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

In The Port of Missing Mentwo cultures clash

At the birth of the twentieth century, Americans were obsessed with European royalty, their own recently ended Civil War, and their rising status among nations.

In The Port of Missing Men, Meredith Nicholson takes all three obsessions and weaves them into thriller that can still keep today’s readers’ full attention.

Emperor Franz Joseph looks frail in this 1901 photograph of him at a bridge dedication.
Aging Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I dedicates a bridge in 1901

The Port of Missing Men by Meredith Nicholson
1907 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook#13913. My grade: B.

Spies sent by the Austrian Prime Minister failed to recover an important document that can determine who will succeed the present ailing monarch.

Count von Stroebel meets in Geneva in March, 1903 with a young man calling himself John Armitage. Armitage owns a ranch in Wyoming but could easily make people believe he is the legitimate heir to the Austrian throne.

Von Stroebel shows Armitage a photograph of the thief, a man known to Armitage as Jules Chauvenet.

Armitage and Chauvenet are both pursuing Shirley Claiborne, the pretty daughter of an American ambassador.

Before they part, von Stroebel tells Armitage, “Do something for Austria.”

The novel has no more character development than necessary for a thriller: Nicholson puts all his energy into the complicated plot.

Needless to say, the story ends with criminals brought to justice and love triumphant.

The plot and characters are readily forgettable.

The tidbits of European and American cultural history Nicholson includes will stick.

© 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

Poor Wise Man makes romantic thriller from 1920’s economic upheaval

Mary Roberts Rinehart, noted for her mysteries, hit the bestseller list in 1921 with a romantic thriller. A Poor Wise Man is an exciting read that still leaves readers with plenty to think about.

Lily Cardew, heir to the Cardew steel fortune, is home after a year of war work in Ohio. Labor trouble is brewing at the Cardew mill.

Trouble is also brewing at home, where years of resentments between Lily’s parents and her grandfather are heating up.

And Lily is impatient with the old social barriers, having made friends with the lower classes, represented by Willy Cameron, whose limp had kept him from World War I. Willy is one of the “plain men” who love their country, but fight for their homes.

When Lily decides to visit her Aunt Elinor, who is married to an anarchist, she draws the disapproval of her household.

At the Doyle’s, Lily meets Louis Akers, an attorney and Red agent, running for city mayor. Akers “hated the rich because they had more than he had, but he scorned the poor because they had less.”

Willy Cameron is allied with the other major mayoral candidate, who is likely to lose to the nefarious Akers if Lily’s father stays in the race and splits the vote.

Rinehart applies all her plotting skills to weaving a complicated story embellished with fist fights, gun fights, street riots, and midnight chases on back roads.

The hero and heroine are a bit too pat, the romance a tad too predictable, but several minor characters are vividly real.

And the Rinehart’s picture of economic conditions after the first World War, based on historical facts, have an uncanny similarity to contemporary events, as these selected passages show:

 “The miners wanted to work a minimum day for a maximum wage, but the country must have coal. Shorter hours meant more men for the mines, and they would have to be imported. But labor resented the importation of foreign workers.”
——————————————————————————-
“The cry of the revolutionists, to all enough and to none too much, found a response not only in the anxious minds of honest workmen, but among an underpaid intelligentsia. . .Neither political party offered any relief; the old lines no longer held, and new lines of cleavage had come. Progressive Republicans and Democrats had united against reactionary members of both parties. There were no great leaders, no men of the hour.”
——————————————————————————–
Howard Cardew’s musings on the labor union movement:
“It was like representative government. It did not always represent. It, too, was founded on representation in good faith; but there was not always good faith. The union system was wrong. It was like politics. The few handled the many. The union, with its all-powerful leaders, was only another form of autocracy. It was Prussian. Yet the ideal behind the union was sound enough.”

A Poor Wise Man
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
Project Gutenberg E-Book #1970
My grade: B+
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Great Impersonation Is Great Mystery

Photo of Kaiser Wilhelm
Kaiser Wilhelm photo from The Library of Congress

The Great Impersonation is a mystery set in duplicity and compounded by international espionage.

In German West Africa around 1910, Everard Dominey, a gone-to-seed Englishman whose only asset is fluent German, runs into a school mate, now a German commander. The two had always looked remarkably alike.

Von Ragastein has been exiled by the Kaiser for killing his lover’s husband. Dominey is self-exiled after a fight that left his wife unbalanced, threatening to kill him, and the defeated opponent missing, believed murdered.

Von Ragastein decides to kill Dominey and assume his identify.

Shortly thereafter, a man calling himself Everard Dominey arrives in England. He’s rich, abstemious, and highly principled—a miraculously changed man.

This new Dominey takes up life as an English lord. Only a German-born colleague knows Dominey is being planted to provide political intelligence when Germany attacks England.

The plot quickly gets complicated as Dominey is recognized by his former lover while Lady Dominey refuses to recognize him as her husband.

The story gets increasingly murky as Dominey gets involved in the  discussions about whether the German pre-1914 military build-up means England should prepare for war.

Despite the corny look-alike plot hook, E. Phillips Oppenheim pulls off a clever and sophisticated mystery that will keep readers intrigued to the last page.

The Great Impersonation
by E. Phillips Oppenheim
1920 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #1484
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg