The Cardinal of the Kremlin was Tom Clancy’s fourth bestseller in a row.
It follows what by 1988 had become Clancy’s signature blend of Cold War politics, espionage, military technology, and the presence of CIA analyst Jack Ryan.
The “Cardinal” of this novel is a Colonel Mikhail Filitov, thrice awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for service in battle; unknown to Ryan, he’s been a CIA spy for 30 years.
Ryan is in Moscow as a technical advisor for arms negotiation. There he stumbles across information that the Soviets are very close to having a working, missile-based laser system.
Far to the east on the Afghanistan-Russia border, an Afghan freedom fighter glimpses a flash of green light that proves the Soviet technology works. He passes his observation along to the CIA along with documents taken from Russians he and his men slaughtered.
Clancy runs multiple story threads simultaneously, switching the scene from one continent to another, and the focus among dozens of characters.
You can read Cardinal for relaxation, but you can’t relax and read it. That is part of its attraction. Clancy expects each reader to do his/her duty.
In Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy imagines a situation in which Cold War Era Russia finds itself an oil shortage for at least a couple years.
The Politboro sees its only option is to seize the oil in the Persian Gulf in such a way that the NATO alliance will be afraid to retaliate.
It devises an invasion of Europe in hopes that the military action will conceal their need for oil.
After setting up that scenario in about 30 pages, Clancy goes for nearly 600 more pages about a month of fighting—particularly the submarine warfare—between the Soviet and NATO Alliance members.
The novel repeatedly cycles through a huge, cast of predominantly male characters whose work is their lives.
They watch screens, listen to beeps, and say things like, “The sonobuoys have our torp but nothing else,” “Dead in the water,” and “Roger that.”
In the novel’s final post-war scene, the American General asks the Russian General, “Why didn’t you tell us you needed oil? … We would have demanded and gotten concessions of some kind—but don’t you think we would have tried to prevent all this?”
Similarly, Red Star Risingisn’t worth the effort expended by author and readers.
After a week of business related to his U.S. Space Agency job, Ian Ferrier stops in Málaga, Spain, to visit Jeff Reid. Ian and Jeff worked together eight years before, gathering evidence of Khrushchev’s rocket installations in Cuba.
Now Jeff works for an American wine importer, and Ian’s current work entails scanning the skies for another Cuba-type crisis, this time satellite-based.
Jeff remembers Ian’s love of flamenco and takes him to see the local flamenco star, Tavita, dance.
Before the evening is over, Jeff meets a man claiming to be a defector from the assassination division of Cuba’s Foreign Intelligence Service. As he goes to alert his superiors to the defector’s demands, Jeff is the victim of a cyanide attack.
Barely alive when Ian finds him, Jeff confides in Ian, who becomes a de facto CIA agent when Jeff is assassinated.
Message shows why Helen MacInnes became known for “highly literate” spy novels. Readers must be as alert as the intelligence operatives. MacInnes’s story is tense but restrained. Readers seeking explosions and high-speed chases should look elsewhere.
So too should readers who want James Bond-ish sex romps. Ian appreciates beautiful women but he’s not going to risk his life to bed one.
Message from Málaga by Helen MacInnes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich  367 p.
1971 bestseller #6. My grade: B+