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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dead Lions

Dickie Bow had been out the spy game for a long time, but he wanted back in. He had never been an important spy, never one trusted with an important task, but he was a lifelong “street walker,” someone who knew how to tale someone without being seen, someone who could blend into the background without raising suspicion. And, he was the one guy who had actually seen a legendary spy, Alexander Popov. But was Popov even real? But Dickie didn’t always stay hidden, and that’s why his body was found on a bus. His cell phone had an unsent one-work text, “cicadas.” That was enough to interest some people at MI5, and some of the tasks that needed to be done to investigate what Dickie was after were assigned to the Slow Horses.

Dead Lions is the second book in a 5 book series, Slough House. All of the characters in the Slough House are spies who screwed up, who blew an assignment. Because it is not so easy to fire a spy, MI5 chose to give them the most boring of assignments as a way of inducing a voluntary retirement. None of the slow horses had ever gotten to return to Regent’s Park where the real MI5 brain trust worked, and like Dickie, they all wanted back in the game they had trained for.

Cicadas, insects that stay buried for 17 years before emerging to activity, was a clue that somewhere in England lived a Russian sleeper cell which was being activated 21 years after the Berlin Wall came down.

The cast of characters that author Mick Herron introduced in the first book, Slow Horses, are as intesting as the characters of Louise Penny or even Daniel Silva – and that is remarkably high praise. The primary protagonist is Jackson Lamb, who unlike penny’s Armand Gamache or Silva’s Gabriel Allon, is not refined or likeable. Really, he is a most disgusting creature with vile and extreme habits. But is at the top of the Slough House for a reason, and he knew Dickie Bow from their days together in Berlin during the height of the Cold War. Along with Lamb are the slow horses about whom we learned more, River Cartright, Roderick Ho, Min Marper, Louisa Guy, Catherine Standish. Herron introduces a couple new ones, Marcus Longridge and Shirley Dander, which allows him to kill off one of the others. 

The character development, main plot, and subplots all are fantastic. Herron has written 11 novels, and I’ve now reviewed two of them. I’ve already downloaded the third and fourth books of the Slough House series. We at MRB have a new author to get excited about. These books get my very strong recommendation.

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Revolver, by Duane Swierczynski is a story about three generations of cops in Philadelphia, starting with Stan Walczak who was murdered in the line of duty, although at the time of his death, he was also drinking at a bar during his shift. He was killed in 1965 along with his partner, George Wildey. At Stan’s funeral, his 9-year-old son, Jimmy vowed to find the person who had done this and bring him to justice, one way or another.

Thirty years later, 1995, Jimmy was Homicide Detective Jim Waczak, and he took the second of his three kids, teenager Cary, to the bar where the murder happened, Jim’s annual tradition to honor his father. He confided in Cary that he was pretty sure he knew who the killer was, a junkie, Terrill Lee Stanton, but there was never enough proof to hang this murder on him. Never mind, because Stanton was in prison anyhow on a different murder charge. Then in 1995, Jim is assigned a new murder investigation when 25-year-old Kelly Ann Farrace is found raped and murdered. She was a magazine writer who was assigned to publish a story about 30 promising Philadelphia residents who were all under the age of 30. What was the tie in to the current political climate in town? The mayoral election was about to happen, and the murder occurred in the part of town that was supposed to be safe. Why was Sonia Kaminski, linked to the mayor, pressing Jim to solve the case so quickly? It was another case that went officially unsolved.

By 2015, Jim was retired Captain Jim. His oldest, Stas was on the police force, but he was chronically depressed, an alcoholic, and his career was going nowhere. The youngest of Captain Jim’s three kids, Audrey, was in her second year of college in Houston where she was studying police forensics (although she was on the edge of flunking out of her program). She didn’t talk to anyone in the family, had even changed her last name to distance herself from her abusive father and dysfunctional family. But Audrey had been called home for a ceremony honoring the 50th anniversary of her grandfather’s death. This very dysfunctional Walczak family was back together. What could go wrong?

Audrey decided that the one way she could save her college career was to do a special project in which she brought new forensic science to the scene of her grandfather’s death, and then solve the murder. Her parents, long since divorced, and her brothers did not want her to do that, but always the stubborn one, she bulled ahead with her project. She figured out that there had to have been two shooters, not just one, and with that info, the Walczak family totally unraveled. Audrey figured it all out – a convoluted and dark history unfolded, and you’ll have to read the book to learn the details. The mysteries involved lots of family connections, too many family secrets for this reader.

This was a book that was recommended by an NPR reviewer, Nancy Pearl. Her website offers a wealth of information. While this book does not get a strong recommendation from me, assuming you like dark stories, it was entertaining and I plan to continue to consult Pearl's website.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

Retirement doesn’t sit well with John Rebus.  It serves as a reminder of how poorly he’s lived his personal life to support his professional career as a detective in Edinburgh’s police department.  But his career is over and he is left to sit in his drab, dated apartment with regrets for the family that left him, the alcohol and cigarettes in which he overindulged and the cases he left unsolved.  Dr. Deborah Quant, the local forensic pathologist has taken an interest in Rebus and his health, most recently a shadow on his chest x-ray and his uncontrollable cough.  It is at dinner with Deborah at the Caledonian Hotel that Rebus remembers an unsolved cold case, the murder of Marie Turquand forty years earlier in this very hotel.  Marie was married to a successful local businessman but was a bit of a groupie for a rock and roll band who were staying at the Caledonian.  She was found strangled in her bed in the room she had taken for the night.

Rebus asks his former protégé, DI Siobhan Clarke to supply the cold case files and dives right in.  He interviews ex-cop Robert Chatham who had originally investigated the Turquand murder years back.  Chatham turns up dead the next day.  DI Malcolm Fox is assigned to Chatham’s murder investigation.  Clarke is busy with her own investigation of the assault of local crime boss, Darryl Christie who had taken over for Big Ger Cafferty, Rebus’ longtime nemesis.  Rebus becomes suspicious after the three investigators share information from their current cases.  Could they all be connected?  With no official standing, Rebus inserts himself into solving the most notorious crimes in Edinburgh.

Rankin can’t let go of his most prevalent protagonist, John Rebus.  His fans won’t let him.  Rankin remains true to the timeline for mandatory retirement in the UK police force and resurrects Rebus to the job in retirement.  With little character development necessary, this being the twenty first John Rebus novel, Rankin delves into a complex plot that leaves us guessing all the while enjoying the tenacity and audacity that is John Rebus.  Another good read.  Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Funeral in Berlin

Len Deighton is one of the greatest cold war spy novelists of this era, and Funeral in Berlin, was his third novel, written in 1964 about a story that occurred a year earlier. This is a classic espionage novel about an unnamed British agent. The stories involves a complex interaction of double and triple agents. Anticipating a trip to Germany in the near future, I came to this book as the result of an attempt to find mysteries that used Berlin as a venue. I got to the 22% of the story and did not finish the book since I found it dated and trite, but it must have been a major hit in its time.

The Berlin Stories

In anticipation of traveling to Germany in a couple months, I was on a quest to read some books that took place there, and The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood popped up as having been rated by Time Magazine as among the top 100 books of the 20th century. The book is actually two novellas, Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. The books are given credit for the subsequent stage and film versions known as Cabaret. Both books were written in 1945, the first taking place in 1930 and the second in 1933. Of course, that was the era when Hitler was just coming to power.

Isherwood based the stories on his life in Berlin, having taken extensive notes while living there in the 1930s, then compiling them into these books after WWII. In Berlin, life among the moneyed class was extravagant and shallow. While Mr. Norris was a clever and interesting character, he was more of sensational and curious personality than anything else. Given the sensational aspects of the book and plot, I thought this book might be an example of early gay literature. However, I found the whole thing to be rather dated and stale considering more current literature. The story is interesting from a historical angle, especially the struggle between the forces of Hitler and the communists which were competing with each other for the sympathies of the voting public, although that was not a major plot in this story.

Goodbye to Berlin was mostly a study of a series of characters, none of which I found particularly compelling. Best known from Cabaret was Sally Bowles, the character played by Liza Minelli. Shallow, sensational, sexy, bold. I was left without any appreciation for the story itself, and I abandoned the book at that point. Perhaps the novellas should be seen in a historical context, but I can’t recommend these works for casual and enjoyable reading.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Slow Horses

Mick Herron is the author of 10 books, and his 11th is due out in 2017. Slow Horses, written in 2010, is the first in a five-novel series called Slough House, about Jackson Lamb, an old English Spy who is not quite ready to go quietly into retirement. I was intrigued beginning with the first sentence, “This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.” In Britain’s spy system, the slow horses are spies who screwed up assignments or even training exercises, not bad enough to be fired, but not good enough to be trusted with any meaningful work. For men and women who dreamed of and who trained to be an integral part of covert action, the assignment to the Slough House was akin to a slow death. Regents Park was the site of the people who were involved in the game in which everyone at Slough House wanted to be a part. Everyone at Slough House hoped to be invited back to Regents Park, but that had never happened. When Ingrid Tearney, the big boss at Regents Park, was out of town, leadership fell to “Second Desk” Diana Taverner, know to all as Lady Di, a derogative term, and no one would have ever said that to her face.

Jackson Lamb sat on the top floor of Slough House and ran the show there, although the reason for his assignment to the Slow Horses was never revealed as it was for the other characters. Lamb was a no-nonsense character who was absolutely disgusting in and unapologetic for his personal habits. Cartwright is a young buck, grandson of a spy legend, talented, intuitive, but he got put on the shelf because of his alleged failure to stop a bomb from going off in the London subway. The bomb never went off, his failure was only in a dress rehearsal practice event, but that was enough for Lady Di to send him to the Slow Horses.

But, the Slow Horses got a chance at action when Lady Di inexplicably asked for their help to rescue a kidnap victim. At first, the identity of the victim was unknown and it was assumed that Al Qaeda got him – that it was another terrorist event to strike in Britain’s homeland. However, the victim turned out to be Hassan Ahmed, a native born Brit of Pakistani heritage. Herron wrote of the kidnap victim, “Fear lives in the guts. That’s where it makes its home. It moves in, shifts stuff around; empties a space for itself – it likes the echoes its wingbeats make. It likes the smell of its own farts.” The kidnappers threatened to behead Hassan and display the act online. It was Lamb who figured out the kidnappers weren’t from Al Qaeda: “Somebody somewhere will be using words fight fire with fire. Some other dickhead’ll be saying that what works in Karachi workds just as well in Birmingham…. They’re home-grown fuckwits who think they’re taking it back to the enemy.”

Meanwhile, Robert Hobden, a has-been journalist with right wing beliefs was desperately looking for one more story to bring him back into media’s limelight. In short, there was a wonderful plot of insider fighting among Britain’s covert operatives and administrators while solving this crime and rescuing the victim was at risk.

I was taken by the plot, the characters, the dialogue, and the narrative language, so I’ve already acquired the second book in the series, Dead Lions. I heard about this book and author while listening to an NPR show with Nancy Pearl who raved about the story. I agree, and I plan to pay more attention to Ms. Pearl’s recommendations (worth a plug – it’s www.nancypearl.com).


Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Trinity Six

This the third book reviewed by Charles Cumming in the blog. The Trinity Six is a classic and updated WWII spy novel. Given that it’s a current day novel with many of the characters of interest having already died, the covert techniques described by Cummings covered both old time field craft and modern spy techniques.

There really was a “Cambridge Five,” the title for five men who were undergraduates at Cambridge in the 1930s who became an effective group of spies for Russia during WWII. (Trinity College is one of the colleges at Cambridge.) This book takes off from that reality with the notion that there was a sixth spy who had never been revealed even though many scholars had looked for evidence of such and suspected many men of being the sixth man. In this book, the protagonist is Dr. Sam Gaddis, a Russian History professor at Trinity College. The current Russian president is Sergie Platov, a very Putlin-like tsar-like figure, and Gaddis had just finished an academic tome called Tsars which was nothing less than a blistering attack on the Platov regime. Platov was a most important figure in trying to cover up any such research – but why would he do that? Shouldn’t the success of a Russian spy network look good for the Kremlin?

Because of his book, Gaddis was approached by a young woman, Holly Levette, who said she had been given some secret papers from her mother, Katya Levette. Katya had been working on a book about the alleged sixth Trinity Spy when she suffered a premature death, probably from alcoholism. Holly thought Gaddis might be interested in her mother’s research, and then as he began to delve into the material and talk with others about it, people started to die. Most notably murdered was his ex-girlfriend, a colleague who he consulted about the project. Then there were others.

I need not lead you through the plot which was clever. There were significant twists and turns, but it was not too complex to follow (as I’ve found with some other intricate spy novels). Cummings did a good job with the supporting characters. More than with many authors, I could really picture his many locations that Cummings artfully portrayed. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and am very impressed with Cummings story telling skills. I’ll be reading more of his books.