An Honorable Man – Paul Vidich
I’m on a bit of a Cold War kick right now; I believe reading about Chernobyl kicked it off. This is the first of several Cold War espionage thrillers I’m working my way through.
It takes place in Washington 1953, in the midst of the Korean War and as the McCarthy hearings are getting ramped up. George Mueller is a CIA agent who is thoroughly burnt out. The idealism that came with serving during and immediately after World War II has faded. His son lives with his ex-wife in her native Austria. He sees Washington politics creeping in on the mission of the CIA, a mission he’s not sure he believes in anymore to begin with.
On this background Mueller is tasked with rooting out a double agent that is feeding information about the CIA’s most sensitive operations to the Soviets. There are strong personal connections to his investigation, and even he is under scrutiny because of his background.
This feels like a very old-school spy novel. It has a darkness that feels suited more for a noir crime novel than a spy tale. There is a sense of resignation throughout; these are not glamorous, James Bond scenarios. They are worn-down, cynical men just trying to hang on. Combined with a pretty shocking ending, we are left with a first-rate entry into the modern espionage canon.
The Rumble in the Jungle – Lewis A. Erenberg
I’ve been seeing this book on the New Book shelf at the library for months. I finally broke down and read it.
It is an accounting of the 1974 heavyweight title bout between champion George Foreman and former champ Muhammad Ali held in Kinshasa, Zaire.
Erenberg spends the first quarter of the book setting up how Foreman and Ali arrived at the fight via very different paths. Ali, of course, was arguably the most famous man in the world. A powerful symbol for the political left, he had shed his birth name, joined the Nation of Islam, defied the draft, and paid for it by losing his title and countless millions of dollars in earnings and endorsements. Foreman, on the other hand, embraced what America stood for. Despite campaigning for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, he was viewed as an advocate for the conservative, “Silent Majority” that Richard Nixon spoke of. In fact, Foreman was so closely identified with the traditional elements of American society that many Africans assumed that he was white until they saw him.
Beyond that, Erenberg lays out how the fight came to be scheduled for Zaire, the efforts the government of Mobutu Sese Seko went to build the infrastructure to host the fight, how changes in technology and the undeniable power of Don King made holding a fight in Africa possible, and the huge dramas that led up to the fight.
The summary of the fight itself is rather brief, with more time spent on examining what happened to both Ali and Foreman after Ali reclaimed his title and how they each reinvented themselves in the 1990s.
I knew a fair amount about the fight, but I found this to be an informative read.
Red to Black – Alex Dryden
Sometimes books that tie fictional characters and plot closely to current events lose something in that exchange. I think this is a perfect example of a book that suffers from that pitfall.
Dryden’s novel takes place in the early-to-mid 2000s. The main characters are Finn, a British MI6 agent based in Moscow, and Anna, the Russian SVR agent who is charged with keeping tabs on him. The tricky part is they have fallen in love. Like serious love, not just having an affair to attempt to gain an intelligence advantage. Or at least that’s the way their relationship is presented.
Over several years Finn begins investigating a series of shell companies that are based in Switzerland and Luxembourg. He believes them to be a front for allies of Vladimir Putin to funnel massive amounts of money out of Russia into the west. Anna, who is suspicious of Putin, joins him in his investigation. She is also tasked, by her SVR superiors, with rooting out the mysterious “Mikhail,” a high-ranking member of Putin’s inner circle who appears to be feeding Finn information. She is forced to choose between her love for Finn and hopes for a more democratic Russia versus desire to protect her family.
Intertwined in this is a pretty deep dive on how Putin emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos of the early 90s to take over Russia so completely. We see how he, and other former KGB officials, insulated themselves and their interests as the USSR fell apart. How the co-opted the oligarchs who dominated Russia in its early days of democracy. And how they have crushed all dissent, turning New Russia into a more efficient and capitalistic version of the former Soviet state.
That’s where the problems come in. Because Dryden shares so much detail about the Putin regime, the book had long stretches that were dry and felt more like non-fiction than fiction. Those interludes let the air out of any drama he was building in the portion of the narrative that was focused on Finn and Anna.
This book had the potential to be an A+ modern thriller, and one that was incredibly timely given the current state of the world. But he just missed getting that balance between history and fiction right, and the book ends up being more of a B+.
The Innocent – Ian McEwan
My final Cold War spy thriller of the moment was a surprise. What began as a traditional spy novel morphed into something much different.
Leonard is a British postal service employee dispatched to Berlin in 1955 to aid in a top-secret project. The British and Americans are tunneling under the Soviet sector of Berlin – the city was divided but not-yet walled – and tapping into their communications lines. Almost as quickly as Leonard is thrust into this important project, he meets an older, divorced German woman, Maria, who becomes the first lover of his life. Their relationship is intense and seems to be on solid footing despite one notable slip up by Leonard. As he approaches a year in Berlin, he proposes, she accepts, and they gather with friends to celebrate the pending nuptials.
From here, things spin out crazily. Maria’s ex husband sneaks into her apartment, there is a confrontation between the three, and the ex is killed. What follows is one of the most difficult sections to read that I’ve come across in a long time, as Leonard and Maria have to take extraordinary steps to ensure the death does not become public.
This resolution puts a severe strain on their relationship just as the Soviets discover the tunneling project and Leonard is called back to London. Despite their engagement, when he leaves both he and Maria know this is their end.
The book closes with a lovely coda, told from 1987. Leonard has carved out a successful career in the UK, became a husband and father, and decides to return to West Berlin for the first time since he left in 1956. He is dazzled by the changes and struggles to find the places where he worked and lived 30 years earlier. He carries with him a letter from Maria, sent from the her home in Iowa where she had fled with an American soldier in the late ‘50s. Through it we learn how her life as unwound and that there is an opportunity for Leonard to reconnect with her.
This is a really good book. Then again, McEwan does not write bad books. What I found most interesting, though, and was even a bit distracted by, was the date which McEwan signed it as finished in his closing note: September 1989. The coda references the Wall and its inevitable fall, when the two sides of Berlin would again be joined. The political scientist in me couldn’t help but obsess a little over how the Berlin Wall did fall less than two months after McEwan completed the book.
Another angle of the book that I found fascinating was how devastated Berlin still was in 1955. It was full of rubble and destruction from a war that was ten years in the past. That got me watching some of those Berlin 1945 videos on YouTube. Hey, the Germans had it coming. But those videos are haunting. To know the city had not rebuilt that much by 1955 kind of blew my mind.