Archive for category Espionage

Daniel Silva 14: Portrait of a Spy

I have to admit, Portrait of a Spy confused me. The opening sequence where Israeli spy Gabriel Allon was relaxing on the Cornwall coast in Southwest England was similar enough to the opening of The Rembrandt Affair, I thought I was re-reading Daniel Silva’s last novel. Once I realized it was indeed the new novel, I settled down for what is always an enjoyable Silva spy novel. In Portrait of a Spy, Europe is hit by suicide bombers and retired Mossad agent Allon once again becomes involved in the hunt for the terrorists. Silva portrays the CIA as a once-strong but now ineffective agency where things are so bad, one of its directors, Adrian Carter, must to personally finance his legal defense against a justice department investigation into actions during the war on terror. Carter must also rely on Allon and his elite Mossad team to determine who in fact is the mastermind behind the bombings. Allon, of course, has previously crossed paths with the leader of the terrorist group, and he recruits an unlikely ally in the operation. Not much can be said without spoiling things, other than when I finished the book, I felt much the same as I did after watching the movie Evita, starring Madonna. An unexpected emotion following another great Silva spy thriller.

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Tom Rob Smith 1: Child 44

It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since Martin Cruz Smith‘s epic novel, Gorky Park, which was set in 1970s Cold War Russia and featured Moscow detective Arkady Renko investigating a murder in his frozen city’s famous park. Fast forward to modern day where British author Tom Rob Smith‘s outstanding first novel, Child 44, features a chilling murder mystery set two decades before Renko in the post-Stalin and pre-Kruschev Russia of the early 1950s. What makes Child 44 and its lead character Leo Demidov so interesting is that under Stalinst Communism there was no such thing as a murder nor a police force to investigate murder. When a child in Moscow dies under suspicious circumstances, it is labeled as suicide by investigators — including Demidov. However, Demidov — a war hero turned MGB officer — soon realizes that similar deaths have happened across the country and he begins an investigation that risks not only his job, but also his life. Not only do the authors share a surname, but both of their Russian investigators also share a devotion to their job, their community and their conscience when it comes to solving gruesome murders that puts them into danger. The older Smith set the standard and followed with several outstanding Renko novels. It’s safe to say the younger Smith and Demidov are following in those footsteps.


Joseph Finder 1: The Moscow Club

Every now-and-then, I find a book that takes months to read — I struggle through the first part, before finally hunkering down and finishing it. The debut novel by former intelligence officer Joseph Finder, The Moscow Club is one of those books. It’s not a bad book — it’s far from that — it’s just a very heavy book. It has the furious action scenes that are reminiscent of Robert Ludlum and international intrigue that will remind you of Frederick Forsythe. But it also has a slow, methodical and often scholarly feel to it when it comes to the historical and political and Cold War aspects, both Russian and American. As someone who is a huge fan of Cold War novels, it took some time to warm up, but once things were in motion, I really started to enjoy it. Unfortunately, if you have not read John le Carre or Forsythe or Daniel Silva and don’t appreciate the art of the espionage and counter-espionage storyline, this 500-page story may be a little much for you. But then again, if you are curious about the Cold War or world politics near the end of the Cold War or Russia during the time of Gorbachev, this novel would be of great interest to you.

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Alex Berenson 1: The Faithful Spy

Several months back, I read The Faithful Spy, the Edgar Award winning debut novel by Alex Berenson, and I have to admit, I was torn. Part of me really liked the book, but another part of me — the part that loves espionage master Frederick Forsythe — couldn’t help but thinking of Forsythe’s 1994 novel The Fist of God and Forsythe’s 2006 novel The Afghan while reading Berenson’s 2006 novel The Faithful Spy. In The Fist of God, a British officer in the Special Air Service named Mike Martin — who grew up in Iraq, looks Middle Eastern and speaks Arabic perfectly — is embedded in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion. In The Afghan, Martin is sent into Afghanistan to impersonate an Afghani freedom fighter held in captivity in Guantanamo Bay and infiltrate al Queda. After reading those two spectacular books, I was a bit skeptical about an American farm boy from Montana, named John Wells, who is now a devout Muslim and member of al Queda, in The Faithful Spy. While Forsythe may have done the Arab infiltrator bit a little better, Berenson still delivers. Especially in the scenes in the U.S. as Wells must defend his birth country from terrorists with a similar Muslim devotion. And at the same time, Wells must convince his CIA superiors that he is on their side after all that time in the Middle East. Forsythe is still the best, but for a first novel, Berenson is one to watch.

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Daniel Silva 13: The Rembrandt Affair

In my review of Daniel Silva‘s last novel, The Defector, I suggested that both Silva and his lead character, Gabriel Allon, take a break. Silva listened to my suggestion — sort of. When the Rembrandt Affair opens, we find Allon in the middle of long rest and relaxation period in a remote coastal town in Cornwall, UK. He passes the day with long walks along the cliffs of the Celtic Sea. One day an old friend, art dealer Julian Isherwood, asks Allon for a small favor — to track down a stolen Rembrandt. I’m sure the same thing passes through Allon’s mind as it does mine: An investigation into a stolen painting probably means a break from your standard espionage adventure. We were both wrong. Allon’s investigation leads to a Nazi sub-plot, which then leads to a beloved German businessman known for his philanthropy who happens to be involved in selling nukes to the bad guys. Naturally, Allon’s Mossad team and espionage leaders from the Israeli, U.S. and U.K. government enter the fray as another mission unfolds. I have to admit that Silva surprised me in the first part of the book and hooked me in the second part. And I’m proud to report that the spymaster supreme is back — and so is the supreme spy he so wonderfully writes about.

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Stieg Larsson 2 & 3: The Girl Who Played With Fire & The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

I’m doing a combination review of Stieg Larsson’s second and third novels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, for one simple reason — the second book was so good, I immediately started reading the third. And speaking of combinations, things quickly turn from a mystery novel into a mystery/espionage novel, which just happen to be my favorite two genres. While not much can be said without giving away the many twists and turns of the plot, Mikael Blomkvist and Lizbeth Salander both use their investigative and hacking skills, respectively, to learn the truth about a sex trafficking operation and the involvement of the Swedish Security Service (Säpo), a group similar to the CIA. There is a police investigation and many surveillance and counter-surveillance tactics to keep things moving until the end of this spectacular trilogy, which is the sad part since Larsson’s death means there won’t be a fourth book.

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Charles McCarry 1: The Miernik Dossier

The Miernik Dossier is what its name suggests: A dossier from the early 1960s that you’d likely find in a folder in a filling cabinet in the basement of one of the intelligence services. A compilation of reports is definitely a unique way to tell a spy story, and if you like the early Cold War classics of Frederick Forsyth or John Le Carre, this book is for you. And if you enjoy the political overtones in early James Bond movies such as From Russia With Love, you’ll get a kick out of this book. The subject of the dossier is Tadeusz Miernik, an outspoken and often-animated Pole who works for the World Research Organization, a NATO agency based in Geneva. We learn the WRO provides perfect cover for spies from various NATO countries and the dossier contains information and theories from all the various intelligence agencies watching Miernik, as well as passages from Miernik’s diary. The premise of the book is simple: Is Miernik a spy? This basic question works, of course, since in the world of espionage, nothing is black and white, while everything is a different shade of gray. As we ponder the question, we follow Miernik and several WRO colleagues as they take a Cadillac on a road trip from Geneva to Sudan via Vienna and Egypt. One of the passengers is Paul Christopher, an American spy who is the main character in future books. Christopher seems torn as to whether or not Miernik is a spy and I, too, wavered over that question. In a nutshell, that’s the extent of the book, although it is more interesting than it may sound. For a first novel, Charles McCarry — a former intelligence officer himself — delivers on a subject he knows very well, although I was kind of surprised there wasn’t more of a twist at the end like your typical spy story. In fact, there wasn’t a twist at all and maybe that was by design since in the world of espionage, one is taught to expect the unexpected.

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Paul Eddy 1: Flint

When I heard Paul Eddy’s debut novel was called Flint, I couldn’t help but think of the James Coburn spy spoof movies Our Man Flint and In Like Flint. But instead of a male James Bond character from the 1960s, this Flint is, well, a female James Bond character from modern day. The story opens with Grace Flint as a British undercover police officer in a sting that goes horribly wrong. We then pick up the story as Flint is working undercover for the Americans, seeking the man who got away from that sting one year earlier. Like several elements in the book, things aren’t explained right away. And, in this case, I can’t exactly remember why Flint came to the U.S. (Another pet peeve: A couple of times, I had to re-read several pages to figure out which character was which and figure out what happened.) In addition to Amsterdam and Paris, the book takes us to a fictitious Caribbean country, as well as Kyrenia, in Northern Cyprus as Flint tracks down leads and the story proceeds and concludes in true spy story style. While the locales may sound interesting, I just couldn’t always get a feel for them. Same with the Flint character and the massive amount of emotional baggage that she is carrying. (I found it odd that as a house guest, Grace had little to no female dialogue with her best friend, but had a massive amount of professional dialogue with her best friend’s husband, a French inspector that she was working with on the case.) Did I enjoy the book? For a first spy novel, it wasn’t bad. But several days after reading the book, I just can’t seem to recall much, and the only memorable thing may be that this book isn’t very memorable.

Daniel Silva 12: The Defector

In my review of Daniel Silva‘s last book, Moscow Rules, I was happy about the return of the Russians. Russians, as in Russian spies, which are the staple of traditional espionage fare. Well, the Russians return once again in The Defector and this time around, I’m not so sure. The Defector picks up where Moscow Rules left off as ex-KGB and current gun runner Ivan Kharkov goes after the man who took his money and broke up his family in the previous novel. That man, of course, is Gabriel Allon, the Mossad agent/artist making his ninth appearance for Silva. In true espionage fashion, Kharkov seeks revenge against Allon and we visit many countries, including Mother Russia. Like the characters, I’m not sure about returning there so quickly. Why the apprehension? Well, it’s not that the book is bad, because it is not. In fact, it’s a pretty good book that reads very quickly. It just feels forced to me. As is usually the case, the book starts with Allon working on an art restoration project. Those scenes seem rushed. Silva does meticulous research for his books and there is always a lesson in history, politics and even religion. However, in this case, the main Russian history lesson seems to be crammed into one of the final scenes. And speaking of final scenes, the epilogue covers a summer of covert action in a matter of pages. In the acknowledgments, Silva thanks his children for helping him make his deadline. I’m guessing that wasn’t any easy task. Meanwhile, it looks like Allon’s clandestine duties may be coming to an end, although I don’t really believe it nor does he. (It’s pointed out to Allon that his first assignment in 1972 had 11 targets as did all two pages of his final assignment in the epilogue.) One wonders if Silva will also take a break when it comes to the Allon series. Let’s face it, both have done great work and have earned a well-deserved vacation. I think it would be best served if they both took some time off from each other and then returned nice and refreshed.

Lawrence Block 5: Tanner’s Tiger

Leave it to Lawrence Block to pen a spy novel set at the World’s Fair. That’s exactly what he does in Tanner’s Tiger, where sleep-deprived spy and political scholar/activist Evan Tanner travels to Montreal for the 1968 Expo to investigate the Cuban exhibit. Getting into the Great White North proves difficult for Tanner, who has snuck into numerous unfriendly countries across the world. On his first attempt, he is turned away at Montreal Duval airport. His second attempt via car from Buffalo draws a tail, which leads to his arrest by the Canadian Mounties. In an entertaining twist, Tanner escapes on horseback and leads the police on a chase through downtown Montreal. With nowhere to run, Tanner turns to the Quebec separatist movement, where he meets a tiger named Arlette Sazerac and is drawn into a political assassination plot. Like the other Tanner books, one must use a James Bond-esque suspension of reality as the plot beautifully winds to a close. But if you can overlook the zany plot and focus on the artful dialogue and characters, you’ll enjoy the Block character that brings the political 1970s back to life.

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Daniel Silva 11: Moscow Rules

Maybe I’m an espionage snob, but the genre just hasn’t been the same since the end of the Cold War. Thankfully, that is about to change. Israeli spy/artist Gabriel Allon returns in Moscow Rules and as the title suggests, the book features Russians — both good and bad — and boy am I happy. I don’t know what it is, but the perfect spy book just has to include the Russians. In Moscow Rules, not only do we have the traditional Russian bad guy, but we also have the new breed of ultra rich Russians who vacation in the French Riviera and the Swiss Alps and are lividly hated by the locals. We know about the Russian mafia, but the protagonist in this book is a KGB agent turned gun runner who is about to sell some nasty weapons to terrorists. And it’s up to Allon to thwart the plot. As always, the plot revolves around Allon’s uniquely gifted talents as an artist, and it also features several Mossad agents who have been with Allon since he hunted down and assassinated the terrorists responsible for the death of several Israeli Olympians in Munich in the early 1970s. Other cameos from previous books include some colorful British art collectors, as well as fellow spies from the U.S., Great Britain and France. As I mentioned in my review of The Secret Servent, Daniel Silva is the best in the business right now. And the return of the Russians puts Moscow Rules atop Silva’s list of wonderful novels.

Daniel Silva 10: The Secret Servant

As someone who grew up reading – and idolizing – the outstanding espionage writer Frederick Forsyth, I never thought there would come a day when I had a new favorite. But as Forsyth has aged and understandably slowed down in his writing, I now look to Daniel Silva for my fix when it comes to spy novels. And does he ever deliver. The Secret Servant is the seventh book in the series featuring Israeli spy Gabriel Allon. And like all of Silva’s works, this is one damn good read. In the recommendation on the front of the book, USA TODAY compares Allon to Jack Bauer. I completely disagree. The thing that sets Allon apart from traditional spies like Bauer or Jack Ryan or even James Bond is his intellect, not to mention his spectacular cover story, which isn’t really a cover. Allon is a world renowned artist who specializes in the restoration of masterpieces. Unfortunately for Allon, he also happens to be a world class spy who keeps getting called back into service for his country. In The Secret Servant, Allon is sent to Europe for some routine clean-up work and he quickly becomes involved in a kidnapping/terrorist plot which takes him to Amsterdam, London, Cairo and Copenhagen. Like every Silva novel, the story moves quickly and features meticulous research on both the political and religious ideals of the story’s main characters. In the end, Allon’s identity is no longer a secret, something that sadly hinders both of his jobs, but he will no doubt return to both worlds in future novels. (Follow The Secret Servant on Google Maps)

Lawrence Block 4: The Scoreless Thai

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 40 years since Lawrence Block wrote The Scoreless Thai, his fourth book featuring ultra-intellectual master spy Evan Tanner. As one can surmise from the title, most of the book takes place in Thailand, where Tanner comes to the rescue of a Kenyan princess who has been taken hostage. Tanner also befriends a sex-starved native whose lack of success is the basis for the title. In addition to Thailand, Tanner’s travels also take him to Laos and Korea, which were not popular destinations in 1968. (Two things struck me about Tanner’s travels. I recently spent 17 hours in the air flying from Washington, D.C. to Tokyo to Bangkok. Tanner’s 1968 flight from New York to San Francisco to Honolulu to Tokyo to Bangkok must have taken twice as much time. Once in Bangkok, Tanner was greeted by a customs agent who searched his suitcase. In modern day Bangkok, there were no customs agents.) Like previous books in the series, Block pens a zany espionage adventure featuring a lead character who cannot sleep thanks to a brain injury. Not to worry, Tanner uses this extra time for intellectual pursuits such as writing a doctoral thesis on “the socioeconomic implications of the Boxer Rebellion” for a lazy NYU grad student or writing articles for a variety of ethnic newsletters. Like his lead character Tanner, Block is a prolific writer and I always enjoy his novels featuring a variety of New York City-based lead characters with interesting quirks and lives.

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Stephen J. Cannell 11: Cold Hit

Like just about every kid who grew up during the 1980’s, I was a fan of the A-Team. Along with Riptide. And 21 Jump Street. And Hunter. All of those TV series were created by Stephen J. Cannell. And one day in the book store, I recognized his name and decided to buy one of his books, The Plan. Like his TV shows, I got a kick out of his first novel. Whether it is TV or a book, the guy can flat out write. And his characters are always great, not to mention the fact that they always have the perfect name. For example, Cold Hit is the fifth book in the series featuring L.A. detective Shane Scully. From that name alone, you can tell he is a rugged, bad ass and it doesn’t surprise you that he is married to a smoking hottie — who happens to be his boss at the LAPD. In Cold Hit, Cannell combines the detective novel, which he does so well in the Scully series, with the espionage novel, which he does so well in a couple of non-Scully novels. (My favorite non-Scully book is King Con, which features a bunch of gypsy con men who cross the mafia.) The mob is also featured in Cold Hit, but this time it is the ruthless Russian mafia. And some equally as ruthless FBI and DHS agents. Not much else can said about the book without giving things away. Other than just like his TV shows and his first 10 novels, I laughed, I was engrossed and I totally enjoyed Cold Hit.


David Kent 1: Department Thirty

I don’t know what it was, but Department Thirty by David Kent took me a very long time to finish. Longer than any other book I’ve ever read. Some books you pick up and can’t put down. This book, on the other hand, took an incredible amount of small readings to complete. It wasn’t a bad book, in fact, for a first novel, it was pretty decent. But the main character, Ryan Elder, and his female companion, Cass Chambers, just didn’t do it for me. By day, Author David Kent is actually Kent Anderson, a music director at a classical music station in Oklahoma City. And it just so happens that Elder is a broadcast journalist and Chambers is an ex-concert pianist and they both are fans of classical music. But enough about that. Department Thirty focuses on Elder’s search for the true identity of his parents and is a classic espionage novel filled with several twists and turns that even a veteran like myself didn’t see coming. Assassination, corruption and psychopathic zealots all play a role in this book, which I liked once I forced myself to finish it.