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 promises to be a banner year for spy thrillers and espionage novels, with new books from some of the masters of the genre.

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.


William Shakespeare and the Mind of the Maker

In The Tutor, an elegantly crafted novel that imagines William Shakespeare’s life during the early 1590s (during what scholars call his “lost years”), author Andrea Chapin accepts the notion that one of the world’s most famous writers was, indeed, the son of a glover from Stratford-upon-Avon, a provincial English town.

The Tutor

That’s a distinct improvement over the recent attempted rewriting of literary history in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s 2011 movie that depicts Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as having secretly written Shakespeare’s plays. De Vere died in 1604, well before Shakespeare’s later plays were staged, but that doesn’t give the Oxfordians pause. They claim that de Vere must have left a cache of writings.

Another group of literary conspiracy buffs argue that Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, is responsible for Shakespeare’s works. As with de Vere’s advocates, the Baconians claim that their man had the education, background, and biography to be a literary genius, and Shakespeare didn’t. They’re wrong. Columbia University’s James Shapiro does a masterful job of debunking Bacon-as-Shakespeare and the other candidates in his Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, noting that Shakespeare’s literary rivals and colleagues never called his authorship of what were very popular plays (and well-received poetry) into question.

In The Tutor, Chapin’s Shakespeare isn’t a fraud, but rather a man-on-the-make capitalizing on his gift of glibness. He’s a bisexual rake who manipulates men and women through his quick wit, personal magnetism, and brilliant acting. In the novel, Shakespeare is a schoolmaster, a tutor, to an aristocratic Catholic family in Lancashire. A young widow, Katherine de L’Isle, becomes Shakespeare’s muse and his quite critical line editor, as can be seen in this passage from the novel:

“…she dipped a quill in ink and started to write on Will’s pages, circling words, querying meaning and placement and feeling. Her lines stretched out at strange angles from his neat and careful handwriting, connecting his words to his. By the time she finished, the pages looked like maps, his words countries whose boundaries and allegiances had been called into question.”

Even while Chapin accepts the reality of the Stratford Shakespeare, she can’t resist introducing a classically-educated character to “improve” and inspire his writing. His torrent of sonnets and plays suggests, however, that Shakespeare didn’t need prodding to write, and apparently didn’t need much in the way of editing—one contemporary noted that his manuscripts had few corrections or revisions.

William Shakespeare

It’s hard for some university-educated types to accept that William Shakespeare, a commoner with (perhaps) a grammar school education, remains one of the world’s great authors. Yet I’ll argue, based on what I’ve seen in journalism and publishing, there’s little positive correlation between formal higher education and great writing ability. (In fact, ofttimes the more advanced degrees the writer holds, the more stilted the prose.) Look no further for proof than to those notable writers lacking academic credentials: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Jack London, George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Ray Bradbury, Maya Angelou, Gore Vidal, Doris Lessing, and Stieg Larsson.

There’s a reluctance to embrace this truth: a writer needs only imagination and a way with words to invent a believable world.

Writers need some education (apparently the grammar schools of Shakespeare’s time could be fairly rigorous), and I don’t mean to downplay the importance of research—I write historical fiction, after all. I suspect Shakespeare was a very curious man, and one who turned to people, and books, to learn what he needed to know for his plays.

I hold, however, that the creative Mind of the Maker (to borrow Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful term) counts for more than long hours in the archives. Even first-hand experience can be overrated, despite Ernest Hemingway’s admonition: “In order to write about life first you must live it.” A number of inventive fabulists (James Frey, Misha Defonseca, Margaret Seltzer, Greg Mortenson) have shown that a skilled writer can fool critics and readers into thinking that the imagined is real. (These authors have established a new genre: the false memoir.)

Other marvelous writers have demonstrated that, with enough craft and some diligent research, they can fashion a seamless fictional world with little or no first-hand experience. Experts on life in the Soviet Union raved about the accuracy of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, and yet the novelist didn’t speak Russian and spent only two weeks in Moscow before writing his bestseller. Patrick O’Brian, author of the famous maritime series featuring Jack Aubrey, apparently couldn’t sail. Sid Smith’s Something Like a House, a novel about the Cultural Revolution, won Britain’s Whitbread First Novel Award and yet Smith couldn’t read or speak Chinese, and hadn’t worked in or visited China. Creativity, it seems, can trump biography. In fiction, what matters is that the reader believes.

At the same time, I do think accuracy in detail counts—especially in historical fiction. Getting things (geography, clothing, historical context) right helps the reader enter the different country of the past. I’m sensitive to anachronistic speech—I find it particularly jarring when a character uses slang or a phrase that doesn’t fit the story’s historical period.

In the end, what ends up on paper or in pixels must first emerge from the mind of the maker. Shakespeare noted the power of imagination for the poet:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

William Shakespeare, commoner, didn’t achieve title or rank, didn’t secure a position at court, and (from what little we know) didn’t travel extensively. But he had the poet’s eye, and that was more than enough.


©2015 by Jefferson Flanders

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