The Parsifal Mosaic

Robert Ludlum’s The Parsifal Mosaic is aptly named: The novel seems composed of millions of bits of information.

front of “The Parsifal Mosaic” suggests gun pointed toward woman in the dark.
A woman on a beach in moonlight

The central story is rather simple. The White House has been infiltrated by a Russian mole who is not an ordinary KGB mole. This mole works for the VKR, the fanatical wing of the KGB.

This much information is suggested obliquely to Michael Havelock, an ex-field agent for a clandestine branch of the U.S. State Department, by his KGB counterpart, Peytor Rostov.

Rostov knows Havelock was in love with a woman who was murdered, accused of being a Soviet spy.

Rostov also knows the woman never had any KGB affiliation. He can’t understand why the kill was made to look like she did.

Havelock rejects the story until he spots his lover across the platform in a crowded Rome train station.

After that—which all happens in the first 40 pages—Havelock has to find Jenna and learn what happened that night on the beach and who is behind the deceptions.

Ludlum twists and turns and jackknifes his plot. He kept me turning pages, but I’m still not sure I got the entire story straight.

Perhaps The Parsifal Mosaic has just a few too many pieces.

The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum
Random House © 1982. 630 p.
1981 bestseller #2. My grade B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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The Key to Rebecca

 a woman's photo, swastika are opposite ends of a key
Photo within the key shows woman with mask over her mouth

You’ve seen the plot of The Key to Rebecca in a dozen movies. It’s a World War II thriller with the bad guys coming within a hair’s breadth of beating the good guys.

In Key, the really bad guy is Alex Wolff, an European-trained Egyptian returned home to spy for the Germans.

Wolff’s job is to provide Field Marshall Rommel with information that will allow him to destroy the British in Egypt once and for all.

The really good guy is Major Vandam, a British officer whose knee wound sidelined him to intelligence work.

Wolff slipped up returning to Cairo and killed a man; Vandam is after him.

Vandam meets a beautiful Egyptian Jew, Elene, whom he uses to lure Wolff out where he can grab him.

Wolff has a friend and sometime sex partner, Sonja, who is the most famous belly dancer in Cairo.

He cajoles her into helping him steal documents outlining the Brits’ plan to defend Cairo.

Once he has the documents, Wolff must encode the information and transmit it to the Germans using a code based on the novel Rebecca.

Instead of reading The Key to Rebecca, read Follett’s The Eye of the Needle. It’s a far more original work.

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
Morrow, 1st ed. 1980. 381 p.
1980 bestseller #6. My grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Bourne Identity: Gripping story, forgettable characters

A sea shell pierced by a nail against a black background on the dust jacket of “The Bourne Identity”
The Bourne Identity cover art symbolizes murder attempt at sea

As he did in his previous bestseller, The Matarese Circle, in The Bourne Identity novelist Robert Ludlum tells a story that will keep readers turning pages long past their bedtime.

Bourne is the identity assumed by a man pulled from the Mediterranean “more corpse than man,” unable to remember anything about his past, including why he has a piece of microfilm with a Swiss bank account number implanted in his hip.

In Zurich, the amnesiac takes a woman hostage—every spy story requires the hero have a woman to complicate the plot—and together in Paris they begin to piece together Jason Bourne’s origins in Southeast Asia.

Ludlum is a master storyteller. Plot is his forte. Ludnum gives his characters just enough depth to be recognizable. They learn what’s necessary to advance the plot, but they don’t grow.

A day after closing The Bourne Identity, readers may wonder how Bourne, even before being shot in the head multiple times, could have been expected to remember everything he was required to remember to implement the machination of the West’s intelligence services.

Two days later, readers may even be unable to recall the names of the main characters.

But while they’re reading, they will be totally immersed in this complex, fast-paced thriller.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
R. Marek Publishers, © 1980. 523 p.
1980 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Smiley’s People: Last but not least

All-text dust jacket of Smiley's People
Like George Smiley, this cover does what it must

Smiley’s People is the last John Le Carré novel centered on George Smiley, an unsexy, unegotistical, unflappable, unheroic, and unrelenting British Cold War era spymaster.

When a former agent is found murdered after having tried to contact him with information about Sandman, Smiley is brought back from retirement to “help.”

Sandman is the nickname agents had given to Smiley’s opposite number in the Russian spy apparatus.

Smiley does a deep dive through the memories of his former staff people, seeking clues to who murdered Vladimer and why.

He also does a little sleuthing on his own.

Le Carré’s novels are always more about personalities and procedures than about high speed chases and high-caliber shootouts.

In Smiley’s People, that spotlight focus is particularly chilling. Smiley is old, alone, unloved. He’s filling time until he dies. He gets one more chance to pull off something spectacular.

Everything he’s worked his whole career for depends on getting one thing right. He must solve the murder and the problems it presents for the agency.

The secret service heads want him to succeed, but not so well that he shows them up.

Le Carré’s ending is dark and plausible with the perfect amount of surprise.

Smiley’s People by John Le Carré
Knopf, 1980, ©1979. 374 p.
1979 bestseller #10 My grade: A-

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

The Matarese Circle

Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that will hold your attention to the final full stop.

Black background of dust jacket sets off white type and circular blue mark of The Matarese.
The blue mark identifies Matarese members .

The lead characters are an American spy, Brandon Scofield, and his Soviet counterpart, Vasili Taleniekov.

The two are deadly enemies. Scofield holds Taleniekov responsible for his wife’s death; Taleniekov blames Scofield for killing his brother in retaliation.

When the Russian stumbles upon a secret organization that’s financing terrorists around the world, he can’t discern the Matarese’s motive, but he knows the Matarese must be stopped.

To stop them, Taleniekov has to get Scofield to work with him.

Both men are the best in their respective nations’ intelligence communities.

Both are considered mavericks.

Both are tired.

Both are beginning to doubt that their lives’ work has made any difference.

Once they agree to cooperate, the pair go to Corsica where the Matarese is legendary but never spoken of to outsiders and not often mentioned among Corsicans.

Whispers suggest the organization dates from the eleventh century.

Intelligence services know the Matarese provided assassins for hire until the 1930s.

No one knows what they are doing in the 1970s

Ludlum spins a good yarn.

The unlikely collaborators deal the Matarese a death blow.

Or do they?

The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
R. Marek Publishers, ©1979. 601 p.
1979 bestseller #01 My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Eye of the Needle

“Eye of the Needle” cover. A male figure seen through eye of a bloody stiletto with Nazi symbols.
That’s blood on Farber’s stiletto.

In 1944, the whole world expected the Allies to invade German-held territory on the continent soon.

The question was where.

Ken Follett’s novel Eye of the Needle is based on the hoax of cardboard ships and planes, called the First United States Army Group, that Britain created to suggest they will attack at Calais, near Belgium, rather than at their intended site in Normandy.

From that historical fact, Follett sets up a thrilling cat-and-mouse game in which a German spy, Henry Faber, called “The Needle” because of his preference for the stiletto as a death weapon, discovers the deception and tries to get his evidence back to Germany.

Farber is a professional spy. The other German spies working in England are rank amateurs; Farber has to eliminate them if they see his face.

The spies trying to catch Farber are also little more than amateurs. Percy Goldiman’s specialty is medieval history; before the war Frederick Bloggs was an inspector with Scotland Yard.

The unlikely pair come up with a scheme for getting a photograph of Farber.

Eye of the Needle contains no great philosophical truths, but Follett gets his psychological truths right.

Ordinary people rising to the occasion make this mystery-thriller extraordinary.

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Arbor House, ©1978. 313 p.
1978 bestseller #10. My grade: A-

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Eagle Has Landed

German SS is central to The Eagle Has Landed.

The Eagle Has Landed is a World War II novel that manages to be both exciting and nuanced.

The novel is about a 1943 German plot to kidnap Winston Churchill in a commando operation, which Himmler thinks might make Hitler happy.

Himmler selects Colonel Max Radl, a terminally ill officer, to coordinate the top secret mission.

By coincidence, a spy living on a remote, unprotected stretch of English coastline reports that Churchill will be staying overnight nearby on November 6.

Radl pulls together an unlikely team led by Kurt Steiner, a German officer in disgrace for helping a Jew, with aid from Irish Republican Army operative Liam Devlin and hindrance from Harvey Preston, a captured English soldier who defected to the SS.

Steiner’s dozen commandos parachute in to join Devlin, who had already secured the necessary equipment for the snatch.

Then things start going wrong.

Novelist Jack Higgins’ characters are puzzling, contradictory personalities, not your typical war novel stereotypes. In fact, the Eagle’s battle-hardened German soldiers are too nice. Joseph Wambaugh’s Choirboys would be more believable. They’d fit in with American Colonel Shafto, who thinks nobody can run a war as well as he.

Despite that highly intriguing flaw, The Eagle lives up to his book jacket blurbs.

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins
Pocket Books ©1975 [paper] 1st ed. 390 p.
1975 bestseller #6. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni