An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer

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.

Continue reading

In the Mail: On Target

On Target (A Gray Man Novel) by Mark Greaney

Publishers Weekly

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.

In the Mail: Red Star Rising

Red Star Rising: A Thriller by Brian Freemantle

Publishers Weekly

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.

In the Mail: Moscow Sting

Moscow Sting by Alex Dryden

Booklist

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.