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.

The Domino Principle

The Domino Principle

The Domino Principle, published in 1975 by Adam Kennedy, is another semi-forgotten classic from the golden age of paranoid thrillers. Like The Parallax View, Six Days of the Condor, The Killer Elite, Telefon, and Flashpoint, it was made into Hollywood moviethis one starring Gene Hackman, which I haven’t seen but am told wasn’t particularly good. Like Parallax and Pay Any Price, Domino imagines a world where shadowy agencies recruit patsies from among the general population to carry out assassinations, while keeping them in the dark about the nature of their work.

As the novel opens, Roy Tucker, the underprivileged son of generations of manual laborers, is in the early stages of a twenty year murder rap. He has stopped writing his devoted wife and resigned himself to spending his best years behind bars. Things look hopeless when one day a well-dressed, high-powered man named Tagge shows up at the prison and offers to get Roy released and re-unite him with his wife. All Roy has to do in return is whatever Tagge tells him to once he’s on the outside. Tagge just has a few questions for Roy, re: his murder rap (Roy was framed by a jealous employer), his contacts on the outside (a lawyer and a doctor), the status of his family (all deceased except a sister) and his wife Thelma (no longer in contact), and his military service in Vietnam (excellent discipline record, combat record and skill as a marksmen). Otherwise, Roy is kept in the dark about what Tagge expects from him. Desperate to get out of prison and figuring he has nothing to lose, Roy accepts blindly.

Roy is let out of the prison as planned, but a violent twist soon lets him know that Tagge’s crew are utterly ruthless and not to be crossed. Holed up in Chicago, Roy is given cash, new clothes and a new identity. Though he’s a fugitive, there’s no sign that the authorities are on his trail. His lawyer and doctor want nothing to do with him and can’t help him, and his wife is out of reach. Roy may be out of prison, but he’s totally alone and at Tagge’s mercy.

Roy is soon jetted off to a luxurious Central American villa for some post-prison R&R with Thelma. He’s briefly tested to make sure his shooting skills are up to snuff, then his actual mission starts to come into focus. Not too keen on his assignment and realizing that he has traded one prison sentence for another, Roy attempts to escape the clutches of Tagge’s men. I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, so I’ll keep this review short. Let’s just say that it races to a dark and dramatic climax in the best noir tradition.

This is not the typical men’s adventure or spy story featuring a superman protagonist who saves the world and gets the girl. This is all about one poor man’s struggles against the forces of controlagainst poverty, the military, his employer, the law, the prison system, and finally Tagge’s shadowy group. The latter are seemingly all-powerful: they control prison personnel, military men, policemen, hotel employees, airlines, customs agents and phone lines almost at will. And every attempt by Roy to escape their control only reveals more of their power. Who exactly this group is is not clear; from Roy’s everyman perspective they are simply the Man, and can do whatever they want.

Domino is fast, lean and well-written; it reminded me of a Dan Marlowe novel with its noir atmosphere, fast pace and immersive action. Kennedy puts you right in the shoes of Roy Tuckera simple guy who never quite knows what’s going on but who, like Earl Drake, knows when to trust his gut and how to survive. This is an excellent novel that deserves to be read by all connoisseurs of assassin, noir and conspiracy thrillers. Apparently there is also a sequel called The Domino Vendetta published in the 1984, which I will definitely track down and review at my earliest convenience.

Get a copy of The Domino Principle here.

Operation Fireball

Operation Fireball

Dan J. Marlowe is one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction; his 1962 novel, The Name of the Game is Death, is an all-time classic of the genre, as riveting as Donald Westlake’s debut Parker novel, The Hunter, published the same year. In that novel Marlowe introduced the sharpshooting heistman known by the alias “Earl Drake”, and Drake’s lover and partner in crime, a fiery six-foot redhead named Hazel.  Drake returned in a 1969 sequel called One Endless Hour, written with input from a convicted bank robber named Al Nussbaum who was impressed with Marlowe’s work. That novel tells how Drake got his face reconstructed after the hellish climax of Name of the Game–hence the series subtitle “The man with nobody’s face”.

Marlowe published a third Drake novel in 1969 called Operation Fireball, which began Drake’s transition from an independent hard-boiled criminal like Parker to a government-affiliated adventurer-spy more like the Jack Higgins protagonist Sean Dillon. As the novel opens, Drake is reuniting with Hazel, who he hasn’t seen since he got a new face early in the previous novel. There’s some drama at her ranch with some nasty local kids who are abusing Hazel’s father, but Drake punishes them rather violently and has to make a quick exit.

Back in San Diego, bored and looking for action, Drake is contacted by a criminal associate named Slater and a six foot four ex-navy Viking of a man named Karl Erikson, who tell Drake an exciting story. Apparently two million dollars sent by the U.S. government to the Batista regime in the last days before Castro’s revolution is still at large. The cash was hijacked by Cuban gangsters, and Slater, who was in on the heist, is the only man who knows where it is. Erikson is assembling a crew to go get the money and he invites Drake to be on the team. But the mission is a formidable one: to infiltrate paranoid, revolutionary Cuba, find the cash, and get off the island without getting killed or thrown into Castro’s prisons. Drake accepts, on the condition that Hazel is included on the team.

The novel builds slowly as the crew gathers in a hotel in Key West and prepares for the mission. Gear and weapons are purchased, boats are test-driven, shortwave radios are assembled and plans are made with Erikson’s military precision. Meanwhile, the lecherous Latin boat captain Chico Wilson is making aggressive overtures toward Hazel and Slater is being a reckless drunk, scheming to cross the rest of the team. But Erikson is a commanding presence and he manages to keep the motley crew in line.

In the final third of the novel the narrative finally kicks into overdrive, as Drake’s crew sails to Cuba posing as navy men aboard a U.S. destroyer, Slater finds himself in the brig, and they have to free Slater, get off the heavily guarded Guantanomo Bay base and into Cuban territory. This is where Marlowe really excels: fast, tense action, with flawed, desperate, violent men letting nothing stop them from making a big score. For me he’s right up there with Donald Westlake in this regard, and the international intrigue only adds to the excitement. Because Cuba in the 1960s was a very tense place, controlled by fanatical revolutionaries, its population highly paranoid following the failed CIA-sponsored “Bay of Pigs” invasion in 1961 and on the look-out for foreign saboteurs. Marlowe does a great job of capturing the war-time feel of the mission, as the men have to move deep behind enemy lines to Havana and the location of the hidden cash. Once there, Drake takes the lead, using his talents as a thief to break into the facility and get to the loot. There’s a tense climactic scene as they try get off the island, their radio broken and unable to signal to their boatman to be picked up. Then there’s a final twist at the end, as Drake learns who Erikson really is and he doesn’t get what he bargained for from the mission.

After a slow opening, with a little too much time devoted to the setup of the mission, this book was riveting stuff. I questioned sometimes how four Americans, particularly a six foot four Viking, could move through paranoid Cuba without more problems, but Marlowe makes it fairly believable. While not an instant classic like The Name of the Game is Death, this was a great read. If you like the Parker series and the work of Jack Higgins, you should love this. I look forward to reading further installments of the Drake series.

Get a copy of Operation Fireball here.

The Sour Lemon Score

The Sour Lemon Score

The Sour Lemon Score is the twelfth entry in the legendary Parker crime fiction series, published in 1969. Like the phenomenal series opener, The Hunter, this isn’t really a heist novel, but a story about Parker trying to track down and get revenge on the man who double-crossed him, nearly killed him and took his money.

As the story opens, Parker and three accomplices are about to execute a heist of a cash delivery at a bank. This was a great scene; the clever use of radio-controlled explosives, smoke grenades, deception and professional violence made it the kind of well-planned commando-theft operation that makes Parker novels so fun to read.

Equally fun are the inevitable f*k-ups and double-crosses that turn a smooth heist job into a twisted, violent novel-length adventure. In this case, the cross comes courtesy of the twitchy, sketchy driver George Uhl, who decides to try to take the whole pie by eliminating the other heisters just as they’re about to divvy it up. Unfortunately for him, Parker gets away, and the rest of the novel is basically a detective story from the point of view of a ruthless, sociopathic criminal. Because Parker is a detective from hell, who will beat, threaten, rob, vandalize, deceive or kill anyone he damn well pleases until he gets what he wants: his loot, and George Uhl’s head.

Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), author of over a hundred mystery and crime novels, excels at tight plotting and detailed, realistic procedurals. We are taken step-by-step through Parker’s investigation as he relentlessly pursues Uhl’s associates across the eastern seaboard, always seemingly one step behind Uhl. His task is complicated when a psychopathic associate of Uhl named Matthew Rosenstein gets involved in the chase, and soon the three very dangerous men are converging on the quiet suburban family home of a high school fan-boy of Uhl’s who gets far more excitement than he bargained for. The conclusion was slightly out of character for Parker, but it did leave loose ends that would be tied up in the 20th entry in the series, Firebreak, when some of these characters return to bother Parker 30 years later.

Another thing that makes Westlake such a great writer is his gift for creating incredibly well-drawn, memorable characters. The old-fashioned granny who sells Parker black market guns, the whiny single urban female who can’t say no to her abusive ex-boyfriend, the brutal, sadistic Rosenstein and his foppish gay partner Brock, the square family man Saugherty who fantasizes about running with the bad boys, the slimy, psychopathic George Uhl–this short novel has an amazing array of characters who are damaged and dangerous in totally believable ways.

After the relatively weak previous entry in the series, The Black Ice Score, The Sour Lemon Score is a return to form for author Westlake, and a return to the brutal, unstoppable force that is Parker when someone has screwed him over.  Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled crime fiction or just plain great story-telling.

Get a copy of The Sour Lemon Score 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.

Flashpoint

Flashpoint

Flashpoint is yet another obscure thriller from the 1970s remembered only because it was made into a film–a 1984 adaptation starring Kris Kristoffersen which, I vaguely recall, was quite good.

This novel is intriguing in the way it connects two fronts of the Shadow War that are usually distinct: the Border War and the Assassin War. The protagonists, Logan and Ernie, are two good ol’ boy Texas border patrolmen who enjoy nothing better than patrolling the very desolate “section 7” of the U.S.-Mexico border in their jeeps, tracking down illegals across the desert and taking them back to Mexico. They don’t do this out of any spite toward the illegals, but simply for the challenge, solitude and outdoor adventure the job affords them. Both men are military veterans with experience operating in dangerous territory–Ernie in Korea and Logan as a Green Beret in ‘Nam–and patrolling the Mexican border is a good peacetime use of their skills. Author La Fountaine does a good job of fleshing out their backgrounds and motivating their behavior; while they may be obnoxious “bubbas” at times who like to get drunk and visit Mexican whorehouses in their spare time, they are full of life and love adventure in a way you can’t help but respect.

As the story opens, the patrolmen learn that a new high tech border security system is going to be implemented in their region, which would turn these border cowboys into glorified desk jockeys, watching for beeping lights on computer screens instead of riding out under the sun looking for “Indians” to apprehend. This puts them in a depressed and desperate state of mind, but that soon changes when Logan, taking a shortcut through an untravelled desert wash, discovers a crashed jeep buried deep in the sand. Digging it out, he finds a skeleton and a box full of cash–$850,000 in small, sequentially numbered bills. At this point the novel becomes a detective story, as Logan and Ernie try to discover the identity of the driver, the source of the cash, and whether it is safe to spend it without alerting authorities.

Things soon become even more confusing–and deadly–as shadowy forces and corrupt players converge on the patrolmen’s turf. People connected to the cash are being killed off, and the patrolmen feel the noose tightening around them. Should they take the money and run for the border, or play it cool and deny everything? Who exactly is looking for the money, and why? Who can they trust? What was a jeep doing loaded with cash in the south Texas desert, who was the mysterious driver, and why is someone willing to kill anyone who knows anything about them? Everything is answered in the final pages, as the narrative gets increasingly dark, violent and desperate and a sinister conspiracy is revealed. While some of the plot developments seemed a little far-fetched, I think the shock ending was appropriate and should come as no surprise to veteran Shadow Warriors.

Flashpoint is one of those cynical, paranoid, pessimistic stories that could only have been written in the 1970s–a period I love because I think it dealt more realistically with the nature of society and humanity than what came before or after. It was a unique era, in the wake of the 1960s, when Americans were free to be simultaneously politically incorrect, sexually liberated, and very cynical of the powers that be. Logan expresses the spirit of the times well when, after Ernie denies that the JFK assassination was a conspiracy, responds:

“Ernie,” Logan cried in anger, “how can you say that after all the shit that’s come out about Watergate and the CIA and the FBI and the assassination plots over the world? How can you still say that?”

Everything that happens subsequently in the story only vindicates Logan’s cynicism. If you enjoy novels like Six Days of the Condor and films like Parallax View, where ordinary people are caught up in the machinations of sinister forces that go right to the top of the power structure–which is revealed to be hopelessly corrupt–you should add Flashpoint to your reading list. This book is a good reminder that the Shadow War is not just a war on the ground between spies, criminals and covert operators, but a war of the mind against the vast apparatus of lies and illusions that daytime society runs on.

While I wouldn’t call La Fountaine a great writer, and some of the plot twists were a little implausible, overall he’s spun a very compelling tale here that kept me turning the pages until the end. If you like good old adventure thrillers with a heavy dose of 1970s paranoia and political intrigue, you should enjoy this as much as I did.

Get a copy of Flashpoint 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.

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/

Breakout

Breakout

Breakout is the 21st book of the “Parker” series, by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). If you’ve never read any Parker novels, I recommend that you start with the first one, The Hunter, and proceed from there. Few books capture the intensity and drama of criminal shadow ops as realistically as these. Parker is a professional thief, but he’s no non-violent cat burglar, stealthily infiltrating buildings, cracking safes and getting away cleanly with the loot. He threatens, pistol-whips, beats, binds, gags, and occasionally kills to complete his missions, but always with an almost robotic level of efficiency and cool.

Parker novels are what you might call “criminal procedurals”—they give detailed, realistic accounts of the planning and execution of Parker’s heists and associated criminal activity. We learn about the minutia of getaway routes, entrances and exits, guards, escape vehicles, etc. Parker prefers low-tech, direct means to assault his targets, never relying on gadgetry when good old guns, threats and surprise are so much more reliable. But as in real life, nothing ever goes according to plan; much of the fun of these stories is finding out how Parker improvises when an op goes badly wrong or someone crosses him.

Breakout offers a new twist on the Parker formula: this time he has to break out of a facility instead of in—the facility in question being a prison, where he finds himself for the first time since the series began. Parker, being a guy who doesn’t take well to involuntary confinement, and being linked to the murder of a prison guard decades ago, immediately starts angling to escape. Recruiting two other inmates and with help from outside, he makes a harrowing but highly believable escape. And that’s just part one of this tale. The crew, now free and short of cash, decides to take on a heist that one of them had previously scoped out: breaking into a former armory loaded with jewelry that is as impregnable as the prison they just got out of. The ensuing break-in is as gripping as the break-out; author Stark describes both in such photographic detail that you could swear he has done them himself! There are further escapes, evasions, murders, police procedural work, hostage-taking, and a climactic manhunt for Parker the fugitive. The ending is particularly well done.

After reading five early Parker novels from the 1960s, it’s a bit jarring to read about him operating in a 21st century world of cell phones, internet and security cameras. But as always, Parker adapts to his circumstances and relies on the tried-and-true methods of his trade, so it doesn’t really affect the narrative. Forty years after the first novel, Westlake is still the master of hard-boiled crime fiction, and Parker is still the master of hard-boiled crime. “Breakout” is a top-notch addition to the best crime series ever written. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Breakout here.

The Betrayers

The Betrayers

Matt Helm was America’s answer to James Bond: a hard-boiled, no-nonsense killer who dispensed with the goofy gadgets and “shaken not stirred” pretensions and got down to the brutal business of espionage the old-fashioned way: with his knife, gun, wits and fists. An assassin behind enemy lines during World War II, Helm was re-activated 15 years later by an unnamed, ultra-secret agency to start disposing of America’s enemies during the height of the Cold War.

The Betrayers, published in 1966, is the the tenth novel in the series, but the first one I’ve read. It concerns Helm’s vacation to Hawaii, which turns into a mission to expose and eliminate a traitorous fellow agent who is suspected of working for the Red Chinese. Along the way, he encounters two beautiful but treacherous women, the allegiances of whom are far from clear. Is beautiful blonde beach girl Jill really an ally out to expose the rogue agent called Monk, or is it an elaborate ruse? Is the sultry brunette society woman Isobel an enemy operative or an independent femme fatale? While he is trying to sort them out (and bed them down), Helm learns of Monk’s plot, which involves a transport ship full of American troops visiting Honolulu. There are some nice descriptions of the Hawaiian culture and environment, visceral violence, an intense inter-island sailboard ride, clever ruses, car chases, gun lore, wisecracks, tradecraft, and a final showdown with the Monk. But Hamilton always keeps it real; there is no supervillain in a hollow volcano, seven foot two henchman with steel teeth or nuclear bomb about to blow up a major city. I loved Fleming’s James Bond novels when I was younger, but Hamilton’s Matt Helm is Cold War spy fiction for adults.

One of the novel’s more interesting passages comes during a little rant by Monk near the end. At a time when Russians were considered the great menace to America and the free world, Monk identifies the Chinese as the real threat, in a way that some might consider prescient:

“There’s the true enemy, Eric!” he said grimly. “They’re arrogant bastards. They think they can use and outsmart anybody. They thought they could use and outsmart me. They figure civilization started with them and will end with them. And unless something’s done with them soon, they may be right.”

But there isn’t much editorializing in this novel. Donald Hamilton writes the way Matt Helm acts: no-nonsense, gritty, witty, fast-moving, direct and to the point. This was a highly enjoyable introduction to the series; I will be reading and reviewing more Helm novels in the near future. Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled espionage action.

Buy a copy of The Betrayers here.