The case of the missing disk…

Acts of Omission by Terry Stiastny

stiastny Thrillers set in the world of modern British politics are not that common compared with those led by the spies who report to the politicians; Acts of Omission is mainly the former. It is the debut novel by a former BBC News reporter who worked in Berlin in the late 1990s and is based upon a true story. There are three main characters:

Mark Lucas, a former television producer, is now a charismatic young minister in the Foreign Office. His office has come into possession of a disk containing the names of British informants to the East German Stasi. The Germans are putting pressure on him to give it to them, but the British diplomatic service would rather not. Visiting Berlin, he is shown the jigsaw operation that is still ongoing to piece together the files that the Stasi shredded when they left.

‘Of course,’ said Ilse quickly. ‘There are people whose whole lives may have been affected by what’s in these sacks of paper. They have a right to know what happened to them, the same as everybody else. It’s not their fault that it’s their files that were destroyed. So it’s our duty to give them that truth back.’

Even if you find our your best friend had informed on you? Even if it compromises national security? These are the dilemmas behind it all, and Mark has to toe the government line in his reply, despite personally being for returning the disk.

The second character is Alex Rutherford. A civil servant – working for the intelligence services in an office based job. The morning after the night before, he wakes up hungover only to realise that his laptop is missing and inside it was the disk – the only copy! He thinks he left it in a taxi home, and sure enough the laptop is in their lost property office, but without the disk.

Thirdly, Anna Travers is a second string journalist on a national newspaper. She gets her big chance when the disk is delivered anonymously, of course, to her paper. Seconded onto the team working on the disk, she has to try and winkle out its secrets and some of them will be difficult to deal with once made public and the right connections made.

Acts of Omission particularly explores the relationships between the government and the press through their front-faces and more murky underbellies. Early on, Anna gets a new boyfriend who works in Downing Street advising the PM and so with her we get taken into Number Ten, the Lobby at Westminster as well as the newsroom. It’s a far cry from door-stepping with by-election candidates in northern towns where Anna starts the novel. Stiastny has obviously put her wealth of experience into making the framework of the novel very credible. Additionally all three leads are very plausible and likeable characters, although Mark is a bit naïve.

The plot twists and turns around the politics and the detective work on the disk. The bureaucracy involved is a little dry at times but authentic and Stiastny manages to keep the suspense going through that to create an enjoyable debut. There’s also room for more novels involving Anna too as her journalistic career begins to fly which would be fun. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Acts of Omission by Terry Stiastny. Pub John Murray 2014, paperback May 2015, 336 pages.

The return of Clara Vine

A War of Flowers by Jane Thynne

War-of-Flowers-final-front_480x_acf_croppedI am a big fan of the wartime adventures of Anglo-German actress and British spy Clara Vine’s first two outings in Black Roses and The Winter Garden, so I was delighted to get stuck into the third volume of Jane Thynne’s series to see what happened next to Clara. In the first book, Clara had become a model for the Deutsches Modeamt (the Reich fashion bureau) and through that ended up as a confidante of Magda Goebbels and the other Nazi wives. In the second volume she got mixed up in a murder at Himmler’s Bride School for those marrying SS officers and later met the Mitfords and the Duke & Duchess of Windsor.

Where next for Clara, as we are nearing the formal declaration of war between Britain and Germany in 1939? Well, her British handlers have a new mission for her…

She thought of the task they were asking of her now. Getting close to Eva Braun, and in the space of a month? How was she possibly going to manage that? She didn’t even know what Eva Braun looked like. Emmy Goering had once said she looker like the film star Lilian Harvey but stupider, but that wasn’t much to go on. And even if Clara was to meet the girl and manage to talk to her, what were the chances that she would be willing to confide private details about Hitler’s state of mind? Clara would need to employ all her persuasive skills. She had become well versed in asking ingenuous questions under the guise of female curiosity – the paranoid, isolated existences of most Nazi wives meant they tended to open up gratefully to an apparently sympathetic listener – so all she could hope was that Hitler’s girlfriend felt the same.

Before that though, nearing the end of her stay while filming in Paris, Clara has to visit one of Coco Chanel’s soirées, to collect some perfume for Magda Goebbels. It is there that she meets Max Brandt, a cultural attaché at the German Embassy. He will become important later.

Back in Berlin, she delivers the perfume to Magda who is very depressed – her husband, a prolific philanderer wanted to move his current mistress in.

‘Anyway, the ménage à trois was intolerable. I couldn’t stop crying – I even thought of killing myself and the children. I did, honestly. When we accompanied the Führer to Bayreuth in July, I sobbed all the way through Tristan und Isolde.’

Clara will soon meet Eva, who turns out to be girlish, even naive, and a real chatterbox given the opportunity.

‘He’s very stubborn when it comes to taking any interest in my hobbies. Like perfume, for example. … he never comes shopping with me now and you can’t get French perfumes either. But it doesn’t matter because I’ve started making my own.’

I won’t tell any more about the plot except to say that Clara will eventually get to visit Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof near Berchtesgarden, under pressured circumstances – but luckily Adolf isn’t there. He has yet to make a proper appearance in Clara’s life.  Indeed, I rather hope he remains afar in Clara’s next adventures, for yes, there is to be a fourth Clara Vine novel.  Yippee!

As before, Jane Thynne has brought us a wonderful picture of the life of prominent women under the Nazi regime. It was really rather enjoyable to encounter the Nazi wives again. In a side-plot, we find out more about some of the Third Reich’s programmes too through which they tried to control people – in this case the disappearance of a young woman from a KdF (Kraft durch Freude – Strength through Joy) cruise ship; cruises being a reward for being a good Nazi.  The research is impeccable and the novel is full of fascinating detail.

Combined with adventure, spying, glamour and inevitable romance, we have another thrilling story which romps along and definitely left me wanting more.  I asked Jane a whole load of questions about A War of Flowers and the other Clara Vine novels, but you’ll have to wait for the next edition of Shiny New Books on April 7th.  (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

A War of Flowers (Clara Vine 3) by Jane Thynne. Pub Nov 2014 by Simon and Schuster. Paperback Mar 2015, 416 pages.

A post Cold-War spy drama

A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter

porter spy Many moons ago I read Henry Porter’s first novel Rememberance Day (2000) which was a fast-moving spy thriller and I enjoyed it very much indeed. Finally, years later, I’ve read his second – another standalone spy-thriller about an ex-spy who finds out that you can never truly leave your former life behind.

British ex-spook Robert Harland now works at the United Nations in New York. Returning from a trip to DC in a plane full of colleagues including Alan Griswald whom he’d known for years – when the plane inexplicably crashes into the Hudson as it was coming in to land. Harland is the only survivor. Later, he talks to the crash investigators, then has another call from his old boss …

Vigo! What the hell did he want? He hadn’t seen Vigo for at least a decade. On the day he left MI6 for good in 1990, Vigo had come to him and offered a limp hand of regret together with the assurance that their masters would take Harland back if he found he could not make a go of it on the outside. They both knew this was impossible.

Convinced by Vigo’s interest it wasn’t an accident, Harland pledges to Griswald’s widow that he’ll find out what happened, and it soon appears that Griswald was onto something and that there could be a connection to some coded messages which are being broadcast on hijacked radio frequencies – but you need both parts of the code. When Harland is contacted by Tomas Rath, a young man, who claims to be his son and turns out to be involved too – Harland is completely drawn in – raking up his past as a spy in Europe, his doomed affair with Eastern European agent Eva, his capture and torture –  and it seems that everyone now wants to get him again – dead or alive…

This is a solid, all-action spy thriller – full of twists and turns, and you’re never sure who’s on whose side for a large part of it. Harland leaps back into his former life with abandon, playing all those who want him off against each other until it becomes clear what they want and all the time – the body count increases…

Harland, although obviously a superman physically, is likeable underneath his slightly gruff exterior which tries not to let anyone get close to him again.  His confusion when faced with the possibility of being a father shows a vulnerable side which, let’s face it, we need in our heroes for them to be believable. Walter Vigo, the British top spook is suitably oleaginous, but the character I liked best was Robert’s sister Harriet – who is immensely practical, capable and clever too – she would have made a great agent herself. When Tomas comes to see them in London, she takes Bobby to task after Tomas goes…

“Well, I think you had better get used to him calling you something else. Bobby, he couldn’t be anyone else’s child. He’s a dead ringer for you when you were that age – all gangly and intense. There’s no question about it. He’s yours.”

There was one scene which reminded me very much of George Smiley’s encounter with Karla in Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, although reversed. Harland is younger, fitter and more action-oriented than Le Carré’s leads though, so any similarities are fleeting.

Going from New York to London and Eastern Europe and incorporating the war-crimes and their remnants from the Bosnian War, Porter has found a great post-Cold War setting for his story. It may be 470 pages long, but they raced by and I enjoyed this novel very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter – W&N paperback, 480 pages.

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.

 

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)

 

Echoes of Le Carré with a sense of humour …

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

slowhorses200

The other night I was meant to be going to my local bookshop Mostly Books for an event with Mick Herron, winner of the 2013 CWA Gold Dagger for his novel Dead Lions. Instead I ended up in MIU with my daughter who managed to break the fifth metatarsal in her left foot when she fell over on a school trip – but that’s another story! I had to get the flavour of what I missed that evening in the bookshop’s write-up here – sounds like it was a good event.

Slow Horses and it’s sequel Dead Lions are British spy novels, but not set in the glam world of TV show Spooks. This branch of MI5, works in a world that is much shabbier and is usually terribly boring, for Slough House which in spook-speak becomes Slow Horse is a nondescript building in North London where disgraced agents get sent to work. River Cartwright is one of the slow horses.

The book starts with the event that got River his demotion. It wasn’t even a real emergency, it was his assessment exercise – but carried out in the real world at Kings Cross station & underground. It’s his job to find the suspected terrorist before the station is theoretically blown-up.  They find the target and take him down to find it’s just a member of the public. Before he knows it the whole station goes into a security alert.

He shouted into his button. ‘Spider? You idiot, you called the wrong colours!’
‘What the hell’s happening? There are crowds coming out of every-‘
‘White tee under a blue shirt. That’s what you said.’
‘No, I said blue tee under -‘
‘Fuck you, Spider.’ River yanked his earpiece out.

So River is sent to work with the slow horses. A bunch of secret service no-hopers. Over the course of the novel, we’ll get to know some of them and what they did to end up in this dead-end job. Others won’t survive – as mayhem ensues when the British nephew of a prominent Pakistani minister is kidnapped by some nationalist thugs who threaten to execute him in forty-eight hours.  Thanks to an errand that Jackson Lamb, the boss of Slough House, sends River on, he reckons he has an idea of how to start finding the young man – and get the slow horses reinstated.

It’s a tricky game though – the usual Moscow rules as they call them don’t apply.  ‘If Moscow Rules meant watch your back, then London Rules meant cover your arse.‘  It soon becomes clear that people are being played against each other, that various factions within MI5 are involved. Lamb, Cartwright and the team must play the game to come out winners.  It’s convoluted and dirty and people will get hurt.

The relationship between Lamb and Cartwright reminded me quite a lot of George Smiley and his sidekick Peter Gwillam from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Lamb is the one who holds all the cards close to his chest; Cartwright is the eager younger agent ready for action. However Lamb is no Smiley – he’s terribly fat – yet light on his feet. He is also always eating and has one additional weapon in his armoury – his farts! In comparison, River is nondescript – most of the other slow horses are more interesting than him, but as a young and fit man he is there for the action and to look handsome.

The author has come up with a truly labyrinthine plot with many layers of players and internal politics for them to unravel, let alone getting into the minds of the kidnappers. It’s certainly worthy of comparison to Le Carré, and all horribly plausible too! There’s plenty of tradecraft deployed throughout which gives that authentic feel (as if we’d really know how it’s done!), and I loved all the secret service slang. On top of all that though is a sense of humour – subtle at times, less so at others. One thing about the Slow Horses is that they’re not used to working together as a team these days, and old skills have to be brought back into play.

It’s good to know that surviving members of the team are back together in Dead Lions. and if it is half as good as Slow Horses it’ll be a great read.  Mick Herron is a great discovery, and I hope there’s plenty more in the pipeline. This pair of books is crying out to be televised too – fingers crossed, for there’s a series in the offing apparently. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slow Horses by Mick Herron. Soho Press 2010 paperback 329 pages.
Dead Lions by Mick Herron. Soho Press 2013 paperback 347 pages.

 

Back to Pre-War Berlin …

The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne

winter garden

Last year, I was thrilled with Black Roses (my review), actress/spy Clara Vine’s first outing in 1930s Berlin, in which she became accepted in the high social circles of the First Reich’s wives. This was the story of how Clara came to Berlin to act in the movies, but got sidetracked into the Reich Fashion Bureau headed by Magda Goebbels and later became a spy.

In a later Q&A with the author, Jane teased about the Mitfords making an appearance in volume two of the planned trilogy.  I couldn’t wait for The Winter Garden

It is now 1937 and sadly, Leo Quinn, the spy who recruited and loved Clara in Black Roses has gone back to England. Clara is living alone and is shortly to start filming her first starring role as the wife of a Luftwaffe pilot at the famous Ufa studios in Berlin. Enough of Clara though for the moment, for The Winter Garden starts with the murder of Anna Hansen at Himmler’s Bride School, set up to train fiancées of SS officers to be perfect Nazi wives.  Shockingly, it really existed – and you couldn’t marry an SS officer without graduating from the two month course.

Today they had been focusing on ‘Cooking Without Butter’ because of the shortage, and very dull it had been too. Though that was no bad thing, Anna thought, because all these regular meals were making her plump. After lunch came Culture, consisting of a talk on fairy tales. All brides needed to learn fairy tales because the German mother was the ‘culture bearer’ to the next generation. Today’s lecturer had explained how in Cinderella it was the prince’s Germanic instincts that led him to reject the step-sisters’ alien blood and search for a maiden who was racially pure.

It turns out that Clara knew Anna, who had been a dancer and artist’s model (which introduces the degenerate art exhibition), before changing tack to become respectable and when Clara’s American journalist friend Mary visits the Bride School, Anna’s room-mate gives her Anna’s little writing case to take back to Anna’s family.  Little do they know what the case contains …

Clara is invited to a party by Magda Goebbels, ostensibly to act as a translator.  I must admit, I was sort of ‘glad’ to see all the first ladies of the Reich reappear in this second volume, they gave a sense of continuity!  However, Magda and the others are merely on the sidelines this time. I did love their little rebellion though, when, on hearing that the Führer wouldn’t be coming to a party, they got out their French couture dresses that he so disapproved of.

Also arriving in Berlin are Edward and Mrs Simpson, and Diana and Unity Mitford are already well entrenched. All the right-wing English notables are being cultivated and encouraged by Hitler. Clara needs to find out about the Mitfords, so she takes Emmy Goering who is pregnant a present …

‘Unity Mitford!’ Emmy Goerring grimaced. ‘That girl with her staring saucer eyes and the Party badge on her heaving bosom. The men call her Mitfahrt – the travelling companion – because she’s always there. She absolutely dogged Hitler’s heels at the rally. She spends every lunchtime at the Osteria Bavaria in the hope of catching Hitler’s eye. She’s dreadfully jealous of Eva Braun, of course, terrified that Eva comes first in Hitler’s affections. I’ve told her, it’s a bit late to worry about that. Eva has her own room in the Reich Chancellery, doesn’t she?’
‘So Unity’s not popular then?’
‘No one can understand why the Führer likes her. Apparently, he loves the fact that her middle name is Valkyrie. Eva says, well, she looks the part, especially the legs. Himmler hates her too. He thinks she might be a spy. He has a tame SS man follow her around, posing as a photographer. But I said to Heinrich, spies don’t go around dressed in a home-made storm-trooper’s uniform, do they? …’

So we already have the murder mystery and all the excitement caused by the Mitfords and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and a third main strand is added to the novel. This involves the Luftwaffe, and here Clara is able to help get information by virtue of her next film role being the wife of a pilot – it’s research.  This is where Clara finds a new lover, and cultivates a Luftwaffe test pilot who of course falls for her – at least slightly.  Everything gets stirred up, and Clara ends up in a precarious situation, as you’d expect of any good spy novel. I won’t elucidate any further.

Jane Thynne has again done her research impeccably – all the details seem perfect.  I was slightly disappointed at first that Leo was out of the picture, but that frees Clara for other relationships. I did feel that there was a lot going on in this volume, and that maybe the Anna story or the Luftwaffe story would have been enough on their own – we could have had a quartet rather than a trilogy. That is a minor quibble, for being immersed in Clara’s world is getting addictive and the stakes are getting higher and higher as war nears. The final part of the trilogy, A War of Flowers, will be published in 2015 – and I’ll be waiting for it!  (9/10)

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Source: The Publisher sent me a lovely signed copy – thank you to them and Jane.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Winter Gardenby Jane Thynne, pub Feb 2014 by Simon & Schuster, hardback 432 pages.
Black Roses by Jane Thynne, paperback.

 

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