The world of espionage is a different place now…

The Director by David Ignatius

Director

It’s a while since I’ve read a spy novel set inside the various American intelligence agencies, and they make the British MI5 and MI6 seem totally straight-forward in their organisation of roles and responsibilities in comparison.

This novel is set mainly in the CIA, an independent agency, which itself has many different branches. The Information Operations Center (IOC) in the Intelligence branch is the main one featuring in this novel. The IOC deals with cyber-intelligence and threats to US computer systems – but it also supports DNI activities.  The DNI is the Director of National Intelligence, reporting to the President.  The Director of the CIA reports to him.  The DNI also has his own independent agency to assist him – the ODNI (Office of the DNI).  To find out more about how all the elements of the US intelligence community fit together I advise a trip to Wikipedia here!

To be honest, Ignatius, a long-time journalist and novelist in this arena in the USA does gradually explain things as we go, and you don’t really need any fore-knowledge. You realise very soon that all the different agencies co-operate – or not, have covert – or not activities from each other, and that there are big power games to be played – or not between them.

The Director of the title is the new director of the CIA. A controversial appointment, for Graham Weber is a billionaire businessman, not a career politician or military man. The CIA has had a difficult time post-Wikileaks and after the Snowden scandal, it’s previous director left under a cloud. Weber has been appointed as an agent of change, to cleanse the agency.

He looked too healthy to be CIA director: He had that sandy blond hair, prominent chin and cheekbones and those ice-blue eyes. It was a boyish face, with strands of hair that flopped across the forehead, and cheeks that colored easily when he blushed or had too much to drink, but he didn’t do either very often. You might have taken him for a Scandinavian, maybe a Swede, who grew up in North Dakota: He had that solid, contained look of the northern plains that doesn’t give anything away. He was actually German-Irish, from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, originally. He had migrated from there into the borderless land of ambition and money and had lived mostly on airplanes. And now he worked in Langley, Virginia, though some of the corridor gossips predicted he wouldn’t last long.

Weber is not to get a chance to settle in gently though. Within days a warning note has appeared inside his desk, and then a young Swiss computer hacker walks into the consulate in Hamburg wanting to talk to Weber, saying that there is a mole in the CIA and that their systems are compromised, he has proof. Rudolf Biel refuses the safe house offered, promising to return in three days. (Of course he never does, and his body will be found later.)

Weber immediately appoints James Morris, head of the IOC to fly to Germany and take charge of the investigation. Weber had met Morris once before, when Weber had addressed a hacker’s convention in Las Vegas about business and internet security.

‘I take it you’ve been here before,’ Weber said, joining the stream of the crowd entering the convention space.
‘I’ve been coming to DEF CON for ten years,’ said Morris, leaning toward Weber and speaking quietly. ‘It’s my favorite honeypot.’
‘You recruit here?’ asked Weber.
‘I’ve hired some of my best people off the floor.’ He pointed to an overweight, pimple-faced young man in baggy cargo shorts and sandals, and a Goth girl shrouded in black who was sucking on a lollypop. ‘These people may not look like much, but when they write code, it’s poetry.’

The IOC, now run by Morris, is not your typical government agency, and its employees are not your typical civil servants either. Hacking the hackers is their prime business, and with Morris involved with the DNI too, it’s difficult for Weber to get to grips with this dual role. There is a rivalry between the ODNI and the CIA, and Weber has yet to build a working relationship with Cyril Hoffman the DNI.

Weber is thrust into a race against time. There is a major hack in the offing – it may involve a mole in the CIA which is certainly a leaky sieve. Can the different agencies actually work together to prevent upsetting the new world order? Can they catch the mole? How long will Weber last in his new job?

I found it fascinating to find out about the amoral world of computer hacking, in which they do it primarily because they can. When other people get leverage on the hackers it turns even more sinister. Being a fan of Homeland (well, the first series in particular), and spy thrillers in general, The Director was an interesting read. I have no idea whether the technical details are accurate, but the plot was involving enough to keep me reading, despite the large amount of explanations needed. The characterisation was, I have to admit, totally stereotyped, although I did warm to Weber and found the oily DNI Hoffman great value.

Post Snowden and Wikileaks, Ignatius has written a timely thriller about the state of espionage today, that it is becoming more about cyber-attack and security than traditional trade-craft. The Director was enjoyable but not exceptional. (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Director by David Ignatius, pub Jun 2014 by Quercus, hardback 384 pages.
Homeland – Season 1-3 [DVD]starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin.

 

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A new brand of WWI spy …

Jack of Spies by David Downing

downing

US cover

Some readers may already be familiar with David Downing; the six books of his ‘Station’ series of spy thrillers set in WWII Berlin are highly regarded. Now he has set his sights back to just before the First World War to start a new series of spy novels with a new hero – Jack McColl.

Jack McColl is a car salesman, travelling the world with a bottle-green Maia automobile, taking orders from those with money for whom the luxury of a hand-made British vehicle will show that they’re somebody, not just an everyman that would buy a factory-built Model T from Mr Ford.

When our story starts in 1913, McColl is in China. He has been joined on this leg of his round-the-world tour by his younger brother Jed and colleague Mac. This suits McColl fine – it gives him more time to do his other job:

It was left to part-time spies to do the dirty work. Over the last few years, McColl – and, he presumed, other British businessmen who travelled the world – had been approached and asked to ferret out those secrets the empire’s enemies wanted kept. The man who employed them on this part-time basis was an old naval officer named Cumming, who works from an office in Whitehall and answered, at least in theory, to the Admiralty and its political masters.

With all the unease at home over the likelihood of a European war, McColl has been asked to find out the disposition of the German fleet in Asia and whether the Chinese are supplying them with coal. McColl’s hotel in Tsingtao is full of Germans, and he’s made ‘his sad lack of linguistic skills’ clear to them; in reality languages are McColl’s gift and he gets useful nuggets of information from listening in. One of the Germans, an engineer called Rainer Von Schön, is friendly to McColl and they enjoy a drink and conversation together.

Staying in the hotel is an American woman journalist, Caitlin Hanley. She has dark brown hair and green eyes and comes from Irish descent. It is clear that she will become the love interest in this novel – but when they embark upon a small affair – intended to last until he has to return to England and she to New York, little does McColl know, just how Irish her family is and how they will become tied up in his investigations.

Before that though, the next leg of the journey involves shipping the Maia to San Francisco, via Shanghai, and it is there that he is mugged and stabbed – and ends up spending the voyage released from hospital but flat on his back recuperating. Was he mugged? Or was someone out to get him? Had his cover been blown? By Whom?

UK cover

UK cover

Caitlin is on the same ship, and when she finds out and he is better, they resume their affair, but she’ll be staying with friends at the other end. This might be it, but you know deep down it’s not. McColl jacks in the car sales job, and take up Cummings’ offer of being a full-time spy, getting diverted down Mexico way for a while, before returning to New York and getting seriously embroiled into Irish politics.

McColl is a likeable enough spy, but lets his heart rule his head in this novel. If that carries on, he won’t live much longer – although you do see him being to develop the detachment needed towards the end. All the way through, he is on the edge of being exposed to Caitlin as a spy who’s using her to get information, knowing it’ll kill the romance dead. He’s a former soldier, so he is able to handle himself well in adversity, but it does make him a bit boring. Caitlin, of course, is a sparky new feminist, a suffragette fan.

The globe-trotting locations naturally brings 007 to mind – his villains would never do their dastardly deeds somewhere a bit ordinary. However, here, it just makes the novel rather bitty – McColl is no Bond, and his villains are political and real in the form of the Germans and their allies; the Chinese and the Irish in this case. There’s quite a lot of explanation of the political situation all the way through which, while necessary to some extent, was very dry and I found the whole Mexico section to be hectic but boring.

While I suppose that to some extent, the first novel of a series often has to do a lot of setting up situations for its sequels, Jack of Spies ended up being too wide-ranging and episodic, meandering around the world. I probably would read its sequel, but I’d prefer to encounter Downing’s other spy John Russell in the Station novels first (#1 – Zoo Station is on my shelves). (6.5/10)

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Source: US Publisher, Soho Press – thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jack of Spies by David Downing. Old Street Publishing, paperback June 2014.
Zoo Station (John Russell 1)by David Downing (2007)

 

A novel of ‘The Troubles’

Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

troublesthrillesblogphoto

I was amazed to find that this thriller from 1975 was Gerald Seymour’s début novel. Because of its setting, it is the kind of book that my late mother would never have read, and we read a lot of thrillers betweeen us in our household back then. She was born and bred in Protestant Belfast, and left to work and live in England in the early 1950s before ‘The Troubles’ really flared up. She always distanced herself from it while I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. She was also estranged from her father, we only ever went to visit once when I was little – they argued on the doorstep and that was that.

She would never talk about any of this then, and as a consequence I’ve ended up confused about Belfast and rather ignorant about this whole era of Irish history. Remembering very vaguely the TV serialisation from the 1980s when I picked a copy of this novel up at a book sale, I read it initially as a high-class thriller with two sides – Them and Us.

Harry's Game Derek Thompson

The novel starts with a murder. A British Cabinet Minister, a former Minister for Northern Ireland, is shot in broad daylight outside his home in an affluent part of London, by an IRA killer. (In the TV series, the murderer Billy Downs was played by none other than Casualty stalwart Derek Thompson, right.)

The Prime Minister personally orders the secret services to send in an undercover agent to infiltrate the IRA and take out the Minister’s killer. They choose Captain Harry Brown, a lapsed Catholic from Portadown and family man, but who had acquitted himself well undercover in Aden.  Brown knows what may happen if his cover is blown, but still accepts the job. He’s given three weeks intensive submersion training, a new surname McEvoy, and heads off to Belfast posing as a merchant-seaman returning home. He finds a room in a guest house run by Mrs Duncan…

Mrs Duncan had noticed he’d been away. And a long time at that, she was certain. Something grated on her ear, tuned to three decades of welcoming visitors and apportioning to them their birthplace to within a few miles. She was curious, now, because she couldn’t place what had happened to his accent. Like the sea he talked of, she was aware it came in waves – ebbed in its pitch. Pure Belfast for a few words, or a phrase, then falling off into something that was close to Ulster but softer, without the harshness. It was this that nagged as she dusted round the house and cleaned the downstairs hall, while above her Harry moved about in his own room. She thought about it a lot during the morning, and decided that what she couldn’t quite understand was the way he seemed to change his accent so slightly mid-sentence. If he was away on a boat so long then of course we would have lost the Belfast in his voice – that must have happened. But then in contradiction there were the times when he was pure Belfast. She soundlessly uttered the different words that emphasized her puzzlement to herself, uncomprehending.

Harry’s card is marked in one way or another right from the start. Later as the pressure mounts to find Billy Downs (whose name is unknown to the British), he finally gets a job; there’s also a girl, a dance and a gun. But I won’t spoil what happens.

What Seymour does is bring the Belfast back-streets to life, but more than that he shows the intelligence systems that both sides have for collating information on everyone. No-one enters this area without being noted and their movements logged by IRA spotters, and the Army alike. It all seemed completely real.

Seymour studied Modern History at university, becoming a journalist and then working for ITN where he covered many major politcal and military events, and I must assume, as I’ve been unable to confirm, that his experience reporting on The Troubles formed the basis of his research for this novel.

L_HarrysGame_ep2

The success of this novel though is driven by the characterisation of Harry. Already a hero, he is put into a near impossible situation, and Seymour makes you like him from the start. Added to that, my only clear memory of the TV series was the lovely Ray Lonnen (left) who played Harry, and he was Harry for me too whilst I read the book. Although he seemed perfect casting at the time, I note that Lonnen comes from Eastbourne, and I hope Mrs Duncan didn’t pick that up in his accent!

As Robert Harris acknowledges in his introduction to the latest edition of this novel, “… every so often the genre {thriller} throws up a novel of such remarkable quality, that the cycle is broken. Having finished it you don’t want to throw it out …”  I agree wholeheartedly with him, and the enduring popularity of this book has ensured that it has remained in print ever since.

Given its subject, this wasn’t an easy thriller to read, but it was a really great one. (9/10)

I shall leave you with Clannad singing The Theme from Harry’s Game onTop of the Pops back in the mid 1980s – this was their breakthrough into the international mainstream.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour (1975), Hodder paperback.
Harry’s Game The Complete Series [1983] [DVD]

“Echoed voices in the night she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight”

Babayagaby Toby Barlow

babayaga

Toby Barlow’s debut, Sharp Teeth, which I capsule-reviewed back in the early days of this blog should have really appeared in my Top novels I’ve read by men post from a couple of days ago. His Sopranos-style story of gang warfare amongst the werewolves in LA, written in the form of a prose poem has stayed with me ever since I read it, however back then I only gave it 9/10 and it didn’t make the cut for that list.

When I read he’d written a new novel, I couldn’t wait for the UK publication and ordered a copy of the American hardback, and for the past few days I’ve been totally absorbed in reading Babayaga.

The Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore were supernatural and ferocious women, said to live in a hut on chicken legs, typified as a sorceress/mid-wife/fortune-teller style character with a large pestle and mortar, who had a close relationship with nature and could be benevolent – or more often not.

The Babayagas of Barlow’s new novel are definitely sorceresses. The setting is Paris in 1959. The book starts with Zoya, a beautiful young woman of Russian extraction, who has realised that Leon, her lover of fifteen years, is starting to question why she’s not looking any older.  Time to get rid of him – she didn’t quite mean to impale him on a railing though.

Meanwhile, Will Van Wyck, an American working in the Parisian branch of an advertising agency, is despairing over the big ideas of his last remaining client, and wishing that he didn’t have to put together those company profiles for Mr Brandon who would appear to be linked to the CIA. Two years in Paris, and he still doesn’t really understand the city and its inhabitants, but neither does he want to go home to Detroit.

Zoya turns to Elga, an older woman, a more traditional wicked old witch (although she wasn’t always thus as we eventually find out). These two have been working their way around Europe for centuries, always moving on when trouble looms. Elga is fed up of Zoya’s misfortunes with men though, and when Zoya unwittingly puts Elga in the frame for Leon’s murder, the old crone starts to dream of vengeance.

As for Inspector Vidot, he gets the case – and following the trail Zoya leads to Elga nearly meets his own end, instead being transformed into a flea.  Hopping from host to host, he will continue to try to unravel this mystery in true Kafkaesque style.

Soon Will meets Zoya, and it is love at first sight, but Will also gets mixed up with Oliver, another American under Brandon’s umbrella. Oliver is Gatsby to Will’s Nick, and leads him a merry dance through Parisian high-living and lowlife contacts. At last together, Will and Zoya get to know each other a little better. She encourages him to talk about his work in advertising…

‘What do you think works?’
Even though Will had answered this in presentations to clients a hundred times before, it made him blush to answer the question now. ‘Seduction.’
‘You seduce them?’ Zoya thought about it for a second and then her eyes brightened. ‘Yes, I see, so this client of yours believes it is a kind of war, but you think you can win with love. Maybe you’re both right. People can be conquered, certainly, but your idea is more like those pretty women I hear they have put to work in the airplanes now.’
‘The stewardesses?’
‘Yes,’ Zoya said. ‘You see, it’s not enough of a miracle to be flying high up in the air, even all the way across the entire ocean, that magic isn’t enough, so they put someone pretty and seductive on the plane, now there’s a possibility of sex or romance, a temptation to lure you in. It’s right out of a folktale, a beautiful girl with a fool in a flying ship.’
‘Well, I don’t – it’s a little more simple than that.’ Will stammered, her mention of sex making his heart skip a beat. ‘You really only have to show them a bit of life they admire or desire, a story they want to be a part of, paint them a picture and then invite them into it.’
‘Ah, I understand.’ She smiled, almost to herself. ‘So it’s not love, it’s merely a spell. So, then what? Tell me, what happens after these victims of yours buy your product and the spell is broken? When they awaken to find their life is as empty and sad as it was before, only now a little poorer too?’

Isn’t advertising spin ‘magic’!

We’re all set up for a fantastic, in all sense of the word, multi-stranded adventure combining witches, spies, gangsters, murder, sorcery and romance. It is complicated, and in a few places, a little slow paced, but that’s a small price to pay for finding out how it all comes together.

Ruby-Tandoh-5Will is such a sweet character – an innocent abroad, and a little wet. This adventure arrives at the right time for him, but he is put into so many tricky situations, you can’t help but feel for him. Zoya can be rather irritating though – I was watching The Great British Bake Off  just before finishing the book the other night, and I couldn’t help identifying her with Ruby of the puppy dog eyes! But then as she’s survived all that time (Zoya that is), it’s not surprising that she’s a bit self-centred! Elga is a proper witch, ancient and so cunning, a formidable opponent to anyone who crosses her. I really loved Inspector Vidot though, who has to employ all his resources to stay alive and solve the case.

Although ostensibly set in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, this novel felt as if it was much earlier – the twenties, or even a little earlier. Artefacts and events to anchor the book to the late 1950s were few and far between – and indeed much of the Paris described would have been there already in previous decades.

Most essentially in this novel, the magic works. The way the women make their spells is quite realistic and combines, like British magician and mentalist Derren Brown, “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. Their magic, however, isn’t the stage kind, and there is a physical cost involved keeping it real, which is so important to help you suspend your disbelief.

One nice touch linking back to Sharp Teeth, was the inclusion of some prose poems between the chapters in the form of witches songs.

Ghosts, they say, stay for three simple reasons:
they love life too wholly to leave,
they love some other too deeply to part,
or they need to linger on for a bit,
to coax a distant knife
toward its fated throat.

This novel is funny and fun, always quirky, yet dark and romantic too. A perfect autumnal read – I loved it. (9.5/10)

I shall leave you with the source of the quote at the top of the post. It’s from Witchy Woman by The Eagles.

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Source: Own copy. to explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Babayaga by Toby Barlow, pub August 2013 by Farrar Straus Giroux (US), hardback 383 pages.
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, paperback

A tale of two Richards …

Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright

lion heart

Richard I was a king I know very little about. The sum total of my knowledge comprises little more than knowing that he went on the crusades to the Holy Land, his mother was Eleanor of Acquitaine, and the minstrel Blondel was supposedly involved in his release from imprisonment in an Austrian castle after the third Crusade, and that Tim Rice co-wrote a musical about him – the troubadour that is.

So I was looking forward to reading Justin Cartwright’s new novel.  Although I’d not read any of his other books, Cartwright has a good pedigree having previously been Booker shortlisted, and friends have recommended his previous book Other People’s Money to me.

Lion Heart is the tale of two Richards. First, the historical one – recounting Richard the Lionheart’s later days and his attempts to get the relic of ‘The True Cross’ to safety from the Holy Land. The second is set in the present, the story of Richard Cathar who is researching the former.

Cathar’s late father Alaric had been obsessed with Richard I and in particular his supposed meeting with Robin Hood, but he was never able to prove it.  His son saw him as a hippy who didn’t take it seriously enough.  There was little love lost between father and son, particularly when young Richard is packed off to boarding school – a nautical college …

At the end of my first term, my father asked me, with that old roué’s pointless smile on his threaded face, his fair flapping winningly over his brow and coursing in two wavelets back over his ears, how school had been. I said, ‘Oh, fucking marvellous, I have learned how to wash the inside of a lavatory with my head. Thank you, Pater. I’m sure it will come in handy when I join the Navy.’
He laughed: life is after all really just one cosmic joke.
‘That’s cool, man.’
I hit him, knocking him off his chair. From the floor he appraised me for a moment. I was only fourteen but had been doing a lot of rowing on the Thames, the college’s one and only area of excellence. He was against violence. He stood up, blood streaming from an eyebrow, and walked towards the door. He stopped.
‘I will write to the Commodore and tell him that all shore leave should be cancelled indefinitely. I won’t see you again until you write me an apology.’
‘I had shit in my mouth and hair.  Can you imagine what that was like? And then they rubbed my balls with Cherry Blossom shoe polish.’ (It was oxblood brown.) ‘You should be writing me an apology.’
I was sobbing, but my father was already on his way upstairs to rummage in his bathroom, whistling – I seem to remember – ‘Light my Fire’. He was probably stoned. …

Yet Richard ends up equally obsessed with Dick I – is it a compulsion to prove his father wrong?  Or, might he end up understanding him?

A discovery of some papers gets Richard to follow the paper trail to Jerusalem, a city he starts to fall in love with …

What the adhan speaks of in this mad, beautiful, violent, restless city is the human longing for certainty. And why wouldn’t you want certainty if you lived here? This is a place where horrors, all of them in the name of a higher authority, have been committed for thousands of years a place where countless people have died for their religion, where the walls have been built and destroyed and rebuilt constantly, where Armenian, Syrian and Orthodox priests sail blandly about – Quinqueremes of Nineveh – where observant Jews with side-locks wear their painful blank devotion on their pale faces, where creased Bedouin women in embroidered dresses and triangular jewellery sit patiently outside the Jaffa Gate to sell vegetables, where young Arab men, in strangely faded jeans and knock-off trainers, push trolleys of food stuffs, where in countless cafés men contemplate what might have been, their hair failing, there faces turning to yellowed ochre, as though the tea they drink endlessly is staining them from the inside. Or perhaps it’s the water-cooled smoke from their hookahs that is doing it, smoking them from the outside.

Richard meets Noor – an Arab-Canadian journalist, and they fall madly in love. But just a few weeks later, Noor is kidnapped in Cairo when on assignment and Richard’s life is thrown into turmoil. All is not what it seems with Noor, and Richard ends up having to throw himself into his work whilst waiting for her situation to resolve – just being her boyfriend means he is very low down in the chain of communications.

The author alternates sections of pure history telling Richard I’s story as told by Richard, or is it Alaric?, with the present day one. I found these historical sections rather dry, long and over-factual – but then, they are presented as extracts from a history book. Thus, I did learn a bit about Richard’s great foe Saladin, and all the French castles they besieged on the way home, but this wasn’t the fashion I’d have naturally chosen to read about Richard Coeur de Lion.

By contrast, the present day narrative veered back and forth from Richard’s quest, via his romance, to a spy thriller. I love spy thrillers, but this wasn’t enough of one.  I also enjoy dual narrative novels with historical strands, but the historical part here was too boring, and the present day part was too bitty because of the spy business, although the relationship drama between Richard and Noor was quite gripping.

The result was that it didn’t feel as if it were clear which audience it was aiming at, and it didn’t grab me enough. This is a real shame as Cartwright’s writing is rather good – as in the Jerusalem quotation above. I ended up feeling that the author had tried too hard to distance his quest novel from Dan Brown territory (something he has Richard acknowledge in the text), and ended up by marginalising it.

Lion Heart for me was a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent quest novel with a medieval theme, or it could have been a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent spy novel, both with added romance. I would try reading Cartwright again though, as I’m sure this is quite different to his previous novels.  (6/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

blondelLion Heart by Justin Cartwright, pub by Bloomsbury. Sept 12 2013. Hardback, 352 pages.

Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright (2011)

Blondel Original Cast Album

Half term movies

I’ve been to the pictures twice this half-term – two very different films and two gooduns.

First, I went with my daughter to see Tim Burton’s new stop-animation film, Frankenweenie.  Inspired by Frankenstein, natch, it’s the story of a boy and his dog, and like all the best classic horror films, it’s in black and white.  Victor’s dog Sparky gets run over and the poor boy is wracked with grief and retires to his attic where he puts a plan into action, inspired by his new science teacher (who looks like Vincent Price and is voiced by Martin Landau), which brings his dog back to life during a thunderstorm. Of course, it’s near impossible to keep the revitalised dog a secret, and havoc ensues…

It was a lovely film, both funny and touching, and it was chock full of references to all the great classic black and white films. At one point, Victor’s parents are actually watching Christopher Lee in the Hammer Horror film as Dracula on the TV.  There are some horrors, and a graveyard scene, but it’s not really scary being a PG family entertainment.

Then this week, I went on my own to see Skyfall – the 23rd James Bond film.  I’m a huge Bond fan, and IMHO this new film is one of the best.

I’m not going to tell you the plot, save to say there is an amazing opening chase, there are exotic locations, there is a beautiful girl or two, a charismatic baddie played by Javier Bardem with weird blonde hair, some brilliant action sequences, plus M and Q of course.

M and Q get to feature more than usual this time. Judi Dench reprises M who is up really up against it as this time it’s personal; the new Q, meanwhile, is the willowy young actor Ben Wishaw and he was perfect scoring points off Bond until they found their mutual admiration for each other.

Daniel Craig was superb in his third film as Bond, and director Sam Mendes makes him more human than in any previous movies – he’s a bit world-weary, and bored with what he does for a living, but comes to life again when the security of the realm is compromised. There’s also a neat look back towards his childhood that I really liked, which was introduced by Fleming in the novel of You Only Live Twice, and continued by Charlie Higson in his Young Bond novels.

Skyfall has its weaknesses, but I was more than happy to overlook them and enjoy every minute of the whole film from its gripping start to the neat epilogue. I think that Craig has finally overtaken Connery as ‘my’ Bond too…

A classic adventure

The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Richard Hannay is newly returned from living in South Africa, and he’s already bored with London.  Everything seems to be happening elsewhere, especially in the Near East, and the Greek Premier, Karolides, seems to feature.  “It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”  Dinner, then the music-hall and strolling home, Hannay is still bored. “I gave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer.” 

He needs adventure, and is soon to get it when a neighbour, Scudder, ends up with a knife between his shoulder-blades after confiding in Hannay, who soon realises that a) he’ll be framed for Scudder’s murder and, b) the people who did for Scudder will be after him too. He borrows the milkman’s cap and coat and flees north to Scotland.

Thus begins a series of adventures for Hannay as he tries to evade the baddies, clear his name, and once he uncovers more of the dastardly plot, to bring to the attention of the right people in the Government.

It’s real boys-own stuff involving murder, chases by train, car and on foot, disguises, text-book villains, and also some kind people who help him – believing him to be an okay chap. However, it’s a small world, and the baddies are everywhere…

Many of the chapters are named ‘The adventure of …’ after the main characters he encounters: ‘the literary innkeeper’ in the Scottish wilds, who is only too happy to help, saying “It is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle.” , and ‘the radical candidate’ – a local toff campaigning to be elected, who just happened to have been at college with Hannay.

At just 113 pages in my edition, the adventure sped by with no time to rest.  It was great fun, and Hannay is a real hero. At 37, he’s a man who’s seen and done many things. He’s rugged, resourceful and totally at ease with himself. You sense that he knows how to handle a gun but he’s also clever enough to decipher codes and talk at the highest level.  What a guy!

Those familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol, upon reading this book, may well say ‘Cherchez la femme’, for there are no significant female characters in the book at all, and there are many other plot changes. (The current West End stage version is based on Hitchcock’s film).  The 1978 film version starring Robert Powell was closer to Buchan’s original, but still adds a strong woman character, and goes for a different climax in the ending involving Big Ben, which I remember as being rather fab!

The plot of Buchan’s novel may have a few large holes in – Why Scotland?  Why the coincidences of meeting friends out in the wilds, and stumbling upon the chief baddie’s lair?  I’ll forgive him though, as I liked Hannay too much to wonder much about these holes.  Buchan went on to write four more Hannay adventures, none of which I’ve read, but wager will be as much fun as the first.  (7.5/10)

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To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The 39 Steps by John Buchan, paperback.
The Complete Richard Hannay: “The Thirty-Nine Steps”,”Greenmantle”,”Mr Standfast”,”The Three Hostages”,”The Island of Sheep” by John Buchan, paperback omnibus.
The 39 Steps [DVD] dir Alfred Hitchcock, starring Robert Donat.
The 39 Steps [1978] [DVD] (1978), starring Robert Powell.

I bought my copy.

Spying is a dirty game …

The Envoy by Edward Wilson

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Edward Wilson inviting me to a signing he was doing in Ipswich.  I replied saying that Oxford was too far for me to come, but wished him well with his new book. I also told him that I had one of his titles on my shelves. He replied apologising saying he had thought I lived in Colchester – then the penny dropped – he’d mixed me up with Elaine at Random Jottings – who is also partial to spy thrillers.  I decided to read the book I already had anyway …

It’s the 1950s and the Cold War is at its height.  Kit Fournier is the CIA Chief of Station in London. He is a seasoned spy, having served in OSS in Vietnam, then as a diplomat in France, before moving to the dark side so to speak. Now his life is devoted to information and manipulation – sifting through it all to get to the truth and then filtering or doctoring it appropriately onwards towards his bosses and contacts – one of whom is his Russian KGB counterpart, Vasili. They chat at a diplomatic function …

‘Have you heard,’ said Vasili, ‘the one about my friend Boris?’
‘No.’
‘Boris hasn’t been feeling very well lately – and he’s been making some mistakes, so he’s called back to Dzerzhinsky Square to see the chief. The chief says, ‘How are you feeling, Boris?’ Boris says, ‘To be honest, I’m not feeling too good today.’ ‘Well Boris,’ says the chief, ‘would you like to hear the good news?’ ‘Yes,’ says Boris, ‘what’s the good news?’ ‘The good news, Boris, is that you feel better today than you will tomorrow.’

As Wilson writes, ‘The tightrope that Vasili walked didn’t have a safety net.’

Meanwhile Anglo-US relations are difficult, especially since Burgess and MacLean. The US Chief of Staff thinks that the British are trying to play above their position in the new world order in which they’re an empire no longer. It is rumoured that the British want an H-bomb of their own, and there is much covert activity in Suffolk at Orford Ness. Then there is a visiting Soviet warship that hides new technology under its waterline that the Brits want to see – they plan to send in a diver. The US would rather scupper this and damage GB-Russo relations and show them who’s in charge – this operation is Kit’s.

There is also a love interest.  Kit is desperately in love with his cousin Jennifer, who happens to be married to one of the scientists at Orford Ness. He should know better, but can’t help himself, he would do anything for her – not a good situation for a spy.  Kit is a conflicted and cynical man, in his personal life as well as at work.  His whole life is effectively a sham, the job is a love-hate relationship that is moving ever towards hate.

The next day Kit’s secretary passed on a strange message, Someone had rung from a phone box claiming to be Kit’s ‘spiritual adviser’ and recommending him to meet ‘at the customary place’ at ‘the customary time’. At half past three, Kit left the embassy and hailed a black taxi. He thought about telling the driver to take him straight to the rendevous point, but then he remembered what had happened the previous evening. He was weary of counter-surveillance games and all the other puerile spy games. But he had to continue playing them because he was trapped in a deadly adult playground from which there was no escape. Kit told the taxi driver to take him to Harrods. The store with its many entrances and exits was one of the best places in London to shake off a tail. And then from Harrods, a quick hop on the Underground to South Kensington.

The detailed descriptions of the spy’s tradecraft are one of this book’s real high points. Dead letter drops, coded messages, shaking tails, clandestine meetings – they all feel authentic.  Wilson, who was in the US special forces knows his stuff. Equally, the scenes set in Suffolk, where the author, a naturalised Brit lives, are evocative of this tranquil county.

Like Kit, the plot is richly complex, you’re never quite sure who’s exploiting whom. The first half lays out all the groundwork in a leisurely fashion, then in the second it unfolds with precise timing to a surprising denouement that appears to come out of left field, yet is totally consistent with what has gone before.  The world of spies portrayed is endlessly fascinating, and utterly devoid of good intention. No wonder Kit has been corrupted by it.

While I don’t think the writing in this novel is as good as Le Carré – the minor characters are rather one-dimensional on the whole, and some of the dialogue is a little stilted, the story however, is sophisticated and page-turning. I would definitely read more spy novels by this author.  (8/10)

Cold war secrets the spooks can’t hide …

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming

We know about the Cambridge Five – Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross and Blunt. What if there had been a sixth man in this spy ring?  What if that sixth man wanted to tell his story? What if his story could cause shame not just to the Russians but the British government as well? These are the questions that Charles Cumming’s exciting spy thriller seeks to answer.

Respected academic Sam Gaddis is in debt, badly. The advance for a new book would do the trick – but what can Sam, an expert on the Cold War and Russian secret service, has no idea for a new angle though. Then his best friend, journalist Charlotte Berg invites him to co-write a book with her – she has a scoop in the offing, she’ll tell him more later. But before they can get together to start thinking about the book, Charlotte dies. Was it murder? (Of course it was, but Sam doesn’t know that at first).

Sam starts to investigate from Charlotte’s papers, and before he knows it, he’s drawn into a deep web of intrigue that put him in danger. As he pieces information together, the plot takes us from London to Winchester before heading off all around Europe.  Gaddis may be a expert historian, but he is an amateur spy.  He is lucky though, and without always knowing, he manages to stay one step ahead of those who want his investigation closed down.

This is a complex story of cross and double cross in which you have to keep your wits about you. The pace doesn’t let up either, and the action easily matches the detective work to give a good balance.  Modern spycraft is well to the fore which always makes for interesting reading and was reassuringly not as over the top as in Spooks, (which I do adore).  Cumming is being rated as a successor to Le Carré, and you know, they may just be right – and I don’t mind having to read more to see if I really agree.  (8.5/10)

See also Elaine thought of it at Random Jottings.

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My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming. Harper pbk Sept 11, 416 pages.