The Man from St. Petersburg

Dust jacket uses red type to suggest The Man from St. Petersburg is targeted for death.
Targeted man faces symbols of empires

In The Man from St. Petersburg, Ken Follett once again spins an imaginary tale around an actual attempt to win a war by misdirection. Here his focus is World War I.

All Europe knows war is inevitable: Germany has the continent’s strongest army and it wants Alsace and Lorraine back.

England is militarily weak. She and France will need a third ally against Germany.

The Czar wants an alliance with England; he’s sent Prince Orlov to London to seek one.

Winston Churchill taps the Earl of Walden to handle negotiations for England. Walden’s Russian wife is Orlov’s cousin.

Before their marriage, Lady Walden had a lover in St. Petersburg, a poor, militant radical; when her family found out, they had Feliks arrested and tortured. To save his life, she agreed to marry Lord Walden.

The couple have a daughter making her debut in society in 1914 just as Feliks, hardened by imprisonment in Siberia, has come to London to kill Orlov.

Compared to his ordinary blokes, Follett’s upper crust characters are two-dimensional, and unfortunately the focus in The Man is on the social and political elite.

Only Follett’s generous sprinkling of 1914 historical trivia raise the novel above the ordinary.

The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett
W. Morrow. © 1982. 323 p.
1982 bestseller #10. My grade: B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Glitter Dome isn’t gold

The title of The Glitter Dome is set in glittering type
The title is covered in glitter.

The Glitter Dome is another of ex-cop Joseph Wambaugh’s police anti-procedurals.

Like The Choirboys, Dome is about cops doing things cops are supposed to keep from happening.

The main story is about partners Al Mackey and Martin Welborn, career cops old enough to be eyeing retirement hopefully. They have just been assigned to clear the murder of Nigel St. Clair.

Al and Marty have cleared other murders by arranging proof that the victim killed himself.

This time, however, they can’t find any way pass the shooting off as murder.

Marty gets interested in trying to solve the crime.

Meanwhile Gibson Hand and Buckmore Phipps are walking their beat when ball of clay thrown in an artists’ studio knocks Phipps’s hat off.

In the studio, a Marine modeling for the artists has a note in his pocket that says Nigel St. Clair and a phone number.

Overlapping coincidences lead to the cops solving the murder.

Wambaugh milks his story for laughs, but cop humor is pretty much that of sixth grade boys: Funny if you’re a sixth grader.

The characters are drawn in broad strokes: Only Marty emerges as a person.

The rest of the cops are people you don’t want to know.

The Glitter Dome by Joseph Wambaugh
William Morrow. ©1981. 299 p.
1981 bestseller #9. My grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Noble House: Snapshot of an era

Cover shows disk that plays a key role in Noble House
Noble House is a BIG novel.

In Noble House, James Clavell updates the story of Straun’s Hong Kong trading company—the Noble House— whose 19th century founding was the topic of his earlier bestseller Tai-Pan.

Ian Dunross becomes tai-pan—head—of the company in 1960 determined to turn it into an international rather than an Asian company.

From the start, he’s hampered by bad decisions of former tai-pans and a century-old rivalry with another trading company run by Quillan Gornt.

Dunross hopes to repair his fortunes by a joint venture with an American company.

Par-Con Industries’ CEO, Lincoln Bartlett, arrives accompanied by his negotiator “Mr. K. C. Tcholok” who turns out to be a very attractive young woman whose expectation of being treated as a professional offends both men and women in Hong Kong.

Clavell keeps at least a half dozen different stories running at the same time, enabling him to show how people in various strata of Hong Kong society live.

Much of Noble House is very much a product of its time. There are many references to spies and scandals of the ’60s, French and American involvement in Vietnam, drug trafficking, and Russian-Chinese rivalries.

At 1,206 pages Noble House is not a novel for weaklings, but it’s well worth reading.

Noble House by James Clavell
A novel of contemporary Hong Kong
Delacorte Press. ©1981. 1206 p.
1981 bestseller #1. My grade: A-

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Spike: Covering the disinformation war

The descender on P in Spike plus hammer and sickle symbolsplits an American flag
Spiked stories about what’s going on in the world let Russia divide the US

The Spike is two international reporters’ attempt to make foreign policy relevant to a mass audience by borrowing  fictional techniques from John le Carré and Ken Follett.

Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss aren’t able to pull it off.

Their story is about Bob Hockney, whose experience at Berkeley during the Vietnam protests led him into journalism.

Hockney wants to investigate how media bias has lulled Americans into discounting Russian malice toward America. He reports from Vietnam, then returns to America to seek whoever is responsible for getting the President and Congress to turn a blind eye to Russian activities.

The story comes to a boil when, as troops invade North Yemen from Aden, the French report Soviet pilots using South Yemeni planes are bombing North Yemen.

Hockney is implausible as a journalist, unmemorable as a protagonist, and ludicrous as a leading man. The story is equally unmemorable.

Despite its  flaws, The Spike  reads like today’s news.

There’s  feuding among White House staff.

The president is alienating America’s allies.

And the premise of The Spike —that Russia is using disinformation to achieve its aim of global supremacy—may be an even more serious threat today than it was in 1980.

The Spike by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss
Crown Publishers. 1st ed. ©1980. 374 p.
1980 bestseller #10. My grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Fifth Horseman: Bombs and bureaucrats

A nuclear explosion is background for type on cover of The Fifth Horseman
Nuclear bomb threat is central to this novel.

The Fifth Horseman is a thriller merging 1970s international news and hometown fears in a narrative that still feels contemporary.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has devised a plot to trigger a nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in New York City if the Americans don’t get Israel to abandon territories seized from Arabs.

Getting the bomb into New York and getting directions to the White House falls to Kamil and Whalid Dajani and their sister, Laila.

The trio had vowed vengeance for the loss of the family’s West Bank home.

Whalid studied nuclear physics and went to work for the French nuclear program.

Whalid’s political views softened; Kamil’s and Laila’s became harder.

Laila, disguised, delivers the terrorists’ threat.

Gaddafi gives the U.S. 36 hours to comply. Should the U.S. attempt to evacuate the city, Gaddafi will detonate the bomb immediately.

Americans scrambling to respond to the nuclear threat discover they have few options other than to find the bomb and disarm it without news of the crisis leaking out.

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre had been news reporters before joining forces to write books.  Their first-hand observation of political appointees shows in their depiction of inept bureaucrats trying to solve an immediate problem.

That in itself still renders The Fifth Horseman terrifying.

The Fifth Horseman
by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
Simon and Schuster. ©1980. 478 p.
1980 bestseller #9. My grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Devil’s Alternative: Politics within politics

Black and red type, red eagle bearing hammer and sickle compose front dust jacket of “The Devils Alternative”
Russian symbols are fixed to the American eagle

As in his three earlier bestsellers, in The Devil’s Alternative Frederick Forsyth puts together a complicated plot against Western democracy.

Here that plot unfolds while the United States thinks it is pulling off a clever scheme to get the Russians to sign an arms deal.

A series of accidents have led to a failure of the Russian grain crop which, in a matter of months, will lead to widespread starvation.

Both the Politburo and the West are sure the Russian people will revolt rather than starve.

America’s intelligence man in Moscow is getting top-secret documents via his old lover, now a secretary to the Politburo.

The documents reveal a power struggle within the Russian leadership. So far, the minority, which has a plan to attack the West with nuclear armaments, is one vote from control.

Meanwhile, a small cell of Ukrainian nationalists are plotting to draw world attention to their demands with a threat to blow up the world’s largest oil tanker, dumping a million barrels of oil into the North Sea.

The tight schedule of events makes the plot riveting but leaves no time for Forsyth’s characters to develop.

The result is good entertainment with a tacked-on ending.

The Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth
Viking Press. 1980, ©1979. 432 p.
1980 bestseller #8. My grade: B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Firestarter is a nonstarter

.Firestarter cover: gold type on basic black.
This copy of Firestarter had no dust jacket.

On the opening page of Stephen King’s Firestarter,  Andy McGee and his daughter, Charlie, 7, are rushing up Third Avenue in New York City at 5:30 p.m.

A green car is following them.

Andy grabs a cab, tells the driver he’ll give him $500 to take them to Albany airport. Andy gives him a dollar, which the cabby accepts as a $500 bill, and they’re off.

The pair have escaped for the time being.

Unlike King’s 1979 bestseller The Dead Zone, which develops from a single premise that readers must take on faith, Firestarter requires readers to accept a whole series of assertions each of which requires a significant suspension of disbelief.

 Girl's haunting eyes seen behind a flame of fire.
Dust jacket that was missing from my copy of Firestarter

Readers learn, for example, that Andy and his wife developed psychic powers after participating in a government-funded test of a hallucinogenic drug while they were college students.

From infancy, Charlie displayed pyrokinetic* power.

The government is now after Charlie.

The feds apparently want to use her instead of nuclear weapons.

Charlie, apart from her psychic powers, acts more like of 21 than a child of 7.

All those elements strain credulity.

But mainly I can’t believe a New York cabbie mistaking a $1 bill for a $500 bill under any amount of psychic push.

Firestarter by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1980. 428 p.
1980 bestseller #5. My grade: B-

*Stephen King coined the word pyrokenetic.

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Overload: Inside the power industry

A blacked-out city and list of Arthur Hailey's other bestsellers are on the dust jacket of "Overload".
O in Overload shows city blackout.

Overload, like several other Arthur Hailey’s bestsellers, goes inside an industry the public takes for granted and reveals the internal problems the public rarely sees—the ones that could change their lives.

Overload is about the fictitious Golden State Power and Light, which its critics say is amassing huge profits to the benefit of stockholders and the detriment of electric and gas customers.

Nim Goldman is the too-outspoken assistant to GSP&L’s chairman. Goldman knows California production facilities are barely adequate to meet the ’70s energy demands. Without more energy generation and diversified energy sources, Goldman predicts an electrical famine within a decade.

Davey Birdsong, a colorful and dynamic activist, leads the popular opposition to anything that raises utility rates. The Sequoia Club has formed an uneasy, and secret, alliance with Birdsong.

Goldman has the usual discretely described sexual conquests typical of a Hailey leading man.

But Overload is unusual in two ways: Goldman is more sexually predatory than the usual Hailey hero, and two of the novel’s sub plots are awkwardly wedged into the main tale.

Despite its flaws, Overload is a page-turner whose picture of America’s energy problems and the inefficiency of government regulation of the power industry are still valid.

Overload by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday, ©1979. 515 p.
1979 bestseller #3 My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Holcroft Covenant

In the 1970s, a cottage industry of novelists emerged to exploit lingering fears of Nazi Germany.

Cover of “The Holcroft Covenant” American first edition uses Nazi colors red and black. A red bird bleeds through the book's title.
British 1st ed. featured a swastika built of stacks of money.

Robert Ludnum’s The Holcroft Covenant is a product of that movement.

A Swiss bank contacts American architect Noel Holcroft about a trust fund established by his natural father, Heinrich Clausen, and two other Nazis.

The three stole German funds, leaving instructions with their banker for disbursing the stolen money in 30 years to aid survivors and descendants of Holocaust victims.

Signatures from heirs of all trust fund signatories are required for the bank to release the funds, now grown to $780 million.

Noel is to locate those heirs.

What Noel does not know is that at the same time the “repentant Nazis” were setting up the compensation fund, other Nazis were sending thousands of their children to safety so when they became adults in the 1970s, they could establish a Fourth Reich.

Ludnum establishes all that background in the first 10 pages.

The rest of the book is a blur of action with Noel trying to play secret agent, the bad guys shooting everything that moves, and characters with the personalities of Lego blocks.

Ludnum’s epilogue leaves readers with a vision of the future, which we’re seeing come to life in the 21st century.

The Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludnum
R. Marek Publishers, ©1978. 542 p.
1978 bestseller #8. My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Beggarman, Thief: Murder with a surprise ending

Beggarman, Thief is a sequel to Rich Man, Poor Man, but readers need have no acquaintance with Irwin Shaw’s 1970 bestseller to enjoy this 1977 follow-up.

cover of "Beggarman Thief" is all text
Complexity of “Beggarman, Thief” defies imagery.

Tom Jordache has been clubbed to death on the deck of his own ship in the harbor of Antibes.

After scattering Tom’s ashes, Tom’s sister, Gretchen, goes back to her Hollywood job.

Tom’s bride of five days goes home to England to bear Tom’s child there.

Toms 16-year-old son, Wesley, who had only shortly before come to live with his father, wants revenge.

Wesley vents his rage his loss on a man in a bar, nearly killing him. He’s released from jail on condition he leave France. He reluctantly goes to stay with his mother and her new husband in Indianapolis.

That leaves Rudolph, the brother Tom and Gretchen always disliked, to settle Tom’s estate in France and make sure Wesley doesn’t commit murder.

Handling unpleasant affairs is how Rudolph made his millions.

In Rich Man, Poor Man, Shaw presented a complicated family story. In Beggarman, Thief he adds both a murder and terrorism to a family story—and does it all with seeming effortlessness and an optimism missing in his 1970 novel.

When push comes to shove, the Jordaches are family.

Beggarman, Thief by Irwin Shaw
Delacorte Press, c.1977. 436 p.
1977 bestseller #7. My grade: A

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni