Archive for the ‘Spy Fiction’ Category

I recently reviewed the latest Charles Cumming spy story: A Foreign Country (2012). Cumming has been highly praised for his work, but while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t think the writer warranted the comparisons he was getting with legends of the genre like John le Carré. But I thought I’d give him another try; this one was published in 2011. The result? My opinion remains the same. He’s good, but not that good.

If I was being very picky – which of course I never am – I’d say this was not really a spy story at all. Rather, it is a mystery story, where an innocent individual finds himself (in this case) inadvertently involved in some sort of conspiracy. It just so happens that the events that make up this conspiracy take place in the secret world of espionage, with the familiar themes of double dealing and betrayal.

Dr Sam Gaddis is a lecturer in Russian History at University College London. At the launch of his book, The Tsars, comparing Peter the Great with ‘the current Russian president Sergei Platov’ (clearly Vladimir Putin) he meets a young woman, Holly Levette, who claims that her recently dead mother has left an archive of material about the KGB. She has been referred to him by a journalist friend of Sam’s, Charlotte Berg, who is also working on a story involving spying. She has been contacted by someone who claims to have explosive revelations about a sixth British spy associated with those recruited by the pre-world war II Soviet espionage agency, the NKVD, during the young men’s years at Cambridge – the Trinity Five (Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross). Charlotte asks Sam to collaborate on a book about it. Her sudden death from a heart attack and his urgent need for money – a tax bill and school fees for his daughter who lives in Spain with Sam’s ex-wife – convince him to go it alone. But what on earth had she discovered? And is there anything new in Holly’s archive?

As you might expect, Sam’s path is not smooth, and he soon has various enemies – though as in most ‘quest’ stories, he finds help as well as hindrance along the way. The story is told largely through his eyes, but other characters also carry the plot at various times, so the reader sometimes knows more than he does, for example when he discards hypotheses the reader knows to be true. This helps with the pace and tension, though it is a slow- building plot, rather than the ‘bang bang kiss kiss’ sort. I am always interested in how a plot about a civilian with lots of powerful enemies can be resolved; it’s not like he can arrest someone. This one finds a quite satisfying mechanism, though I am left with the feeling that the plot, though complex, isn’t really subtle. It comes together, but you can see the magician behind the screen pulling the strings. This may be unfair; I know I’m comparing the way the crucial elements of the plot resolve with ‘the last clever knot’ that Smiley has to unpick in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – and I had to read that twice before I understood it. And of course it all looks simple once you know. The twists and turns are enjoyable, and that’s probably all that matters.

Cumming writes well about people. He is good at quick character sketches, and makes the cast of minor characters come alive. He presents Sam Gaddis as an essentially a good man who believes in ‘human decency’, caught up in events well outside his control – though he manages to deal with it all reasonably well. He has some of the talents needed for his quest; he protests that he is ‘an archives man’, not an investigative journalist, but he is good at following a trail from one piece of evidence to the next. (In a nice touch, his enemies manage to use his ‘archive’ work to trick him temporarily.) He also falls to bits quite convincingly at times, making him more human than some other fictional academic sleuths – Robert Langdon comes to mind. I am less convinced, however, by Holly Levette, and the other woman in the book, Tanya Acocella. At one point Gaddis compiles a list of reasons why Holly, now his girlfriend, might be a ‘plant’, and it’s all too believable. Her reasons for being with him aren’t ever explored. Nor, in my opinion, is Tanya’s motivation adequately explained. This is a pity, because it’s her role that makes the plot a bit mechanistic; she does what is needed by the story, not what comes from being a character that Cumming has fully developed. But hey, it’s a well written thriller with a clever plot. Be grateful for having found a good one. And I do like the end.

You can read more about Charles Cumming here. His next book, A Colder War, is as promised a sequel to A Foreign Country, and will be published in 2014.

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Like The Not Knowing, which I posted on last week, this spy thriller also made it onto The Guardian’s list of the ten best crime stories or thrillers of 2012. It also won the Scottish Crime Book of the Year at the 2012 Bloody Scotland Festival and the Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best thriller of 2012. Cumming comes highly recommended; his second book, The Spanish Game was described by The Times as one of the six finest spy novels of all time, alongside Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, (1974) Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin (1964) and  Baroness Orczy’s  The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905). And Cumming has some firsthand knowledge. After graduating with a first in English, he was approached by the Secret Intelligence Service (M16), but did not join them.

Perhaps all this build up raised my expectations too high, because although I enjoyed the book, it certainly isn’t up to Le Carré’s standards, or probably even Len Deighton’s. Not sure about Baroness Orczy.

The story begins with a sort of foreword about the disappearance of a young women in Tunisia in 1978, then moves to a present day robbery and murder, and a kidnapping. Having put these pieces in place, it then moves to Thomas Kell, a former SIS agent who was dismissed after being blamed for condoning torture in Afghanistan. Amelia Levene, who is about to become head of the SIS, has disappeared, and the SIS wants him to find her. Kell soon discovers that everything is not as it seems, and sets out to investigate further.

It’s easy to see why Cumming is spoken of in the same breath as Le Carré and Deighton; his plot deals with same ‘the double-think and mendacity of the secret state’, that is, the same sort of intra and inter security service rivalries, and same treacheries and betrayals as they do. Thomas Kell expresses some of the same thoughts about spying as are found in Le Carré’s work; he reflects on his ‘flair for deceit’, and wonders why ‘the spy wanted to set aside his own character and to inhabit a separate self’. This is very much the territory covered by The Perfect Spy, which in turn reflects aspects of Le Carré’s own life. Cumming focuses, as do Le Carré and Deighton, on the detail of the working life of the spy, though of course Kell has rather more advanced technology at his disposal than his literary forebears. He even uses words and phrases that Le Carré says he invented to describe aspects of spying, such as ‘tradecraft’ and ‘Moscow rules’. There are also a couple of references to ‘coming in from the cold’, though neither of them carries the same meaning as they did for Alec Leamas in The Spy who Came in from the Cold – in that book, coming in from the cold means dying, in preference to living a lie, whereas for Cumming, it just means being accepted back into the espionage world.

I mention the use –or rather misuse – of this phrase because it seems to me to sum up the difference between Cumming and Le Carré: the former lacks the latter’s subtlety. Cumming writes well enough – for example I liked his description of a hotel as resembling ‘a Mexican restaurant in a suburban shopping mall, blown up to the size of an aircraft hangar’. There are literary references scattered throughout, including the title, which reprises L.P. Harley’s line: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Kell, though perhaps a little too obviously ‘flawed’, is nevertheless a sympathetic character – he reads Seamus Heaney’s poetry, and agonizes about his unhappy relationship with his wife. But none of this makes up for a fairly predictable and mechanical plot. It would make good TV – lots of good visuals and not much depth.

The political thrust of the book – though it isn’t a major theme in the story – is also different from Le Carré’s. When Kell explains how he was made a ‘fall-guy’ for the SIS’s implicit condoning of torture, he does feel ‘the shame of his own moral neglect’. But he is also angry that ‘too many people on the Left were interested solely in demonstrating their own good taste, their own unimpeachable moral conduct, at the expense of the very people who were striving to keep them safe in their beds.’ Le Carré’s shifting world has no place for such moral certainties.

While this is Cumming’s sixth book, it is the first in a series which will feature Thomas Kell. You can read more about Cumming here. I might go back and read some of the earlier ones – maybe they are as good as claimed.  You can read my review of Tinker Tailor here.


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If seeing the film of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy has got you interested in George Smiley, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a sequel – both as a book and mini series (starring Alec Guinness) – called Smiley’s People. This is just a gentle reminder for those who already know it.

TTSS was published in 1974; Smiley’s People came out in 1979. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) which is also a Smiley story, came between them, and deals with the pursuit of another Soviet mole, this time in China. But while Smiley as Head of the Circus instigates the case, the main player is Jerry Westerby (who has a small part in TTSS); it is only incidental to Smiley’s battle with the Russian spymaster Karla. Smiley’s People resumes that struggle.

The book starts, as does TTSS, not with Smiley, but with the introduction of two of the minor characters, Ostrakova, a Russian émigré in Paris, and Villem, an English long distance lorry driver of Estonian extraction. But it is not long before Smiley is again called from retirement to tidy up after the murder of his former agents. This is Vladimir, once a general in the Russian army, now living in London and still in touch with the dwindling émigré groups who once provided important information to British Intelligence. The Circus in now prohibited from dealing with such groups; they just want Smiley to demonstrate that Vladimir no longer had links with the intelligence community. But Smiley soon has other ideas, and his quest to find out what information Vladimir possessed and why he was murdered leads him inexorably in pursuit of Karla. 

Le Carré is a master story teller. Smiley starts with a small piece of evidence, which leads to an encounter with someone who provides more evidence, which leads to a further encounter, and so on. About three quarters of the book is taken up with this quest. In the final section, Smiley acts on the evidence he has amassed. This is not the stuff of the ‘action thriller’; there is no ‘bang bang kiss kiss’, as Ian Fleming put it. There is menace and violence, and Smiley increasingly feels he is working against time. But he is essentially solving a puzzle, not, for most of the book, directly confronting an enemy. It is a very clever story in that little happens by way of coincidence; Smiley’s steps are all soundly based. Perhaps he has an ability not shared by others to see significance and draw conclusions, but even his guesswork is informed by knowledge and experience. ‘Instinct – or better a submerged perception yet to rise to the surface – signalled to him urgently that something about these cigarettes was wrong.’ Or on another occasion:‘Some questions are hazard, some are instinct, some – like this one – are based on a premature understanding that is more than instinct, but less than knowledge.’ Le Carré is too clever a writer to rely on chance to resolve his plots .

The quality of his writing also shows in the development of his characters. Some, such as Oliver Lacon and Connie Sachs have already been introduced in TTSS; others, like Ostrakova and Villem, are new. But old or new, all are fully drawn. Le Carré does not mind spending time filling in the details of their lives, even though these might not be directly relevant to the story. Connie Sachs, now old and ill, is looked after by her much younger lover, Hilary, a former cipher clerk in the Circus. Hilary had a violent breakdown (smashing furniture and writing graffiti) which Smiley witnessed when he was in charge. There is no need for this information in terms of the plot, but it heightens the sense of both Smiley and Connie as outsiders, even rebels against the intelligence establishment. Lacon is as he ever was: ‘sophistry was Lacon’s element. He was born to it, he breathed it, he could fly and swim in it, nobody in Whitehall was better at it.’ It’s wonderful writing.

As I noted in an earlier post, Le Carré was short listed for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize. It is books like Smiley’s People that earned him this nomination; in writing about espionage, he explores the human condition. 

You can read more about Le Carré here.

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I’ve now seen the Tinker Tailer Solder Spy film, and though I enjoyed it, I still prefer the book.

I think there are two different audiences for this film: those who have read the book and those who haven’t. None of my companions for the film knew the story; none had heard of the British defectors Burgess, McClean and Philby. All found it a bit confusing, largely because there were a lot of characters, and a fair bit of jumping about in time. They also commented – though not unfavourably – on the relative lack of action, compared to most modern spy films, and what they saw as a strong emphasis on George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman.

I was interested in how the film would play to someone who knew what was going to happen, and for whom therefore there was no suspense. Could the senior members of the Circus amongst whom the mole is to be found be portrayed in sufficient depth to make it possible that any one of them is the traitor? Could Smiley’s incremental discoveries that lead to the unmasking of the mole all be included? Could the ‘last clever knot’ that Smiley has to unpick be explained in the relatively short time available? 

I accept that the story needs to be compressed to work as a film, and overall, the compression is effective enough. Most of the dialogue, while abridged, is taken straight from the book, though the lines are sometimes given to different characters. The four possible conspirators – code named tinker, tailer, soldier, spy – aren’t developed as much as in the book, but they are all equally undeveloped, so even if you know which one is the mole, you can still admire the uncertainty and suspicion that are at the heart of the story. While my companions thought Smiley was central, I thought his role is somehow diminished. The trail he follows is compressed, some of the characters he meets with in the book having a different role in the film, but others being left out altogether. Jim Prideaux’s role is also much condensed, which further limits Smiley’s; there is no hidden pursuer for him to be half aware of. Some of the flash back scenes to Circus staff socializing together seem unnecessary, especially given that so much is left out.

My companions wanted to know the mole’s motive, which is not revealed, but then it is not really explored in the book either.

In terms of plot, the essentials are there. Smiley establishes the connection between ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Operation Testify’, though you have to watch fairly carefully. ‘The last clever knot’ is there too, though again I’m not sure I would have got it if I didn’t already know.

So what did the visuals add to the story? I liked the moody interior shots of the Circus – seeing made it much more real. It made more sense of senior staff being an exclusive club on the fifth floor if you could see the rest of the rather rambling offices populated with all the lesser Circus workers. Because tinker, tailer, solder and spy can’t be as fully developed as in the book, their appearance and actions have to do the work for them; all do a good job. I didn’t think Lacon looks like the prim senior civil servant he is in the book, and I didn’t warm to Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux – too sinister, rather than rugged. The shots of ill-lit streets and dingy interiors capture the mood of the early nineteen sixties, reflecting Britain’s struggle to keep its great power status alive in the depths of the Cold War. The politics of espionage, and role of the Americans in it, are clearly brought out.

And what of Smiley? I wrote in an earlier post that for me, Alex Guinness, of the TV adaptation, is Smiley – ‘small, podgy and at best middle-aged’. Oldman clearly had to differentiate his performance from Guinness’s.  He is a younger, less eccentric Smiley, an almost self-effacing presence in the film, for all his central role. His old boss, Control (John Hurt) is a more colourful character. I suspect John Le Carre, who advised on the film, would have been happy with Oldham’s low key performance; he argues that espionage is not a flashy business. I think I still prefer Guinness – but go and see for yourself.

You can read some reviews of the film – all pretty favourable – here.

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A film version of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) has just been released, and is being greeted with critical acclaim. I always thought it was a great book, so I’ll be very interested to see what they have done with it.

George Smiley has retired from ‘the Circus’ – le Carré’s name for British Intelligence – after a scandal involving a failed incursion by a British agent, Jim Prideaux, into communist Czechoslovakia, organised by Control, the former Circus head. The story starts with Prideaux taking up a teaching job in a prep school; he plays a crucial role in the story. But the main thread follows Smiley, who is called back to clandestinely investigate whether a mole has been planted by the KGB at the heart of British Intelligence. A mole, explains a Russian agent, ‘is a deep penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism’. Control had narrowed the possibilities to five senior officers. Smiley finds himself on the same investigative road as Control was travelling before the Prideaux affair – Operation Testify – derailed him. Can he succeed where Control failed, and figure out the ‘last clever knot’ that has turned the Circus inside out?

The main interest of the book is its very clever plot – that is, how Smiley works out who is the mole.  He goes back over the recent activities of the Circus, meeting a number of people who all add something to his understanding of the KGB conspiracy.  Unlike the action thriller type of spy story, there is relatively little violence; there is no ‘bang, bang, kiss, kiss’.  However there are other things apart from the cleverness of the plot that make the book special.  Le Carré has brilliantly drawn the cast of characters, so that even those with only cameo parts seem like real people.  Smiley himself – ‘small, podgy and at best middle-aged’ – is a fully rounded and very sympathetic creation. And the atmosphere of doubt and suspicion that grips the Circus is palpable. Le Carré’s writing goes well beyond what is normally found in the ordinary espionage genre, as witnessed by his inclusion on the short list for the Man Booker International Prize for 2011 (over his protests, it must be said).

Le Carré was himself a spy, working for MI6 under diplomatic cover for about eight years, so it is no wonder he seems at home in the world of espionage. He probably worked under the British spy Kim Philby who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963; double agents, treachery and betrayal were much in the public mind at the time of writing. Smiley’s world seems so authentic that even its vocabulary has seeped into the language of espionage, the term ‘tradecraft’ for the mechanics of spying being a case in point. For all that, le Carré says he makes most of it up: ‘A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself,’ he says; ‘… nothing that I write is authentic’. I find this claim a bit unlikely, given his background. But perhaps it is the complete coherence and consistency of world that is so convincing; there is no need, as in so many other espionage stories, to suspend disbelief.

The new film is not the first screen version of the book. In 1978 it was very faithfully televised in a BBC production, recently re-issued, starring Alex Guinness as George Smiley. I love that series. For me, Guinness is Smiley. Le Carré himself acknowledges that Guinness’s portrayal of Smiley informed his writing about him in a sequel, Smiley’s People (1980). Given this, I’m not sure how I will react to a different Smiley. The new one is Gary Oldman, recently seen as Commissioner Gordon in the Batman films, and as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series; in none of these was he ‘small, podgy and at best middle aged’. But maybe he can rise to the occasion. I gather he is considered one of the best actors never to have been nominated for an Academy award. Perhaps this is his moment.

You can read more about John le Carré here, see a review of the film here and a trailer here.

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Dame Stella Rimington is Chair of the judges for this year’s Man Booker Prize. She is a former Director General of MI5, Britain’s counter-espionage agency. She has written an autobiography called Open Secret, which apparently doesn’t give any away, and spy stories featuring Liz Carlyle, also of MI5. Since she will be judging writing, I thought I’d see how she goes about it herself.

Dead Line, published in 2008, is the fourth in the series. A Middle East peace conference is to be held at Gleneagles, but there has been a tip off that unknown forces will try and disrupt it. Syria fears there will be attacks on two British residents who may be involved, and that the Syrians will be blamed for it. Is the threat to be taken seriously? Where should British counter-espionage start their investigations? Liz Carlyle gets the job. At the same time, she has friends and family to worry about, and at 35, is wondering about the direction of her own life.

I started reading expecting something along the lines of the TV series Spooks, but aside from the fact that MI5 is based at Thames House in both, and that both deal with internal threats to security, they couldn’t be much more different. Spooks is all clever computer investigation and shootouts. Dead Line owes much more to the Len Deighton tradition of tea and biscuits and inter-agency bickering. There isn’t a computer or a spy satellite in sight, and no one even glances at the CCTV footage – even when in practice I thought they would have. Given Rimington’s experience in the service, her version is doubtless far closer to the reality of counter-espionage than the more ‘kiss kiss bang bang’ version, as Ian Fleming characterised his own work (though Bond is of course MI6). Not the truth perhaps, but certainly what might have been the truth.

So how does the story stand up? Carlyle describes her investigation as being like ‘a hall of mirrors’, and certainly between MI5 and MI6, the CIA and Mossad, the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing. This makes for an intriguing story. But I would be happier if a crucial breakthrough hadn’t come about by chance. And I did feel rather confused at times, though this may have been the intention. However Rimington is making the interesting point that despite the ‘sophisticated technology and big bureaucracies’ of the security services, the human element remains crucial for both good and ill.

In my view, Rimington’s writing is perfectly adequate, rather than really compelling. For example she sometimes telegraphs her punches. Why mention not once but twice that there is a car waiting on a street, which Carlyle notices but does not question? The reader can see well in advance the car’s likely significance. It’s quite refreshing to have an ordinary fallible hero, but it seems a pity to spoil what is intended to be a point of high drama in the story. This is one place where a camera would have worked better. Then there is the question of characterisation. Rimington has chosen to humanise her characters in a way that some writers of spy thrillers don’t bother with, and while this may accord better with reality, Liz nevertheless remains rather bland and two dimensional. She is said to be tough and steely, but this never really shows.

It is true that you don’t have to write really well to be a good judge of other people’s writing. Many critics either don’t write fiction or don’t write it particularly well. (You might say this is true of me in a small way.) But I’m still a bit surprised at Rimington’s role in the Man Booker judging. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.

You can read more about Stella Rimimgton here, and this is an interview where she talks about counter-espionage.

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I’ve sometimes wondered how publishers choose the endorsements they put on books. Presumably if you like the writer giving the endorsement, you’ll want to read the book they endorse. But I can‘t imagine what the thinking was that resulted in having an endorsement for Michael Robotham’s The Suspect by Andy McNab. Robotham writes psychological thrillers. McNab writes espionage thrillers; he is above all an action man. Their books couldn’t be more different.

Andy McNab is a pseudonym. The writer uses it for security reasons, because his previous experience is as an under-cover SAS soldier. He was captured and tortured during the Fist Gulf War and was the British Army’s most highly decorated serving soldier when he finally left the SAS in February 1993. You can read about the incident here, and his account of it here. One critic said of him that ‘McNab’s greatest asset is that the heart of his fiction is not fiction: other thriller writers do their research, but he has actually been there’. His books have to be vetted by the British Ministry of Defence, so presumably there’s some truth in this claim.

Remote Control was published in 1997. Its hero, Nick Stone, is an ex member of the SAS, now a ‘K’, or independent operator, on ‘deniable’ operations for the British SIS (Secret Intelligence Service). The book begins with a prologue describing Stone’s involvement as a member of the SAS in an anti IRA operation in Gibraltar in 1988, then jumps to 1997. Stone has been involved in a very ‘deniable’ operation training Kurds in assassination techniques to destabilise Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and now is sent to Washington to check on two members of the IRA. From there, everything goes wrong, and Stone finds himself on the run from an unknown enemy, with no support from his home base. The story is made up of a series of incidents in his ensuing flight, until the hunted turns and becomes the hunter.

The story has its roots in the time honoured espionage thriller; it is in the same tradition as Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. And there are levels of treachery and betrayal in the story that would do Len Deighton’s convoluted espionage world proud. There are, however, significant differences. As a trained SAS soldier, Stone is far more professional than the ‘gentleman’ secret agent of Buchan’s day, and he has a much more casual attitude to violence.

There is certainly a great deal of topicality and realistic detail in the story – possibly too much at times, so that it can read a bit like an SAS instruction manual. And like most action thrillers, it requires readers to forget about everyday reality. But while unsurprisingly the emphasis is on the action, Stone’s portrayal as a likeable, and fallible, character adds some depth to the story. McNab has a simple and colloquial style: here is the beginning of Chapter 1.

If you work for the British intelligence service and get formally summoned to a meeting at their headquarters building on the south bank of the Thames at Vauxhall, there are three levels of interview. First is the one with coffee and biscuits, which means they’re going to give you a pat on the head. Next down the food chain is the more businesslike coffee but no biscuits, which means they’re not asking but telling you to follow orders. And finally there’s no biscuits and no coffee either, which basically means that you’re in the shit.

I liked this book well enough to try some others, but found his more recent ones show signs of being rushed out too quickly. They have titles like Recoil (2006), Crossfire (2007), Flashback (2008), Troop Seven (2009) and Brute Force (2010).

You can find out more about McNab and his books here.

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