Paul Vidich – The Coldest Warrior

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Paul Vidich – The Coldest Warrior

1953 – the Korean War has ended, but the Cold War emerges and the intelligence services’ nerves are frayed. When CIA officer Dr Charles Wilson dies under blurry circumstances, all information is closed down immediately. It will take twenty-two years until his death gets the attention it deserves. He “jumped or fell” from the ninth floor of a Washington hotel and his family is now demanding answers. Jack Gabriel, an old friend of Wilson’s, also an agent himself, starts digging and the deeper he gets, the more coincidental deaths among key witnesses this cases produces. Somebody tries to hide something and Gabriel soon has to ask himself how much he is willing to risk for the truth.

Paul Vidich narrates a fictional story based on the real events of the mysterious death of Frank Olson, CIA employee and biological warfare expert. The author has seen himself what the agency’s policy of secretiveness can do to a family: Olson was his uncle and he could witness the family’s grief at close range.

 “That was the story of the Agency then. We could do whatever we wanted because we were fighting the Soviet Union.”

The CIA killed its own men if need be. What sounds like the plot of a superb spy novel today, was a reality back then. As Vidich recalls, raising the subject at family reunions was a taboo, even though somebody suffered a terrible injustice, everybody remained silent and thus approved of the methods. Reading about the disclosure of Wilson’s/ Olson’s murder makes you oscillate between fascination and abhorrence. A lot has been revealed about the dark sides of espionage and spying, nevertheless, I am still stunned each time I read about how ruthless the business can be and how little a human life counts.

It is remarkable how Vidich manages to transport the story in an entertaining way even though he is that close to the case. A fast paced read that gives much more insight than you could ever wish for.

Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy

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Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy

When one night a man breaks into her New York apartment and tries to kill her, Marie knows that it is time to flee and to take her twin boys out of the country since they will not be secure there anymore. As a former member of the FBI she knows how to defend herself, she went through worse, but not her kids. She flees to a tiny village on Martinique where her mother has been living for decades, hoping to earn some time to write down everything that happened years before for her kids to understand one day when they are old enough. Marie thinks back to her beginnings at the agency when she had the impression of being stuck and then the unexpected chance to be a part of something bigger, of doing something good – which ended in an African bloodbath and forced her into hiding.

“American Spy” is Lauren Wilkinson’s first novel after some highly appraised shorter writings. What is quite fascinating about the thriller is that apart from the action part, it offers many different layers and aspects that can be discussed. It is set in the time of the Cold War and of course, first and foremost, the role of the two big players and their proxy wars in Africa obviously take a major part in the book. Yet, it can also be read as a feminist novel since the protagonist struggles to find her place in an all-male federal agency where people are openly sexist. Marie and her Caribbean background also qualify the novel under the label of a Black History book.

The thriller is full of suspense and provides insight into the world of spies. The complicated political situations they are in and the fact that the world is much more greyish than black and white at times forces them to either give up their ideals or simply quit their job. I liked a lot how the author combined Marie’s family history and the ghosts that haunt her with the bigger picture of world politics that, in the end, also can be broken down to personal relationships and enmities. The protagonist makes it easy to sympathise with her and thus you instantaneously immerse into the novel. Additionally, I learned a lot about Burkina Faso’s history, something that I was highly ignorant about.

Mick Herron – The Drop

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Mick Herron – The Drop

Solomon Dortmund knows his business; he’s been doing this for so many decades that nothing can surprise him anymore. But observing a classic drop in a café is something that rarely ever happens these days. He is sure about what he has seen and reports it back to Regent’s Park. There, this is not a total surprise since the woman involved is a double agent whom the Germans believe to be their mole with the British. But Hannah Weiss has her own agenda and she knows whom she is working for. When service analyst Lech Wicinski is doing a favour for an old acquaintance, he sets in motion a chain of events that will make himself one of the tragic victims.

Mick Herron’s The Slough House series has won several awards and was shortlisted for many more, among them the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, the British Book Award and the Gold Dagger. “The Drop” – a rather short novella only slightly liked to the series – is the latest instalment of it. Yet, it is much more a classic spy novel than the rest of the series since it has in my humble view a much more traditional setting with double and triple agents and members of the service operating in the field.

There is not much to say about the plot, it is quite straight forwards without any side lines or too much detail about the characters. As a reader, you dispose of information from both sides, i.e. the English as well as the Germans, and thus can observe both services operating. It is common in those kinds of operations that innocent bystanders become necessary victims and thus, also in “The Drop” we see people fall without having made the slightest mistake. The novella mainly serves as a backstory for the latest member of the Slough House team and I liked the quick read a lot for its atmosphere of old-times spy novels.

Karen Cleveland – Need to know

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Karen Cleveland – Need to Know

Vivian is one of the CIA’s strongest analysts. For years she’s been working on Russian sleepers and now she is close to digging out a complete cell. When she finally enters the document with the information she has been searching for for such a long time, her heart skips a beat: she knows one of the five sleepers. She knows him very well. He shares her life with him. He is her husband and father of their four kids. Looking back at the years they have spent together, a lot of things now appear in a completely new light. What is to be done? Can she really turn her husband in or is there a way out?

Karen Cleveland has written a masterful debut with a very classic setting that combines the typical spy and double agent/sleeper plot with a very personal dilemma which cannot really be solved. You can hardly put down the novel since it moves at such a high pace adding one crisis to the next that, quite often, you just wish for the protagonist that everything is just over.

At the centre of the novel is a very cleverly created catch-22 dilemma. Vivian can be either loyal to her employer and her country or to her husband – whom she cannot actually trust anymore, but he is the father of her kids. Once fallen into the trap of the Russians herself, she cannot get out without risking not only to lose her husband but also her kids and go to jail. It is a vicious circle, the more she tries to get out of it all, the deeper she entangles herself in it all. Apart from this great impasse, Cleveland has some interesting turns to offer which come unexpected and hit you hard.

Nathan Englander – Dinner at the Center of the Earth

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Nathan Englander – Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Berlin 2002. A young Palestinian helps out a Canadian businessman to sail on one of the lakes. The more often they meet, the more intimate they get. Paris, the same year. Prisoner Z falls in love with a waitress. A young woman who turns out to be a super-rich daughter with unlimited opportunities. Israel 2014. The General is in hospital, dying, it is just a question of time until he passes away. The same year, the same country, but in a secret prison cell. Prisoner Z sets all his hopes on the General unsuspecting of the latter’s poor state of health. Slowly, all pieces fit together to narrate a story of spying and love in one of the most conflict-laden regions of the earth.

The short description of the novel was really appealing and promising. I was expecting a suspenseful and tedious story which brings the characters to their limit and in which they oscillate between ethical values and commitment to their country and personal interests and emotions. Yet, the plot is slowly flowing without any remarkable peaks in suspense. It took me quite some time to get an idea of the characters and their connection, how they relate isn’t obvious at all.

The narrative style is quite enticing, the dialogues are vivid, also the presentation of the single characters is effective and thriving. However, due to the various places and side plots, the red thread got lost a bit. We have just fractions of the Israel history of which I really would have liked to read much more. Yet, as it is, there are a lot of narrative paths lain out which, unfortunately, nobody ever walked.