The Mandarin Cypher

The Mandarin Cypher

The Mandarin Cypher is the sixth book in the brilliant Quiller series by Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall). Quiller is a “shadow executive” who takes on dangerous missions for a deep black agency within the British government known only as “the Bureau”. Quiller is basically a Cold War British ninja: expert martial artist, driver, pilot, scuba diver; adept at secret communications, stealth and spycraft.

In many ways Quiller is the anti-Bond and anti-Helm. Almost monk-like in his pursuit of shadow op perfection, he doesn’t gratuitously womanize, drink, or lose his temper; he’s always highly technical, introspective and controlled on his assignments. Where James Bond is a stylish playboy, Quiller is an introverted geek; where Matt Helm can be a cowboy and a thug, Quiller is a model of forbearance and professionalism. He’s like a spy version of Donald Westlake’s Parker character: a “grey man” with little personality or personal baggage; all business, totally focused, disciplined and stoic during ops, and absolutely formidable at his chosen profession. The major difference being that Parker is a criminal out entirely for himself, whereas Quiller is a Queen and Bureau man who has to play by other people’s rules.

In this installment, Quiller is sent to Hong Kong to investigate the death of a fellow agent in a supposed fishing accident. Quiller quickly finds himself targeted for assassination by a cell of Red Chinese agents and romantically entangled with the beautiful but needy widow of the murdered agent. Quiller learns that things are not as they seem, and something fishy is afoot out in the South China Sea. It’s all related to an operation code-named “Mandarin” about which Quiller is being kept in the dark by his controllers in London. After about 125 pages of Hong Kong intrigue that some readers might find a bit tedious, the climactic action sequence begins: Quiller must infiltrate an oil rig in international waters owned by the People’s Republic of China and find out what it’s up to. This leads to some intense scenes, as Quiller must survive long scuba dives, naval mines, hand-to-hand combat, hostile Chinese forces and bombshell directives from his London controllers. The surprise ending is highly dramatic, if a bit improbable.

As always with this series, the action is tense and realistic, and the stream-of-consciousness calculations of the computer-like Quiller put you right inside the head of the savant-spy. Here’s a passage that nicely sums up both the writer’s style and Quiller’s philosophy of “the edge”:

So all you can do is settle for the situation and check every shadow, every sudden movement, and try to make sure there’ll be time to duck. And of course ignore the snivelling little organism that’s so busy anticipating what it’s going to feel like with the top of the spine shot away, why don’t you run for cover, trying to make you wonder why the hell you do it, why you have to live like this, you’ll never see Moira again if you let them get you, trying to make you give it up when you know bloody well it’s all there is in life: to run it so close to the edge that you can see what it’s all about.

Having read six or seven Quiller books now, I have to concur with the widely held opinion that it is one of the very best spy fiction series ever written. The Mandarin Cypher is another fine installment in a series that no fan of the genre should miss. Highly recommended for fans of thinking man’s spy fiction.

Get a copy of this book here.


Department 17 Entry (warning – slight spoilers):

Title: The Mandarin Cypher
Author: Elleston Trevor
Writing As: Adam Hall
Publication Year: 1975
Category: fiction
Genres: espionage
Op Types: assassination, infiltration, scuba diving, evasion
Plot Elements: oil rig, missiles, submarine
Governments: Great Britain, China
Locales: London, Hong Kong
Series: Quiller
Series #: 6
Plot Synopsis: Quiller is sent to Hong Kong to investigate the death of a fellow agent and finds himself targeted for assassination by a Red Chinese agents and romantically entangled with the agent’s widow. Something fishy is afoot in the South China Sea; Quiller must infiltrate a Chinese oil rig, carry out a seemingly impossible mission and get back alive.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/04/21/the-mandarin-cypher/

Department 17 – Shadow-Fiction Research

Department 17 – Shadow-Fiction Research

In the classic spy thriller Six Days of the Condor, protagonist Ronald Malcolm has a shadow-fiction fan’s dream job: he works for the “American Literary Historical Society”, which is actually a front organization for Section 9, Department 17 of the CIA. Malcolm’s job is essentially to read spy and crime novels all day, analyzing them for hidden nuggets of intel or ideas that the Agency might be able to apply in its own operations:

The function of the Society and of Department 17 is to keep track of all espionage and related acts recorded in literature. In other words, the Department reads spy thrillers and murder mysteries. The antics and situations in thousands of volumes of mystery and mayhem are carefully detailed and analyzed in Department 17 files.  …

The analysts for the Department keep abreast of the literary field and divide their work basically by mutual consent. Each analyst has areas of expertise, areas usually defined by author. In addition to summarizing plots and methods of all the books, the analysts daily receive a series of specially “sanitized” reports from the Langley complex. The reports contain capsule descriptions of actual events with all names deleted and as few necessary details as possible.

Fact and fiction are compared, and if major correlations occur, the analyst begins a further investigation with a more detailed but still sanitized report. If the correlation still appears strong, the information and reports are passed on for review to a higher classified section of the Department. Somewhere after that the decision is made as to whether the author was guessing and lucky or whether he knew more than he should. If the latter is the case, the author is definitely unlucky, for then a report is filed with the Plans Division for action. The analysts are also expected to compile lists of helpful tips for agents. These lists are forwarded to Plans Division instructors, who are always looking for new tricks.

It’s a fascinating, though perhaps fantastical, idea. But regardless of whether such a project would have much real-world intelligence use, it would certainly be a dream resource for the student of shadow-fiction. One could hone in on the precise types of stories one prefers, browsing for sources of ideas about any particular subject of interest. If you wanted to find crime novels featuring prison breaks, research Islamic terrorism in spy fiction, find men’s adventure novels set in South America or identify novels featuring ninjas published before 1983, you could quickly get a list of relevant works.

Which begs the question: why not create an open source version of Department 17 – a comprehensive database of spy, thriller, crime, men’s adventure, mystery and pulp fiction, broken down by genre, author, op types, plot synopsis, story elements, characters, series, etc.? There are nice sites that catalog science fiction/fantasy stories and comic books, but as far as I know nothing for shadow-fiction genres.

Below are some sample database listings for books recently reviewed on this blog to illustrate the idea:


Title: Hijack
Author: Lionel White
Publication Year: 1969
Category: fiction
Genres: crime, noir
Op Types: heist, skyjacking
Plot Elements: femme fatale, Vietnam vets, alcohol
Locales: USA/Nevada
Plot Synopsis: A money-hungry ex-stewardess seduces an ex-Air Force pilot and tells him about a flight that carries millions of dollars in cash. The pilot assembles a team of misfits to hijack the plane, but the whole plan goes horribly and brutally wrong.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/04/15/hijack/


Title: The Betrayers
Author: Donald Hamilton
Publication Year: 1966
Category: fiction
Genres: espionage, noir
Op Types: assassination, counter-espionage, terrorism
Plot Elements: femme fatale, sailing
Governments: USA, Russia, China
Locales: USA/Hawaii
Series: Matt Helm
Series #: 10
Plot Synopsis: Counter-espionage assassin Matt Helm is sent to Hawaii to stop a traitorous rogue agent who is rumored to be working for the Red Chinese and planning some kind of terrorist operation. There he encounters two beautiful but dangerous female operatives whose allegiances are unclear.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/03/26/the-betrayers/


Title: Breakout
Author: Donald Westlake
Writing As: Richard Stark
Publication Year: 2002
Category: fiction
Genres: crime
Op Types: prison break, heist, fugitive
Locales: USA/Midwest
Series: Parker
Series #: 21
Plot Synopsis: Professional thief Parker is busted, sent to prison and must find a way to escape. He must also find a way to break in and out of an armory loaded with jewels and get away clean.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/03/26/the-betrayers/


Title: Splinter Cell
Author: Raymond Benson
Writing As: David Michaels
Publication Year: 2003
Category: fiction
Genres: espionage, techno-thriller
Op Types: espionage, terrorism, counter-terrorism, sabotage, infiltration, kidnapping
Plot Elements: stealth technology, arms dealing, supergun, Islamic terrorism
Agencies: NSA, Third Echelon, The Shop, The Shadows
Governments: USA, Iraq, Israel
Locales: China/Macau, Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Israel
Series: Splinter Cell
Series #: 1
Plot Synopsis: “Splinter cell” Sam Fisher, NSA covert operative and master of high tech stealth, is sent to the Middle East to track down the sinister cabal of arms dealers called “the Shop”, stop the Islamic terrorist group called “the Shadows” and rescue his kidnapped daughter.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/03/28/splinter-cell/


Title: The Hong Kong Massacre
Author: Joseph Rosenberger
Publication Year: 1988
Category: fiction
Genres: men’s adventure, pulp
Op Types: ninjutsu, assassination, infiltration, disguise
Plot Elements: ninjas, organized crime, triads, revenge
Locales: Hong Kong
Series: Shadow Warrior
Series #: 1
Plot Synopsis: “Shadow Warrior” Scott McKenna must avenge the death of a good friend at the hands of a triad gang. The story of how he became a highly skilled ninja is recalled, and his brutal assaults on the triad gang’s strongholds are described.
Reviews: https://shadowscout.ninja/2020/03/25/welcome-to-the-shadow-war/


If I can find a simple platform on which to build such a site I might get it going. Hopefully others would see the value and contribute. Spy/crime/men’s adventure literature is a rich resource that deserves to be studied by present and future generations; it shouldn’t be allowed to fade into oblivion! I will post more about this project as developments warrant.

 

Hijack

Hijack

I’m fascinated by shadow ops that involve hijackingskyjacking, train robberies, piracy, etc.—so when I ran across the 1969 novel Hijack by Lionel White I was immediately intrigued. The first thing I noticed was the striking cover: the image of a giant upraised pistol next  to the single word “HIJACK” emblazoned in red, with a jet airliner and a couple in erotic embrace in the foreground, is a minor masterpiece of paperback cover design. On the strength of the cover alone I might have bought the book; knowing that the author was Lionel White, one of the old masters of crime noir fiction known particularly for his heist stories—which have been called precursors to the brilliant Parker novels by Donald Westlake—I simply had to have it.

Does the story live up to the cover? Almost. As you can probably guess, it involves the hijacking of an airliner, sparked by the steamy encounter between a beautiful, money-hungry ex-stewardess called “Sis” and an ex-Air Force pilot recently returned from Vietnam nicknamed “Dude”. Sis has inside information that a particular route transports millions of dollars in small bills in its cargo hold every month, and she uses her considerable charms to convince Dude to help her get it. So Dude assembles a team and plans an audacious air-heist.

Along the way we learn the backstory of the hijackers, most of whom were ‘Nam buddies of the rogue pilot Dude. We also learn more about several of the  VIP passengers; it turns out (rather unrealistically) that on board the ill-fated flight are a French movie star, a top American scientist, a Russian defector, his CIA escort, the airline’s majority stockholder and a famous preacher. In standard crime noir fashion, at some point everything goes sideways, as the all-too-flawed characters turn a carefully laid plan into a clusterf*k of foul-ups, betrayals and desperation moves. There’s some brutal violence, loose sex, nasty rape and heavy drinking as the various players crack under pressure and revert to their primal instincts. The offbeat ending is slightly anti-climactic and felt a bit rushed, but it’s probably as good as any for this offbeat tale.

I’m a little surprised Hollywood never made a film out of this novel. Several of Lionel White’s earlier works were made into movies, but maybe by 1969 the 64 year-old author was no longer a hot property. Or maybe a story about skyjackers—in an era when revolutionaries, terrorists, criminals and crazies were hijacking airplanes with alarming frequency—hit too close to home. Apparently Quentin Tarantino is a big White fan; this would make a great Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction-style noir thriller. No matter, though; classic crime paperbacks like this one are an art form of their own and deserve to be read and enjoyed on their own terms. The biggest crime is that this book is so obscure and difficult to find; if you can track it down for a reasonable price (I paid $10), I would advise picking it up. Hijack is recommended for fans of classic crime noir and heist thrillers.

Modern Ninja Warfare

Modern Ninja Warfare

One of my long-time obsessions is ninjutsu—not the ahistorical variety popularized by the likes of Masaaki Hatsumi and Stephen K. Hayes since the 1960s, which turned the ninja into black-gi wearing martial arts enthusiasts who rarely leave the dojo—but the real, historical art of the ancient Japanese shadow warriors. Unfortunately, until about a decade ago, most of the available ninjutsu literature reflected the bogus version of the art popularized by the “ninja boom”, and authentic material was almost non-existent in the English language. Fortunately, thanks primarily to Antony Cummins and his translation team, all the major original ninjutsu scrolls have been translated into English so we can now learn about the legendary ninja in their own words.
Cummins’ recent publication, Modern Ninja Warfare, is an outstanding addition to this project. Cummins has created something unique: a compendium of ninja skills taken directly from the historical ninjutsu scrolls, accompanied by a discussion of their modern shadow warrior equivalents.

The book starts with a nice overview of who the ninja really were and what they did. We learn that they engaged in the full range of shadow ops, as spies, commandos, scouts, arsonists, assassins, psychological warriors and terrorists. We get a similar overview of the ninja’s modern equivalents, the special forces, spies and hackers who engage in the same types of activities. Subsequent chapters compare everything from hand-to-hand fighting techniques to commando raids, secure communications, infiltrating buildings, escape and evasion, surveillance, ambushes, cross-country movement, assassination and torture. There is an entire chapter on spycraft, which was the bread-and-butter of the historical ninja. In one section I found particularly interesting, Cummins notes that the path of the shinobi no mono (ninja) was recognized in their own scrolls as a “horrific path”:

Shinobi took part in murder, lies, deceit, scandal, disguise, propaganda, sex, slavery, the killing of innocent bystanders, robbery and all the deeds at the depths of human society. They were the dark side of the samurai “coin,” not the antithesis of the samurai themselves.

Shadow warfare has always been a dark and dirty business, and no one knew that better than the ninja!

I also appreciated the last chapter of the book, “The Way of the Mind”, which discusses the psychological and spiritual dimensions of shadow warfare. This is an area that is often neglected in the modern literature, but which the ninja of old knew was critical to success. Their very name was derived from the word “nin”, which has several connotations, including “stealth”, “perseverance” and “forbearance”. They knew how to cultivate these qualities, to exploit the mental weakness of others and to use rituals to acquire inner strength. To operate in the shadows; to endure and overcome all hardships; to control emotions and urges; to exploit weakness and use rituals—these are the mental keys to the Way of the Shadows in all ages, whether they are medieval ninja or modern spy-commandos.

Overall, I found the book quite interesting and picked up many new tricks and ideas. It was instructive to see how the principles of the shadow warrior arts haven’t changed over the centuries, though the forms have changed to incorporate new technologies and cultures. This isn’t a highly detailed military instruction manual, but an overview and primer on the full range of shadow warfare skills and tactics practiced both by the ninja and modern operatives. As such, Modern Ninja Warfare is a worthy addition to the library of any student of ninjutsu or shadow warfare.
Get a copy of the book here.
Death of a Citizen

Death of a Citizen

Death of a Citizen is the first book in the brilliant Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton. Though categorized with James Bond and other popular spy novels of that era, this is really a classic 1950s noir crime story with a Cold War spy gloss. It has all the elements of that genre: the stylish but deadly femme fatale, the man whose dark past comes back to haunt him, dead bodies, tense chases, lethal twists, brutal betrayals and visceral violenceall told in the hard-boiled, gritty, witty style of the best crime novels of its day.

The story’s setup is a compelling one: Matt Helm, who worked as an assassin during World War II for a super-secret but unnamed government agency, finds himself reactivated 15 years later  while he is living a quiet life as a writer/photographer with his wife and three children in New Mexico. Thinking that his brutal days were long behind him, Helm’s encounter with the beautiful but lethal Tina, his ex-flame and -colleague in the assassination business, and his discovery of a dead body in his den, awaken his old killer instincts and pull him back into the deadly game of kill or be killed. Helm learns that his old agency is still operating, now targeting America’s Cold War enemies, and Helm’s unique talents are again in demand. This sets the stage for a fast-paced, exciting narrative, as Helm sets off on the open roads of the Southwest with Tina, reconnects with his old boss at the agency, and is given a new mission to eliminate the enemy agents targeting an important scientist in his area.

Hamilton does a brilliant job describing Helm’s re-awakening to the predatory instincts of a professional killerwhich had been dulled by 15 years of domesticated living but are quickly sharpened by the presence of death, sex and danger in the form of a dead girl, sexy Tina and her thuggish partner Loris. Like the best noir novels, this story is all about the dark psychological quirks of the characters, the unexpected plot twists and the moments of intense violencenot the geopolitical backdrop, technological gimmickry or comic book antics of so much spy fiction.

Death of a Citizen is a brilliant start to a series that I intend to read in its entirety. Matt Helm is a very compelling character; what Parker is to the crime genre, Helm is to spy fiction: a stoic, super-tough, no-nonsense man of action who does some nasty things but you can’t help rooting for anyway. Highly recommended.

Get a copy of this book here.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief

I always enjoy novels and movies that feature cat burglars who stealthily climb walls, use ropes and grappling hooks, creep along catwalks, bypass alarm systems, pick locks, crack safes, etc. to steal jewels or cash and get away cleanly. But I’ve often wondered: do such people exist, or are they just an entertaining fiction? The answer is the former, if you believe William Mason’s autobiographical account of his exploits as just such a burglar.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief recounts some of Mason’s most memorable heists and narrow escapes, his infiltration of glamorous society, and his double life as a responsible family man by day and a high stakes, high-rise sneak thief by night. I particularly enjoyed the technical details of his exploits, such as how he fashioned home-made grappling hooks by welding together large fish hooks, posed as prospective tenant to get a tour and floor plans of target buildings, carefully studied security cameras to find their blind spots, scaled walls, and the like. Mason’s standard M.O. was to get onto roofs from the inside then climb down onto balconies, taking advantage of the fact that people often didn’t bother to set their alarms or lock their doors because they never imagined that someone could get to them. He also used clever social engineering to plan his heists, reading high society newspapers and going to events they attended so he could scope out the jewels and learn more about his targets. Mason hit a number of well-known celebrities and tycoons, making off with millions of dollars worth of jewelry without the authorities having any clues.

What I find fascinating about Mason is the fact that even while he was making a comfortable upper middle class living as a real estate broker, with a wife and children in a good neighborhood, he led this dangerous second life and risked everything for the thrill of committing these crimes. Apparently the buzz and challenge of sneaking into luxury homes, outsmarting security measures and being instantly rewarded with small fortunes in jewelry was too potent a drug for Mason to give up. Once he got the taste for burglary as a young man struggling to make ends meet, it seems that he couldn’t stop until the law finally did it for him. This is a common trait we find in shadow operators, whether they are burglars, spies, hitmen or what have you: the real juice is not the money, but the excitement of living a life in the shadows, breaking the laws of daytime society and getting away with it, becoming a kind of shadowy superman who doesn’t play by the ordinary rules.

There have probably always been sneak-thiefs like Mason, targeting the fortunes of kings, nobles and merchants. It’s inspiring to know that such men can still operate in modern times, and can still profit wildly by their ingenuity, skill, daring, and exploitation of human error.  Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief is highly recommended for anyone interested in real heists and criminal shadow operators.

Get a copy of this book here.