I have a basic policy of reading and reviewing books by friends or acquaintances; even if only the friendship is an online one. Today, I realized that last year I read a book by a longtime friend and never reviewed it. In my defense, last year I started a new job, bought a house, and moved to a new town. But still I felt bad when this came to mind today, so I decided to rectify my error.
I have known Jim Geraghty for quite a while and have even met him in person. We go way back into the golden age of blogging. Jim is an excellent journalist and has really established a reputation during the pandemic as a voice of reason and information. If you are interested in politics/public affairs I recommend The Morning Jolt.
So when Jim published Between Two Scorpions I grabbed a copy and read it.
Between Two Scorpions
A Dangerous Clique
June 11, 2019
A long dormant CIA asset emerges from hiding to request a meeting with his former handler, the beautiful, enigmatic intelligence operative Katrina Leonidivna. She’s skeptical that the source, a shady arms dealer, is on the level. But when Katrina barely escapes with her life after an explosion rips through the café where they met, she’s forced to take his tip seriously. Alongside her husband, Alec Flanagan, and a rogue crew of covert agents from every corner of the intelligence community, Katrina races around the globe to uncover the truth.
What this dangerous clique of operatives discover is a plot that could rip America apart from the inside. A plot that pits neighbors against one another and turns everyone into a potential threat. A plot that could make anyone take up arms against their own country. A plot that Katrina, Alec, and the rest of their crew have to stop before it’s too late. But when everyone is a suspect, no one is safe and the entire nation is under suspicion. Hot on the trail of a terror cell capable of turning anyone—and everyone—into a deranged killer, only this dangerous clique of spies has a chance to stop the terrorists from weaponizing America’s greatest asset—freedom.
As long as we are confessing, I also failed to read Jim’s novel The Weed Agency so this is my first experience with his fiction, having read his journalism near daily for years.
I don’t think I will hurt Jim’s feeling by saying BTS has some elements common to new fiction authors and first books in a series. Despite the explosive start, literally, it takes awhile for the book to get going and not all of the characters are all that flushed out. This is also just part of the genre, however, as I have noted when reading books from book-a-year type established authors. There is always a tension between action and color and character development.
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.
Long time readers of this blog, all three of you at this point, will know that I am a fan of Kevin Wignall. I believe I have read all of his books and even interviewed him a few times. So I am always excited when he has a new novel out. And this time I am going to review it in a timely manner.
I was able to get a review copy of The Traitor’s Story from NetGalley. And not surprisingly given that it is Wignall, it turned out to be an intelligent espionage thriller that explores the complex nature of loyalty, patriotism and love amongst other things. Although, it is not really a typical thriller until the later part of the book. But at the heart of the story is the challenge and impact of secrets which grows out of espionage and an attempt to escape from it.
I enjoyed the way Wignall builds the characters, particularly Finn, by alternating between the present and the past. Finn is trying to put the past behind him, ironically by writing about the ancient past, but finds it is both a part of who he has become and something that can’t so easily be left behind.
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.
With An American Spy Olen Steinhauer continues to explore both the mechanics of spy craft and the moral tension inherent in the trade using Milo Weaver as his lens. With this third volume in the series, Weaver is no longer a Tourist but can’t escape the gravity of the agency’s destruction.
What from so many angles seems like violence and betrayal fueled by mere revenge turns out to be each side attempting to turn constantly shifting events to their advantage. Steinhauer plays the story out giving the reader the perspective of a number of characters from Weaver to his former boss Alan Drummond to Chinese spymaster Xin Zhu. But just when you think you are starting to put the pieces together he shuffles the deck and you have re-evaluate your assumptions.
There is an underlying tension in espionage – and thus in spy fiction – in that at root it is the search for truth and yet in pursuing that elusive truth, truth itself – or at least honesty and veracity – are the first causality (cliché perhaps but accurate I think). An American Spy mirrors this and in fact forces the reader to wrestle with it and “live” in this type of world. You find yourself constantly trying to understand the strategy and motivations of each side while guessing their next steps – in other words, thinking like a spy. What also becomes clear is how the nature of the trade undermines trust and casts doubt on everything.
On Target (A Gray Man Novel) by Mark Greaney
Disgraced former CIA agent Court “The Gray Man” Gentry (introduced in 2009’s The Gray Man) makes ends meet as an assassin working for clients he cannot trust. Russian arms merchant Sidorenko wants Court to kill Sudan’s President Abboud, arguably the man responsible for the genocide in Darfur. The CIA makes a counteroffer: kidnap Abboud and give him to American officials in exchange for amnesty. Court cannot refuse and treks through Sudan in pursuit of nebulous, ever-changing goals. Every element in this book is familiar, but Court is endearing in his perseverance even as his schemes are undermined by sympathetic victims, misleading information, outright lies, poor planning, betrayal, conflicting agendas, and simple bad luck. What could have been a storm of clichés becomes an action-filled yet touching story of a man whose reason has long ago been subsumed by his work ethic.
Red Star Rising: A Thriller by Brian Freemantle
Last seen in 2002’s Kings of Many Castles
, working-class British spy Charlie Muffin once again proves that experience and intelligence (on the part of both author and hero) are at least as important as flying fists and explosions in this entertaining entry in Freemantle’s long-running series. When a faceless body turns up on the grounds of the British Embassy in Moscow, Charlie’s superiors send him to Russia to solve the mystery: who’s the corpse and why was he left face down, or rather no face down, in the flower garden? Nothing is as it seems as the Russian authorities wrestle with the British over who has jurisdiction, whose agents are the bigger liars, and whose government is the most underhanded. Charlie isn’t much for action, gunplay, and excitement. In fact, his relationship with his Russian intelligence officer wife, Natalie, and daughter Sasha provides most of the overt suspense, but his slow fitting together of all the pieces related to the crime provides genuine interest.
Moscow Sting by Alex Dryden
Dryden follows up his superb debut, Red to Black (2009), with a riveting sequel. British spy Finn, who uncovered a Russian plan to control Europe’s access to oil and natural gas, is dead, murdered by a KGB-trained Russian criminal. Anna, the beautiful KGB colonel assigned to seduce Finn, but who fell in love with him instead, is in hiding, raising her son, Little Finn. In the post-Bush era, both the U.S. and Britain have realized that Finn was right: Vladimir Putin is an enemy. Now they want Finn’s source, a Kremlin insider known only as Mikhail. MI6 also wants revenge for Finn’s murder. The Russians want Anna for her betrayal. Anna wants to shield Mikhail and keep herself and her son alive. Machinations by all the principals ensue, and Dryden, a longtime student of Russia and the world of intelligence, tosses a new player into the mix: Cougar, a private intelligence company run by Burt Miller, a former CIA spook extraordinaire. The larger-than-life Miller schemes against the CIA, MI6, the Russians, and Cougar’s corporate competitors to hold on to Anna and reel in Mikhail. Red to Black reinvigorated the classic Cold War espionage genre. Moscow Sting—with its clever, devious, conflicted characters; its tension and verisimilitude; and its complex but fully plausible plot—is every bit as good.