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Tag: Spies (page 1 of 4)

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.

 

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