Message from Málaga: Suspense for the cerebral

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.

Flamenco music, US flag and communist hammer-and-sickle are incorporated into art on dust jacket of Message from Malaga
Music, flamenco dancing, and politics mingle.

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 [1971] 367 p.
1971 bestseller #6. My grade: B+

©2018 LINDA GORTON ARAGONI

Darkness at Noon peeks into Soviet Russia

“The cell door slammed behind Rubashov.”

With those words, Arthur Koestler hurls readers into the life — and impending death — of ex-Commissar of the People Rubashov, a man so powerful and so invisible that his full name is needed for identification only on his cell door.

Identification of review of novel that wasn't a bestseller but has become a classic.Rubashov had been expecting, dreading arrest.

He knows his fate because he has been responsible for the disappearance of many others.

Readers must piece together Rubashov’s story from his memories, tap-coded conversations with other prisoners, and the interrogations.

He had risen through the ranks of the Party, finally acquiring diplomatic status.

His work with foreigners abroad provided ample facts that could be manipulated when Number 1, the party head himself, wanted Rubashov out of the way.

Rubashov had learned to see behind the Party’s rhetoric even while complying with its demands. He was not a subversive, as charged. He was, however, tired of the whole political machine.

Rubashov writes in his diary, “The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost.”

His interrogations include some of the milder forms of torture. Rubashov isn’t broken, just worn down.

The last straw is when his interrogator is replaced: He, too, has been found expendable.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Trans. Daphne Hardy. Scribner Classics, ©1941. 272 p.
My grade: A

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

About the author: The Budapest-born Koestler was a communist in the 1930s and spent time in the Soviet Union. He left the party in 1938, was captured by Fascist forces in Spain and sentenced to death. The British intervened, and Koestler went to France where he was again arrested for his political views. Released in 1940, he went to England where he lived until his death in 1983.

The Mandarins tread murk of post-war politics

The Mandarins is Simone de Beauvoir’s fictional account of the upper echelons of the political left in post-war Paris, a group that she knew personally.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his entourage marching down the Champs Elysees
DeGaulle leads march to thanksgiving service for liberation of Paris.

The book follows two middle-aged characters, writer Henri Perron and psychotherapist Anne Dubreuilh.


The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

Leonard M. Friedman, trans. Regnery, Gateway, 1956. 610 pp. 1956 bestseller #9.  My grade B.


Henri and Anne’s husband, Robert, were active in the French resistance.

After the war, they work to create a socialist movement separate from the Communist Party and find the ambiguity of politics a greater moral challenge than fighting the Nazis.

Anne is more interested in people than politics, but finds working with war-scarred minds depressing.

On a tour to learn American psychoanalysis techniques, she meets a Chicago writer she thinks is the love of her life.

Their affair fizzles to friendship on his part, misery on hers.

Sooner or later, each of the characters faces a decision: Do I continue fighting, though I’m no longer sure I believe in what I’m fighting for?

The Mandarins should still be read, but it won’t find many takers.

Beauvoir’s novel is too intellectual, the narrative too dispassionate for today’s America.

Even its seamy elements, like the vigilante justice meted out to former Nazi sympathizers, would seem tame to Americans raised on high-definition crudity.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Man with the Golden Gun Outlines a Thriller

The Man with the Golden Gun, the final James Bond novel, was published after Ian Fleming’s death.

The novel’s presence on the 1965 bestseller list was a memorial tribute from Fleming’s loyal readers.

Dust jacket cover forThe Man with the Golden Gun


The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming

New American Library, 1965. 183 pages. 1965 bestseller #7. My grade: C-.


Between the end of the previous novel, You Only Live Twice, and the opening of Golden Gun, Commies brainwash Bond to repudiate capitalism.

Bond tries to assassinate M, who orders Bond re-brainwashed to believe in capitalism again.

M. sends Bond to prove his right-thinking by finding and killing “Pistols” Scaramanga, an entrepreneurial killer putting together a deal linking organized crime and anti-Western governments.

Scaramanga is somewhere in the Caribbean where there are swamps, snakes, alligators, female bodies tied to railroad tracks, swords honed to razor-sharpness, and strippers to entertain after dinner.

As always, Bond is cool, brave, irresistible to women, and smarter than the bad guys, even when he does dumb things, which he does at lot.

Scaramanga, in a Liberace-white suit and cowboy hat, and Hendricks, a KGB agent in a dark wool suit and Homberg, would as soon kill Bond as look at him.

They try, but Bond survives.

Folks who think James Bond is God’s gift to readers will enjoy Golden Gun.

The rest will be glad it’s short.

©2015 Linda G0rton 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

Dr. Zhivago Died with Cold War

Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago hit bookshelves in 1958 when American fear of Communists could be measured in home bomb shelters and elementary school air raid drills. The novel became a bestseller and inspired a movie whose title song dominated the air waves.

I vaguely recall the movie as a long series of photographs of snow and people in fur hats. The novel isn’t quite that interesting.

A rogue lawyer sexually exploits a young girl. She later becomes a nurse and has an affair with Dr. Zhivago, who lost his parents and family fortune thanks to the same lawyer. The lovers become separated from their families and also from each other.

As the Communists take over the country, Zhivago dies, Laura disappears, but Russia goes on.

Pasternak holds his characters at arm’s length and describes them in generalizations: this one is beautiful, that one is intelligent. None of the characters emerges as a real person. They’re all just people in fur hats. The Russian way of naming people compounds the difficulty of recognizing individuals. In a single paragraph, Zhivago may be referred to as Zhivago, Yura, Yurochka, and Yurri Andreievich.

Watch the film instead of reading the book. Neither is particularly entertaining, but the film is shorter.

Dr. Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak
Trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari
Pantheon, 1958
519+ pages
#1 bestseller for 1958
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni