It promises to be a banner year for spy thrillers and espionage novels, with new books from some of the masters of the genre.
Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr’s latest thriller, Prussian Blue, features his battered hero/anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a former Berlin detective of the Weimar era, once again in peril because of his checkered past. The novel offers parallel storylines: Gunther is on the run in 1956 France, chased by the East German secret services after he has refused to assassinate a Stasi agent in England (who was his lover); he finds himself flashing back to his investigation of a murder at Berchtesgaden (Hitler’s Alpine lair, the “Eagle’s Nest”) in the late 1930s. There are twists-and-turns along the way, but the stories eventually overlap before they are resolved.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels is their clear portrayal of the top Nazis not as rulers of a modern nation state but instead as corrupt crime family bosses, intent on amassing money and power (justifying their brutal actions by a horrific ideology). Traditional histories sometimes miss this element. Prussian Blue captures this insight, as Gunther learn during this investigation that the local Nazis in Berchtesgaden are dealing drugs and running a prostitution ring. Kerr is also clear-eyed about his protagonist: Bernie has committed crimes, done horrible things to stay alive—but his moral compass is not broken, and this native Berliner does what he can to set things right in his rough-and-ready way.
Prussian Blue draws on recent historical research suggesting that the Third Reich’s leaders and soldiers were jacked up on stimulants, particularly Pertavin, a version of methamphetamine. There is some irony in the hypocrisy of Nazis high on meth when their Führer was a strident non-smoking vegetarian (with his own secret drug habit).
If there’s a weakness in the novel, it’s that Kerr asks the reader to suspend belief when it comes to Bernie Gunther’s colorful and often subversive verbal pyrotechnics, which are typically aimed at high-placed Nazis and other grim authority figures. The wise-cracking Bernie has “no filter” (to use a 2017 term), when expressing his views. In real life, his sarcasm, thinly-veiled political insults, and outright insubordination would have bought him a one-way ticket to a concentration camp, no matter how useful his talents as an investigator might be.
Lenin’s Roller Coaster by David Downing
It’s been 100 years since the Russian Revolution, and David Downing has chosen the world-changing events of 1917 as the backdrop for his latest Jack McColl novel, Lenin’s Roller Coaster. His globe-trotting protagonist, McColl, a British spy, holds much more progressive political views than, say, John Buchan’s resolute Tory patriot, Richard Hannay (who had little use for the infernal Huns or for the subversive Bolshies!): McColl has his doubts about British colonial policy and Whitehall’s approach to the revolutionaries seeking reform in Russia.
As the novel opens in the winter of 1917, the Allies and Germans face a bloody stalemate in the trench warfare raging in France and Belgium. While the Czar has been deposed, the British hope to keep the Russians fighting the Kaiser on the Eastern Front. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin wants Russia to withdraw from the war, which (along with his anti-capitalist ideology) make him persona non grata for the British and French.
McColl is sent on an undercover mission to Central Asia, ordered to stop supplies from reaching the Germans. After a series of harrowing adventures, he ends up in Moscow, where his lover, the Irish-American journalist Caitlin Hanley, has taken up residence covering the Revolution. There, London tasks McColl with a dangerous and morally-dubious mission—to assist the White Russians, the counter-revolutionaries conspiring against Lenin and his government.
Downing’s fictional account of the early days of the Russian Revolution in Lenin’s Roller Coaster is largely sympathetic, capturing the excitement and idealism of the feuding socialists and anarchists who thought they were on the brink of altering world history. They were, just not for the better—the 20th Century butcher’s bill for adopting Marx’s state socialism (Communism) approached 100 million dead. This creates a problem for Downing: readers in 2017 may find it difficult to empathize with those (like Caitlin Hanley) who fervently embraced the Bolshevik experiment with its inevitable descent into state terror. As historian Sheila Fitzpatrick noted recently in the London Review of Books, the current scholarly consensus is that: “If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Russian Revolution, it is the depressing one that revolutions usually make things worse, all the more so in Russia, where it led to Stalinism.”
In his concluding historical note, Downing acknowledges that the outcome of the “grisly Soviet experiment” makes it hard to understand “the inspiration provided by the original revolution—one that captivated millions of men and women in the interwar years and beyond…” Yet, there are disturbing echoes of that same ideological fervor in today’s challenges to liberal democracy mounted by populists of the extreme Right and Left in Europe and the United States. Radicalism is making a comeback. Sadly, the appeal of utopian solutions, whether socialist or nationalist, hasn’t died despite the sobering lessons of history.
A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming
It’s not easy to write a believable spy thriller set in the here-and-now, because these days reality (Russian hacking, the Deep State, jihadist attacks in Europe’s major cities, Wikileaks, etc.) often is stranger than fiction. Today’s headlines about real world espionage and clandestine skulduggery are hard to top. Charles Cumming’s latest novel, A Divided Spy, is very current in its concerns: Russian espionage directed against the West, and the threat ISIS-inspired violence poses to Western Europe. His protagonist, former MI6 officer Thomas Kell, returns to action, haunted by a lost love and eager to take revenge on the Russian FSB officer, Alexander Minasian, he holds responsible. When Minasian is spotted at an Egyptian resort with an older man in what appears to be a gay relationship, Kell sees an opportunity (through blackmail) to avenge the murder of Rachel Wallinger, his lover.
Resolving this plot line would be more than enough for most authors, but Cumming weaves in a further complication: a potential terror attack on British soil. A young British-Pakistani man, Shahid, has been recruited by ISIS for nefarious purposes, sent to the seaside resort of Brighton, where he blends into the community. When Kell is alerted to this jihadist plot, he must convince a skeptical MI6 establishment of the looming danger with time running out.
Cumming has researched the process by which young Muslim men in Great Britain are drawn into the sick jihadist fantasies of ISIS and this informs the novel in a powerful way. He provides a chilling portrait of Shahid, a man torn between new-found religious fervor and his upbringing in the secular West. Just as disturbing: Cumming suggests British counterintelligence is unprepared to deal with the threat of lone wolf terrorism. A Divided Spy can be read as a warning of what may lie ahead, and an implicit call for a ratcheting up of internal vetting and surveillance in the United Kingdom.
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