historical novel detailing the story of two intertwined families. Rather, Barkskins is in its essence the sad tale of the decline of the world’s forests at the hands of greed-obsessed men and women — and of the admirable native people who vainly resist the incessant logging. If that juxtaposition comes across as excessively black and white, don’t blame it on me.
From the outset, Proulx dwells on the savage destruction of Canada’s magnificent pine forests. As she takes the story into each successive era, the disappearance of the forests is never less than a major concern of her characters — not just in Canada, but in Maine, the U.S. Midwest and Northwest, New Zealand, and Brazil. Barkskins is, in the final analysis, an ecological tale. Unfortunately, in her final chapters, Proulx becomes outwardly preachy. There are so many characters — it seems as though hundreds are named in the course of the book — that they become as trees in a forest, difficult to distinguish from one another. The disappearing forest is the novel’s protagonist.
Annie Proulx is one of America’s most celebrated writers. More than twenty years ago she won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction for The Shipping News, her second novel. She has written five novels, four short story collections, and four books of nonfiction.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
It’s 1937. The Soviet Union, still reeling from its drive to collectivization and the elimination of the so-called kulaks (rich peasants), is now in the grips of the terror Stalin has initiated to purge the Party, the army, and Soviet society in general of anyone who so much as breathes a hint of opposition to him or any questions about the superiority of the Soviet system. Official Soviet figures showed that at least 12 million people died as a direct or indirect result of these draconian policies — and some military historians speculate that the USSR came perilously close to losing World War II because of Stalin’s elimination of so much of the army’s senior officer corps.
William Ryan sets the second novel in his three-book series of murder mysteries, The Darkening Field (The Bloody Meadow in the UK), in the midst of these unsettled times. Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev, a detective in the Soviet militia (police) is awakened from sleep at 2:00 am and summoned to meet with the feared Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB. Though he assumes he will be arrested and dispatched to Siberia, or worse, the Colonel simply informs him that he has been assigned to look into the presumed suicide of a young woman working on a movie set near Odessa in present-day Ukraine. For unstated reasons, Korolev must be discreet, pretending that he is on vacation and not engaged in an investigation unless it is established that the woman did not commit suicide. Frighteningly, the order to assign Korolev has come down from the Commissar of State Security who heads the NKVD.
Of course, no reader of murder mysteries will be surprised to learn that the young woman did not die by her own hand, nor that the circumstances surrounding her death are anything but straightforward. Korolev doggedly pursues his investigation, delving into the past lives of the people who live on-site, the cast and crew of the film, and both the local police assigned to help him and the NKVD officer on site who is determined to undermine him. The more deeply Korolev digs, the broader and more terrifying the implications of the murder become, threatening not just his future but the stability of the Soviet state. As the story unfolds, revealing more and more of the ugly underbelly of Soviet society under Stalin, we come to understand that no nation, regardless of how powerful its dictator might be, is never totalitarian.
Ryan’s protagonist, Dimitri Korolev, is a fascinating character. Like so many Soviet citizens of the time, he remains a Believer, prone to exposure at all times because he so frequently utters incriminating phrases such as “If God wills it.” Yet he is also convinced that Marxism is scientific, that the USSR is on the correct historical path, and that Stalin is a wise man who guides the state with a steady hand.
Call The Darkening Field an historical novel or call it a thriller — either way it’s a great read.
William Ryan , an Irish author living in London, worked as an attorney before turning to writing full-time.