Tag Archives for " suspense "

Michael Connelly introduces a tough new lead character in “The Late Show”

Late ShowThe Late Show, by Michael Connelly

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

After writing 29 other thrillers, including 20 in the venerable Harry Bosch series and five of the Lincoln Lawyer novels, Michael Connelly has introduced a new lead character. Is this the beginning of a new series? We’ll have to see. But Renee Ballard is certainly interesting enough.

Detective Renee Ballard is a fourteen-year veteran of the LAPD, ten of them as a detective. She works “the late show,” the midnight shift in Hollywood. Two years earlier, she had lodged a sexual harassment complaint against her boss, Lieutenant Robert Olivas. She’d lost the case when her ambitious partner, Ken Chastain, refused to back up her claim by testifying to what he’d seen with his own eyes. Olivas had then had Ballard assigned to the late show, which is regarded as punishment.

Ballard is a hothead, quick to anger and slow to forgive a slight. Ignored by her mother, she had grown up sleeping on beaches with her father as she followed him around the world to surfing competitions. As a child, she saw him disappear under a wave, never to resurface. When Ballard was a teenager, her grandmother rescued her from the rough life in Hawaii and brought her to live with her in Ventura, California. She acquired a degree in journalism and worked for a time as a reporter. As her dark skin and distinctive features show, Ballard is at least partially Hawaiian or Polynesian. To this day, she makes a practice of heading out to Venice Beach with her dog Lola for an hour of paddleboarding after her shift. Her only permanent address is her grandmother’s home in Ventura.

Ballard’s partner, Detective John Jenkins, is marking time until retirement. But he’s protective of her. When he sees her working a case she’s been repeatedly warned to avoid, he tells her, “There’s this saying they have about conformist society: The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.”

“Okay, so what are you saying?” Ballard asks.

“I’m saying there’s a lot of guys in this department with hammers. Watch yourself.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.”

“I don’t know—sometimes I think I do.”

Though Ballard’s ornery flouting of authority seems to be a prerequisite for a lead character in a detective novel—Connelly’s Harry Bosch is an obvious example—the formula works well here. Ballard is a complex and interesting person.

In The Late Show, Ballard takes on three separate cases simultaneously, demonstrating her shrewdness as an investigator and her refusal to give up even when ordered to do so by her superiors. First is a case of credit card fraud. Though the effort was unsuccessful, Ballard insists on tracking down the perpetrator by working the phone. In the second, far more serious case, a cross-dressing male prostitute is found brutally beaten with brass knuckles and left for dead. Ballard sets out to find the man responsible. But the biggest case is the third. Five people have been shot and killed at close range in a Hollywood nightclub. Three of the victims were anything but innocent: all were career criminals. Ballard seizes an opportunity to look for the killer of a young waitress who was one of the other victims.

Every one of these three cases is fascinating in its own right. In Michael Connelly’s hands, the three are seamlessly woven together in an increasingly tense and suspenseful story that is likely to satisfy any fan of police procedurals. Having written for decades about crime in Los Angeles, Connelly is intimately familiar with the ways of the LAPD. The result is a thoroughly engrossing and convincing tale of crime and punishment through the eyes of an intelligent and caring police officer.

For my review of one of the Harry Bosch novels, go to Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel? For another prominent writer’s perspective on policing in Los Angeles, see Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Police Saga. For reviews of dozens of other excellent novels in this genre, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

 

 

Harry Hole investigates a two-decade-long string of serial murders

serial murdersThe Snowman (Harry Hole #7), by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s difficult to surpass the fiendishly complex plotting on offer in every one of the Harry Hole novels by Jo Nesbo. Other thriller writers may equal Nesbo’s skill in one or even several books, but few (if any) are better. In The Snowman, the seventh entry in the Harry Hole series, the surprises keep coming, one atop another, as the suspense builds steadily as Harry approaches the resolution to another case of serial murders. If you can unravel the mystery early in this book, your deductive powers are greater than mine. As a long-time reader of mysteries and thrillers, did I anticipate a couple of the revelations? Yes. But the adroitness with which Nesbo weaves the elements of his story together still kept me guessing until the end.

As The Snowman opens, Inspector Hole has just turned 40. He is unaccountably sober, for a change, and he’s exercising regularly. His long-time lover, Rakel Fauke, has kicked him out of her house because she forever finds herself in second place after his job. Now Rakel is on the verge of marrying a jovial, even-tempered physician who is Harry’s opposite in so many ways. For Rakel’s eleven-year-old son Oleg, however, the separation is a tragedy. He dislikes the doctor and thinks of Harry as “Dad.”

At the Crime Squad, Harry is now working with a sharp new detective recently transferred to Oslo from the Bergen police. Katrine Bratt may even be Harry’s equal as an investigator—and as a workaholic. Together they set out to explore a missing-persons case that is, in fact, probably a murder. A young woman has mysterious disappeared from her home, leaving behind a distraught husband and five-year-old son. Then a second woman disappears. Her decapitated head is found atop a snowman in the woods near her farm. Now Harry and Katrine are convinced they have a serial killer on their hands—and Harry is the only Norwegian police officer ever to have captured a serial killer or to have studied serial murders with the FBI. He quickly becomes convinced that the murders taking place in 2004 are somehow linked to a notorious murder in 1980 that was followed by the disappearance of the homicide detective who was investigating the case.

In recent years, I’ve read and reviewed most of the other Harry Hole novels. One of my reviews can be found at Harry Hole, the Salvation Army, and a gay Croatian hitman. Another is at Gypsies, bank robbers, and the Norwegian police.

If series like the Harry Hole novels interest you, take a look at a recent post of mine: 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

 

Another excellent novel in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr

philip kerr

A German Requiem (Bernie Gunther #3), by Philip Kerr

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s 1947. Berlin is a shambles. The meager amount of food available is rationed, leaving the surviving German population on the verge of starvation while the occupying forces eat their fill. The city is sharply divided between the eastern, Soviet-occupied zone and the rest governed by the three Western Allies. In the western zone, German women known as “chocoladies” sell sex for food, cigarettes, and alcohol. In the east, rape by Russian soldiers is nearly inescapable. As Bernie Gunther reflects, “These days, if you are a German you spend your time in Purgatory before you die, in earthly suffering for all your country’s unpunished and unrepented sins, until the day when, with the aid of the prayers of the Powers—or three of them, anyway—Germany is finally purified. For now we live in fear. Mostly it is fear of the Ivans, matched only by the almost universal dread of venereal disease, which has become something of an epidemic, although both afflictions are generally held to be synonymous.”

Berlin in the wake of World War II

These are the conditions under which former Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther and his wife Kirsten stagger from day to day. Though she was a schoolteacher in the past, she now works as a waitress in an American bar open only to servicemen. Because she frequently arrives home late he suspects she is sleeping with an American officer to obtain the coffee, butter, and chocolate that’s obviously from the American PX. To flee the unpleasantness, Bernie accepts a strange and lucrative job offered by a colonel in the Soviet MVD (precursor to the KGB), he agrees to accept it even though it will require him to travel to far-off Vienna and probably spend a long time there.

A treacherous assignment in post-War Vienna

On the surface, the job appears straightforward. A German black marketer, one of Bernie’s colleagues years earlier on the murder squad, has been imprisoned by the Americans on a charge of murdering one of their officers. But quickly the assignment proves to be anything but simple. As Bernie digs into the details of the case, he becomes convinced that the man is innocent of the crime he’s charged with, even though he has done a great many terrible things in his life. However, attempting to prove that leads Bernie into a tangled affair involving American counter-intelligence, the MVD, the recruitment of German intelligence officers by the USA, and an organized campaign to protect former SS war criminals from exposure. Two high-ranking, real-world Nazi war criminals— Heinrich “Gestapo” Müller and Arthur Nebe—play crucial roles in the tale. Like other novels in the Bernie Gunther series, Kerr skillfully builds suspense while digging deeply into Bernie’s complex personality.

Philip Kerr on “collective guilt”

Bernie has a great deal to answer for, having been dragooned from the Berlin homicide squad into the service of Josef Goebbels and later Heinrich Himmler and commissioned as an SS officer. He had refused to participate in the mass killing of Jews in Latvia, been reassigned to the Eastern Front, and was later imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp, never having stooped to the arrogance and cruelty of those he served with. But Bernie feels distinctly uneasy whenever he encounters cold, disdainful treatment at the hands of the Americans he encounters. Although “it is certain that a nation cannot feel collective guilt,” Bernie notes, “that each man must encounter it personally. Only now did I realize the nature of my own guilt—and perhaps it was really not much different from that of many others: it was that I had not said anything, that I had not lifted my hand against the Nazis.”

About Philip Kerr

In 1989-91, Philip Kerr wrote the first three novels in the Bernie Gunther series. A German Requiem concluded the trilogy. Fifteen years later he resumed the series, adding an additional ten novels to date (the last of which, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is scheduled for publication in 2018).

Previously I’ve reviewed most of the other novels in the Bernie Gunther series. One review is at A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany. Another is here: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga.

 

A Soviet spy in Nazi Germany

soviet spyA Single Spy, by William Christie

@@@@@ (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.

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.

The “best Norwegian crime novel” is set in Minnesota

Norwegian crime novelThe Land of Dreams (Minnesota Trilogy #1), by Vidar Sundstøl

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some 4.6 million Norwegian-Americans live in the United States, about half of them in the Upper Midwest. Nearly 900,000 can be found in Minnesota alone. These numbers compare with the total of 5.3 million people who live in Norway proper. Oslo, the capital, is home to only some 650,000 people—far fewer than the number of Norwegian-Americans who live in Minnesota. So, maybe it’s understandable that a novel awarded the title “best Norwegian crime novel” should be set in Minnesota. In fact, the state is the setting for three novels, the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl. The Land of Dreams, the first, was described by Dagbladet, the country’s second largest tabloid newspaper, as one of the top twenty-five Norwegian crime novels of all time. Imagine that!

The Land of Dreams introduces us to Lance Hansen, his family, coworkers, and neighbors in a small town on the shore of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. Hansen thinks of himself as a “forest cop.” He’s a 46-year-old police officer whose beat is the sprawling Superior National Forest near which he lives. Hansen lives in the town of Tofte, which was “one of those places where people called to tell you to get better before you even knew you were under the weather.” Though he’s divorced from an Ojibwe woman who now lives on a nearby Indian reservation and is the father of their active seven-year-old son, his life is generally uneventful.

Then Hansen stumbles across the badly beaten body of a young Norwegian man in the forest. The FBI has jurisdiction, assisted by a Norwegian homicide detective flown in to assist them. Hansen himself is not officially involved in the investigation, but his curiosity moves him to press his friends in law enforcement for details and to look into the circumstances of the murder himself. To his horror, he discovers that his younger brother, Andy, must be considered a suspect. Out of love for his brother and fear that he might actually be guilty, Hansen conceals from the FBI the evidence of Andy’s possible guilt that only he knows about. Meanwhile, to discover whether the young man’s murder was the first ever to take place in the region, he digs deeply into the historical archives he maintains—and discovers that a distant relative may have been murdered locally more than a century earlier. Hansen suspects a connection of some sort between the two killings.

The action in The Land of Dreams advances at a slow pace. There is suspense, but it’s muted. The book is a murder mystery, but it’s better thought of as literature. Sundstøl dwells at length on the history of Norwegian immigration to the area and on his protagonist’s troubled inner dialogue. The translation by Tiina Nunnally is artful, easing the reader’s path along the way despite the slowly unfolding action.

About the author

Vidar Sundstøl wrote the Minnesota Trilogy “after he and his wife lived for two years on the shore of Lake Superior,” according to the note about the author at the back of the book. An interview in the blog Scandinavian Crime Fiction in English Translation explains the background and the circumstances to Sundstøl’s stay in the U.S. (For starters, he met and married an American woman.) He is the author of six novels to date.

 

Donna Leon’s latest is not “one of her best”

donna leonEarthly Remains (Commissario Brunetti #26), by Donna Leon

@@ (2 out of 5)

For some reason I cannot fathom, Marilyn Stasio raved about Earthly Remains. Stasio has been editing a column on crime fiction for the New York Times Book Review—forever, it seems. Her recommendations are often good. But this one wasn’t. She called this novel, the 26th in Donna Leon’s long-running Commissario Brunetti series, “one of her best.” I don’t agree.

Though there is a mystery underlying the action in Earthly Remains, it doesn’t even begin to surface until one-third of the way into the novel. And the investigation undertaken by Commissario Brunetti isn’t undertaken in earnest until more than two-thirds of the way.

Many of Leon’s signature themes are prominent in this curious book. She rhapsodizes about Venice, the surrounding communities, and the Laguna Veneta, the extension of the Adriatic Sea on which the islands of the city are located. In Earthly Remains, the romance of the Laguna comes in for special praise. Predictably, too, the corruption rampant in Italian society emerges clearly in the story. Brunetti’s boss, Vice-Questore Patta, is, as always, obsequious with authority and disdainful of those who report to him. If anyone in a position of power in Venice is under investigation by Brunetti or his colleagues, Patta will surely intervene in the suspect’s favor. And, once the plot of the novel finally becomes clear, Leon spotlights the illegal activity that has helped to poison the Laguna and surrounding territory. In Donna Leon’s Italy, corruption engulfs business as well as government, the police, and the Church.

One of Leon’s bad writing habits is to describe action in excruciating detail. I have no idea whether she picked up the habit writing for magazines that pay by the word, but Earthly Remains and many of her other novels read that way. Here’s a representative example from one of the first pages in the novel: “Brunetti had apologized for the heat in the room, explaining that the ongoing heatwave had forced the Questura to choose between using its reduced supply of energy for the computers or for air conditioning and had chosen the former. Ruggieri had been gracious and had said only that he’d remove his jacket if he might. Brunetti, who kept his jacket on, had begun by making it amply clear . . .” That was 68 words. How many words do you think Elmore Leonard might have used to convey the essential information in that passage? In fact, is there any essential information there?

If you are a die-hard Donna Leon fan, you might want to read Earthly Remains. If you’re not, be forewarned: not a lot happens in this novel. It’s very slow going.

A Nazi medal in Sweden triggers a journey into the past

Nazi medalThe Hidden Child (Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck #5), by Camilla Läckberg

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Once upon a time French classicists derived the principles of drama from Aristotle’s Poetics, proclaiming the “three unities.” This restrictive concept required that a play depict only a single action that takes place in a single location within a single day. These rules didn’t last long. But modern crime novelists sometimes inadvertently mimic them. They tell stories in which “something happens,” and not much else. They write about a single case and its solution by one or more investigators. Other characters, and other events, serve primarily as background to make the tale more believable. The bestselling Swedish detective novelist Camilla Läckberg does not write books that way. A case in point is The Hidden Child, the fifth in her series of novels featuring small-town police detective Patrik Hedström and his wife, Erica Falck, who writes popular true-crime books.

What sets off Läckberg’s work from that of so many other crime novelists is the sheer complexity of her plots and the large number of well-defined characters that appear in her stories. What’s more, many of those characters, even some incidental to the principal plot, learn and grow in the course of the book. “Something happens” to each of them. In The Hidden Child, Patrik and Erica are both central to the story. Their lives are eventful, and they gain new insight from what they’re experiencing. But that’s also true of many of their colleagues, family, and friends, as well as a number of characters who play roles in the case that brings them all together. And Läckberg’s account of the case rockets back and forth from the present day to 1944 and 1945, when circumstances set in motion a tragic course of events that lead to latter-day murders.

To oversimplify the story, Erica discovers a World War II Nazi medal among the few items that remain from the life of her mother, who died in an automobile crash four years earlier. While she succumbs to curiosity and sets out to learn how and why that medal came into her mother’s possession, Patrik becomes independently involved in helping his colleagues in the police investigate the brutal murder of the old man to whom Erica turned for information about the Nazi medal. (He was an historian and a collector of Nazi artifacts.) Meanwhile, Patrik’s insufferable boss, Mellberg, becomes involved in an affair that—finally, for the first time in the series—proves that he isn’t just stupid, lazy, and self-important (although he is all of those things.) Lots else happens, too. Lots. Yet I didn’t often find it necessary to turn back to earlier pages to sort out the identity of the other characters, each of them with their own storyline.

Camilla Läckberg is a very talented writer. The Hidden Child is a superior piece of work—suspenseful, captivating, and believable.

My 10 favorite espionage novels

espionage novelsOver 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 book behind the film “Blade Runner”

Blade RunnerDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is regarded as one of the most outstanding science fiction films ever made. The film was released 35 years ago, in 1982. Google its title, and you’re likely to come across the following description: “Deckard (Harrison Ford) is forced by the police Boss (M. Emmett Walsh) to continue his old job as Replicant Hunter. His assignment: eliminate four escaped Replicants from the colonies who have returned to Earth. Before starting the job, Deckard goes to the Tyrell Corporation and he meets Rachel (Sean Young), a Replicant girl he falls in love with.” The film was ostensibly based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Unfortunately, that description—and, if memory serves, the film itself—bear little resemblance to the novel. It might be better to say that the book “inspired” the film.

As Philip Dick wrote the tale, the setting is San Francisco, not Los Angeles. It’s 2021. Following a devastating nuclear war, World War Terminus, the planet was blanketed with radioactive dust. Most of the population has either died or emigrated to the colonies, so there are no crowded street scenes like those in the film. (“[F]or this day and age a one-half occupied conapt building rated high in the scheme of population density; out in what had been before the war the suburbs, one could find buildings entirely empty . . .”) Animals as well as humans have perished in enormous numbers, with most familiar species now extinct. Originally by law, but now by custom and peer pressure, practically every surviving human owns and maintains an animal at home; in most people’s lives, living animals represent their most treasured possession. Those in the lower income brackets must be satisfied with fake animals like the “electric” sheep that Rick Deckard and his wife Iran maintain on the roof of their apartment building. Hence the reference to sheep in the book’s title.

Rick and Iran’s home features three devices that are nearly universal in most people’s lives: a “Penfield artificial brain stimulator” that enables them to change their mood at the touch of a dial; a TV set that broadcasts a comedian’s talk show 23 hours a day, seven days a week, without ever repeating a minute of showtime; and an “empathy box” that allows anyone who grasps its handles to “fuse” with a deity named Wilbur Mercer who bears a striking resemblance both to Sisyphus and Jesus.

Deckard is a bounty hunter working for the San Francisco Police Department. His job is to “retire” (kill) androids (not Replicants) who have come to Earth from the Mars colony, where they were relegated to work as servants and menial laborers. As he sets out on a dreaded assignment to retire five androids (“andys”), Deckard’s first stop is in Seattle at the Rosen Association (not the Tyrell Corporation), manufacturers (on Mars) of the advanced new Nexus-6 androids. There he meets Rachael (not Rachel) Rosen. Yes, she soon proves to be an android herself, but Deckard doesn’t fall in love with her.

Dick’s novel manifests the paranoia that afflicted the author himself. (He was reportedly diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.) Like many of his other novels, though far more so than some, the story devolves into abject confusion. Blade Runner was a sci-fi adventure film. There is action and suspense in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but Dick appears to have been preoccupied with isolating the difference between androids and human beings and with the spiritual questions posed by the faith called Mercerism. In the end, I was baffled by the novel. The conclusion left me feeling empty.

I enjoyed the film a lot more.

 

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