Maxwell’s Train

Maxwell’s Train

One of the fascinating things about reading espionage and crime thrillers from several decades ago is how prescient they can be about real-world shadow war. The recently reviewed Black Heart and Quiller Solitaire are cases in point, in the way they uncannily foreshadowed aspects of the 9/11 attacks. This was the idea behind the Deparment 17 project—to study shadow-fiction for its intelligence insights—and it remains a work in progress. It’s easy to forget that before the 1990s there had never been a major terrorist attack on North American soil, and Americans were still rather innocent to the threat. The 1984 thriller Maxwell’s Train, by Christopher Hyde, is another older novel that anticipates this possibility and serves up a scary scenario that could yet prove prophetic.

The narrative begins as a heist story. Harry Maxwell, once a bright, idealistic young man with big dreams from a good family, fell in with the wrong crowd and spent 7 years trafficking drugs, only getting out when he and his partner in crime Daniel were nearly killed in a rip-off. At age 35, he finds himself working as a lowly Amtrak car cleaner, with no prospects and not much to live for. Then one day he notices a strange car attached to a train and learns that it transports freshly printed bills from the Federal Reserve—some thirty-five million dollars worth, to be exact. This is enough to get Harry excited about life again, so he assembles a crew with his buddy Daniel and two other under-achievers with nothing to lose, and they begin planning the heist of the century.

The planning stage of the heist seemed rather rushed for a job of this magnitude, but there is enough descriptive detail to keep things plausible. The plan is rather ingenious, as it entails using a coffin to bring one of the men and supplies onto the train and to offload the loot, and the gassing of the security guards in the money car through a ventilation shaft. I don’t want to spoil things for you, but let’s just say the thieves get quite a shock when they force open the car door and see what’s inside.

At this point the novel transitions to the main plot: a hijacking by seven of the nastiest international terrorists in the business—veterans of the European Baader-Meinhof group, Libyan special forces and the Japanese Red Army Faction, among others. The leader of the crew, and the most lethal of them all, is the beautiful blonde German, Annalise Shenker. In addition to the huge cash haul, the train is carrying five international VIPs and is rigged with enough weapons of mass destruction to ensure that no one does anything rash.

About halfway through the story shifts gears again, as we are introduced to several new characters, including an elderly German World War II veteran visiting the country where he was kept as a POW, an old heiress who spends her time travelling North America by rail, and a spunky 15 year old runaway, all of whom are boarding an ill-fated train for Montreal. This is where I started to roll my eyes a bit, as it started to feel like one of those corny old “Poseidon Adventure”  disaster movies where we are introduced to a variety of quirky characters before catastrophe brings them together. But it actually turned out to be very entertaining, as the heist team and a motley crew of clever amateurs devise tactics, improvise weapons and muster up the courage to fight the terrorists. The last 50 or 60 pages were particularly riveting, as the protagonists make their move against the terrorists, the terrorists make their move against the passengers and threaten to unleash mass terror, government forces make their move against both, and the train rolls toward a hellish climax in the remote northern Canadian wilderness.

I was very impressed by Christopher Hyde’s smooth story-telling and technical knowledge; he knows the layouts of trains, the workings of the rail system and Canadian geography in intricate detail, and makes them integral to the story. By novel’s end I felt like I’d ridden along with the passengers on their terrifying adventure and was totally absorbed. I also liked how the heroes of this story weren’t some all-powerful government agents, but ordinary people who realized that no one was going to save them and decided to take matters into their own hands—a good reminder in this age of learned helplessness and creeping totalitarianism. All in all, an outstanding thriller, up there with the best in the genre. This was my first book by Mr. Hyde, but it definitely won’t be the last.

Get a copy of Maxwell’s Train here.

Quiller Solitaire

Quiller Solitaire

The early 1990s were a challenging time for espionage thriller writers. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it was difficult to find adversaries that were both convincing and menacing enough to make dramatic villains. China was not yet ready for prime-time as the West’s new arch-rival, drug lords weren’t sufficiently organized or ideological, Third Reich holdovers were too long in the tooth, KGB-sponsored terrorism of previous decades had died down, Islamic terrorists hadn’t yet struck hard, Russian gangsters hadn’t yet emerged as a new bogeyman, and sinister corporate overlords struck too close to home. Was the era of the super-spy over?

Apparently not. In Quiller Solitaire, the 16th installment of the Quiller series published in 1992, author Elleston Trevor (aka Adam Hall) manages to weave a compelling mission for Quiller in the post-Cold War era that involves a Red Army Faction splinter group, ex-Stasi officers, Islamists and a terrorist plot that looks rather prescient given the Bojinka plot and the 9/11 attacks of the decade to come.

As the novel opens, Quiller is being debriefed about the death of a fellow Bureau agent who was incinerated when his car was run off the road and exploded. Quiller, who was following the agent to his rendezvous, witnessed the crash and now feels guilty about the death and obligated to avenge it. The agent had been investigating the murder of a diplomat in Berlin by suspected terrorists of the German Red Army Faction, and now Quiller is sent in to investigate both murders. Quiller learns that a group called “Nemesis” is planning a imminent terrorist attack using a commercial airliner, possibly inspired by the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, when a bomb aboard a Pan Am flight exploded over Scotland, killing 270 people. Desperate to stop the plot, Quiller goes in alone, posing as an international arms dealer and dangling a deadly carrot in front of the Nemesis leader in hopes of luring him out and destroying the organization.

Like most novels in this series, a large chunk of the narrative consists of Quiller attempting to surveil and avoid surveillance by enemy operatives, both on foot and in automobiles (he’s an expert driver), his stream-of-consciousness calculations punctuated by short, sharp hand-to-hand encounters (he’s also a lethal martial artist). Quiller novels are “spy procedurals” in much the same way Parker novels are “thief procedurals”: we get a detailed look inside the world of a very focused and disciplined shadow operator, see how he plans his operations, seizes opportunities, neutralizes threats and moves relentlessly forward to complete his missions despite the inevitable f*k-ups, plot twists and enemy actions.

Also typical for this series, in the last third of the book the action really heats up, as Quiller learns more details about the plot and takes desperate measures to stop it. Operating deep undercover, cut off from Bureau directors, he has to fly by the seat of his pants and gamble his life on an apparently suicidal mission. Things get increasingly eerie as the enemy plot begins to resemble 9/11; was Kalid Sheikh Mohammed a fan of the series? The highlight of the story for me was an airdrop into the depths of the Sahara desert by an exhausted Quiller, as he penetrates to the heart of the Nemesis operation and moves toward the cliff-hanging airborne climax.

Quiller Solitaire is one of my favorite entries in a series that is one of the masterworks of the spy fiction genre. 27 years and 16 books into the series, there is no sign of any decline in quality and the stories remain as riveting as ever, even as the Cold War that spawned Quiller is history.

Get a copy of Quiller Solitaire 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.