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1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink by Taylor Downing

As most people who grew up during the Cold War know, it was a time of tension, to put it mildly, between the United States and the Soviet Union. There were long periods of stability with short periods of high strain – particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and in 1983. The last period is not known by many nor how close the two countries came to nuclear war. Taylor Downing in his book 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink describes how the countries came to the brink of nuclear war.

Downing skillfully and succinctly summarizes Russo-American relations from the end of World War II to the time of President Reagan’s election. He then more deeply explores why relations initially went from bad to worse under Reagan. This exploration looks at the reasons from the perspective of each country.

The strongest part of the book is on how each side misinterpreted the intentions of the other, especially in 1983. Downing uses many examples of how an innocuous decision by one side was completely misinterpreted by the other. For example, the Russian downing of the Korean Airline plane was a break down of the Soviet air defense system and communications. Although the Russians thought the airliner looked similar to an American military plane that was used to spy on the Russians in Siberia, the Americans thought it was another example of Russian cold-blooded murder. Neither side was willing to see why the other reacted the way it did.

I think Downing is guilty of a bit of idealism. He accurately describes the ineptness and out-of-touch leadership under Leonid Brezhnev (later years), Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. But, I think he portrays Mikhail Gorbachev as too perfect. Gorbachev was the impetus for détente with the West, but he discounts Reagan’s contribution to this détente. The events of 1983 convinced Reagan to tone down the rhetoric and reach an agreement with Gorbachev. It took both men to make compromises to bring a lasting peace.

1983 is a great piece of Cold War history.

Spies in the Family by Eva Dillon

Eva Dillon’s first book is a doozy – Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War – it chronicles the professional lives of one of America’s greatest Russian assets and Dillon’s father Paul, who was in the CIA.

The Russian asset – Dmitri Polyakov – was a hero of the Soviet Union during World War II who became disenchanted with communism. He did not pass information to the Americans for money (he never wanted any payments), but as a way to get back at the corrupt leaders of the Soviet Union. He spied for the United States for almost two decades. As a result of his work, he helped the U.S. avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union and provided a plethora of information on the inner workings of Soviet intelligence.

Paul Dillon – a career CIA agent who was Polyakov’s handler for a brief time – helped the U.S. navigate the intrigue of the Cold War. He and Polyakov enjoyed a strong bond that developed into deep respect. Of all Polyakov’s handlers, Paul was the most trusted.

Dillon masterfully tells the story of both men simultaneously as they rose in the ranks of the CIA and GRU (Soviet international intelligence). Both men were valued in their respective agencies. I particularly enjoyed reading about the interaction between Polyakov and Paul – they seemed to have a genuine liking for each other.

In the midst of telling their stories, Dillon intermingles other significant events involving espionage between the two countries – particularly the harm done to the CIA by former CIA agent Philip Agee, the glut of information on the MiG-25 fighter provided by Soviet pilot/defector Viktor Belenko, and the disaster that was CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames. Dillon superbly explains the ramifications of each of these events not only on the two countries, but the two men as well.

A well-documented and written account of the Cold War.

A Spy Like No Other: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the KGB links to the Kennedy Assassination by Robert Holmes

A Spy Like No Other: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the KGB links to the Kennedy Assassination by Robert Holmes delves into a turbulent time in international affairs for the United States. Holmes describes these two events in the context of the espionage world.

Holmes provides a brief history of the Cold War in Europe as it related to spying by the Russians (through the KGB and its military counterpart the GRU) and the Americans (CIA) and British (MI6). Included in the discussion, Holmes introduces two Russians who played a pivotal role (according to Holmes) in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy. These two Russians were Ivan Serov, head of the GRU and KGB at different times, and Oleg Penkovsky, spy for MI6 and CIA inside Soviet military intelligence.

Although many books have been written about the Cold War and the assassination of President Kennedy, as far as I know, Holmes is the first to connect the Cuban Missile Crisis with the assassination. He theorizes that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination (nothing new because many others think the same way). But, Holmes takes it a bit further, by reasoning that the President may have been assassinated by a group of rogue Soviet hardliners who were led by Serov and who were eager for revenge against Kennedy’s embarrassment of the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I am skeptical of his theory, but Holmes brings in some interesting points. One point is Oswald’s visit to the Soviet consulate in Mexico City. Although Oswald should have gone to Washington D.C. when seeking a visa to return to the Soviet Union, he instead went to the Mexico City consulate. This is strange for several reasons: (1) the consulate did not issue visas; (2) he chose an odd time to visit the consulate (on a Saturday morning when no one should have been there); and (3) three Soviet personnel were at the consulate when he visited and all three were KGB agents – one with connections to the hardliners.

If nothing else, the book is an interesting look at the spy games during the Cold War.

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

So what could finally pull me out of my book reviewing/blogging doldrums? A new book by Olen Steinhauer of course.

All the Old Knives came out earlier this week and I finally got my hands on a copy and started reading immediately:

All the Old KnivesSix years ago in Vienna, terrorists took over a hundred hostages, and the rescue attempt went terribly wrong. The CIA’s Vienna station was witness to this tragedy, gathering intel from its sources during those tense hours, assimilating facts from the ground and from an agent on the inside. So when it all went wrong, the question had to be asked: Had their agent been compromised, and how?

Two of the CIA’s case officers in Vienna, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, were lovers at the time, and on the night of the hostage crisis Celia decided she’d had enough. She left the agency, married and had children, and is now living an ordinary life in the idyllic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Henry is still a case officer in Vienna, and has traveled to California to see her one more time, to relive the past, maybe, or to put it behind him once and for all.

But neither of them can forget that long-ago question: Had their agent been compromised? If so, how? Each also wonders what role tonight’s dinner companion might have played in the way the tragedy unfolded six years ago.

The hook, in case the above doesn’t make it clear, is that almost the entire book takes place at a restaraunt with the two characters eating dinner (the book opens with Henry traveling to the rendezvous).  Flashbacks take us back in time to the fateful events in Vienna and other key moments.

The chapters alternate between Henry and Celia. And as the conversation deepens, and the backstory plays out, details are revealed and the tension rises. But each time you try to get a character, or the truth, pinned down, Steinhauer throws in a twist or wrinkle.

[What follows includes some discussion that might viewed as spoilery so read on with that in mind]

All the while he is painting a picture of both the mental state, and perspective, of Henry and Celia and the history that led them both to the table.  Henry who still lives in the high stakes and pressurized world of deception and complicated layers that is the CIA.  Celia escaped that world to live in what, on the surface, is its polar opposite (upper class family life on the Central California coast and the intense truth of motherhood).

Both characters morph and change as the story pushes toward its climax.  Initially, Henry seems the tired spy seeking to wrap up an ugly case so it doesn’t come back to haunt him later. The wrinkle being the involvement of his one-time lover; perhaps his one true love.  Celia at first appears only as a mystery; someone who has managed to truly escape the spy world and build a different life.

But as the conversation continues it becomes clear that Celia is more formidable, and deeper, than the reader or Henry might have expected.  And Henry seems weaker, less sure footed, and the challenge of his mission greater.

In fact, I was slightly annoyed by Henry’s odd, rather dark obsession with Celia and the way he describes it. But by the end I understood where it came from; it made sense given the history.

The book is less than 300 pages and it reads fast. The last 80 pages really crank up the tension and as the endgame comes into view, you are furtively reading trying to untangle the knots of lies and hidden truths.

I have to admit I felt a little foolish because I didn’t see a lot of the twists and turns coming.  As the puzzle pieces began to click into place in the final section, you think “Of course! it all makes sense” even though you didn’t see it until after the fact (or at least I didn’t).

The tables turn and suddenly everything looks different; what led to that moment and what will follow.  Up to that point much of the story was puzzles, riddles and the dance of questions and veiled answers.  The reader is sifting the history, evaluating the narrators, trying to makes sense of the motivations and the potential for self-deception.  But then as the climax approaches there is a brutal honesty; a cold bluntness belied by the nonchalantness of some of the actors involved.

And the ending comes swift and clean like the cut of a sharp knife. It leaves you with a wry smile and an appreciation for what Steinhauer has pulled off. Damn, you say to yourself (or at least I did).

Readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Steinhauer’s work. I have enjoyed every single one of this novels. I have enjoyed each new style and perspective he has taken on (from the Cold War novels to The Tourist series and his latest book).

When I was enjoying the Cold War series it was about wanting a bigger audience for his writing but at the same time a quiet enjoyment from knowing a great writer that hadn’t yet achieved much fame.

When All the Old Knives was released I joked with Olen on Facebook that it was getting to the point where I would have to start claiming that I had been a fan when he was a true artist who had not yet sold out to commercial fiction (like music people did with REM in college).

Because he has reached the big time.  The reviewers have caught on to the skill and intellect he brings to his craft; how he blends the entertainment and enjoyment of spycraft and thrillers with literary depth and prose.

Four star reviews are the norm now and you don’t have to hunt through the bookstore to find his books anymore.  Olen Steinhauer is well on its way to being a recognized name; if it isn’t one already.

All the Old Knives is a great read. Taut, fast-paced, and full of suspense and intrigue. It has the quintessential Steinhauer exploration of the human psyche and the espionage world as a stage for asking questions about truth and deception; about the way lies warp and change our relationships and our own self-conception.

But it is different than both his Cold War historical novels and his Tourist series.  Which is another thing that makes Olen such a treat: his willingness to experiment and change as a writer.  Setting an espionage thriller almost entirely around a dinner table was a risk but Steinhauer pulled it off with wit and style.

I think this is a book that would be enjoyable to read again. The first time you can get caught up racing to the end to find out what happens and maybe miss clues and facets along the way.  On the second read you can slow down and savor the details and any pieces you might have missed along the way.

If for some ridiculous reason you haven’t read Steinhauer yet, grab All the Old Knives and get started. Then work your way through the back list. You won’t regret it.

Modesty Blaise and The Impossible Virgin

10 of the Greatest Cold War Spy Novels from Flavorwire highlighted a book and series I had never heard of:

The Impossible VirginThe Impossible Virgin, Peter O’Donnell (1971)

“In 1953, O’Donnell created his comic-strip character Modesty Blaise as a female version of Bond; the strip was sexy and violent in a way unknown to stateside comics pages. A street urchin who grew into a powerful organized-crime leader, Modesty (and her platonic tough-guy sidekick Willy Garvin) is now reformed, sort of, and working for the British Secret Service. The novel Modesty Blaise (1965) was O’Donnell’s novelization of his (mostly ignored) screenplay for Joseph Losey’s 1966 film of the same name. The warm critical and popular response to Modesty in novel form led to a long-running series. Alone among such fun Bond-era spies as The Avengers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Modesty enjoys an enviable body of quality prose fiction. Modesty rarely engaged in Cold War themes, but in The Impossible Virgin she does.”

An interesting glimpse into the culture and issue of the time. Tracing a character from comic strip to movie to novels over the course of decades.

A Romero original from one of the later Modest...

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