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65 good new books I’ve read in 2016

new booksI 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.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Harry Bosch #19), by Michael Connelly

Guilty Minds (Nick Heller #3), by Joseph Finder

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad #6), by Tana French

The Considerate Killer (Nina Borg #4), by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Breaking Cover (Liz Carlyle #9), by Stella Rimington

Extreme Prey (Lucas Davenport #26), by John Sandford

Escape Clause (Virgil Flowers #9), by John Sandford

The Whitehall Mandarin (William Catesby #4), by Edward Wilson

A Very British Ending (William Catesby #5), by Edward Wilson

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 Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, by Timothy Egan

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, by Antonio Garcia Martinez

Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover from Great Success, by Tracy Kidder

My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, by William J. Perry

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin

David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, by Tom Turner

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance

Trade fiction

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.

The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr

Dark Matter: A Novel, by Blake Crouch

Exposure, by Helen Dunmore

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich

A Hero of France, by Alan Furst

The Death of Rex Nhongo: A Novel, by C. B. George

The Whistler: A Novel, by John Grisham

Homegoing: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi

The Nightingale: A Novel, by Kristin Hannah

Dictator (Ancient Rome Trilogy #3), by Robert Harris

Conclave: A Novel, by Robert Harris

Before the Fall: A Novel, by Noah Hawley

Razor Girl: A Novel, by Carl Hiassen

IQ, by Joe Ide

Single & Single: A Novel, by John le Carre

High Dive: A Novel, by Jonathan Lee

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon

The Glass Room: A Novel, by Simon Mawer

Midnight Sun: A Novel, by Jo Nesbo

The Sympathizer: A Novel, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

City of Secrets: A Novel, by Stewart O’Nan

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.

Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, by David Dayen

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank

Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, by Misha Glenny

Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, by Ioan Grillo

Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden, by Mark Hertsgaard

The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, by John Judis

Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer

A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS, by Robert F. Worth


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.

A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves, by Walter Alvarez

The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, by Uri Bar-Joseph

The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World, by Sally Denton

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild

Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, by Devin Leonard

Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War, by Ben MacIntyre

Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, by Kathryn S. Olmsted

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, by Eric Rauchway

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu


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.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman

High stakes in an excellent espionage thriller

espionage thriller: At Risk by Stella RimingtonAt Risk (Liz Carlyle #1) by Stella Rimington

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Ex-spooks with a modicum of writing ability sometimes turn to writing spy thrillers once they’ve left the world of espionage. Rarely, though, do we see fictional treatments of the game come from anyone who retired at the very top of the game. Dame Stella Rimington is one of what must be only a handful of examples. She 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, appeared in 2004, introducing her alter ego, MI5 officer Liz Carlyle. That first book has been followed to date by nine others, one every year or two. It turns out that 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.

Liz Carlyle, now 34 years of age, is a ten-year veteran of MI5. She is in a relationship with a married man whom she’s on the verge of dumping, as she has so many of his predecessors. Her mother wants her to move home and find a marriageable man, settle down, and give her grandchildren. Predictably, Liz has no intention of complying.

At MI5, Carlyle “runs agents” and serves on the Joint Counter-Terrorist group along with representatives of MI6, the police Special Branch, GCHQ (Britain’s NSA), and, sometimes, the Home Office and the Foreign Office. At a meeting of this inter-agency group, MI6 discloses that a terrorist 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.

No sooner has Liz begun work on the case than she hears disturbing news from an informant who had reported to her when she was involved in investigating organized crime. Apparently, a crime boss engaged in smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants into the country is expecting a very big shipment; the boss is nervous, and the informant is terrified. Is there a connection to the terrorist on the way? This being fiction, we surmise that that is the case. But how the connection is revealed is fascinating.

At Risk is a superior example of espionage fiction. It’s tense almost from the very beginning, the suspense builds steadily throughout, and the ending is shocking in more ways than one. Highly recommended.

My review of the second novel in the Liz Carlyle series, Secret Asset, is here: An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage. The third, Illegal Action, is at An engaging spy novel from former MI5 director Stella Rimington. You may also be interested in my post, My 10 favorite espionage novels, of which At Risk is one. You might also like to take a look at 17 good nonfiction books about espionage.

A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany

hard-boiled detective Prague Fatale (Bernie Gunther #8), by Philip Kerr

@@@@@ (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.

A hard-boiled detective in Hitler’s Germany

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.

Narrative and dialogue that’s supremely entertaining

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.

The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

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.

Suspense builds, and surprises mount

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.

27 biographies worth reading


One of the very best ways to gain insight into history and the ways of the world around us is to read biographies. Which explains why I read them so frequently. Over the more than six years since I began writing this blog, I’ve read dozens. Here I’m listing 27 that stand out in my mind.

The 27 books below are arranged in no particularly order. You’ll see, too, that they cover a lot of territory. However, apart from Stacy Schiff’s biography of Queen Cleopatra and Robert Massie’s celebrated work on Catherine the Great, they’re all set in the 19th and 20th centuries. I occasionally read history set far in the past, but I’m far more interested in the modern era that began with the Industrial Revolution.

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles

T. J. Stiles won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for this outstanding biography of one of the seminal figures in American economic history. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the model for the generation of capitalists who came to be known as Robber Barons.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

The amazing story of a 19th century superstar, little remembered today, who was regarded as a genius by Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders of Western civilization during and after his lifetime. This is the man who first laid down the principles of ecology — more than 200 years ago.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

If any one person was most responsible for today’s divisive politics in America — and for the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump — it’s Roger Ailes. As the longtime chairman of Fox News, Ailes steadily made Right-Wing extremism ever more respectable. We’re all paying the price for that now and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.

Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

Few Americans today can imagine the abject fear that stalked summertime America when polio epidemics were an annual occurrence. Jonas Salk solved the problem. Often shunned by his fellow scientists, Salk was a true pioneer. He ignored the limitations of medical science as it was known in his day to fashion drug trials that gave us the first (and safest) polio vaccine.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Hollywood’s portrayals of Queen Cleopatra bore little resemblance to the reality, as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this extraordinary original biography. More historiography than simple history, Schiff examines how the legend of Cleopatra grew over the centuries — and was steadily distorted in the process.

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye

John F. Kennedy’s younger brother was showing the potential to eclipse him when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on his path to the White House. Apart from the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Bobby Kennedy played a significant role at the side of his brother, and the goal he set of landing a man on the moon, it’s difficult to point to much in JFK’s presidency that history will regard as truly significant. Bobby seemed prepared to do much more.

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson

Social change movements don’t start by themselves. Someone leads them. And often that person is what today we call a community organizer. Cesar Chavez was one such man, and this excellent biography is about the gifted teacher who taught him the tricks of the trade.

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles

This surprising biography of the Civil War hero and famous failure won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History. As Stiles makes clear, the jealousy of Custer’s fellow officers was probably in large part responsible for the general’s defeat at the Little Big Horn.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable

Though mainstream society shunned him as a criminal, most African-Americans in his time looked on Malcolm X as a hero. Along with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm must be considered one of the most significant figures in recent American history.

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber

The real-life Karl Marx was very different from the caricature created by Lenin, Stalin, and their minions. He was, in fact, a man of his time and not really a revolutionary in the manner of Lenin, much less Stalin or Mao.

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, by Michael Hiltzik

Today we take for granted that scientific advancement comes from huge, well-funded teams, not solitary individuals laboring away in white coats. This biography of the remarkable atomic physicist Ernest Lawrence tells the story of how Big Science came to be — and how he was a central figure in its creation.

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Few of us know any more about the Wright Brothers than the image lingering in our minds of that flimsy biplane lifting off the dunes at Kitty Hawk. Here, the prize-winning biographer David McCullough tells their remarkable story. What’s especially interesting are the years after Kitty Hawk, when the brothers became world famous.

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

David McCullough’s intimate biography of Steve Jobs grabbed the headlines, and it was beautifully done, as is all of McCullough’s work. But this later entry from two journalists who followed Jobs closely for many years gives a far more accurate and balanced picture of the man and his life. He was even more complex than we knew.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw

In his time, Joe Kennedy was considered by some (especially himself) as a possible contender for the Presidency. When his hopes were frustrated, he transferred his ambitions to his sons. This is the insightful story of a remarkable man who established one of the most important families of 20th-Century America.

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell

In his own time, Clarence Darrow was one of the most famous men in America. As an attorney — the country’s leading attorney — for unpopular people and causes, he was probably loathed at least as widely as he was loved. But no one would ever have dreamed of dismissing him as inconsequential.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

Among the Tsars of Russia, only Peter the Great can be considered as a peer to the Prussian woman who married an heir to the throne and came to be called Catherine the Great when she succeeded her husband after a few years. Catherine ruled over the country for 34 years, expanding its borders and modernizing its institutions along Western European lines.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre

Espionage is, of course, a risky business. Few spies manage to operate undiscovered for more than a few years. Those who gain access to secrets at the highest level tend to be in even greater jeopardy. Kim Philby was a rare exception. For three decades, he worked undercover in the UK as a spy for the Soviet Union inside the British intelligence establishment. Even after his English colleagues became convinced he was a spy and isolated him from access to sensitive information, the CIA continued to defend him.

American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, by Alex Beam

In its own time, and into the present day, the Church of Latter-Day Saints was one of the world’s fastest-growing religions. For decades, the religion founded early in the 19th century by an uneducated young man in Upstate New York defended the practice of polygamy, a practice which the founder himself indulged in to an extreme degree. Eventually, the Mormon church abandoned its defense of plural marriage, but the mystifying fantasy at the heart of the beliefs expounded by Joseph Smith nearly two centuries ago live on.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk

Much of what the public knows about poverty in the Global South comes from the work of an American economist who gained fame at an early age working a “miracle” in Bolivia. Unfortunately, there were no miracles to follow in any of his work over the following three decades. As Nina Munk makes clear through diligent research, Jeffrey Sachs is no miracle-maker, and the path he described out of poverty is a dead end.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Geffen

A Russian-American journalist unmasks the former KGB agent who has set out to reconstruct the Soviet empire and is now aggressively taking on the world. His intervention in Syria and his meddling in the 2016 American elections are just two of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to work his way on the world. And, by the way, he’s stolen enough to amass a personal fortune of $40 billion. While Putin and his cronies have become absurdly rich, the Russian economy is in a shambles.

The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro

Robert Caro is one of America’s most celebrated political biographers. Though not without its critics, his multi-volume portrait of Lyndon Johnson is widely regarded to be one of the best presidential biographies ever written — and it’s yet to be finished. The Passage of Power is the fourth volume, and it brings Johnson’s story only up to 1964, when he was elected in his own right to the White House.

And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields

Like so many clowns, Kurt Vonnegut lived a sad life. His satirical take-downs of war, corporations, and life in mid-century America in his books were sometimes hilarious. But it doesn’t appear that the man laughed a lot. And even though for many years Vonnegut was regarded as one of America’s most important writers, it remains to be seen whether that reputation can endure much longer.

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, by Thomas Blass

Any educated person in America today is likely to be familiar with two of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in social psychology. One was the “obedience” experiment, in which he proved that Yale undergraduates could be persuaded to induce extreme, and even life-threatening, pain on others simply because they were told to do so. The other was the “small world” experiment, in which Milgram proved that we are separated from one another by no more than “six degrees of separation.”

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor to the CIA, was responsible for much of the partisan activity behind Nazi lines in Europe. Though later evidence suggests it was only marginally helpful to the war effort, Donovan and his work had the confidence of FDR and became world famous.

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer

The historical record is shocking enough: the future Secretary of State and future CIA director helped steer Wall Street capital and American business to Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. The older brother, Foster, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with his diplomatic brinksmanship. The younger, Allen, first helped Nazi war criminals escape to the US and South America after World War II, sometimes with the fortunes they plundered. Later, he led US efforts to assassinate heads of government in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, and probably many others. Yet, as David Talbot showed in his later book (listed just below), even worse was to come.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot

Digging much more deeply into the historical record, including interviews with contemporaries of Dulles and recently opened secret files, San Francisco investigative journalist David Talbot paints a much darker and more credible picture of Allen Dulles than Kinzer did in The Brothers. Even after JFK fired him as CIA Director, Dulles continued to meddle in political affairs at the highest level — with catastrophic consequences.

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, by Rich Cohen

The astounding-but-true tale of how a penniless Eastern European immigrant founded the United Fruit Company, helped engineer the murder of the President of Guatemala, and became one of the richest men in the world. It was Samuel Zemurray whose efforts shaped the history several of what came to be called “banana republics.”

A harsh look at post-war British intelligence

British intelligenceA review of A Very British Ending (William Catesby #5), by Edward Wilson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Edward Wilson’s tale of collaboration and treachery among the British, American, and Russian intelligence services spans a series of five novels. A Very British Ending is, fittingly, the fifth. Though a large cast of characters comes into play in the series, including many prominent historical figures, just three men hold starring roles: the CIA’s Kit Fournier, and William Catesby and Henry Bone of MI6.

British intelligence under scrutiny

Edward Wilson is an American transplant who has lived in England since he served in the Vietnam War as a Special Forces officer. Clearly, he was unhappy with American policy there. He does not paint a pretty picture of the CIA. His novels reveal an equally jaundiced opinion of British intelligence. The parade of familiar English turncoats appears again and again in the stories he writes. Double-dealing and treachery are standard fare in these stories. The series also brings into high relief the tension between Catesby, who grew up poor, and his boss, Henry Bone, whose distinguished family reaches centuries into the past. Class conflict is another staple in Wilson’s work.

A journey through the post-war years

A Very British Ending spans the years from the war through 1976. Much of the action takes place in the early 1950s, when the extent of Soviet penetration of British intelligence was beginning to surface. Famous English, American, and German characters enter into the tale as well: Prime Ministers Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, and Margaret Thatcher, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and SS General Reinhard Gehlen as well as the spies known as the Cambridge Five.

The book shifts rapidly through the years, in no apparent order. Though the plot is complex, the story centers on the relationship between Catesby and Bone — and follows them through to the end of their careers. A Very British Ending is a satisfying tale of espionage reminiscent of the early works of John le Carre.




Money-laundering and the Russian mob

Money-launderingA review of Single & Single: A Novel, by John le Carre

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

John le Carre established his well-deserved fame in the early 1960s on the basis of the espionage fiction that reflected his career in Britain’s Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Over the five decades since then, he has returned again and again to the world of spies. But to stay relevant in the years since the end of the Cold War, he has also ventured into other areas such as corporate crime, terrorism, and high-stakes finance. Single & Single, published in 1999, explores the dark recesses of international money-laundering.

Enter the “Russian mob”

In the 1990s, once the Berlin Wall was torn down and the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia entered into a period with the trappings of democracy. The change did not run deep, however. Effective control of Russian society shifted from a Communist hierarchy to criminal gangs widely known as “mafias.” There was no “Russian mob” as such. (However, that term may apply to Coney Island — and it might even be an apt description of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.) With connections to Boris Yeltsin‘s government, the most entrepreneurial of the mafias made their fortunes by snapping up formerly state-owned companies at bargain-basement rates through privatization. Le Carre writes about one such well-connected gang in Single & Single.

The novel’s title is the name of a wealthy and powerful London-based financial services firm. As we learn early in the story, the Single fortune is built on money-laundering for Russian criminals. The firm’s founder, Tiger Single, is ruthless. But his son, Oliver, gradually develops a conscience after he joins the company. Oliver’s agreement to serve as an informant for Her Majesty’s Customs Service is the linchpin on which the novel hangs.

International criminals and corrupt financiers in a tale of betrayal

The story opens with the brutal execution of Tiger’s attorney on a field in Western Turkey. That murder reflects the Russian gang’s mistaken belief that Tiger has been stealing from them. Meanwhile, Oliver’s relationship has deepened with Brock, the veteran senior Customs agent who is handling him. To gather evidence against the Russians and his father, and to identify the corrupt British police officers who have sold out to Tiger, Oliver becomes deeply involved in dealings with the Russian gangsters and their families. The scene shifts from Turkey to England to Armenia, where the gangsters are based. The tale is fast-moving, suspenseful, and shocking. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that it’s dangerous to get involved with money-laundering for criminals. But some of us knew that already, right?


September 28, 2016

A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II

revisionist historyThe Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Shelves-full of history books have been written about the triumphs of Allied intelligence in World War II. The Ultra Secret. The Man Who Never Was. Operation Mincemeat. Agent Zigag. Double Cross. A Man Called Intrepid. I’ve read all these and more. (There are hundreds more.) Now comes British journalist and historian Max Hastings with a revisionist view in The Secret War. With his eyes focused on the harsh realities of that all-consuming conflict, Hastings debunks the myths that inspired these books and takes their exaggerations down a peg with a long-lacking sense of perspective. The effect is sobering. This is revisionist history at its best. Anyone who seeks to understand how World War II was really waged should read this book without delay.

Revisionist history: myths debunked

Hastings reviews some of the many fanciful reports that have come out over the years about British and American espionage in World War II. For example, he savages William Stevenson’s self-aggrandizing tale in A Man Called Intrepid, calling the book “wildly fanciful.” Among the more obvious lies in Stevenson’s book is the fact that no one but he himself ever called himself Intrepid. And, as Hastings makes clear, Stevenson’s work coordinating British intelligence in the United States had virtually no impact whatsoever on the war.

He is less harsh in his oblique references to other books, but he makes clear that the many bestselling titles exaggerate the importance of the spies they made famous. Even the legendary Alan Turing comes under the microscope: Hastings asserts that another young mathematical genius who also worked at Bletchley Park was equally important in cracking the Enigma Code. More significantly, that celebrated breakthrough itself made less of a contribution to the Allied victory than other successes in deciphering Axis codes. (He cites in particular the German and Japanese naval codes.) “Bletchley was an increasingly important weapon,” Hastings notes, “but it was not a magic sword.”

Signals versus human intelligence

The overarching theme in The Secret War is the primacy of signals intelligence. Hastings contends that breakthroughs in deciphering codes by the British, Russians, and Americans contributed far more decisively to the successful outcome of the war than any missions undertaken by spies. And, except in Russia from 1943 onward, the efforts of Resistance movements in Europe were even less significant (although they played a large role in fostering popular morale). There is one possible exception, the work of the improbably colorful agents portrayed in Ben McIntyre’s Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. But even this undeniable success story has to be tempered by the realization that signals intelligence played a large role in setting up and supporting the operation. On all sides, enormous numbers of people were engaged in listening to, decoding, interpreting, and reporting on intelligence gained by radio.

However, “One of the themes in this book is that the signals intelligence war, certainly in its early stages, was less lopsided in the Allies’ favor than popular mythology suggests.”

How much did secret intelligence actually contribute to the war’s outcome?

Viewing the big picture, Hastings is skeptical about the effectiveness of intelligence of any sort. As he notes, “Perhaps one-thousandth of 1 per cent of material garnered from secret sources by all the belligerents in World War II contributed to changing battlefield outcomes.” In the course of The Secret War, he cites just four strategically significant battles where intelligence turned the tide: the North Atlantic war under the sea, the American victory over the Japanese at Midway, the unexpected Russian offensive at Kursk, and the misdirection about the Allied landing at Normandy rather than the Pas de Calais.

Viewed from 30,000 feet and the passage of more than seventy years, “nowhere in the world was intelligence wisely managed and accessed.” Though Stalin and Hitler were both notoriously disdainful of secret intelligence, as was the Japanese military, the Americans and the British also failed to make genuinely effective use of the information turned up by their spies and code-breakers.

Other revelations

Perhaps understandably, in writing about Allied intelligence in the war, American and British authors have focused on the work of MI6, MI5, the OSS, and the enormous team of academics at Bletchley Park. However, Hastings makes clear that the Soviet Union was far more successful in uncovering actionable espionage than either of its chief Western Allies. “Some Russian deceptions,” he writes, “dwarf those of the British and Americans.” Hastings’ account of Stalin’s intelligence operations is particularly revealing. So, too, is his skeptical exploration of both German and Japanese secret intelligence. The FBI also comes under fire: “All intelligence services seek to promote factional interests and inflate their own achievements, but the wartime FBI carried this practice to manic lengths . . . The FBI’s incompetence was astonishing.”

About the author

Max Hastings is a prominent British journalist, editor, historian, and author. He has served as editor-in-chief of the Daily Standard and The Daily Telegraph and has presented historical documentaries on the BBC.

This book is included in my list of The 10 best books of 2016. You might also be interested in seeing my post, “17 good nonfiction books about espionage.” This book is one of the 17.

Russian agents under cover in the UK

Russian agents in Breaking Cover by Stella Rimington Breaking Cover (Liz Carlyle #9) by Stella Rimington

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A prominent civil liberties advocate named Jasminder Kapoor is saved from muggers on a London street late at night by a passerby. Within weeks, she has fallen in love with the man, a Norwegian banker. There is something a little strange about him, but she can’t put her finger on it.

Russian agents enter the scene

Meanwhile, a Russian officer stationed in Ukraine witnesses the mangled bodies strewn about by the crash of a Malaysian airliner downed by a Russian missile. Disgusted by the experience, he approaches the CIA and volunteers to pass along information. A high-ranking CIA officer flies to Ukraine to interview him. The soldier has insisted on speaking with a “British expert,” and Miles Brookhaven fits the bill. In a short, tense meeting, Miles learns that the FSB has begun placing undercover Russian agents — “illegals” — in the West. One is in England.

The CIA immediately informs MI5, where Liz Carlyle heads counterespionage. With no additional information to go on, Liz is stymied. Then Miles meets again with the Russian officer and learns there are two illegals in the UK, one a man, the other a woman, and that they work together. Both, he’s told, are getting close to successful penetration of MI5 and MI6. Liz’s search for the undercover agents begins, with the assistance of her resourceful aide, Peggy Kinsolving.

As Jasminder is recruited into a senior post at MI6, in the agency’s new policy of openness, the tension mounts. No reader will be shocked to learn that her lover is one of the Russian illegals. But there are many other surprises in store as Liz and Peggy’s investigation — and the suspense — unfold over the weeks. Though the story is a little slow on the uptake, it steadily gains in momentum and rushes to an exciting climax.

About the author

It’s hardly unusual for a former intelligence agent to capitalize on a secret life by writing novels. After all, examples are abundant, from Ian Fleming to Howard Hunt. But it’s rare for the former director of a major intelligence agency to break cover in fiction. Dame Stella Rimington was the Director General of the UK’s Security Service, or MI5, from 1992 to 1996. In fact, she was both the first woman to hold the job, the first to be publicly identified, and the first to appear on-camera. Since leaving the agency she has built a new career as an espionage novelist. Breaking Cover is the ninth book in her series about MI5 agent Liz Carlyle.

My review of the first novel in the Liz Carlyle series, At Risk, is at High stakes in an excellent espionage thriller. You’ll find my review of the second one, Secret Asset, here: An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage. The third, Illegal Action, is at An engaging spy novel from former MI5 director Stella Rimington. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.



Gay life in Britain in a suspenseful thriller

suspenseful thrillerExposure, by Helen Dunmore

@@@@ (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.

About the author

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.

17 good nonfiction books about espionage

espionage - top secret america - dana priestFor good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read seventeen such books. I recommend them highly.

The most remarkable of these books are David Talbot‘s revisionist biography of Allen Dulles, The Devil’s Chessboard; Dana Priest and William Arkin’s extraordinary expose of the military-intelligence complex, Top Secret; and Max Hastings’ revisionist history of secret intelligence in World War II, The Secret War.

Each of the seventeen titles below is linked to my review of the book.

Espionage before and during World War II

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller—One remarkable man and the origins of the CIA

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre—A new spin on why the Normandy Invasion succeeded

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory, by Ben McIntyre—Finally declassified, the true story of “the man who never was”

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings—A revisionist view of intelligence in World War II, questioning the value of “humint”

Cold War espionage

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot—When America’s secret government ran amok

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre—Was Kim Philby the greatest spy ever (as far as we know)?

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World Warby Stephen Kinzer—They shaped US foreign policy for decades to come

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird—A true story of the PLO, Miss Universe, and the CIA

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal, by David E. Hoffman—Spycraft as it was actually practiced in this true-life tale of Cold War espionage

Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, by Karen M. Paget—Revealed: another sordid CIA scandal

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney—The CIA, the mistress, and JFK’s assassination: an astonishing but true story

Espionage since 1989

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister—A truly amazing story about Al Qaeda, and it’s real

Operation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting, by John Shiffman—How the Department of Homeland Security went abroad to capture an Iranian arms dealer

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti—Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new strategy of the CIA

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin—The shocking reality behind America’s war on “terror”

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, by Fred Kaplan—A story that stretches over five decades

The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, by Uri Bar-Joseph—The amazing tale of Gamal Nasser’s son-in-law, who spied for Israel for many years

This post was updated on May 27, 2017.