Night Boat to Paris

Night Boat to Paris

The 1950s were well before my time, but it must have been a golden age for readers of paperback spy, crime and adventure fiction. That decade had so many elements that make for exciting stories: the Cold War at its most intense, the CIA and KGB waging unfettered shadow wars across the globe, the American empire rising, the British empire falling, the Mafia’s invisible empire at its peak, and thousands of veterans of World War II and Korea still young and looking for action. It’s not surprising that the decade introduced so many genre greats, like Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Donald Westlake, Dan J. Marlowe and Lionel White. A more obscure author who got his start in the ’50s was Richard Jessup; I recently picked up his 1956 novel Night Boat to Paris in a lot of vintage spy paperbacks and gave it a quick read.

The novel’s protagonist is Duncan Reece, an ex-World War II British Intelligence operative who fell out of favor with the class-oriented Establishment after the war and turned to criminal work. He is approached by his old intel chief, who considers Reece the perfect man for a very sensitive mission. It seems that an ex-Nazi engineer has developed a nuclear satellite technology for the Reds, but the microfilmed blueprints have wound up in the possession of a wealthy Spaniard and a purchase has been arranged at a charity bazaar at his French villa later that month. Several intelligence agencies, most notably the Reds, are in hot pursuit of the film and are expected to be closely watching the villa. Reece’s mission is to stage a robbery at the bazaar, taking the party-goers’ valuables as well as the microfilm in order to fool the Reds into thinking it wasn’t enemy action. Reece agrees to the job for the very tidy sum in 1956 dollars of one hundred thousand, plus half the loot, an import-export license and his Scotland Yard file and fingerprint records.

Reece’s first task is to travel to France and assemble a crew for the heist. He enlists an old associate and all-around shady operator named Tookie, a desperate German gunman named Otto, a French muscle-man named Saumur, and two American mafiosi operating out of Marseilles named Gino and Marcus. There is considerable intrigue leading up to the main event, as Reece is pursued by mysterious assailants in black suits, and he suspects that one of his own men is an informant for the Reds. Several enemy operatives are killed, and there’s some interesting introspection from Reece about why he is doing this that speaks to the inner plight of the shadow warrior:

You’re a different man, Reece, from when you first started thinking for yourself. A man who has no principles, ascribing to no morality, who has perhaps had the morality knocked out of you. You’re a killer; a procurer and thief; a man who has great wit and wisdom when it comes to saving your own neck and feathering your nest. You see that the world is mad and are playing along with it.

Can such a man slip into the comfortable rut of a middle-class merchant?

Another question.

And no answer for it.

Finally the crew gets to the locale of the op and sets themselves up in a farmhouse, where they begin training for their commando-style raid on the villa. From here on out it’s a riveting thriller, as the crew, clad in identical black coveralls, berets, face paint and bandanas, assault the party with a rope ladder, grappling hook and Tommy guns, get the loot and the microfilm and try to make their escape. They get to the border and desperately try to find away across, while more men in black show up and they are forced to take drastic action in a mountain village. Conveniently, a village girl unhappy about her arranged marriage joins the crew and leads them on a secret route across the mountains. This finale is a bit less believable than the rest of the story, but it races to a suitably noir ending as the traitor is revealed and Reece makes a run for it into the shadows.

This is just the kind of novel I like: an old-school, hard-boiled adventure that combines espionage, a heist, desperate criminals and ruthless shadow operators. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, but with a more sophisticated style than you get in a typical men’s adventure novel. All in all, this was an excellent little thriller, and a glimpse back to a time when spy stories could be told in 158 pages instead of 400+, without all the bloated writing, technological gimmickry and over-the-top action that would plague the genre in later decades. I will certainly be reading more novels from this era, and can recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the early hardboiled spy work of authors like Donald Hamilton, Jack Higgins, Dan Marlowe and Edward Aarons.

Get a copy of Night Boat to Paris here.

Pay Any Price

Pay Any Price

Ted Allbeury was a prolific British spy novelist who, before becoming a writer, actually lived the life of a Shadow Operative as a secret agent behind enemy lines in World War II. I’d never read his work before, but when I saw the description of his 1983 novel Pay Any Price I was immediately intrigued. It deals with a fascinating front of the Shadow War that is arguably the most important of all: the war for the mind.

The novel’s premise is that Lee Harvey Oswald and other notorious assassins were actually under the hypnotic control of rogue psychiatrists working for the CIA. That might sound outlandish, but when one studies some of the historical assassins and mass shooters up to the present day, many of them do seem rather disconnected from their acts, as if they were committed by alter egos not under their control. Having read a few things about the history of CIA mind control (The Search for the Manchurian Candidate is a classic) and MKUltra, I find the premise of this novel chillingly plausible.

The book begins in the early 1960s, as we meet the psychiatrists, intelligence officers, criminals and dupes who will carry out the Kennedy assassination. Mafia leaders, incensed by the Kennedy brothers’ aggressive prosecution of their activities, and CIA men, equally incensed by JFK’s failure to back the overthrow of Castro, conspire to have the president whacked. They find the perfect patsy in Lee Harvey Oswald, an early subject of a secret CIA mind control program. Two psychiatrists have discovered how to hypnotically create multiple personalities in their subjects and program them to obey commands when code phrases are spoken (readers of classic spy thrillers will be reminded of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate and Walter Wager’s Telefon). Meanwhile, a sexy British nightclub singer named Debbie Rawlins is recruited and programmed–her gig as a travelling entertainer for military personnel providing a convenient cover for her programmed personality’s more lethal vocation.

The narrative jumps ahead several years as the two psychiatrists, wanting to get away from the heat of Congressional investigations, media attention and public suspicion that the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy, relocate to a house in the northern English countryside to lay low and continue their research. But when two suspicious British MI6 agents break into the house of their CIA handler they discover incriminating papers connecting the doctors to the assassination program. Being shady operators, the SIS men take full advantage of the situation by blackmailing the American psychiatrists into employing their hypnotic assassins to take out some troublesome IRA leaders in nearby Northern Ireland. So a corporal named Walker is recruited and programmed for the hits, and Debbie Rawlins is reactivated.

The story finally gets a clear protagonist when an MI6 agent named James Boyd is asked to investigate a psychiatrist’s report of a patient who is having dreams about political murders that he should have no way of knowing about.  It seems that the patient (Walker) is experiencing a mental breakdown, as memories of the hits performed under his alter ego begin to leak into his daily life via disturbing dreams. Boyd’s sleuthing uncovers some disturbing facts about both Walker and Rawlins, the psychiatrists who programmed them, their connections to the MKUltra assassination program and the IRA hits. What are CIA assassin programmers doing in the UK, and why are they having people offed for MI6?

Boyd is faced with a moral dilemma: does he go along with his superiors’ desire to bury the scandal in the interest of transatlantic spook relations, or does he seek justice for the pawns of the hypno-assassin program whose lives they ruined? The story has the sort of cynical ending that you find in a lot of British spy fiction, which you’ll never get in more popular spy fiction novels but no doubt has more resemblance to the realities of shadow warfare. Anyone imagining that shadow warfare is some kind of morality play, where there are good guys and bad guys and the former always win, is surely living in a fantasy world!

While the set up of this story is excellent, the execution was a bit off. The narrative is very disjointed in the first half; it jumps from location to location, introducing characters and plot threads that didn’t seem connected. It’s hard to maintain any narrative tension when you’re not sure who the protagonist is and you’re bouncing around every page or two, though this gets better in the second half as Boyd’s investigation becomes the focus. My other complaint is that the story lacks action and intensity; it’s a bit too political and cerebral, more John le Carré than Jack Higgins, which is not how I prefer my spy thrillers. There were a few short, intense scenes of violence and a bit of shadow operating, but not enough for my liking.

I don’t know if this is typical of Allbeury, but for now I’ll put him in the category of interesting authors who are worth reading further when I’m in the mood for less pulpy spy fiction.

Get a copy of Pay Any Price here.

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.

Designated Hitter

Designated Hitter

After reading and enjoying Telefon by Walter Wager, I decided to try another of his thrillers; Designated Hitter, a novel about a rogue CIA assassin published in 1982, sounded right up my alley.

Charlie Dunn was the CIA’s deadliest assassin for two decades, but his work finally shattered his nerves and forced him into reclusion and retirement. Following an attempt on his life at his secret Vermont cabin, Dunn learns that a former protege named Spalding has gone rogue as is now the world’s deadliest hired killer. The Agency believes Spalding is trying to take out Dunn before Dunn takes him out, while planning a high profile hit on an international VIP. There is also reason to believe that a mole is active in the Agency, working for the KGB and assisting Spalding. Fortunately Dunn, who has made a miraculous recovery and regained his nerve, is once again ready for action—this time as an independent counter-assassin rather than a government hitman, hunting a man who knows all his tricks.

It’s a nice story setup, with echoes of assassin-fiction classics The Day of the Jackal and The Bourne Identity, but I’m afraid the execution left something to be desired. While I enjoyed reading about Dunn’s paranoid antics as a shadow operative, his penchant for changing plans and doing the unexpected to throw pursuers off his trail, and his clever tactics to identify and outsmart his enemies, there is one basic flaw with this book: the narrative is totally implausible. Dunn is essentially a psychic, able to somehow intuit exactly where and how Spalding will strike next with only the flimsiest evidence, which moves the plot along efficiently, but is about as realistic as a TV spy drama.

As an example of bad plotting, early in the story Dunn makes the acquaintance of an attractive young blonde veterinarian, who is injected into the story for no plausible reason other than to give the protagonist a love interest to exchange witty banter and sex with (much like the couple in Telefon). She apparently has a childhood connection to an African leader who is a suspected target of the enemy assassin, having grown up there as a missionary and become an honorary member of his tribe, but this whole storyline is absurd and goes nowhere. The rest of the story isn’t much more plausible, nor is the action particularly gripping, even as it rushes to a climax with Dunn racing to stop Spalding from obliterating the VIP (whose identity Dunn has psychically intuited) while uncovering the mole.

It’s too bad, because at times Dunn is the sort of ultra-competent, -clever and -lethal shadow operator that makes the Parker, Quiller, Jason Bourne and Jack Higgins novels such compelling reads. And the villain Spalding is a classic evil assassin: a psychopath, sexual freak and master of disguise very reminiscent of the Englishman in The Day of the Jackal and Carlos the Jackal in the Bourne trilogy. Judging by the novel’s ending, it seems likely that Wager wanted to make Dunn a recurring character like Bourne; presumably lack of reader enthusiasm nixed that plan. If Wager had tightened up the plot, made the narrative less breezy, more intense and hard-hitting, this could have been a top-notch thriller instead of a glorified made-for-tv movie screenplay. It was still a mildly entertaining read, but nothing to go out of your way for.

Get a copy of Designated Hitter here.

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew is the second book in the brilliant Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton, published in 1960. It takes place not long after the events of Death of a Citizen, in which World War II assassin Matt Helm was reactivated after 15 years of quiet family life for a new assignment: eliminating America’s Cold War enemies. At this point Helm’s wife Beth has separated from him, taking their three children and filing for a divorce. Apparently her shock at learning that Helm was a brutal professional killer before he became a photo-journalist was too much for her to process—particularly after the horrific events of Citizen.

As the story opens, Helm arrives in Sweden on a dangerous new mission: to draw out a notorious Soviet assassin known as “Caselius” and if possible, take him out. His contact in Sweden, a young woman from another agency named Sara, objects to his mission on moral grounds, prompting Helm to get philosophical in his Shadow Warrior’s way:

Well, we’re all capable of deeds we can barely imagine. Beth’s attitude still had the power to annoy me a little, because I was quite sure she’d never have dreamed of breaking up our home if she’d merely discovered, say, that I was the bombardier who’d pushed the button over Hiroshima. I must say that I don’t get it. Why honor and respect a guy who drops a great indiscriminate bomb, and recoil in horror from a guy who shoots a small, selective bullet? Sara Lundgren had had the same attitude. She’d been perfectly willing, presumably, to collect data, as part of her job, for the use of the Strategic Air Command—that might lead to the eventual obliteration of a city or two—but she’d balked violently at the idea of feeding information to a lone man with a gun.

This difference in mindset between Daylight Warriors and Shadow Warriors is a recurring theme in the series—as is the fact that when Daylight methods fail, leaders will always look to men like Helm to do the dirty jobs in the shadows that moralists are unable or unwilling to do.

Matt and Sara are soon attacked by unknown assailants and she is shot from the trees, presumably by Caselius—providing a lethal lesson in the necessity of Shadow Warriors. The stoic Helm shrugs it off and continues with his mission, posing as a a photo-journalist to accompany an American woman named Lou who is doing a story on mines in northern Sweden. Lou’s husband, who published an expose that brought Caselius into public awareness, was gunned down in Germany, and Helm hopes to draw the assassin out through her. There is also a beautiful young Swedish girl who claims to be Helm’s distant cousin, who turns out to be the story’s most fascinating character.

In typical Helm fashion, the characters’ motives and allegiances are unclear and treachery is an ever-present danger. Also in typical fashion, he beds down or lusts after some of them and this complicates his work. There is a long stretch of intrigue, deceptions and twists along with several killings, before the identity of Caselius is finally revealed and Helm moves in for the kill. The final stretch moves fast toward the climax, as Helm tracks Caselius across the desolate moors of northern Sweden.

The thing to realize about Matt Helm books is that though they might look like just another pulp spy series to the uninitiated, they are very smart, well-written, realistic thrillers that have more in common with hard-boiled crime novels than James Bond or Nick Carter spy stories. If you’re looking for over the top action, explicit sex, cutting-edge technologies or cartoon villains, this series will probably disappoint you. Like the equally brilliant Quiller series, this is a spy series for a literate adult reader who likes realism, tight writing, wit and the occasional philosophical insight with his tough-guy action. But make no mistake: Matt Helm is as tough as they come; a stone-cold killer who won’t hesitate to carve you up with his knife, torture your wife or shoot you in the head if honor and duty require it.

I found this installment slightly less riveting than the other two Helm novels I’ve reviewed to date, Death of a Citizen and The Betrayers. The writing was just as good, but the story and setting weren’t quite as interesting. Sweden seemed like a duller setting for a hard-boiled espionage adventure compared to the American Southwest or Hawaii—at least until the final confrontation in the arctic moors. Nevertheless, this was a solid entry in a brilliant series, and well worth your time.

Get a copy of The Wrecking Crew here.

The Scorpion Signal

The Scorpion Signal

The Scorpion Signal, published in 1980, is the ninth entry in the brilliant Quiller spy fiction series by Trevor Elleston (writing as Adam Hall).

In this installment, “shadow executive” Quiller is called back to London after only two weeks of recovery time from his previous mission, due to an international emergency that calls for his special skills. Apparently a fellow Bureau operative named Shapiro was captured in Russia and taken to the notorious Lubyanka KGB headquarters in Moscow, but somehow escaped only to be abducted again in Germany, presumably by the KGB. Shapiro has intimate knowledge of various top secret Western projects, including a highly successful Russian spy network code-named “Leningrad”. Quiller’s mission is to find Shapiro, rescue him if possible, and if not, make sure he stays silent for good before he is forced to spill the beans.

Quiller at first declines the mission, but as someone who is not motivated by money, power, glory or duty so much as by personal excellence and the challenge of life on the edge, he soon relents. He is infiltrated into Moscow, and quickly finds himself playing tense cat-and-mouse games with enemy forces. Elleston excels at describing the mental side of spycraft; we get a running commentary of Quiller’s mental calculations as he tries to avoid being captured or killed by border guards, police, KGB and rogue agents. There are long stretches of very detailed descriptions of Quiller’s driving tactics, evasion maneuvers, martial arts strikes, physical condition and thought processes as he tries to stay alive. These stretches are my only real criticism of the series: they sometimes get a bit tedious and you start wishing the super-spy would stop his autistic streams of thought and move the narrative forward.

Elleston also does a great job evoking the paranoia of late Brezhnev-era Moscow, where dissident groups are protesting, police are stopping people randomly, and the KGB are always threatening to break into your flat or safe house and haul you away to Lubyanka. In fact, Quiller finds himself there at one point, facing brutal interrogation. But he manages to get free, then gets to work tracking down the people who turned him in and taking them out of action.

As is usually case in these novels, Quiller is kept partially in the dark by his London controllers, which creates misunderstandings and failures that become lethal dangers in the field. After a lot of intrigue where it’s not entirely clear where things are going, the narrative kicks into overdrive when Quiller finds Shapiro, now half-deranged from his stay in hotel KGB, and discovers what’s really going on. The story then becomes a classic race against time to stop a deadly mission before it sparks a superpower conflagration.

This was another exciting installment in the superior Quiller series. It’s basically a series of tense chases, evasions, interrogations, investigations and killings, all with big geopolitical implications–which is what a great spy novel should be. Highly recommended for fans of thinking-man’s spy fiction.

Get a copy of The Scorpion Signal here.

Telefon

Telefon

Continuing with novels in my current favorite genre–espionage and assassin fiction from the paranoid 1970s–today my selection is Telefon, published in 1975 by Walter Wager. Like The Killer Elite, this book would probably be forgotten today had it not been made into a Hollywood movie two years later, starring Charles Bronson.

I was intrigued by the novel’s premise, that dozens of Soviet sleeper agents embedded in American society at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s were still active in the mid 1970s, and could be activated by a simple telephone call. Wager gives this an additional Manchurian Candidate twist by making the agents unaware of their own status and mission. Through deep hypnosis and drugs, the sleepers have been programmed to forget that they are Russian agents, and given specific sabotage missions that they will perform robotically when they receive telephoned code phrases. The missions are designed to destroy key military-industrial facilities so as to spread chaos in the United States in the event of total war.

The plot hook is that a maniacal Stalinist traitor within the KGB has gone rogue, made off with a book containing the sleeper agents’ phone numbers and activation codes, and is systematically activating them in an attempt to provoke World War III. The novel’s protagonist is a KGB super-spy named Tabbat, who has been sent to the States to stop the maniac before he brings nuclear retaliation upon mother Russia. Tabbat is like a Russian James Bond but better: smooth with the ladies, deadly with handguns, tactically brilliant and possessed of a photographic memory. He’s also hip to American culture, loves Frank Sinatra and exchanges witty banter and plenty of sex with his beautiful female KGB assistant “Barbi”.

The novel is basically a manhunt story, as Tabbat and Barbi race across America trying to catch the maniac before he destroys more targets, without arousing the suspicion of American authorities or getting taken out by hostile Russian agents. There’s a twist or two along the way and some amusing cultural commentary on 1970s America that keep things interesting.

Overall, this was a competent and a stylish Cold War thriller, reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth and Trevanian. Though the plot was somewhat far-fetched and it read more like a screenplay than a novel at times, I found it a fast and entertaining read.

Get a copy of Telefon here.

A Fine Night for Dying

A Fine Night for Dying

In the spy-crazed 1960s, an obscure author named Henry Patterson wrote a series of six novels under the pseudonym “Martin Fallon” about a spy named Paul Chavasse. These books would probably be all but forgotten today had Patterson not gone on to become the world-famous, mega-selling author “Jack Higgins”, thanks to his smash hit 1975 novel The Eagle Has Landed. Fortunately, the Chavasse series was republished under the Higgins name and are easy to find, so we can all enjoy these entertaining espionage adventures from a simpler time.

Paul Chavasse is basically a brainier, less rakish version of James Bond; he has several university degrees, speaks numerous languages, excels in spycraft, firearms and hand-to-hand combat. He works for a small, secret department of British intelligence called the Bureau (just like Quiller), has a boss called Mallory and a secretary named Jean, who send him around the world on difficult and sensitive jobs that require his special talents.

In the sixth entry in the series, A Fine Night for Dying, Chavasse is called in to investigate a human trafficking operation after a London underworld boss is found dead in the English Channel, wrapped in an anchor chain. This might sound like a modest assignment for a super-spy, but Chavasse soon uncovers an international connection, as the ringleader turns out to be a Communist and his associate a Colonel in the Red Chinese army. Most of the action takes place at sea, as Chavasse, with the assistance of the Jamaican brother of the slain underworld boss out for revenge, track down the leaders of the murderous ring of infiltrators.

The novel’s main villain is a compelling character named Rossiter–a blonde ex-Jesuit priest who, after being imprisoned in North Korea during the war, switched faiths from Catholicism to Communism and became a ruthless killer. Korean brainwashing was a popular theme in that era, explored in the classic novel The Manchurian Candidate and in Higgins’ early novel Comes the Dark Stranger. Rossiter’s conversion is symbolized by his preferred weapon: a razor-sharp dagger with a handle carved in the likeness of the Madonna (see cover above).

Like every Higgins novel I’ve read, this one is lean, linear and moves along at a breakneck pace. You don’t get much filler in a Higgins story–no excessive description, graphic sex, technical specs or unnecessary sub-plots of the sort that would plague the genre by the 1980s, when writers like Van Lustbader and Clancy were best-sellers. You do get well-drawn characters, narrative tension, plot twists and plenty of action; Higgins is a master at keeping the pages turning and telling an exciting story without turning it into a comic book.

Some people might consider these early Higgins’ novels a bit dated or politically incorrect, but for me that’s part of their appeal. Here, technology and politics take a back seat to old-fashioned grit, courage and heroism. Men are men, for good or ill–driven by traditional masculine values like honor, bravery, greed, lust, violence, brotherhood and patriotism. Women are more traditionally feminine, but they’re no shrinking violets–being often as virtuous, heroic, brave and passionate as the men. Higgins isn’t trying to push a political agenda, but to tell a fast-paced, entertaining story, and he does that as well as anybody in the business. For a great overview of Higgins’s early novels, see this post over at the Gravetapping blog: Jack Higgins: The Golden Age Novels.

A Fine Night for Dying is a typical novel from Higgins’s “Golden Age”, which means it’s a fun, quick read that fans of adventure and espionage fiction should enjoy. Get a copy here.

River of Darkness

River of Darkness

James Grady stormed onto the spy fiction scene in 1974 with his debut novel Six Days of the Condor (basis for the classic film Three Days of the Condor), a novel I greatly enjoyed for its paranoid take on America’s shadow government, its memorable characters Ronald Malcolm and the French assassin Joubert, and its brilliant concept of “Section 9, Department 17” which I have written about previously here.

Grady wrote a sequel to Six Days of the Condor called Shadow of the Condor the following year, which I read years ago and found rather forgettable. I recently decided to give Grady another try with his much meatier offering from 1992 called River of Darkness (aka The Nature of the Game). This is Grady’s attempt to write a sweeping, epic novel about American shadow wars from the 1960s to the 1980s, as told through the experiences of ex-Green Beret and CIA operative Jud Stuart.

The narrative switches frequently between Stuart’s current travails as a Jason Bournesque agent who has become expendable and is on the run, to the efforts of an honorable ex-marine tasked by shadowy D.C. players with tracking Stuart down and taking him out, to flashbacks to Stuart’s earlier adventures as a shadow operative. The first flashback is especially intense, as Jud is air-dropped behind enemy lines in 1960s Laos and has to survive a close encounter with Pathet Lao guerrillas. By the early 1970s Stuart is working for a shadowy outfit run by rogue American generals, taking part in everything from the Pinochet coup to spying on the Nixon White House, raiding Russians in Afghanistan, drug-running and assassinating VIPs. But Stuart eventually becomes a liability who knows far too much, so he becomes a hunted man as the novel opens.

The flashbacks to Jud’s covert operations were the novel’s highlights for me, both for the riveting action sequences and the authentic, historically relevant nature of the ops. This is where Grady, a former investigative journalist, shines: he gives the reader a sense of what really goes on behind the headlines, in the deep shadows where America’s secret wars are won and lost.

Unfortunately, there is a lot more going on in this novel than just Jud’s black ops, such as banal romances, family dramas, dull D.C. intrigues and fairly generic characters. It feels like Grady was trying to emulate best-selling spy novelists of the time like Ludlum, Clancy and Van Lustbader, who favored sprawling, complex, bloated epics over the leaner, more focused thrillers of yesteryear (like Six Days of the Condor). While I’ve enjoyed more than a few fat thrillers over the years, I thought this one had a little too much going on, and too many characters and machinations that just weren’t very interesting.

All in all, I’d say River of Darkness is about half a riveting novel with authentic detail and gripping action, and about half a rather plodding and padded effort to make the novel more epic and Ludlumesque. It’s still a cut above run of the mill and comic book spy thrillers, and worth reading if you’re interested in a realistic fictional take on some of the dark goings-on in the Vietnam to Iran-Contra era in the name of American freedom and security.

Get a copy of River of Darkness here.

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/