Spy Fiction Short Takes, June 15, 2012

When the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the espionage novel epitomized by John le Carré’s classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was considered dead. But the rise in global terrorism and the events of 9/11 have renewed interest by writers and readers in the world of spies. From the twisty CIA thrillers of Olen Steinhauer and the covert ops adventures of Howard Gordon to Gayle Lynds’ inside look at the lives of CIA operatives, espionage fiction has never gone away; it just went undercover for a while. The following titles are all examples of this genre’s renewed popularity

Britton, Andrew. The Operative. Kensington. Jul. 2012. c.499p. ISBN 9780788263513. $25. F

Britton died in 2008, but the author ghostwriting his novels still delivers page-turners in the style of Brad Thor and Vince Flynn. Ex-CIA agent Ryan Kealey is attending a Baltimore charity event when a terror attack wreaks havoc. Close friends and family are killed, and Kealey returns to action to stop the terrorists from striking again. It also appears that the bombers have an inside man. VERDICT Kealey is the perfect hero to root for as he gets sucked into the muck of covert ops, especially after he thought he was finished with the nasty business. Not too many surprises, but Britton’s fans will still want to get their hands on this quickly.

Cumming, Charles. A Foreign Country. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2012. c.368p. ISBN 9780312591335. $24.99. F

Amelia Levene is about to become the first woman to run the British intelligence agency MI6 when she mysteriously disappears. Disgraced former officer Thomas Kell is recruited to find her. He quickly learns that she has not been kidnapped; she’s hiding on purpose. What would motivate someone at the height of their career to give it all up? What he uncovers, with Levene’s help, unveils a dark conspiracy that goes back years. VERDICT Cumming’s sixth thriller (after The Trinity Six) simmers and crackles until the explosive finale. Where in other novels Kell would need the entire narrative to find Levene, he discovers her whereabouts almost immediately. That plot twist along with the surprises that follow make this a worthwhile read that will appeal especially to readers who appreciate John le Carré, Olen Steinhauer, and David Ignatius.
[See Prepub Alert, 2/12/12; 100,000-copy first printing.]

Downing, David. Lehrter Station: A John Russell Thriller. Soho Crime. 2012. c.304p. ISBN 9781616950743. $25. F

In Downing’s fifth tale of historical espionage (afterPotsdam Station) it is 1945, and the war is over. British journalist John Russell is trying to begin life with his family again when he receives a message from a Soviet agent. Russell was able to escape Berlin with this agent’s help, and now he wants the favor returned. With his wife, Russell heads back into Berlin to conduct a spy mission. VERDICT Downing does a masterful job of exploring life in postwar Berlin and London. The devastation of the war creates the atmosphere of despair that haunts the characters. New readers, especially fans of Philip Kerr, Joseph Kanon, and Alan Furst, won’t feel lost if this is their first exposure to Downing’s impressive series.

Freemantle, Brian. Red Star Burning. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Jun. 2012. c.360p. ISBN 9781250006363. $26.99. F

In Freemantle’s latest Cold War thriller, British MI5 field agent Charlie Muffin’s (Red Star Rising) hidden life is finally exposed. Secretly married to Natalia Fedova, a colonel in the Russian intelligence agency FSB, with whom he has a daughter, Charlie finds his cover blown when Natalia calls him begging for help. No longer trusted by his old colleagues, Charlie is taken into custody and interrogated. He’s desperate to escape and rescue his wife and child from the hit he knows the Russian government has put on them. VERDICT Freemantle has written a tense and entertaining scramble. Charlie runs various scenarios in his head to rescue his family, and the intensity of his internal struggle raises this novel a cut above standard espionage fare. Newcomers might become confused by the large cast of characters, and the ending implies more to come. For Charlie Muffin fans, this is still worth a shot.

Henshaw, Mark. Red Cell. Touchstone: S. & S. 2012. c.288p. ISBN 9781451661934. $24.99. F

Drawing on his experience working in the CIA’s Red Cell think tank (created two days after 9/11), Henshaw has crafted an intriguing debut political/military thriller. A disastrous mission in Venezuela brings Kyra Stryker back home. She is given an assignment in the Red Cell program that she considers a demotion. Forced to work with Jonathan Burke, an analyst with questionable methods and attitude, Kyra quickly learns the job is vital to national security. Taiwan and China are at odds, and the United States is ready to intervene. VERDICT Burke’s character is a bit enigmatic, but Kyra’s quest for redemption amid a potential World War III scenario proves compelling. The narrative’s authentic details about spycraft will be irresistible to hard-core spy fiction aficionados, who will eagerly seek Henshaw’s next dip into the CIA pool. [The novel has been optioned by Johnny Depp’s production company‚ Ed.]

Lustbader, Eric Van. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Imperative: A New Jason Bourne Novel. Grand Central. Jun. 2012. c.458p. ISBN 9780446564472. $27.99. F

Lustbader’s seventh foray (after Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Dominion) into the world of rogue agent Jason Bourne is another terrific thriller. Out on an ice-fishing excursion, Bourne catches a human body on his line. The man is still alive but suffers from amnesia. As Bourne helps the man uncover his past, his own life is thrown into jeopardy and his past called up for review. VERDICT The questionable beginning that echoes Bourne’s personal history is a bit hard to swallow. Once readers get past that, the novel turns into an action fest. There is a huge cast of other characters with their own storylines, so series newcomers should start with an earlier book. Fans will discover this to be the best Lustbader Bourne novel yet, even with the hokey start. The August release of Bourne Legacy with Jeremy Renner, the fourth entry in the film franchise, should only spark more interest.

Saunders, Mark Harril. Ministers of Fire. Ohio Univ. 2012. c.344p. ISBN 9780804011402. $26.95. F

In 1979 Kabul CIA station chief Lucius Burling survived an ambush that kills the American ambassador, but he couldn’t grasp what happened or why. Then on his next mission, he fell in love with the wife of a co-agent. Fast forward to 2002. Burling is now the American consul in Shangahi. A dissident Chinese physicist may be planning to sell his country’s nuclear secrets, but is this operation being carried out without the CIA’s involvement? VERDICT Saunders can write, but his complex story would have been easier to follow if written in a less literary style. The narrative continually crashes to a halt with long descriptions and prose that calls attention to itself. The love triangle and the characters are fine, but suspense is lacking. Espionage novels should rock, but this one is merely karaoke.‚ Jeff Ayers, Seattle P.L.


starred review starFurst, Alan. Mission to Paris. Random. Jun. 2012. c.272p. ISBN 9781400069484. $27. F

Fredric Stahl, a successful Hollywood actor with a Viennese bloodline, returns to Paris to make a movie for a big studio. The German Reich’s publicity machine works to steer him into the anti-war French camp, and he hobnobs with champagne magnates and German elites to enjoy the high life of 1938 Paris. Like every Furst hero, though, Fredric has a conscience, so he begins his own anti-Hitler campaign in the quiet ways familiar to Furst’s legions of fans. VERDICT Between them, Fredric and Paris make this a book no reader will put down until the final page. Furst evokes the city and the prewar anxiety with exquisite tension that is only a bit relieved by Fredric’s encounters with several women, each a vivid and attractive character. Critics compare Furst to Graham Greene and John le Carré, but the time has come for this much-published author (this is his ninth World War II novel after Spies of the Balkans) to occupy his own pinnacle as a master of historical espionage. [See Prepub Alert, 12/12/11.]‚ Barbara Conaty, Falls Church, VA

Also out this month is Jeremy Duns’s The Dark Chronicles (Penguin), which packages three Cold War thrillers featuring MI6 double agent Paul Dark‚ Free Agent, Song of Treason, and The Moscow Option‚ into a handy and‚ at $20‚ modestly priced single trade paperback volume‚ Ed.