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Map of Middle East with inset cover of Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel is set in the Middle East just before the Six-Day War in June, 1967.

The novel opens as an Israeli man on a tractor is killed by an exploding mine as he crosses a narrow demilitarized zone into Syria.

The Israelis suspect such incidents are trying to provoke them into military action.

They’re right.

Col. Safreddin, Syria’s director of security, has picked PLO field director Idris Jarrah to spark an incident for political reasons.

Jarrah knows the PLO is closing its Phoenician Banking Company account. He schemes to get bank owner Nuri Chakry’s help to keep from becoming Safreddin’s fall guy.

Meanwhile, Jakov Baratz, Israel’s director of military intelligence, is worried about an Israeli operative in Damascus whose cover is blown.

The characters in Morris L. West’s taut thriller aren’t particularly heroic or admirable: They are just as likely to be fighting for thrills as for their country.

West focuses on characters’ personalities and motivations, providing little physical detail from which to craft mental images. I found it hard to remember who was who without mental pictures of them.

Torture scenes in the novel are tame compared to ISIS’s latest vidotape, but I for one find state-sponsored terrorism more frightening than lone wolves inspired by ISIS.


The Tower of Babel by Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1968. 361 p. 1968 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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 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

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Cover of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice

Cover of You Only Live Twice

You Only Live Twice is next to last of the 12 James Bond novels Ian Fleming began publishing in 1953. Assuming readers are familiar with the names and personalities of the series’ characters, Fleming plunges into what passes for a plot.

Bond’s wife died in the previous novel; 007 has messed up two assignments since.

His supervisor, M, gives Bond the opportunity to redeem himself by persuading the Japanese to share radio transmissions captured from the Soviet Union. Japan’s price is the assassination of foreign “scientific researchers” living in a Japanese castle on a volcanic island.

Japanese wishing to commit suicide are drawn to the site’s geysers and fumaroles, as well as the researchers’ collection of toxic plants and carnivorous animals. The suicides are bad PR for Japan.

Bond infiltrates the castle, learns the researchers are the couple who killed his wife and blows the place up.

The explosion leaves him with amnesia.

A word in a news story triggers a faint memory, and Bond is off to a new adventure.

You Only Live Twice reads like a collaborative project by 13-year-old boys, with elements of every story they’ve ever seen or read from Random Harvest  to — I’m not making this up — Winnie the Pooh.

Unless you have a life to waste, read some other novel.

You Only Live Twice
by Ian Fleming
New American Library, 1964
240 pages
1964 bestseller #8
my grade D+
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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