Berlin Spy Stories

This essay first appeared in the Mystery Tribune

Spy novelists have long been drawn to Berlin’s dark and violent past, and its mix of seamy counterculture and shadowy intrigue. That should come as no surprise: Germany’s rulers prosecuted, and lost, two world wars, and after 1945 the country occupied the frontlines of the Cold War. With these conflicts came heightened covert activity—false flag operations, code breaking, sabotage, and spying by all sides.

As the capital of Germany, Berlin served as the center of political and military power for both the Kaiser and Hitler. During the Nazi years, numerous intelligence agencies (Gestapo, SD, Abwehr) competed for influence with the Führer, while at the same time Germany’s adversaries sought to place moles in the inner councils of Hitler’s regime. After the war, occupied Berlin became a place where East and West intersected, a unique Treffpunkt (meeting point), a cloak-and-dagger venue for the Western Allies and the Soviets. The city swarmed with agents. By the late 1950s, the U.S. had 15 separate intelligence outfits at work in the city, and the KGB had taken up residence at a massive complex at Karlshorst in East Berlin. Both sides recruited sources, placed penetration agents, and, when it was deemed necessary, took more “direct action,” including abductions and assassinations. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin a “swampland of espionage.” Before the Wall went up in 1961, agents and informants could cross sector borders without too much trouble.

Beyond the clandestine, Germany’s largest city has offered an intriguing, and sometimes contradictory, backdrop for fiction. Berlin has been a cosmopolitan home for artists, writers, painters, actors, and the “decadent” demimonde for more than a hundred years—think the “anything goes” atmosphere of Cabaret during the 1920s and 30s, or the free-spirited city of bohemians, drop-outs, permanent students, and punk-rockers that David Bowie and Iggy Pop inhabited in the 1970s. There’s always been a gritty Berlin underworld, filled with petty thieves, pimps, prostitutes, con men, and crime bosses. Berliners have proved remarkably resilient. They’ve endured Allied bombing raids, the brutal Soviet pillage of the city in 1945, the Berlin Airlift, the erection of the Wall, and the years as a divided and (for West Berliners) isolated place.

Berlin’s spies

John le Carré, a master of the espionage genre, began his breakthrough 1963 bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with a fatal encounter at a Berlin checkpoint, and ended it with a desperate escape attempt at the Wall. In the character of Alex Leamas, a jaded MI6 veteran, Le Carré offered readers a more realistic and nuanced alternative to James Bond, Ian Fleming’s dashing super-spy. Graham Greene praised the novel as the best spy story he had ever read, and JB Priestley said it possessed “an atmosphere of chilly hell.” The screen version of the book, directed by Martin Ritt, starred Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, and introduced the general public to Le Carré’s bleak vision of the twilight struggle between the liberal democracies and the Soviet bloc.

Le Carré wrote later that Berlin in the 1960s was “a paradigm of human folly and historical paradox.” Stationed at the British Embassy in Bonn, he had “watched the Wall’s progress from barbed wire to breeze block; I watched the ramparts of the Cold War going up on the still-warm ashes of the hot one.” (Le Carré has had a life-long interest in Germany and its literature and culture; he has set many of his other thrillers there including A Small Town in Germany, The Looking Glass War, and A Most Wanted Man.)

Other spy novelists have mined the rich material in Berlin’s troubled history, producing numerous thrillers, including series by Len Deighton (ten Bernard Samson novels), John Lawton (two Joe Wilderness books), and, most notably, David Downing (six John Russell novels) and Philip Kerr, with his critically-acclaimed Bernie Gunther series.

In Downing’s first Berlin novel, Zoo Station, we meet John Russell, an Anglo-American expat journalist of leftist political tendencies who has been living quietly in Berlin for more than a decade. It’s 1939, and Hitler is threatening war with Poland. Russell wants to stay in Germany; he has a glamorous girlfriend, an actress named Effi Koenen, and a young son, Paul, from a failed marriage. As the Third Reich moves toward outright conflict, Russell draws the attention of the Soviet, German, and British intelligence agencies, who all see him as a potentially valuable operative. To protect his family, Russell begins to cooperate with various and sundry spymasters, reluctantly compromising himself in the process.

In the five novels that follow (the Train Station series), Russell struggles in his role as amateur spy, caught in the very dangerous game of “playing the ends against the middle,” as Germany careens into war. While he despises the Nazis, Russell has little choice but to work with the Abwehr (while also running errands for the NKVD, MI6, and American military intelligence). When he can, Russell tries to help Jewish friends and acquaintances escape the roundup in Berlin, the beginning of the Final Solution, but there are limits to what he can accomplish—the Gestapo is a watchful and ever-present threat. Downing’s novels brilliantly capture the fear and paranoia of life in a dictatorship, and they illustrate the moral conflicts that confront average men and women face in a society that has abandoned the rule of law. Downing paints a harrowing portrait of the impact of the Nazi regime on Berlin and the brutal consequences of German militarism, the devastation of the city by Allied bombing and by the rampaging Red Army.

The prolific Philip Kerr offers an equally dark vision in his Berlin Noir trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem), which he had extended into another nine (and counting) Bernie Gunther novels. Kerr’s Germany is run by uniformed criminals with swastikas on their armbands, arrogant men driven not only by a warped racist ideology but also by greed, lust, and corruption. While Kerr’s work is categorized as crime fiction, his novels bridge several genres— they’re a compelling mashup of police procedural, murder mystery, and spy thriller. His plots typically follow the thriller outline established by John Buchan in The 39 Steps: take an ordinary man, give him a difficult and dangerous mystery to solve with a pressing deadline, and then have him chased by shadowy enemies.

Kerr’s brash, wise-cracking Everyman hero Bernie Gunther is a veteran of the Berlin police department from the Weimar years. He’s a survivor, willing to work for the Nazi elite in solving politically-sensitive crimes even as he recognizes the absurdity of traditional police work when civilized moral boundaries have been erased. Gunther has a stubborn sense of right and wrong, and when confronted with evil, he’s not above settling scores and seeking rough justice. The series, which spans the 1930s, the Second World War, and the early Cold War, illuminates a violent and tragic period of human history.

The Cold War and beyond

It’s been the American author Joseph Kanon who has most evocatively explored the struggle between American and Soviet intelligence agencies in the ruins of post-war Berlin. In The Good German, his protagonist, war correspondent Jake Geismer, is shocked by the devastation as he flies over the divided city: “Below them there seemed to be no movement. Shells of houses, empty as ransacked tombs, miles and miles of them, whole pulverized stretches where there were not even walls.” When Geismer is drawn into a murder investigation which involves his pre-war lover, Lena, he learns that the line between guilt and innocence is blurred. Who should take responsibility for the horrific Nazi past, and for wartime atrocities? Who is complicit? And how is justice best served?

In Leaving Berlin, Kanon focuses on life in the Eastern sector of the city, occupied by the Soviets and watched over by the dreaded East German secret police. During the Berlin Airlift in 1949, Alex Meier, a German-Jewish author, is blackmailed by the CIA into returning to East Berlin as an agent. The novel explores the moral and psychological costs of betrayal: the German Workers Paradise is a grim, oppressive place where informing on friends and colleague has become commonplace. Meier must negotiate a vastly altered personal and professional landscape, where he can’t be sure who to trust, where the fear of the Gestapo has been replaced by fear of K-5, later known as the Stasi. As the novel ends, Meier crosses from East to West through the Brandenburg Gate, a man wounded and hardened by his experiences.

The end of the Cold War hasn’t diminished Berlin’s allure for those crafting spy stories. In 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon) meets a CIA contact in Alexanderplatz during a student demonstration; later, he’s chased through a Berlin subway station. The producers of Homeland chose the German capital as the locale for the series fifth season with storylines involving the Islamic State, a resurgent Russia, and terrorism in Europe. Novelist Olen Steinhauer’s Berlin Station television spy series focuses on modern-day CIA field agents dealing with terror plots and damaging cyber leaks. And the creative team responsible for the well-received BBC adaptation of Le Carré’s The Night Manager has announced its next project will be a limited-series remake of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

With renewed tensions between the West and Russia, and with German intelligence agencies warning about jihadists hiding in the recent flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Berlin, the city will continue to have more than its fair share of intrigue—and writers eager to tell new spy stories.

Jefferson Flanders is the author of The First Trumpet trilogy about the early Cold War. His novel An Interlude in Berlin will be published in 2018.

Copyright © 2017 by Jefferson Flanders

Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017

It has been a banner year for spy thrillers and espionage novels, with new books from some of the masters of the genre.

Defectors by Joseph Kanon

“Defectors“

During the Cold War, several high-profile British Establishment figures defected to the Soviet Union, including Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and George Blake, but there were few American moles of similar prominence who fled to Moscow. Agents like Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell denied their complicity in espionage and stayed to face prosecution (and conviction) in the United States. Two members of the Rosenberg spy ring—the relatively-obscure American scientists Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant—did make their way to Russia and held high leadership positions in the Soviet military-industrial complex. Their story is told in Steve Usdin’s masterful Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.

In Defectors, Joseph Kanon has imagined what it might have been like if an American double agent, an Alger Hiss-like figure, a true believer in Marxism and world revolution, had decamped to the Socialist Paradise. It’s an intriguing premise, and Kanon has constructed a taut thriller around his defector, Frank Weeks, a Harvard-educated OSS veteran. Weeks had betrayed both his CIA colleagues and Latvian agents inserted behind the Iron Curtain during the early Cold War. The novel picks up his story years later, in 1961, as Weeks’s younger brother Simon, a successful New York publisher, arrives in Moscow. Simon has come to finalize the details on Frank’s about-to-be-published book, My Secret Life. (The KGB had encouraged the British defectors to write “tell-all” memoirs, largely as a propaganda exercise).

Simon is conflicted about seeing his brother, the infamous traitor. They were close during their Boston childhood, and Frank’s betrayal and defection had not only come as a surprise to Simon but also had ended his promising State Department career. Their relationship is captured perfectly in this brief back-and-forth:

”You never change. I can still read your face,” Frank said, a fond smile, the intimacy of drink.

”Yes? What’s it saying?”

”You’re worried. You don’t want to take your hand off the checker, until you’re sure. Remember how you used to do that? No move until you thought it was safe.”

Kanon deftly brings the other characters in Defectors to life: Frank’s wife, Joanna, who drinks to deal with the isolation of exile; Boris, the grim, proud KGB agent assigned to watch Frank; Pete DiAngelis, a CIA agent in Moscow who can’t hide his dislike of Frank and all he stands for; and Gareth Jones, a forlorn British defector not above informing on his fellow Westerners. While Defectors is well-plotted, never flagging, it is Kanon’s ability to illuminate the inner worlds of the people encountered in its pages that make it a novel well worth reading.

A Single Spy by William Christie

“A

At the center of William Christie’s A Single Spy is the character of Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, an orphan who lives by his wits in the lawless desert of Soviet Azerbaijan and is recruited into the NKVD in 1936. The spymasters in Dzerzhinsky Square have selected Alexsi because he speaks German and they send him as a teenager to Germany as a deep penetration agent. Alexsi is a survivor, ruthless when cornered, and he successfully infiltrates the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and begins to feed Moscow vital intelligence, including Hitler’s plans for an attack on the Soviet Union (information which Alexsi’s superiors ignore).

Much of the tension in the novel revolves around Alexsi’s precarious position inside German intelligence circles and the risks he must take in communicating with his Soviet handlers. He becomes entangled in Operation Long Jump, the Nazi plot to kill Winston Churchill at the 1943 Teheran Conference of the Allied leaders. When Alexsi realizes that both German and Soviet intelligence agencies want the same outcome—the British leader eliminated—he also discovers that he has become expendable. (It’s a threatening situation perfect for a resilient and imaginative survivor to overcome.)

A Single Spy is reminiscent of Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans with its depiction of the way the NKVD trained and handled its agents, and with its deeply-researched period detail. The novel is an entertaining and historically informative read, and Christie’s ability to build suspense is impressive.

The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

Paul Vidich’s second spy thriller, The Good Assassin, (a sequel to An Honorable Man), sends his hero, former CIA officer George Mueller, to 1958 Cuba. Mueller undertakes an informal mission to assess whether one of the Agency’s men in Havana, Toby Graham, has “gone rogue” and is secretly assisting Fidel Castro’s rebels with arms shipments.

“Good

There’s much to like in Vidich’s novel: he captures the pervasive corruption of dictator Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, the grinding poverty, the dominance of American mobsters and corporate interests, and the fear of SIM, the brutal Cuban secret police. Then there’s sultry Havana, filled with casinos, bars, sex shows, brothels, and gawking tourists. (Vidich teases the reader with the prospect of Mueller meeting Cuba’s most famous foreign resident, Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, but the hard-drinking author remains off-stage.)

Vidich stretches the boundaries of the spy genre. He has a literary style, with longish ruminations by his characters, and he’s quite willing to drop readers into the middle of a scene and let them piece together the backstory. There are times when the novel seems unevenly paced, but The Good Assassin closes with a flourish.

On a historical note, Vidich is spot on in highlighting the covert support Castro received from some in the CIA. The conservative U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl E. T. Smith, later blamed the CIA and some diplomats in the State Department for enabling Castro’s victory. The Cuban Revolution had its admirers in the United States (not just Herbert Matthews of the New York Times who declared Fidel’s revolt to be “radical, democratic, and therefore anti-Communist.”) While Castro may not have started out as a Communist, by the end of the revolution, those close to him, his brother Raul and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, were determined to establish Latin America’s first Marxist-Leninist state. That they succeeded has been a tragedy for the Cuban people.

Vienna Spies by Alex Gerlis

Vienna Spies is set during the final months of World War II. It has become clear that Germany will lose the war and Austrians realize that their embrace of National Socialism will come with a heavy price. The Red Army is driving the Wehrmacht back toward the west, and it is only a matter of time before Vienna falls.

“Vienna

In Alex Gerlis’ taut thriller, British policy makers have become concerned that Soviet leader Josef Stalin will renege on promises made to support Austria’s post-war neutrality and independence. They decide that they need to find and protect Austria’s leading anti-Nazi politician, one Hubert Leitner, who is hiding in Vienna and who could lead a future government sympathetic to the Allies. MI6 sends two agents, Rolf Eder and Katharina Hoch, who pretend to be a Swiss married couple (he a banker from Zurich, she a nurse). At the same time, the Soviets have also dispatched an experienced NKVD field agent, Viktor Krasotkin, to locate Leitner.

Vienna Spies captures the unrelenting tension for spies living behind enemy lines. The threat of being denounced to the authorities is always present, and the Gestapo is eager to hunt down anyone resisting Nazi rule. Gerlis is aware that modern readers might be skeptical about the ability of foreign agents to survive in a hostile city filled with supporters of Hitler, and he highlights the immense difficulties of trying to establish a cell under such circumstances. (In his Author’s Note, Gerlis cites a scholarly work, The Austrian Resistance 1938-1945, and interviews with Austrian refugees from the time, to bolster his case that they were pockets of anti-Nazis in the city).

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.

“Prussian

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.

Lenin's Roller Coaster

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.

A Divided Spy

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.


Here are past lists of top spy thrillers. You can click for:

2016’s top spy thrillers

2015’s top spy thrillers

2014’s top spy thrillers

2013’s top spy thrillers

Ten classic British spy novels


Copyright © 2017 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Click to view the video trailer for Jefferson Flanders’ critically-acclaimed: First Trumpet Cold War trilogy.

Click to purchase the First Trumpet novels: Herald Square, The North Building, and The Hill of Three Borders.


Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2016

Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2016

What are the best spy novels of 2016? During the course of the year, we’ll review the top espionage thrillers, some of which may become bestsellers and others that are great reads but not as well-promoted.

Note that this list leans toward historical spy fiction with a literary flair.

The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr – TOP SPY NOVEL OF 2016

Philip Kerr had to be persuaded by his publisher to continue his series of Bernie Gunther novels. His latest (his eleventh), The Other Side of Silence, proves that Kerr made the right decision, at least as far as his readers go—it’s a clever, entertaining thriller that also zeros in on the sorry state of British intelligence in the mid-1950s and touches upon some of the morally-suspect Cold War bargains made by both sides of that protracted conflict.

The Other Side of Silence

Kerr has no use for the fiction—advanced by Ian Fleming and John le Carré among others—that the post-war British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) was particularly effective or competent, or that it deserved the trust or respect of the American intelligence community. (The BBC’s recent video release of British traitor Kim Philby describing MI6’s lax security to a group of East German spies underscores the awkward, and ugly reality of the dysfunctional and compromised agency.)

As The Other Side of Silence opens in 1956, Kerr’s cynical protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is working as a concierge at Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera during the summer of the Suez crisis. Gunther’s checkered past as a Berlin cop, private detective, and (coerced) SS officer once again catches up to him. He’s blackmailed into helping the famous British novelist W. Somerset Maugham deal with a blackmailer threatening to expose Maugham’s connection to England’s gay demimonde (homosexuality is a crime in mid-century Great Britain).

Gunther quickly learns of the Maugham’s tangled history with both MI6 and members of the Cambridge spy ring, those upper-class Brits—like Donald Mclean, Guy Burgess, and Philby—who betrayed their class and country by spying for the Soviets. The Other Side of Silence is filled with plenty of intriguing twists and turns, a fair bit of black humor, and an uncompromising perspective on the ugliness of European history in the 20th century.

Like his hero, Kerr is a populist at heart, and he paints a devastating portrait of the arrogant and dimwitted upper echelons of Anthony Eden’s England. Gunther wisecracks somewhat less and ponders life somewhat more than in Kerr’s earlier novels and yet he notes: “Experience has taught me that it’s better to be serious and I should know; I’ve tried and failed to be serious on thousands of occasions.”

The Divided City by Luke McCallin

The Divided City

Post-World War II Berlin has attracted the attention of noted thriller authors Joseph Kanon, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr. In The Divided City, Luke McCallin brings his protagonist, ex-intelligence officer Captain Gregor Reinhardt, back to Berlin in 1947. Like Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, Reinhardt served on the Weimar-era city police force and has a checkered wartime past (in Reinhardt’s case, involving his actions in the Balkans).

The Divided City captures the Hobbesian-environment of Berlin in the early years of the Allied occupation. With much of the city in ruins, residents do what they have to in order to survive. Reinhardt, back on the police force, is tasked with solving a series of gruesome murders of former Luftwaffe personnel. In doing so, he attracts the interest of British, American, and Soviet intelligence—to say nothing of a band of embittered German veterans.

McCallin’s considerable strengths as a novelist lie in his evocative prose and memorable characterizations. His plotting, is, in a word Byzantine; I’ll confess to having gotten lost at times in following the complex twists and turns of the story. Yet The Divided City is still an intriguing read, filled with suspense and a compelling cast of characters.

The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

The Girl from Venice

Martin Cruz Smith’s latest thriller, The Girl from Venice, features a mythic opening. It is 1945 in Italy and the end of the war nears. A fisherman, Cenzo, finds a beautiful young Jewish woman, Giulia, floating mermaid-like in the Venice Lagoon, and quickly discovers that she is on the run from the Germans and their Italian Fascist allies. Cenzo decides to shelter the woman, and that decision not only opens wounds from his past, but plunges the couple into the turmoil surrounding the final days of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

The novel straddles several genres: it’s a mystery, but also a romance, with elements of a spy thriller. Smith gets the details right. Whether it’s the craft of fishing at night, or the art of forgery, he seamlessly blends fact and fiction. He has few illusions about the human condition, and Smith is at his best when he portrays the corrosive effects of greed and corruption on people.

At the same time, The Girl from Venice illuminates the powerful pull of love, romantic and familial, and touches upon themes of loss, betrayal, and redemption. The novel is an engaging read, and Cenzo and Giulia are wonderfully-drawn characters.

The Unfortunate Englishman by John Lawton

Writing an effective sequel can prove to be can be a tricky thing: provide too much backstory, and readers who enjoyed the initial book may be bored or turned off; offer too little context, and new readers may be lost. Making sure that the “next book” stands by itself isn’t easy.

The Unfortunate Englishman

The challenges of crafting a seamless sequel are apparent in The Unfortunate Englishman, a spy thriller by John Lawton. His cynical protagonist, Joe Wilderness, is tasked by British intelligence to return to Berlin in 1965 to negotiate a spy exchange. Wilderness has a checkered past in Germany (a failed romance, involvement in the black market) and proves willing to cut corners, legal and ethical. The narrative jumps around in time, as Wilderness tries to complete his mission for MI6 while resolving unfinished business involving a pre-Wall smuggling operation.

There’s a lot to like in The Unfortunate Englishman. Lawton is a clever and talented writer, with a dry English sense of humor, and an ear for dialogue. He paints a convincing picture of Cold War Berlin. The book’s plot line can be hard to follow, however, made more complicated by the numerous flashbacks, and I found myself wishing that I had read the first Joe Wilderness novel, Then We Take Berlin.

A Hero of France by Alan Furst

Alan Furst’s A Hero of France brought to mind one of my favorite novels about the Second World War, H.E. Bates’ Fair Stood the Wind for France, first published in 1944. Bates told the story of Franklin, the pilot of a downed RAF bomber, and his quest to escape from occupied France. Furst’s latest elegantly-written historical spy thriller also focuses on Resistance efforts to shelter and exfiltrate British airmen shot down over France.

A Hero of France

A Hero of France begins in 1941, before Hitler had turned on Stalin and when French Communists had been instructed not to oppose the Germans. It’s a time when only Gaullists are resisting the Nazi occupiers. Furst’s protagonist, Mathieu, leads a Resistance group in Paris that has established an escape line to Spain but, as he is reminded by an arrogant English spy, such cells are typically discovered within six months. Before long, a French-speaking detective from Hamburg is dispatched to France to help the German military police hunt down Mathieu and his people, and it seems it’s only a matter of time before the operation is betrayed.

Mathieu is a typical Furst hero: vital, intelligent, well-educated, attractive to women, and reluctantly drawn into the violence necessary for clandestine work. Through his eyes, we see how living under occupation alters behavior: how some people collaborate, some seek to profit, some have the courage to resist (passively and actively) and some just hope to remain neutral and sit out the war. The backdrop is Paris, the City of Light, and Furst once again paints a brilliant and admiring portrait of the city, capturing its sights and sounds.

French historians and intellectuals have debated the extent and effectiveness of La Résis (largely since the 1960s), with many suggesting that antisemitism and collaboration with the Nazis was much more widespread than had been acknowledged, and that the number of French in the Resistance had been grossly exaggerated. By its very title, A Hero of France suggests where Furst comes down on this question. He reminds us that there were indeed those who risked all and put their lives on the line to fight the Nazis, both in occupied and Vichy France. They were helped in small and large part by many of those around them. The Resistance may have not been as large in numbers as legend or myth would have it, but there were heroes, and Furst’s novel is a fictional reminder of that reality.

An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich

An Honorable Man

Paul Vidich has set his first novel in 1953 Washington, D.C., during the early Eisenhower Administration, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy represented a powerful presence in the Capital, and the FBI sought to surface clandestine Soviet agents in the government. The protagonist of An Honorable Man is a burnt-out CIA agent, George Mueller, who has been assigned to a team hunting for a mole, code named Protocol, inside the Agency. CIA officials want to catch the double agent without alerting the witch hunters in Congress. As the investigation begins, Mueller realizes that he may not be above suspicion himself—and finding the penetration agent is the only way to clear his own name.

An Honorable Man is a solid, and entertaining, spy thriller. Mueller and the supporting characters are well-drawn. Vidich handles the action scenes in the novel with aplomb, although at least one—set at a Russian Embassy summer house—seems a bit forced. Nonetheless, An Honorable Man‘s intricate plot turns will keep the reader guessing at the identity of the “traitor within” until the very end.

Some advance reviewers have likened Vidich to John le Carré (the lazy clichéd comparison often used for espionage novelists). In fact, Vidich’s noirish prose style is closer to Olen Steinhauer’s, and for plot twists he borrows more from Raymond Chandler than le Carré.

The Travelers by Chris Pavone

The Travelers

Chris Pavone’s latest effort is a strange, and entertaining, mixture of spy tech fantasy, comic takes on Manhattan life, and meditations on the tensions of modern marriage. If you’re looking for a realistic spy story, one that delves into how intelligence agencies work today, this is not the book for you. With its breathless, hidden conspiracy-driven plot, The Travelers is closer to the spirit of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, than to traditional espionage fiction.

The Everyman protagonist of The Travelers is Will Rhodes, and His Hero’s Journey takes him from innocent travel magazine writer to hunted man on the run. Along the way, Pavone treats us to some funny riffs on New York media people, Brooklyn hipsters, American tourists in Europe, fitness-crazed trophy wives, and backstabbing office politicians. It’s easy to lose track of the plot twists—some which call for an ample suspension of belief—because they keep coming, but all is resolved in the end.

If you’re in the market for an escapist thriller, with sly asides about The Way We Live Today and detours to Argentina, Iceland, and Sweden, you can’t go too far wrong with The Travelers.


Here are past lists of top spy thrillers. You can click for:

2015’s top spy thrillers

2014’s top spy thrillers

2013’s top spy thrillers

Ten classic British spy novels


Copyright © 2016 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Click to view the video trailer for Jefferson Flanders’ critically-acclaimed: First Trumpet Cold War trilogy.

Click to purchase the First Trumpet novels: Herald Square, The North Building, and The Hill of Three Borders.


The Myths of Kim Philby

Reprinted from Washington Decoded.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Ben Macintyre
Crown. 384 pp. $27

In A Spy Among Friends, author Ben Macintyre portrays Harold A. R. “Kim” Philby as a charming, glamorous double agent, a Marxist Scarlet Pimpernel, able to confound British and American intelligence officials even after his complicity as a Soviet spy should have been apparent to all. The New York Times named A Spy Among Friends one of the top 50 non-fiction books of 2014, and it has been praised by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Walter Isaacson, and David Ignatius, among others.

While the book is an entertaining read, Macintyre’s account of Philby as the Perfect Mole is deeply flawed. A Spy Among Friends perpetuates several myths: it misstates Philby how Philby was viewed by the intelligence communities in Britain and the United States; it downplays the critical role of the FBI and the VENONA intercepts in exposing Philby and his fellow “Cambridge Five” spies; and it ignores perhaps Philby’s most significant “great betrayal”—the role that he and his fellow agents, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, played in passing American military plans to Moscow during the Korean war.

Macintyre centers his narrative around Philby’s friendship with fellow MI6 official Nicholas Elliott, a story suggested by John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) as one worthy of telling; le Carré accordingly contributes an afterword to the book.  Yet this angle, allegedly the “best untold spy story of the Cold War” according to Macintyre and le Carré, isn’t particularly compelling. Elliott was a rather conventional, clubbable intelligence officer whose main claim to fame was believing in Philby until his friend’s guilt became impossible to deny. Rather than thinking for himself, Macintyre simply doubled-down on le Carré’s rendering of the Philby saga. Le Carré is famously invested, of course, in the symbolic importance of Philby-as-Master-Spy, elusive betrayer of a decadent Establishment. The famous fictional mole at the Circus, Bill Haydon, was a thinly-veiled stand-in for Philby in le Carré’s celebrated novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The Legend of Philby’s Charm

It’s true that many within Philby’s insular, hard-drinking Oxbridge circle succumbed to what Macintyre calls his “golden charm,” and were shocked when the truth emerged. Graham Greene, who worked with Philby during the Second World War, never abandoned his hero-worship of Philby, even visiting him in Moscow after he defected.

But that was not how Philby was universally perceived. Others in British intelligence weren’t as entranced. Senior MI6 official Patrick Reilly, for example, objected strenuously to the idea of Philby as future head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) when it was proposed in the early 1950s. “I’m not particularly sensitive,” Reilly later explained,  “but it was the only time in my life when I felt, ‘There is something wrong with this fellow.’”[1]

When Philby arrived in Washington in 1949 to become the British liaison to American intelligence (replacing Donald Maclean), he failed to impress many of his new colleagues. The FBI’s Robert Lamphere expressed surprise that this stammering Englishman was a top SIS official: “Kim Philby was seedy and spoke with a stutter. His clothes were loose-fitting and shabby, and his face and figure had few notable features. I could hardly believe that this unimpressive man was being spoken of as a future chief of MI-6, in line for a knighthood.”[2]

Soon, the CIA’s Frank Wisner suspected Philby of betraying Albanian émigrés, who were engaged in a series of ill-founded covert operations aimed at spurring a revolt in Communist Albania. The CIA’s counterintelligence chief, William King Harvey, came to distrust Philby as well. Allen Dulles, then the Agency’s deputy director of intelligence, also developed reservations about Philby. Dulles shared his concerns with CIA director Walter Bedell Smith in 1951, who alerted deputy director William Jackson and Jackson moved to shut off Philby’s access to top-secret information.[3]

Macintyre fails to mention any of this. He sticks to the myth of Philby’s golden charm (“Philby loved Washington, and Washington loved him”) and apparently accepts at face value Philby’s dismissive views of his American colleagues:

There was Johnny Boyd, assistant director of the FBI (“by any objective standard, a dreadful man”); Frank Wisner, head of the Office of Policy Coordination (“balding and self-importantly running to fat”); Bill Harvey of CIA counterintelligence (“a former FBI man . . . sacked for drunkenness”); CIA chief Walter Bedell Smith (“a cold, fishy eye”);  deputy CIA head and future chief Allen Dulles (“bumbling”); Bob Lamphere of the FBI (“puddingy”); and many more.[4]

Philby shared these opinions in his autobiography, My Secret War. In retrospect, it’s clear they reflect his pique that he couldn’t charm and fool the “plodding” plebian Americans the way he had some of his colleagues at home. In fact, British counterintelligence was shoddy. Klaus Fuchs, the physicist who passed atomic secrets to the Soviets, was cleared six times by Roger Hollis, future director general of MI5 (the British equivalent of the FBI). One of the Cambridge Five, Anthony Blunt, estimated that there were twenty or thirty more Soviet moles well placed within the British government; others, like MI5’s Peter Wright, believed the numbers were higher.[5]

It was an American operation—the VENONA decrypts of Soviet cable traffic—that directly led to the unmasking of both Fuchs and the Cambridge spies. A cable that pointed to a high-placed British penetration agent, HOMER, in Washington led investigators to Donald Maclean. When Maclean, along with Guy Burgess (a second secretary at the British Embassy who was living in Philby’s house), bolted for Moscow in late May 1951, the damning links to Philby were obvious.

For all intents and purposes, Philby’s usefulness as a Soviet agent ended with the defections of Maclean and Burgess. Throughout A Spy Among Friends, Macintyre Venonaargues that senior members of the British and American intelligence establishment accepted Philby’s protestations of innocence. The record, instead, suggests that MI6’s defense of Philby was more about protecting bureaucratic turf and a reflexive closing of ruling-class ranks. There was no support for Philby in the United States, and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, for one, argued vigorously for public exposure of Philby’s treachery.

After the Maclean-Burgess defections, CIA director Smith dispatched an ultimatum to Stewart Menzies, MI6 chief, demanding that London remove Philby—or Smith would cease all collaboration with the British. Smith sent a note to a British colleague about Philby:  “I hope the bastard gets his. I know a couple of Albanian tribesmen who would like to have half an hour apiece with him.”[6]

Contrary to the picture Macintyre paints, top MI6 officials also reluctantly recognized that Philby was most likely the Third Man. James Easton, assistant to Menzies, accepted the American case against Philby (“a practiced liar and . . . therefore capable of anything”). Menzies, who retired in 1952, “suffered from nightmares, apparently to do with Philby”—which is hardly the profile of a man at ease with the idea of Philby’s innocence. MI5’s Dick White informed both Menzies and his successor, John Sinclair, that Philby was a security risk and most likely guilty of espionage (White was named head of MI6 in 1956).[7]

Philby’s replacement in Washington, John Bruce-Lockhart of MI6, began his first meeting with Smith by saying, “Walter, what happened with Philby and those other bastards is the greatest betrayal I know. My job here is to make sure there is a way past that.” (Despite the reference to a “Great Betrayal” in his book’s subtitle, Macintyre doesn’t include this quote).[8]

Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan’s infamous public exoneration of Philby in the House of Commons in 1955 was driven by British political considerations, not by what MI5 had concluded about Philby’s complicity. Macintyre concedes that point, yet argues: “But within the CIA it was generally agreed that if MI6 considered him trustworthy, and Harold Macmillan had said he was innocent, then Philby must be clean.”[9]

The idea that the CIA considered Philby “clean” is laughable. Michael Howard Holtzman, one of Angleton’s biographers, noted: “This [Macmillan’s comments on Philby] did not go down well with the Central Intelligence Agency, where Angleton, along with most others was convinced that Philby was the Third Man.” Phillip Knightley observed, “After Philby, the special relationship was never to be the same again, and his treachery so poisoned the minds of some CIA officers that . . . they were never again able totally to trust even their closest colleagues.”[10]

Macintyre argues that Angleton continued to believe in Philby’s innocence throughout the 1950s. (Philby defected to the Soviets in January 1963). While Angleton may have been fooled by Philby prior to 1951 (and even then, there are suggestions that he suspected his British colleague), it’s hard to believe he would have ignored the list of lies Philby had told over the years that were documented by the FBI and MI5. Even if Angleton had remained skeptical about the case against Philby, the senior leadership of the CIA (Smith, Dulles, Wisner, etc.) had no such illusions.[11]

Philby and Korea

There are no index entries for “Korea” and “Korean War” in A Spy Among Friends, a startling omission. The most fascinating, and unresolved, questions about the Cambridge spy ring, revolve around its impact on the Korean War. In the early years of the conflict, Maclean headed the American desk in London, while Philby and Burgess had access in Washington to not only high-level strategic intelligence (for example, Truman’s thinking on the use of atomic weapons) but also to US war plans.

General Douglas MacArthur and other US commanders complained repeatedly in 1950 and 1951 that their North Korean and Chinese adversaries appeared to have advance knowledge of their plans. William Manchester, in his biography of MacArthur, KwarAmerican Caesar, wrote: “James M. Gavin, an officer untainted by McCarthyism, recalls that during his service in the last critical months of 1950, the enemy repeatedly displayed an uncanny knowledge of UN troop deployment.” According to Manchester, Gavin became “quite sure now that all of MacArthur’s plans flowed into the hands of the Communists through the British Foreign Office.”[12]

In 1955, General James Van Fleet told US News & World Report that: “The enemy would not have entered Korea if he did not feel safe from attack in Northern China and Manchuria. My own conviction is that there must have been information to the enemy that we would not attack his home base.”[13]

Anthony Cave Brown, author of Treason in the Blood (still the definitive biography of Philby) noted in a 1994 C-SPAN interview that many officials thought that “through Philby, the Soviet government learned enough about the deployment, the limitations of the force, the lengths and breadths of the strategy in Korea to be able to launch the Chinese counteroffensive at the right place, at the right time with the right weight and with terrible destructive force. If my opinion was asked for—and it often is on this case—I would say that Philby did, in fact, provide the Soviets with that type of information.”[14]

That Macintyre ignores this angle in his book may reflect both his Anglocentrism (the focus in A Spy Among Friends rarely strays from London and environs), and also, perhaps, an unconscious desire to absolve Philby of his role in the deaths of thousands of American and, yes, British soldiers. At one point Macintyre describes Philby as a “kind lover, a good friend, a gentle father, and a generous host. He had a talent for tenderness.” It’s hard to square that portrait with a man whose betrayals caused thousands of battlefield deaths and prolonged the Korean War.[15]

The Failure of British Security Policy

Armed with the VENONA decrypts and the revelations of former Soviet spies like Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers, US counterintelligence moved aggressively to uncover and remove highly placed penetration agents. The Truman Administration’s clumsy federal loyalty program, which prompted some 3,000 or so government employees to resign and led to few hundred dismissals, undoubtedly eliminated some active or potential moles.

In Britain, it was a different story. The American approach to security was derided as excessive, McCarthyite, and consequently there was never a proper vetting of the intelligence agencies and the Foreign Service. Had it not been for VENONA, Fuchs and Maclean would not have been exposed. It’s quite possible that Kim Philby might have become SIS chief, placing a Soviet penetration agent at the head of British intelligence. During the late 1940s and 1950s, there was no George Smiley figure ready to ferret out and unmask the traitors. It’s no wonder that British intelligence was marginalized post-Philby and post-Suez, a bitterly-resented relegation that appears to have encouraged a lasting strain of snobbish anti-Americanism by British elites, as reflected in le Carré’s decades-long negative portrayal of the American “cousins.”[16]

    A Spy Among Friends offers an entertaining and amusing account of the fading English elite in all its eccentric glory—a comic Downton Abbey view of the British intelligence establishment. As a serious work of historical scholarship, however, Macintrye’s book leaves much to be desired.


Jefferson Flanders is an independent journalist and author who has contributed to Washington Decoded in the past.  His novel, The North Building, in part explores Kim Philby’s role in passing American military secrets during the Korean War.

 

[1] Tom Bower, The Perfect English Spy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 103.

[2] Robert J. Lamphere, The FBI-KGB War (Macon, GA: Macon University Press, 1995), 130.

[3] Anthony Cave Brown, Treason in the Blood (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 422; Leonard Mosley, Dulles: A Biography of Eleanor, Allen and John Foster Dulles and Their Family Network (New York: The Dial Press/James Wade, 1978), 284-285.

[4]Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (New York: Crown, 2014), 132.

[5] Robert C. Williams, Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 97.

[6] Mosley, Dulles, 285.

[7] Brown, Treason, 442-443; Stephen Dorril, MI6 (New York: The Free Press, 2000), 494; Bower, Perfect English Spy, 132-134.

[8] Quoted in Gordon Thomas, Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6 (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009), 131.

[9] Macintyre, Spy Among Friends, 226.

[10] Michael Howard Holtzman, James Jesus Angleton, the CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press), 134; Philip Knightley, The Second Oldest Profession  (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 276.

[11] In 1950, Israeli intelligence officer Teddy Kollek, later mayor of Jerusalem, encountered Philby on a visit to CIA headquarters. Kollek remembered attending Philby’s marriage to an Austrian Communist, Litzi Friedmann, in Vienna in 1934 and he promptly recounted as much to Angleton. This incident is not mentioned in A Spy among Friends. (See Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 91-92.

[12] William Manchester, American Caesar (New York: Back Bay Books, 2008), 597.

[13] Verne W. Newton, The Cambridge Spies: The Untold Story of Maclean, Philby, and Burgess in America (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1991), 295.

[14] C-SPAN Booknotes, Anthony Cave Brown: Treason in the Blood, Program Air Date: 15 January 1995.

[15] Macintyre, Spy Among Friends, 215.

[16] While John Bingham, the model for le Carré’s fictional George Smiley, worked for MI5 in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, he played no role in the investigation of Philby or the other Cambridge spies or George Blake, a MI6 official who betrayed scores of agents behind the Iron Curtain. See Michael Jago, The Man Who Was George Smiley: The Life of John Bingham (London: Biteback Publishing, 2013).

©2015 by Jefferson Flanders

Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015

Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015

Here are my picks for the best spy novels of 2015. Some of these thrillers may make the bestseller lists, and others may prove to have a narrower reader appeal. Please note that I’m partial to historical fiction about espionage that has a literary flair; the novels I’ve selected reflect that bias.

(Click for my list of 2014’s top spy thrillers and 2013’s top spy thrillers ).

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon – TOP SPY NOVEL OF 2015

Leaving Berlin may be the most suspenseful of Joseph Kanon’s historical spy thrillers, a beautifully-crafted and evocative novel set in the ruins of 1949 East Berlin. Kanon’s The Good German took place a few years earlier, in 1945 Berlin, and he has an affinity for the city and its culture (just as novelist Alan Furst does for Paris between the wars.)

Leaving Berlin

The novel’s protagonist is Alex Meier, a German-Jewish author who has spent the Second World War in Hollywood but has now run afoul of Congressional investigators who want him to “name names,” which as a matter of principle he won’t. No longer welcome in America, Meier finds himself warmly welcomed by the Soviet authorities ruling Berlin. But Meier has struck a secret, Faustian bargain with the CIA—in exchange for his eventual readmission to the U.S., where his twelve-year old son lives, he will spy on the Russians and their German Stalinist helpers.

Meier is not the only literary exile returning to post-war Berlin; Kanon includes two real-life figures—Bertolt Brecht, the German Marxist poet and playwright, and the anti-Fascist writer Anna Seghers (the pseudonym adopted by Anna Reiling)—who have also decided to live under Communism in the hopes of building a new society, a Workers’ Paradise.

Meier finds a city full of contrasts. Berliners can still travel between the Soviet, American, French, and British sectors. At the same time, however, the Soviets are trying to force the Allies to leave by cutting off access to the food and coal necessary for the city’s very existence. The West has responded with the Berlin Airlift, and the sight and sound of airplanes flying overhead is a constant reminder in Leaving Berlin of a growing Cold War tension that Meier can’t escape.

The novel explores the moral and psychological costs of betrayal. The CIA expects Meier to spy on his German friends from the past, including the beautiful aristocrat Irene von Bernuth, once his lover; the German secret police (the K-5, later known as the Stasi) are recruiting informants; and the Russians are setting the stage for a purge of Party members who suddenly find themselves labeled as counter-revolutionaries because they’ve made the wrong joke.

Kanon has fashioned a suspenseful and engaging story against this backdrop. As Dieter, a former Berlin cop now working for the Americans, and one of the more appealing characters in the book, explains to Meier “in this business at some point you have to trust somebody.” Who Meier can trust—and how the personal can trump the political—becomes the fascinating question at the heart of Leaving Berlin, and one that commands the reader’s attention until the very last page.

One Man’s Flag by David Downing

It’s 1915 and British intelligence agent Jack McColl is back, defending the far-flung Empire as the First World War rages in Europe. David Downing introduced McColl in Jack of Spies and he’s a likeable character, an English patriot who also sympathizes with the Indian and Irish nationalists chafing under imperial rule.

One Man's Flag

Jack has been tasked with disrupting plots against His Majesty’s control of British colonies, and that puts him in tight spots from Darjeeling to Dublin. At the same time, One Man’s Flag follows the travels of the feminist American journalist Caitlin Hanley—McColl’s estranged love interest—who chronicles the brutal war on the Western front.

One Man’s Flag is an engaging read, chock full of adventure and history. The British Empire held together until after the Second World War, when demands for independence and self-determination by its colonies could no longer be denied. Until then, the Foreign Service and intelligence agencies of the Crown fought a holding action, and Downing’s Jack McColl novels should offer an intriguing short course on this somewhat ignored history.

The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry

The desire for revenge—for payback against those who have wronged us—taps into deep evolutionary impulses. We must punish offenders to deter others who might be tempted to wrong us. Harsh, public reprisals discourage future offenses, or to cast revenge in a more positive light, it acts to encourager les autres into better behavior.

The Mulberry Bush

Charles McCarry’s latest, The Mulberry Bush, is an intriguing novel that employs the spy thriller genre to explore the theme of revenge. McCarry, a former CIA field operative, is best known for The Tears of Autumn, which offers an inventive conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination, and the political intrigue Shelley’s Heart, which John J. Miller of the National Review has endorsed as one of ten great conservative political novels.

The plot in The Mulberry Bush is quite simple: the son of a disgraced American intelligence officer becomes a spy himself in the hopes of damaging the institution he believes has ruined his father’s life. The novel is told from the first person perspective, and the protagonist—never identified by name—becomes a skilled field agent as he climbs the career ladder within the agency (called only Headquarters in the book) preparing for a day of reckoning. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful Argentinian woman, Luz, whose parents are revolutionaries, casualties of the Dirty War waged by the Argentine military government in the 1970s. She also wants retribution for the loss of her father and mother, and she blames the Americans for their support of the junta’s torturers. Together, they weave an intricate plot against Headquarters involving Latin terrorists and Russian spies. They have not accounted for the Law of Unintended Consequences, however, and events quickly spiral out of control.

Much of The Mulberry Bush is beautifully written and artfully plotted, leavened with bits of sly humor. McCarry is particularly biting when he writes about the willingness of radical elites to sacrifice their working class foot soldiers. The novel also some interesting things to say about love and betrayal.

In the end, however, The Mulberry Bush suffers from an identity crisis of sorts: it’s not quite realistic espionage fiction, nor is it a full-throttle conspiracy-driven thriller. McCarry asks the reader to suspend disbelief once too often. Russia’s FSB (the successor to the KGB) is portrayed as a modern-day SMERSH (of James Bond fame) with tentacles everywhere. The quasi-Maoist Latin American terrorist network in the book is pure fantasy. For my money, the thriller elements don’t add anything to the novel, and detract from McCarry’s intelligent consideration of the psychic costs of getting even.

The English Spy by Daniel Silva

In the past, I haven’t included any of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels in my top spy thrillers lists. While his books are well-written and carefully researched, I’ve found Silva’s penchant for over-the-top plot twists and casual violence somewhat off-putting. But on the 2015 list I’m including The English Spy, the fifteenth in the Allon series, because of how Silva paints a disturbingly accurate picture of current Russian and Iranian intentions. As Silva noted in a recent “Meet the Press” interview, his very negative portrayal of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow Rules (2008) has proven to be spot on; it appears that his depiction of the Russian-Iranian intelligence collaboration in The English Spy is playing out in the Mideast today.

The English Spy

In The English Spy Israeli super-agent Gabriel Allon teams up with a former SAS operative in hunting down a veteran IRA bomber who has murdered a member of the British royal family. As the story unfolds, Allon learns that the Russian FSB may be involved, and that there are more targets for bombing in the United Kingdom.

What’s different about The English Spy is how Silva’s novel directly criticizes the Obama Administration’s handling of Russia and Iran. In media appearances, Silva has been skeptical about the Iran nuclear deal and its lack of “anytime, anywhere” inspections. It’s a sad commentary that this former journalist and thriller writer has a better understanding of current foreign policy realities than does the State Department and White House.

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr says it was the encouragement of Ivan Held, president of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, that caused him to write yet another Bernie Gunther novel, even though Kerr wondered whether the character was played out after nine books. Held was proved correct by The Lady from Zagreb. There’s nothing tired or overly derivative about the novel, which features former Berlin homicide detective Gunther caught up in the dangerous internal politics of a Nazi Germany gone mad.

The Lady from Zagreb

In his latest adventure, Gunther must dance to the tune of the notorious Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, who has become besotted with a mysterious Croatian actress named Darla Dresner. Goebbels tasks Gunther with persuading Dresner to star in a Nazi propaganda film, a job that takes him from Berlin to the killing fields of Croatia and then to the placid streets of Zurich.

In Switzerland Bernie tangles with Gestapo thugs and OSS agents controlled by Allen Dulles (the future CIA chief) while falling heads-over-hells for the glamorous movie star, who has a few secrets of her own. Gunther must find a way to protect a woman he now loves without signing his own death warrant, a challenge he (not surprisingly) proves capable of meeting.

It’s hard to categorize Kerr’s novels. While they often employ traditional crime story elements (an unsolved murder or two) and feature a former cop, they also involve a fair amount of political intrigue and, at times, conventional espionage. At the same time, Kerr is interested in the compromises his subversive Everyman, Bernie Gunther, must make to stay alive and in what he can salvage of decency and love in a world seemingly without morality.

The Swimmer by Joakim Zander

The English translation of Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer arrives with considerable advance praise: author Joseph Finder lauds it as “comparable to the best of Le Carré,” and Kirkus Reviews calls it a “compulsively readable page-turner with unexpected heart.”

The Swimmer

There’s no question that Zander, a Swedish author and lawyer, has carefully read Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) and many of Larsson’s elements turn up in The Swimmer: a female punk hacker, corrupt lawyers, sinister conspiracies, Sweden in the winter, and even a sly meta-reference to Lisbeth Salander. A blurb on the novels’s inside book flap trumpets “Homeland meets Stieg Larsson.”

While an engaging beach or airport read, The Swimmer doesn’t live up to the literary hype—it’s more Dan Brown than John Le Carré. Zander understands how to keep a thriller moving, and he successfully borrows Brown’s technique of brief chapters ending with an unresolved conflict or crisis. Yet the novel is driven by an implausible plot (daylight gun battles in Brussels and Paris?) and a lazy Euro-left stance toward Islamic jihadism that—after the Charlie Hebdo attack and the rise of ISIS—is completely out of touch with current reality.

Zander’s novel focuses on American misdeeds in the War on Terror, echoing some of le Carré’s concerns explored in A Delicate Truth and A Most Wanted Man, but without Le Carre’s restraint and appreciation of nuance. (Zander does adopt le Carre’s reflexive anti-Americanism which remains fashionable in many European circles.)

The characters in The Swimmer aren’t fleshed out: there’s a deep-cover CIA agent, a bunch of young Swedish lawyers of varying backgrounds (a plucky feminist, an academic of Middle Eastern heritage, a sleek, corporate striver), a ruthless group of American intelligence contractors, and (of course) that punk-culture hacker. The narrative switches back and forth between Stockholm, Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, the U.S., and the Middle East and Zander is at his best in his description of the varying urban landscapes.

Every reader, and reviewer, has her or her prejudices. I could do without Zander’s repeated references to brand names (Helly Hansen, Volvo, Nike, Elsa Beskow, Svenskt Tenn, Nespresso, Turnbull & Asser, iPhone, and Montblanc in the first 30 pages alone.) At least if there’s a movie version, product placement won’t be a problem.

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer takes some risks with All the Old Knives, writing a stripped-down spy thriller that focuses on character rather than action, and the personal rather than the political. Forewarned is forearmed—readers looking for page-turning derring do will be disappointed but those intrigued by a deeper consideration of how intelligence officers struggle to balance loyalty and love will be rewarded.

All the Old Knives

The novel takes place in the recent past and is set primarily in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Henry Pelham, a CIA agent based in Vienna, meets Celia Harrison, his former colleague and lover, for dinner at a “foodie” restaurant. Celia is married, with two children, but Henry still carries a torch for her. He has a professional reason for meeting her, however: the Agency is investigating a skyjacking at the Vienna airport six years earlier involving jihadist terrorists. Henry needs Celia’s recollections of how the CIA station handled the crisis, which ended tragically.

As they discuss the hostage situation and the past over a leisurely dinner, some disturbing questions emerge. Did someone in the Agency help the terrorists? Who? If so, why? At the same time, Henry has another more personal question he wants answered: why did Celia decide to break it off with him immediately after the crisis and leave the CIA?

All the Old Knives doesn’t boast an elaborate and complex plot, nor are the twists and turns Steinhauer introduces particularly surprising (or completely plausible); the strength of the novel lies in its exploration of Henry and Celia and why they have been drawn to intelligence work and to each other. They are flawed—adept at lying, wary of intimacy, ruthless when cornered—and, in the end, made for each other.

(Click for my list of 2014’s top spy thrillers and 2013’s top spy thrillers ).


Copyright © 2015 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Click to view the video trailer for Jefferson Flanders’ critically-acclaimed: First Trumpet Cold War trilogy.

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