Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Cold-War relic

There's 1 red figure and 1 black figure among gray crowd on the cover of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The man in the glasses is George Smiley.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a novel about ex-spymaster George Smiley’s efforts to uncover the double agent responsible for virtual collapse of the British Intelligence Service in the Cold War era.

Smiley had been forced out of the Circus, the British spy agency at which he’d been Control’s number 2, when a group of four young men rose to leadership and Control himself died.

When the novel opens, Smiley has been called out of retirement to find out which of the four is the double agent. His isn’t a cloak-and-dagger job, but a tedious search for patterns in data.

The excitement in the novel, which the film version probably captures far better than print, is provided mainly through characters’ recollections of what happened years before.

Tinker swings between then and now, telling about characters with multiple names and identities, which made me long for one of the whiteboards seen in police procedurals with photos and brief descriptions of the characters.

In his introduction to the 1991 paperback edition, John le Carré tells of the difficulties he had plotting Tinker and his sense that the story was already regarded as historical fiction.

Today it feels about as dated as When Knighthood Was in Flower.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Penguin Books [paper] © 1974, 381 p.
1974 bestseller #4. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Vanished resurrects Cold War era anxieties

Letters of Vanished on novel jacket in progressively smaller letters

Vanished is a Cold War era political thriller that will sound familiar to readers who grew up in that era.

White House Press Secretary Eugene Culligan relates the events.

One election year, a good, personal friend of President Roudebush vanishes from Burning Tree Golf Club.

Investigators learn Steve Greer left the country by a circuitous route.

That raises speculation that Greer’s in trouble, and that the President may be involved, too.

The President’s party gets jittery; so does Wall Street.

The President assigns the FBI to handle the investigation, which infuriates the CIA director and raises further speculation of something shady going on.

Culligan gets nervous because he can’t get information.

The press is hounding him, but he has nothing to say because he knows nothing.

Eventually, Culligan learns everything, but not before the American public and Fletcher Knebel’s readers do.

Knebel draws all his characters well enough that they are distinguishable but not particularly memorable. The focus is the story of what happened to Steve Greer and who’s going to break the story.

The ending fits its Cold War setting, but may sound a little simplistic today.

None the less, Vanished will entertain without deadening the brain cells.


Vanished by Fletcher Knebel
Doubleday, 1968. 407 p. (Book Club Edition). 1968 bestseller #8. My grade: B.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Small Town in Germany is a keeper, not a thriller

 A Small Town in Germany is cover art jacket of novel of that name
Dust jacket of A Small Town in Germany

A Small Town in Germany is a complex, Cold War era mystery that totters on the edge of a thriller.

In Germany, “an amorphous Movement* of popular resentments, popular protest and occasional violence” threatens Britain’s desperate attempt to gain admittance to the Common Market.

As if that weren’t enough, Leo Harting, a Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn, has disappeared.

Boxes of documents disappeared with him.

London sends Alan Turner to Bonn to find Harting.

What Turner finds is a massive security screw-up: Harting had been a “temporary worker” at the British Embassy for 20 years without ever undergoing a security check.

The embassy staff are more upset by a missing tea trolley, typewriter, and electric heater than either their missing colleague or the missing files.

Instead of making Turner a sexy, James Bond type, John Le Carré keeps readers’ interest with the wealth of detail Le Carré accumulated during the two-and-a-half years he spent in Bonn doing the same Embassy job as the missing Harting.

Although Brexit has made a story about Britain trying to unite with Europe seem almost farcical, the populist movement of Small Town feels terrifyingly contemporary.

So, too, does the behind-the-scenes intrigue of men who want to rule without the annoyance of seeking office.


A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré
381 p. Coward-McCann, 1968. 1968 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.

*from the preface to the American edition of A Small Town in Germany. The full quote is “”An amorphous Movement of popular resentments, popular protest and occasional violence has come into being. The policies are immaterial: it is a Movement of the resentful mass; it is unified by its slogans, and fed by its dreams.”

 

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Topaz digs the dirt on Russian disinformation campaign

Topaz is a political thriller on a hot topic of the sixties: Russia’s attempt to put missiles in Cuba.Military dress hat and gloves adorn Topaz dust jacket of Topaz

As a dictator threatens the US with nuclear attack and the US investigates the Russians’ disinformation tactics in the 2016 election, Topaz seems timely again.


Topaz by Leon Uris
McGraw-Hill, [1967] 341 p. 1964 bestseller #4. My grade: B.

Leon Uris weaves a story that involves people at the highest levels of the diplomatic services in America, France, and Russia, including a fictionalized John F. Kennedy-like character.

The story begins when a KGB agent seeking to defect contacts Americans secret service agents in Copenhagen.

The US gives Brois Kuznetov and his family asylum.

Kuznetov insists André Devereaux, head of the French secret service in Washington, be present when he is interrogated.

Kuznetov revels he ran a secret department, code name Topaz, that specialized in disinformation.

Topaz accomplished much of its highly successful effort to mislead America by leaking information to their French allies who passed it on. The KGB’s work reached to office of the French president.

Characters interest Uris more than events: He makes opportunities to tell of their lives years prior to the story’s start.

His biographical sketches make his characters believably ordinary, despite their important political roles.

And political victories take a back seat to friendships.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Walking dead man reveals The Double Image

Passing through Paris on his way to Greece, historian John Craig runs into one of his Columbia professors, a former Auschwitz inmate on his way back to the states after testifying at the trial of Nazis in Frankfurt.


The Double Image by Helen MacInnes

Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. 309 pp. My grade: B.


words The Double Image shown as mirror image
Over drinks, Sussman confides that he’s seen a dead Nazi on a Paris street.

Craig wonders if Sussman is hallucinating.

Then he sees a man follow Sussman from the cafe.

The next day Craig learns the professor was found dead, apparently of suicide.

Those unsettling experiences—and a party hosted by his brother-in-law in the foreign service—plunge Craig into the grim world of Cold War international espionage.

Helen MacInnes keeps a tight rein on her complex plot. She sketches the main characters in only slightly more detail than necessary to make their behavior believable.

There’s nothing of James Bond about Craig. He can use his fists or a pistol, but his intelligence is his main weapon.

And he doesn’t get even one woman into bed—not even the one woman he’d like to have there.

The Double Image will please readers who like their entertainment fast moving and intellectually challenging.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Egos Are Deadly in The Looking Glass War

John Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War is a tale of Cold War espionage undertaken by a World War II military spy agency.

Le Carré focuses on what makes the characters tick rather than in what they blow up.

Dust jacket of Looking Glass War shows mirror image of word War


The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

[David John Moore Cornwell] Coward-McCann, 1965. 320 pages. 1965 bestseller #4. My grade: B-


Fighting to keep his agency viable, Leclerk sends agents to check reports of a suspected Russian missile site.

When the agent is killed, Leclerk sends his assistant, John Avery, to pose as Taylor’s half-brother, claim the body, and get the film he was carrying.

Despite inadequate preparation, Avery gets back to gets back to England alive, but without the film.

Next Leclerk recruits a man who served with the resistance during the war. Leister gets a month of training, which enables him to stay alive a couple of days when he’s slipped into occupied territory.

Each of these rather boring men is enticed, like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s children’s book, into an exciting world in which their expectations are turned against them.

Missiles turn out to be less deadly than inter-departmental feuds and civil service egos.

Looking Glass has too much blather for a spy story and too much spying for a good psychological novel.

It will keep your attention, but leave little to mull over later.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Armageddon Reveals the Price of Building Peace

dust jacket of ArmageddonArmageddon is a sprawling novel set as World War II ends and the Soviets move to turn Europe into Communist satellites.

The themes Leon Uris raises are as familiar as today’s news, but easier to examine with a degree of objectivity in a 75-year-old setting.

War-weary Americans want to pull out of Germany and let the Germans fend for themselves. General A. J. Hansen begs  American politicians to plan for a post-war political settlement.  He sees withdrawal would give rise to a more serious threat than Hitler’s Reich.

Hansen assembles a team of experts lead in everything from electrical generation to municipal government to design a plan for governing Germany after the war. Hansen sends them to a Nazi stronghold where they deploy and refine their plan.

Then Hansen redirects them to Berlin to begin guiding the city into rebuilding on democratic principles before the Russians can build Berlin into a Communist satellite.

When the Russians block all land routes into the city, leaving Berliners to face starvation in the frigid winter, Hansen fights against Congressional and military leaders to win presidential approval to attempt to supply the city by air.

Although Hansen is behind most of the novel’s action, he’s rarely seen in the novel. Uris reserves the role of the hero for the team of men who put their individual expertise at the service of America. Uris lists yards of facts about the Berlin airlift, emphasizing the monumental achievement and personal self-effacement of the men who made it happen.­

It takes a rare kind of man to serve his country without the benefit of pyrotechnics or reward and a different kind of courage to keep your mouth shut and go on working and believing when you are positive those around you are wrong. We don’t have enough men of this kind of dedication.

Armageddon
by Leon Uris
Doubleday 1964
632 pages
1964 bestseller #4
My grade: B+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni