Spies Like Us
Where did we go wrong? One of the great failures in the past two decades has been the West’s refusal to invest in human intelligence assets, those devious characters on the ground collecting all the puzzle pieces for Langley to mull over. We all remember those nose-mounted cameras on the sharp end of American missiles during the first Gulf War, winding their way down air shafts in Baghdad. Any television viewer can recall those satellite images of military air strikes, warmed over for every Tom Clancy movie.
But look up secret agents in the current news and what do you get? There’s Leandro Aragoncillo, who was able to run amok in the office of the Vice President for three years, passing information to a top Philippine operative. I’m not sure what to expect in the way of security these days from the White House, which is waiting for indictments with bated breath. All of this stemming, we should remember, from the helpful outing of Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA agent. How things have changed from the heady days of World War II, when the spooks and spymasters of the OSS knew how to keep a secret.
So let’s raise a glass to all those once and future spies. In a month where we’ve seen real agents under fire and a new face for the world’s most famous fictional spy - Daniel Craig as James Bond - it seems the least we can do.
Let’s start with one of the old enemies. One of the most gripping things to cross my desk this month outside of the New York Times has been Comrades in Miami, the fourth novel in English by acclaimed Cuban writer Jose Latour. It’s a fascinating look at the sultry climes of Havana, Cuba, where satellites and supercomputers never took the place of its intelligence operatives.
Comrades follows the endgame of Colonel Victoria Valiente, the clinically dispassionate Havana-based spymaster of greater Miami. Despite her aggressive nature and genius understanding of the political minefields of the Communist Party, Victoria is absorbed by her sexually charged relationship with her husband, Pardo, a computer programmer in one of the state-owned enterprises. As they become convinced that the Commandant is losing touch with reality, they make devious plans to squirrel away $2.7 million and escape by stolen cigarette boat to Miami.
On the other side, Cuban exile Elliot Smith is being played by the CIA. Blackmailed into making contact with the fugitives and convinced by his mysterious employer to return to Cuba, Elliot and the Valiente clan are on a collision course. It all ends, strangely enough, with a bitterly violent shootout in a Miami parking garage. One of the primaries shoots themselves in the head and the lone survivor is left to learn a long, hard lesson about how espionage really works.
There are plenty of good Cold War writers still circulating out there. Without getting too far into the history, John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Smiley’s People and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are probably the strongest trifecta to start from, and his more recent work The Constant Gardener can only benefit from the recent smart adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes. Comrades in Miami, though, recalls nothing so much as one of the very best espionage writers, Robert Littell.
Littell would have made his place in history if he had written nothing else but The Defection of AJ Lewinter, a brilliant opening novel that pits an American scientist against both sides of an increasingly tense conflict. He made his bones with The Amateur, one of the best revenge novels ever written and one that deserves its cult status. It’s about mild-mannered analyst Charlie Heller, who chases the assassins responsible for his wife’s death into Czechoslovakia, burning with the need for vengeance. Littell’s Waterloo has to be The Company, his epic, multigenerational history of the CIA, rooted in the search for a mole within the company, and starring not only Littell’s vibrant fictional characters but larger-than-life agents like Kim Philby as well. Littell has revisited his old stomping grounds in a new way this year with Legends, a more stripped-down story about a field agent struggling to keep himself together while wading through a schizophrenic closet of previous identities.
Another of the old school reemerged last year, too. Charles McCarry, a former CIA agent himself, resurrected his compatriots in Old Boys, referencing company jargon for CIA agents called out of retirement. Paul Christopher, the aging protagonist of McCarry’s classic The Tears of Autumn, has disappeared in China and his family and friends set out on the old spy’s trail. It gets a bit convoluted in the end, throwing in Islamic terrorists, ex-KGB “old boys” and a twisting plot about Nazi treasure but it’s always nice to see someone of McCarry’s caliber still pounding out books.
Working at the CIA must have its perks, because it works for contemporary author Francine Matthews, too. The author of The Cutout, who spent six months as an analyst for the agency, has brought back her autobiographical persona, Catherine Carmichael, for a sequel. This year’s Blown shows, in an action-packed fictional way, the hell that breaks loose when an agent’s identity is revealed. You fellas in the White House might want to take notes.
Back to World War II, one of the better thrillers to be set in that era in the past couple of years was Christopher Reich’s The Runner. Reich has since graduated to fairly pedestrian financial thrillers but The Runner remains a solidly good read. In a similar emotional vein to The Amateur, it revolves around Devlin Judge, a former New York cop turned lawyer who’s hunting Nazis in the days after World War II, which sounds like a spy novel setup to me. Judge is trying to bury his guilt over not enlisting for the war by hunting SS officer Erich Seyss, an Olympic track star known as the “White Lion.” The Runner is far flashier than the old-fashioned spy books mentioned above, but it’s an interesting and entertaining portrait of the disjointed feelings in Europe following the war.
Anyone who enjoys this one might also consider picking up Joseph Kanon, who has examined similar territory with Los Alamos, The Prodigal Spy and his most recent, Alibi. Kanon has also attracted the attention of Hollywood with The Good German, which is being directed by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney in the lead role.
While I’m thinking about movie spies, it’s worth noting that James Bond wasn’t always the hyperkinetic smartass we’ve come to know through the Broccoli family movies. I’ve always been a fan of the Fleming books and have to recommend the beautifully appointed Penguin reprints for starters. That said, I’ve approached the post-Ian franchise work with some trepidation, usually, as it turns out, for good reasons. John Gardner’s books from the 1980 suffered a bit by being too rooted in the Cold War, while Raymond Benson’s take was vaguely heartless and indicative of his place in the fan club.
The two most solid takes on James Bond have been odd anomalies. The earliest, Colonel Sun, was the very first Bond book to be written after Fleming’s death. It was published, by Kingsley Amis, under the pseudonym Robert Markham in 1968. There’s a new version being released next month by Titan Books in the UK, including the original story, “The Golden Ghost,” which hasn’t seen print since the late 1960s. Hopefully we’ll see it republished in the States soon.
The other quality Bond book is the first, and could certainly be the last, young adult book to appear in my bloody little column. The UK comedy writer Robert Higson was contracted to write a series of novels about young James Bond, starting with this year’s Silverfin. At the time, it seemed to be just another publicity stunt. It turned out that Higson’s take on James, following his adventures as a student at Eton, is actually really entertaining. They put Bond in real peril yet at the same time, the strangest thing happens. The confident yet youthful Brit turns out to be a genuinely likeable character. It’s worth it to see if next year’s Blood Fever, involving art theft, smuggling, pirates and a mad Italian count, holds up to the novel premise.
Finally, there’s the ugly truth that not everyone gets to drink martinis and carry a Walther PPK. Some secret agents get to put on their war paint and do the dirty work. This is the case with Andy McNab’s off-the-reservation SAS operative, Nick Stone. This is a guy who knows something about dirty work, too, since McNab is the British Army’s most decorated solider. His unit, Bravo Two Zero, was responsible for some of the sneakiest covert operations ever conducted during the first Gulf War.
The Nick Stone novels are explosive thrillers, but there’s something about Stone’s voice that’s compelling. Far from the dustless world of civil espionage, Stone is the one that gets sent in when things get messy. A British operative used for “deniable operations,” Stone gets the hell beaten out of him again and again yet always seems to find the strength to keep on going. The series, up to eight books now, is actually at an interesting high point following the murder of Stone’s adopted daughter Kelly in Dark Winter. Stone returns in December with Aggressor, taking the acidic soldier back into combat in Azerbaijan and Istanbul.
And that’s all my secrets for this month. The last word goes not to a fictional character or a desk jockey but someone who knows something about the real Art of War.
“Be subtle! be subtle! And use your spies for every kind of warfare.” - Sun Tzu