I used to read a great deal of spy fiction. When I was younger I would read through the back catalog of classics like John le Carré and Len Deighton (who I have recently re-read) and others. Which is probably why I enjoy the work of friend of the blog Olen Steinhauer so much.
I have recently added James Wolff to the list. So I was thrilled when I found out he had a novel coming out in 2023 and was able to get an advanced copy.
The story of an internal investigation into the past of a British spy suspected of having been turned by Russian agents. British intelligence is in a state of panic. Cracks are appearing, or so a run of disciplinary cases would suggest. To cap it all, Willa Karlsson, a retired secret services officer collapses, the victim of what looks like a Russian poisoning.
Leonard Flood is ordered to investigate – and quickly. Notorious for his sharp elbows and blunt manner, Leonard’s only objective is to get the job done, whatever the cost. When Leonard discovers that he is also a suspect in the investigation and that Willa’s story is less a story of betrayal than one of friendship and a deep sense of duty, he must decide whether to hand her to her masters or to help her to escape.
The third in the espionage trilogy The Discipline Files, after the acclaimed debut Beside the Syrian Sea, and its follow-on novel How to Betray Your Country.
As soon as I was finished with the third book I felt like I needed to go back and read the first two books. Which I did (more on that later). It reinforced what I noted above, literary, intelligent espionage fiction is something I just love to read and Wolff is a great example.
What makes Wolff great? Fascinating characters, suspenseful with high stakes, yet carefully and creatively written. Wolff makes you feel like you are working a case yourself in some ways, with memos and documents from the past. Painting a picture and allowing the reader to put together the puzzle (to mix metaphors). Somehow he does all this with a sense of humor and a light hand even as the subject is frequently dark or at least comes from a world of cynicism and weary politics.
When this month started I wasn’t real bullish on the continued existence of this blog. But then the planet was hit with a pandemic, my kids schools were closed and I am working from home. I started musing on the fact that a lot of people might suddenly have more time on their hands and want to know about good books to read. In a making lemonade sort of way I thought maybe I could provide a service with something I’m calling #StayAtHomeAndRead. Unfortunately, as I was contemplating restarting this moribund blog my basement flooded which grabbed my attention for a few days.
But as luck would have it, what was schedule to be released today but a new book by one of my favorite authors. So I decided to start the series with The Last Tourist by friend of the blog Olen Steinhauer.
In Olen Steinhauer’s bestseller An American Spy, reluctant CIA agent Milo Weaver thought he had finally put “Tourists”—CIA-trained assassins—to bed.
A decade later, Milo is hiding out in Western Sahara when a young CIA analyst arrives to question him about a series of suspicious deaths and terrorist chatter linked to him.
Their conversation is soon interrupted by a new breed of Tourists intent on killing them both, forcing them to run.
As he tells his story, Milo is joined by colleagues and enemies from his long history in the world of intelligence, and the young analyst wonders what to believe. He wonders, too, if he’ll survive this encounter.
Perhaps I should get the disclosures out of the way. I’ve been a fan of Olen Steinhauer since I stumbled upon Bridge of Sighs in 2005. I have interviewed him a couple of times, and have even started watching the TV show he created and produces, Berlin Station (by purchasing it on Amazon because I didn’t have Epix, I might add). Unlike with The Middleman, from which the above disclosure is taken, this time I didn’t forget to post a review on pub day. So I got that goin for me.
Short version: Classic Steinhauer! Intelligent espionage fiction with twist and turns and a global conspiracy. Old characters and new. Makes me want to go back and re-read the whole series with Milo Weaver. And delete a bunch of apps off my phone…
I found it be an interesting story from Wignall in that instead of an amoral or detached/closed off serial killer/spy we have a central character who is painfully aware of his own weakness and need for connection.
I really enjoyed the central character Freddie Makin. One of the antagonists (or perhaps she is a friend, or merely an interlocutor) Marina, was another favorite.
The story is not particularly fast paced or intense but there is a building sense of time running out for Freddie and it communicates the tricky issue of loyalty in the world of espionage. The hook, that Freddie is just a surveillance contractor caught in a deadly trap for a mysterious reason, was well done and helped build suspense.
An entertaining and enjoyable read from a favorite author. Great for beach or vacation reading.
Something about The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle caught my attention. Maybe it was the fact that it was a something of a publishing phenomenon last year. Maybe it was the possibility of a literary thriller. Perhaps it was the historical elements. Whatever it was, the publisher’s marketing material worked, and I decided to read it.
I found it to be an at times slow-moving, but creative, mix of history, espionage and confidence games. The beginning took patience. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to stop reading but it felt like the story took too long to get started. Somehow the early set-up between Ray and Betty felt both slow and yet thin. Perhaps that feeling is meant to push you forward to unravel the mystery; the unease part of the tension.
But once the novel finds its rhythm and momentum, it is a captivating exploration of how each character came to find themselves facing off in their twilight years. Betty’s back story was particularly well done and tension filled. But again when the present and the past come together it feels a bit of let down and I thought the ending section on Roy a little odd and over-the-top.
Editorial reviews breakdown on a glass half full or half empty type spectrum.
Publishers Weekly is glass half full:
Equal parts crime novel and character study, the tale is itself an elegantly structured long con. The pace is almost maddeningly deliberate, with details about the characters and their schemes doled out like a controlled substance, but patient readers will be rewarded with devastating third-act twists and a satisfying denouement.
Kirkus is glass half empty:
The plot twist that leads to this revelation is complex and rooted in World War II. But once we understand the true natures of both characters, their past relationship, and their plans for revenge, the ending is relatively unsurprising. One of the greatest strengths of the novel is how Searle recounts Betty’s troubled history with sensitivity, but Roy never advances much beyond what he first appears: a gruff sociopath who, expectedly, will finally get his comeuppance for past sins. Despite the efforts to comment on a time in history when people made unimaginable choices that led to devastating tragedy, the novel mostly fails to resonate. Even with layers, the characters fail to inspire much deep interest or sympathy.
The truth is interesting and unexpected, but it takes too long to unravel.
I can see both see both sides. It does take a while to build momentum and the ending felt odd. Still, the multi-layered meaty middle was quite compelling and for a debut model it is pretty impressive.
I have been a fan of Kevin Wignall since I read People Die in 2004. I have read most of his work and interviewed him a couple of times. He is not exactly a prolific author, so when I heard he had a new book coming out I was excited to check it out. I actually got a chance to read A Death in Sweden a few weeks early thanks to the Kindle First program. But alas, my poor book reviewing habits and the holiday’s intervened and I never posted my thoughts.
Dan Hendricks is a man in need of a lifeline. A former CIA operative, he is now an agent for hire by foreign powers on the hunt for dangerous fugitives. It’s a lethal world at the best of times, and Dan knows his number is almost up. His next job could be his last—and his next job is his biggest yet.
The target sounds trackable enough: Jacques Fillon, who gave up his life trying to save a fellow passenger following a bus crash in northern Sweden. But the man was something of an enigma in this rural community, and his death exposes his greatest secret: Jacques Fillon never existed at all.
Dan is tasked with uncovering Fillon’s true identity—but can he do so before his own past catches up with him?
A Death in Sweden starts with a very memorable scene and the rest of the book seeks in some way to make sense of what happened in that scene; uncover the mystery behind it. As Dan Hendricks seeks to put the pieces together he begins to attempt the same thing in his own life. Who is he really? What does he value and what future does he want for himself?
The problem is that he is caught in the middle of a secret but very real battle between powerful people. Loyalties are murky, trust is hard to come by, and each decision seems to be one of life and death.
The thread that starts with that bus trip winds its way through Madrid, Paris, Sweden, Washington DC, the Middle East, Berlin, and back to Sweden. Along the way, Hendricks has to stay alive, collect enough information and answers to perhaps buy himself time and/or a future, and solve the enigma that is Jacques Fillon. The question is whether the former can help with the later and whether he can survive long enough to find out.
And just to complicate things, Wignall throws in a romantic interest. So Hendricks has another set of emotions and thoughts to wrestle with and find answers to.
A Death in Sweden reads like a mix of genres: espionage, mystery and action thriller. The mystery element is tied to the bus ride that kicks off the novel and the questions that underlay the identities of the two individuals who are the focus of that scene.
The espionage element comes in because the people and agencies involved in seeking to solve these mysteries are spies and governments. Underneath it all is a battle for information and power with political, and life and death, consequences.
The action thriller aspect comes about as the battle moves from information to brute force. Ultimately, Hendricks chooses violence as a partial solution to his dilemma. Sometimes the violence is forced on him and sometimes he goes on the offensive. The action elements don’t dominate the book necessarily but they come in intense bursts.
As noted above, however, weaved into all of this is also a romantic interest. Which forces Hendricks to deal with questions that he was not prepared to wrestle with and choices he had not anticipated. This leads to a contrast, maybe even an incongruity, between the cold and violent nature of Hendricks profession and actions and his relationship with Inger and his thoughts of a different future.
In fact, this is another thread that runs through the novel. Is it possible to truly leave behind a life of secrecy and violence? Can someone like Hendricks settle down and build a “normal” life? The ending hints at no but also leaves it ambiguous.
Starting with that very first review of People Die I have wondered about Wignall’s almost amoral perspective. His characters live and act in a world where traditional morality seems not to apply or must at least be set aside in some sense.
A Death in Sweden shares this perspective in some ways but also incorporates other perspectives. Hendricks is pulled by the loyalty and dedication of a variety of characters he encounters; from Fillon and the friends/colleagues he is seeking to help survive to the families impacted by the history he is trying to uncover and decipher. And his relationship with Inger also involves a pull toward commitment and normalcy.
I don’t want to accuse Wignall of aiming for mainstream fiction or coldly calculating the value of a romantic interest in a book like this, but it did change the feel of the novel for me. Not bad, just different.
A Death in Sweden is a quick and entertaining read. With a nice blend of tension, mystery, action and, yes, a little romance. It isn’t really an action thriller and not your typical spy thriller either. It felt to me more like a mystery with espionage and action elements.
If like me, you are facing the start of a cold and bleak winter, A Death in Sweden would make a good read for an afternoon bundled up on the couch with a hot beverage.
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:
Six 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.