A Perfect Spy: the novel

Background color pattern of "The Perfect Spy" suggests a flag.In A Perfect Spy, novelist David John Moore Cornwell, known to his fans as John le Carré, rummages through the debris of the British boyhood of Magnus Pym to explore what turned an eager-to-please lad into a spymaster.

The novel opens with Magnus Pym’s disappearance into a bolt hole in Devon shortly after his father’s funeral. It’s a refuge he’s been preparing for years.

Rick Pym had been an engaging rogue who made his living by conning people out of theirs.

Magnus grew up trying to win his father’s approval by being the sort of man Rick professed to admire and being it by using all the deceits he learned from observing his father’s behavior.

Magnus mastered the arts of deceit so well that the British hired him for what they viewed as his natural talent for espionage.

It’s only after his father’s death that Magnus feels free to look back on his life and assess his own personal culpability.

In his Devon room, Magnus writes his life story, addressing much of it to his son, Tom.

Le Carré intersperses Magnus’s story with perspectives from his wife and colleagues.

The result is a novel as complex, fascinating, and ambiguous as Magnus himself.

A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré
Knopf. © 1986. 475 p.
1986 bestseller #10; my grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Fourth Protocol

 On Fourth Protocol dustjacket, a pen drips blood
Blood drips from the pen.

Like all Frederick Forsyth’s thrillers, The Fourth Protocol, is a riveting story of good guys—Britain and her allies—versus the bad guys of the Soviet bloc.

The story begins in London with the New Year’s Eve diamond heist from the home of a civil servant. Despite the jewels’ fame and value, the theft goes unreported.

The thief has unwittingly made off with something more valuable.

When he finds out what he has, he tries to set things right.

A package containing the inadvertently stolen item is delivered to Brigadier Bertie Clapstick at the Ministry of Defense.

Clapstick he calls John Preston, who had worked undercover for him in Northern Ireland. The wife of a jeweler had already called Preston to tell relate her husband’s  words as he died from the injuries delivered by unknown assailants.

Preston convinces Clapstick and a few others that there’s a traitor in the Service. Those of his superiors who respect his work set Preston on the case.

Preston saves Britain, but is forced to realize its government doesn’t make the world better—a truth not unlike that embedded in novel’s dedication to Forsyth’s five-year-old son “without whose loving attentions this book would have been written in half the time.”

The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth
Viking Penguin. ©1984. 389 p.
1984 bestseller #7. My grade: B+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Matarese Circle

Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that will hold your attention to the final full stop.

Black background of dust jacket sets off white type and circular blue mark of The Matarese.
The blue mark identifies Matarese members .

The lead characters are an American spy, Brandon Scofield, and his Soviet counterpart, Vasili Taleniekov.

The two are deadly enemies. Scofield holds Taleniekov responsible for his wife’s death; Taleniekov blames Scofield for killing his brother in retaliation.

When the Russian stumbles upon a secret organization that’s financing terrorists around the world, he can’t discern the Matarese’s motive, but he knows the Matarese must be stopped.

To stop them, Taleniekov has to get Scofield to work with him.

Both men are the best in their respective nations’ intelligence communities.

Both are considered mavericks.

Both are tired.

Both are beginning to doubt that their lives’ work has made any difference.

Once they agree to cooperate, the pair go to Corsica where the Matarese is legendary but never spoken of to outsiders and not often mentioned among Corsicans.

Whispers suggest the organization dates from the eleventh century.

Intelligence services know the Matarese provided assassins for hire until the 1930s.

No one knows what they are doing in the 1970s

Ludlum spins a good yarn.

The unlikely collaborators deal the Matarese a death blow.

Or do they?

The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
R. Marek Publishers, ©1979. 601 p.
1979 bestseller #01 My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Honourable Schoolboy

The Honourable Schoolboy is a John Le Carré tale from the dark underside of the West’s Cold War spy operations.

Cover of The Honourable Schoolboy: gold text on black.
Gold text suggests the gold seam of The Honourable Schoolboy 

After his unmasking of British secret service chief Bill Haydon as a 30-year Russian agent, told in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley was appointed its caretaker.

Exploring investigations that Haydon surpressed, Smiley sends Jerry Westerby, a.k.a., “the honorable schoolboy,” to Hong Kong where he learns the owner of a trust fund to which the Russians have been covertly a “gold seam” is millionaire Drake Ko.

Ko has never touched the fund, which amounts to a half-million dollars.

Smiley wants to know what the Russian are buying.

To find out, Westerby follows some very unsavory characters in Cambodia, Thailand, and in Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army captures it.

As in the other le Carré novels about the Circus, Schoolboy holds stories nested inside one another like a wedding gift of mixing bowls.

There’s plenty of action, but the toughest work is done men and women poring over documents looking for patterns and anomalies and asking, “Why?”

The novel requires similar close attention from readers just to keep up with the twists of the story.

The Honourable Schoolboy
by John le Carré
Knopf, 1977. 533 p.
1977 bestseller #4. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tower of Babel: Terror for PR purposes

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

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

007 Rates 000 in You Only Live Twice

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