Circus

Circus

Alistair  MacLean is one of the greats of old-school adventure fiction and one of the best-selling authors of all time. Though most of his novels involve shadow operations of some kind, I’ve found them a bit less compelling than those of his fellow great, Jack Higgins, and haven’t read too many. I recently picked up MacLean’s 1975 novel, Circus, which combines a “mission impossible”-style op with Cold War espionage, and gave it a quick read.

The story’s protagonist is Bruno Wildermann, a superstar trapeze performer, tightrope walker and mentalist. Bruno is an immigrant to America from an undisclosed eastern European communist country where members of his family were killed by the regime. Not only can he perform seemingly superhuman feats of balance and agility on the high-wire, but he has a photographic memory. This makes him the perfect candidate for a daring CIA operation: to penetrate a top-secret laboratory in Bruno’s homeland where a scientist is developing a devastating anti-matter weapon, take “mental photographs” of the technical documents contained therein and then destroy them.

The first part of the novel sets up the operation, as we’re introduced to Bruno, some of his talented circus mates–including the strongman Kan Dahn, the knife-thrower Manuelo and the lasso-master Roebuck–and his CIA handlers, which includes the beautiful Maria, whose role is apparently to look pretty, admire Bruno and occasionally get hysterical. A couple of murders early on let us know that treacherous parties have infiltrated the circus and are on the scent of the CIA plot.

Things start to get interesting around 100 pages in, as Bruno is finally let in on the details of the mission he is being asked to undertake. He’s to infiltrate the Lubylan laboratory and prison facility where the scientist works and lives. There’s a power line stretching from a power station 300 yards away to the top of the Lubylan building, which Bruno is to walk across without getting fried by the 2000 volts of electricity. If he manages that, he then needs to get into the building without getting shot by guards or eaten by killer Doberman Pinscher guard dogs. His challenge is nicely illustrated in a two-page schematic at the beginning of the book:

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it: walk across a 2000 volt power line 9 stories up…”

As the circus sails across the Atlantic and rolls toward the target country the intrigue ramps up: spies are killed, sleeping compartments are bugged, shady characters are seen tailing Bruno and his mates, and a nasty secret police chief named Colonel Sergius learns of Bruno’s scheme and schemes to take him down. Meanwhile, Maria’s cover as Bruno’s love interest begins to get all too real–a corny romantic sub-plot that I could have done without.

Finally they get to the destination, where Bruno, who has more skills than you would expect of a trapeze artist, pulls off an absurd deception to fool Sergius and throw him off his trail. Then Bruno and his three circus mates undertake the audacious heist, each using his particular skills to climb, walk, rope, knife and muscle their way into the building. This was definitely the novel’s highlight, though the realism was a bit lacking; Bruno and his crew subdue the guards and get inside too easily to make it a really tense scene.

But all of this is just a setup for what MacLean really excels at: not Shadow Op believability, but plot twists, treachery and shock endings. Without spoiling it for you, let’s just say that there are traitors close to Bruno, surprise guests in the Lubylan building, and Bruno’s operation and he himself are not as they appear to be. It’s all a bit too much, like a murder mystery where you’re not entirely clued in and everything ends too tidily to be believable. My other criticism is that MacLean doesn’t bother giving his characters different voices and personalities; they all speak like cynical Oxford-educated Englishmen, including the Eastern European immigrant Bruno and the American CIA men.

It’s too bad, because MacLean had a clever “Mission Impossible” story idea here, the execution was just a bit lacking. This is probably why I haven’t read many of his novels and prefer Jack Higgins, though I understand that MacLean’s best work came years earlier. It wasn’t a bad novel, just very old-school and not as good as it could have been. Get a copy of Circus here.

The XYY Man

The XYY Man

Cat burglary and espionage are two of my favorite categories of Shadow op; any story that combines them in a believable way is going to go on my to-read list.

The XYY Man, published in 1970 by Kenneth Royce, is such a story. It’s the first of a series of eight novels about William “Spider” Scott, a skilled “creeper” (cat burglar) and occasional British government operative. The novel was adapted as a 3-part British TV series pilot in 1976 and returned for 10 more episodes in 1977.

The story starts slowly as we’re introduced to the protagonist, a second-story man who has just been released from his third stay in prison and is determined to go straight. We also meet his devoted girlfriend Maggie and his square cop brother Dick, whose influence is the only thing keeping Spider from going back to his old life of crime. Meanwhile, a nasty copper named Bulman with a personal grudge is harassing Spider, accusing him of another burglary and preventing his brother from advancing in the force.

Things look bleak for Spider when a man named Fairfax approaches him out of the blue and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: Bulman will be called off, Dick will be given a promotion, and Spider will receive 15000 pounds to set himself up with a legitimate business and a new life with Maggie. All Spider has to do is steal some documents from a safe in the Chinese Legation in London—which turns out to be the most secure, unfriendly building Spider has ever seen. And if he’s caught, his sponsors will deny all involvement and Spider will have to face the music like a common criminal.

Spider initially refuses, considering it a mission impossible and not wanting to spend his best remaining years in a tough prison, or six feet under if the Chinese get him. But after casing the building carefully, the sheer challenge of it gets his juices flowing and he decides to give it a go. It’s the same old story we see time and time again with Shadow-oppers: the safe, square, daytime life just can’t compete with the buzz of breaking the law, living on the edge and operating in the shadows.

The story kicks into gear as Spider goes ahead with the op, breaking into the Legation building from an adjoining rooftop, creeping past alarms and into the safe room. But things go sideways when he discovers the shocking information the documents contain, and the next thing we know Spider is a fugitive—from British intelligence, the police, the Chinese, Maggie, Dick and soon, the CIA and the KGB. Spider has to evade them all and figure out what to do when you have nowhere to go and you’re the most wanted man in London, if not the world. In other words, it’s a Shadow operator’s worst nightmare, but a shadow-fiction reader’s dream scenario.

I liked the first-person, real-time perspective this novel gives you of the creeper Scott as he tries to complete his mission, evade his pursuers and extricate himself from an epic international clusterf*k on the streets of London. We get an up-close look at some of the tricks of his trade, the quick wits required and the intensity of being a most-wanted fugitive on the run. There were some twists at the end that I found a little confusing and the story wrapped up a bit too quickly, but otherwise it was a gripping story.

My only other criticism is that the writing was a bit awkward and difficult to follow at times, particularly for an American reading in 2021. It reminded me of an early Jack Higgins novel, with its unpolished style and street-level view of British Shadow operatives of a bygone era. But the plot was compelling, the action exciting but never over the top, and the main character Spider the kind of protagonist the shadow-fiction fan has to root for. I enjoyed The XXY Man and will be reviewing other installments of the Spider Scott series in the near future. Recommended for fans of old-school crime, spy and adventure fiction.

The Black Ice Score

The Black Ice Score

Black Ice Score, published in 1968 by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), is the eleventh entry in the incomparable Parker series about an ultra-tough but likeable heist-man.

This time the target of Parker’s heist is $700k worth of diamonds smuggled into New York by the corrupt leader of a small African nation called Dhaba. The diamonds are being kept on the top floor of a museum where the leader’s brutal brothers-in-law have taken residence and guard them 24/7. A diplomat from Dhaba wishes to steal the diamonds back on behalf of his countrymen, so he finds the best man in the business and hires him as a consultant. Parker’s task is to devise a plan to get into the building, past the guards and grab the diamonds. His job is complicated by a group of white colonials allied with a black general from Dhaba, who have learned about the diamonds and want them to fund their own takeover of the country. They are trying to strong-arm Parker into telling them where the diamonds are, going so far as to kidnap his steady girlfriend Claire and forcing him to cooperate. There’s also a joker in the pack in the form of a shifty, unpredictable character named Hoskins who has a bad habit of annoying Parker and appearing at inopportune times (Westlake loves these characters).

This is an atypical entry in the series in several respects. For one, Parker is not doing the job himself, but is only acting as a paid consultant for amateurs. He plans the heist and trains the Africans, but doesn’t participate directly in the theft. This is obviously a let down for Parker fans, sort of like going to an Elvis concert and being told that an impersonator is going to perform instead—though the author does a pretty good job of making the amateurs’ point of view interesting. The international political angle is also unusual for this series, which is normally apolitical and focused entirely on the all-American business of taking down big scores. In the spy-crazy 1960s it seemed that every thief and thug was getting a piece of the geopolitical action. Third, Parker seems strangely charitable and caring at times compared to his brutal sociopathic persona earlier in the series. Apparently his long-term relationship with Claire is softening him and making him a bit less Terminator-like than before.

There were some interesting moments in this story for students of shadow operations. The planning of the heist, the social engineering used to case the building, and the tools and tactics employed were reminiscent of the antics of real-world master jewel thief William Mason that I discussed in this review. This is the most ninja-like op in the series so far: the use of deception to gain entry to a stronghold, crossing from rooftop to rooftop, roping down an elevator shaft, using gas bombs to incapacitate guards, dressing all in black, surprise attacks, are all classic ninja tactics, handled with Westlake’s trademark realism.

The short novel moves quickly to a climax as the theft gets very bloody, bodies pile up, and Parker makes his re-appearance just in time. Hoskins is still a joker, the colonialists still hold the trump card Claire, and Parker has to bluff and go all-in to win with the hand he’s dealt. While risking his neck to save a woman wasn’t the old Parker’s style, this slightly kinder, gentler Parker does just that to try to save Claire from the clutches of the enemy.

This was definitely a lesser entry in the series, but still entertaining and worth the few hours spent reading it if you like heist novels and appreciate quality writing. Westlake is the genre’s master and Parker its greatest character, so even a sub-par installment is a cut above most other novels of its kind.

Get a copy of The Black Ice Score here.

Stony Man #27: Asian Storm

Stony Man #27: Asian Storm

After reading a lot of cynical, morally ambiguous Shadow-fiction recently, I decided to try a good old men’s adventure novel, where the good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, and the job of the former is to blow away the latter with .44 magnums, Galil sniper rifles, and whatever else is handy.

Such is the world of Mack Bolan—granddaddy of the men’s adventure genre, who sold millions of books and spawned dozens of imitators in the 1970s and 80s. Bolan began his paperback career as a vigilante known as the “Executioner” – a one-man army fighting a holy war against organized crime. By the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan was rekindling the Cold War with the Soviet Union, killing off mafia thugs was no longer enough for Bolan, so he expanded his war to include international terrorists and enemy spies. That was when Bolan joined the “Stony Man” organization, a deep black agency tasked with taking the gloves off and waging war on the KGB and their terrorist allies as ferociously as Bolan had previously taken on the mafia.

Unable to resist the prospect of Bolan matching wits with ninja assassins, I picked up Stony Man 27: Asian Storm, by Jerry Van Cook, and gave it a quick read. The story concerns the machinations of three ambitious Japanese brothers, members of an old Samurai family who have decided that the time has come to carve out an empire in Southeast Asia. Somehow, they have managed to engineer an alliance among several nations in the region, and are on the verge of uniting them into the Republic of Tanaka, which we’re told would be the world’s third great power, after the USA and China. To accomplish this, the Tanaka brothers employ the services of a ninja clan to do their dirty work, just as many Samurai families did in old Japan. The ninja clan is lead by a particularly nasty piece of work named Yamaguchi, who is not only a highly skilled shadow warrior and master of disguise, but a sex fiend who enjoys killing women and children in the line of duty. On the Tanakas’ orders, the ninjas are assassinating high-ranking Chinese leaders, framing the CIA in the process and bringing the USA and China to the brink of war. They are also stirring up deadly riots and committing terrorist acts stateside designed to inflame Asian opinion against the USA. The various plot threads come together nicely, as Stony Man teams Able Team and Phoenix Force race to stop the Tanakas from creating a perfect “Asian storm” and plunging the world into war.

You don’t read a novel like this for its high levels of Shadow op realism. Bolan, like Joseph Rosenberger’s Death Merchant and Shadow Warrior, has a superhuman ability to engage rooms full of armed men and come out unscathed, while leaving a room full of corpses in his wake. This is a skill the ninja themselves are legendary for; in fact, throughout this book Bolan and other members of the Stony Man crew manage to “out-ninja the ninjas”. Team members pull off several infiltration, diversion and disguise ops; Bolan completes a particularly impressive burglary using a grappling hook gun to cross between buildings, cut through a window, steal data from the ninja boss’s computer and get away via rope as automatic gun fire rains down on him. But at the end of the day, Bolan is more Dirty Harry than Sho Kosugi, and he prefers to settle things in a straightforward Western manner: by blasting the bad guys through the heart with his trusty Desert Eagle .44 Magnum.

For what it was and the time invested, Asian Storm didn’t disappoint. If you don’t expect literary subtlety or nuanced characters and treat this like a men’s comic book, you should have a good time. Get a copy of Asian Storm 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.

Splinter Cell

Splinter Cell

Splinter Cell, the first in a series of novels based on the popular stealth video game, has an  intriguing premise: an ultra-secret NSA division called Third Echelon employs agents called “Splinter Cells” to infiltrate enemy installations, spy, steal, sabotage and assassinate to protect American interests.

The protagonist is Sam Fisher, a highly competent loner who has little apparent personality or life beyond his government work and his Krav Maga practice. Fisher employs an array of impressive gadgetry, including a suit that regulates body temperature, makes no sound and resists bullets, and a device called an OPSAT that did in the early 2000s what smartphones do today, but with high security, global satellite coverage and a direct line to NSA HQ. Fisher is also a master of stealth and shadow warfare—basically a 21st century ninja. He can pick any lock in seconds, scale walls and climb ropes with the best of them, evade capture, blow up buildings and take people out with his bare hands. But therein lies the problem: Fisher is a little too good, and everything comes a little too easy for him. He’s like Nick Carter—a superman spy who never seems to have a major mishap or encounter any obstacle he can’t overcome.

This first installment concerns the machinations of a SPECTRE-like cabal of arms dealers called “the Shop” that is targeting Splinter Cells for death, having already murdered two agents and set their sights on Fisher. They are also sponsoring a very nasty Islamic terrorist outfit called “the Shadows” (not to be confused with the group I’ve blogged about) that is spreading al Qaeda-style mayhem.  Fisher is sent to the Middle East to track both organizations down and destroy their operations. This involves using his stealth skills to infiltrate various offices and bases, gather incriminating information, blow up their assets and take out any bad guys who cross his path. Unfortunately, the Shop ups the ante by kidnapping his daughter, and this really motivates Fisher and puts him hot on their trail.

Author “David Michaels” is actually Raymond Benson, who was the official author of the James Bond series from 1996 to 2003. His writing is perfectly functional but not terribly inspired—he’s certainly no Ian Fleming, and Sam Fisher is no James Bond. Benson was the hired writing help here, not the series creator, and it shows. Fans of the video game or Clancy techno-thrillers who are intrigued by the premise may enjoy this book, but I found it all a bit predictable and by the numbers. Splinter Cell offers neither shadow op realism, gripping narrative, interesting characters, nor wild entertainment of the sort you find in classic men’s adventure fiction. Give it a pass unless you have nothing better to read.

Buy a copy of Splinter Cell here.

Flawless

Flawless

One of my favorite subjects of study is “heistology”—the history, art and science of pulling off heists. One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell. It is a detailed account of the notorious Antwerp Diamond Heist conducted in 2003, one of the largest robberies in history, worth upwards of one hundred million dollars in diamonds, gold and jewelry.

This is an amazing, riveting story. The robbers, members of the so-called “Turin School” of Italian professional thieves, spent two years planning and carrying out the audacious operation, which was to loot the vault of the Antwerp Diamond Center—a super-secure vault within one of the most thief-proof square miles of real estate on the planet: the Antwerp Diamond District. The leader, a man named Leonardo Notarbartolo, rented an office within the Center, and with the assistance of his specialist team members in Italy, gradually developed workarounds for the vault’s security measures right under the guards’ noses. They were able to bypass three different alarm systems by ingenious techniques; for example, they defeated the light sensor with a telescoping painter’s pole with a styrofoam casing on one end, molded to fit perfectly over the sensor. They also benefited from sloppy security: guards who conveniently kept the vault key in a nearby storage room, and managers who failed to update some of the vault’s security systems. But the amount of skill and ingenuity displayed by this gang is rather awe-inspiring, despite one unfortunate failure to dispose of incriminating evidence.

While I’m a big fan of heist novels by the likes of Donald Westlake and Lionel White, nothing beats a true story that reads like a thriller. This was a real mission impossible, conducted with great skill, patience and daring by a modern-day “thieves guild” that shadow operators can’t help but admire. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Flawless here.