In the Mail: fiction edition

–> [amazon-product region=”us” text=”Perforated Heart” type=”text”]1416534091[/amazon-product] by Eric Bogosian

Publishers Weekly

Playwright and actor Bogosian presents in his Rothian third novel the diaries of a once-prominent author embittered by his declining fame. The diary of Richard Morris begins with the writer losing a major award to a lesser talent, his latest book a failure and his agent busying himself with more marketable clients. Death and the prospect of being forgotten hound him, and heart surgery leaves him with a metaphorically convenient scar. Housebound while recovering from the operation and hiding from the affections of his young girlfriend, Richard becomes engrossed in his diaries of 30 years earlier, when he was new to New York City. While these notebooks “reveal what a total idiot” the young writer was, the elder Richard fails to notice how very little has changed. Richard remains a man who mistakes self-destruction for authenticity and is utterly incapable of seeing himself as others see him-which is aggravated when his literary fortunes take a welcome, belated turn and faces from his past show up in the present. Richard is a grade-A bastard, and his rise and fall and rise again exemplifies the often arbitrary and opportunistic machinery of the literary world and operators within it.

–> The Last Testament by Sam Bourne

Booklist

Israel and Palestine are about to sign a historic peace treaty. When a seemingly unmotivated series of killings puts the treaty in jeopardy, U.S. government peace negotiator Maggie Costello is tasked with finding out what’s going on. She is shocked to learn not only that the victims have been carefully chosen but also that they are being killed to protect a secret that, if it were revealed, could alter the very history of Christianity itself. The book bears a slight similarity to Kathleen McGowan’s The Book of Love (2009), about the purported discovery of a gospel written by Jesus, but this one has stronger political overtones. The avalanche of thrillers involving religious conspiracies—thank you, Da Vinci Code—continues apace, and they range from the excellent to the execrable. Rate this one somewhere nearer the former than the latter, although many readers might find themselves, not long after they finish the book, trying in vain to keep it straight from all the others of a similar ilk.

The Echelon Vendetta by David Stone

2009 seems to be the year of the thriller for me.  Once I got started with the genre I just kept finding more to read.  My latest in this vein is a series by David Stone featuring Micah Dalton.  The first in the series is The Echelon Vendetta.

There is a lot going on in this often violent, and at times gruesome, espionage thriller and it isn’t easy to capture it all.  I found the most succinct and accurate summation at Entertainment Weekly of all places:

When a mission goes awry in David Stone’s The Echelon Vendetta, the CIA calls in Micah Dalton, a ”cleaner” who dispassionately mops up the mess. But then a friend and fellow agent dies in an apparent suicide and the pal’s family is found hacked to death. As he follows the trail from Tuscany to London to CIA headquarters to the Rocky Mountains, Dalton encounters government spooks, Native American mysticism, hallucinogens, and gruesome violence with which he seems creepily comfortable. But Stone’s unsettling tale keeps losing momentum, due to his nasty habit of interrupting the action with poetic travelogues at each new stop around the globe.

There are really three threads involved in this story.  The main thread is a rather straightforward, and well done, espionage story.  Dalton has to find out what is behind his friend and colleague’s death.  He eventually finds out that his mystery Native American killer is brutally murdering anyone connected to a mission gone bad on a project called Echelon.  Dalton tracks down the killer, and his true identity, as the bodies pile up.  The tension builds until the two confront each other.  Then Stone throws in a twist at the very end.

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What do you expect out of your thrillers?

I expressed some opinions about this on Twitter, but thought I would make it a full blown post of its own.

Marilyn Stasio reviews Olen Steinhauer’s [amazon-product region=”us” text=”The Tourist” type=”text”]0312369727[/amazon-product] in the NYTBR.  She seems to struggle with it because it lacks the sort of straightforward plot you would expect of a international thriller.  After praising the central character Milo Weaver she drops in her frustrations:

The only drawback to this warm close-up of the protagonist is that it skews the novel, rendering it more of a character study than a full-bodied espionage novel. There’s plenty of plot, but it’s messy rather than complex; and while the cast is thickly populated with career spooks from France, Russia, China, Sudan and components of the former Yugoslavia, few of them develop into worthy adversaries, and their agendas are so murky that we’re not particularly anxious to get back to them.

I think this is true to a certain degree but besides the point.  I don’t think Steinhauer was attempting to write am espionage novel in the traditional sense.  I have been arguing instead is that he is attempting to use elements of the thriller and espionage genre and yet write more literary novels.

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The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

Cover of "The Tourist"
Cover of The Tourist

I will be honest.  I am an Olen Steinhauer fan. Have been since I picked up his first book, The Bridge of Sighs, some time ago (and started reading his blog as well).  His crime series set in an unnamed Eastern European country during the Cold War was in my sweet spot as a former grad student with a focus on the Cold War: great writing, interesting characters, an espionage/crime thriller with the Iron Curtain as a backdrop, what’s not to like?

But Steinhauer has put that series to bed and has started a new direction or at least a new series with The Tourist.

Here is the plot as outlined by the publisher:

Milo Weaver used to be a “tourist” for the CIA – an undercover agent with no home, no identity – but he’s since retired from the field to become a middle-level manager at the CIA’s New York headquarters. He’s acquired a wife, a daughter, and a brownstone in Brooklyn, and he’s tried to leave his old life of secrets and lies behind. However, when the arrest of a long-sought-after assassin sets off an investigation into one of Milo’s oldest colleagues and exposes new layers of intrigue in his old cases, he has no choice but to go back undercover and find out who’s holding the strings once and for all.

This book carried risk and reward. New is exciting but what happens when the author leaves a much loved series behind and starts a new project? Sure, it is still what I like to call a literary thriller, but what if Steinhauer stumbled on his first stand alone?  Made me a little nervous, I will admit.

Another element of pressure, and an opportunity to stumble, was provided by the pre-publication publicity – which has been known to trip me up in the past.  The publicity  put Steinhauer in the pantheon of great spy thriller writers like Le Carre, Deighton, Graham Green, etc. Not an easy label to live up to.

Well, as I noted earlier, I am happy to report that Steinhauer didn’t stumble but merely brought his talents to a different task. I am in no position to label him the next Le Carre etc. but he certainly has tapped into the same vein and talents that kept me reading these type of authors.

The Tourist is a great and thought provoking read for anyone who enjoys the thriller aspects of the espionage genre but prefers better – and more philosophical – writing than your average airport pick up.

More below.

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Nemesis by Jo Nesbo

Cover of "Nemesis"
Cover of Nemesis

If you like your crime thrillers complex and dense then you will want to check out Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s latest Nemesis.

Being the lazy blogger that I am, allow me to reproduce the publishers copy to introduce the plot:

Grainy closed-circuit television footage shows a man walking into an Oslo bank and putting a gun to a cashier’s head. He tells the young woman to count to twenty-five. When the robber doesn’t get his money in time, the cashier is executed, and two million Norwegian kroner disappear without a trace. Police Detective Harry Hole is assigned to the case.

While Hole’s girlfriend is away in Russia, an old flame decides to get in touch. Former girlfriend and struggling artist Anna Bethsen invites Hole to dinner, and he can’t resist a visit. But the evening ends in an all too familiar way as Hole awakens with a thundering headache, a missing cell phone, and no memory of the past twelve hours. That same morning, Anna is found shot dead in her bed. Hole begins to receive threatening e-mails. Is someone trying to frame him for this unexplained death? Meanwhile, the bank robberies continue with unparalleled savagery.

As the death toll continues to mount, Hole becomes a prime suspect in a criminal investigation led by his longtime adversary Tom Waaler and Waaler’s vigilante police force. Racing from the cool, autumnal streets of Oslo to the steaming villages of Brazil, Hole is determined to absolve himself of suspicion by uncovering all the information needed to crack both cases. But the ever-threatening Waaler is not finished with his old archenemy quite yet.

Now let me confess that I didn’t read The Redbreast or any other of Nesbo’s earlier works.  To be honest I didn’t want to read a 500 plus page book to see if I wanted to read another almost 500 page book.  Call me closed minded but that is quite a commitment in my world.

So instead I just dived into Harry Hole’s world with no background.  And it worked just fine for the most part.  I am not sure, however, if my not having read the back-story as it were lead to my frustration with the dense and over-layered plot.  And the ending was clearly a “to be continued” situation; which is unsatisfying to a degree.

But as noted above, Nesbo creates a complex – if at times convoluted – story with lots of characters, a dash of psychology and philosophy and enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing.

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The Silent Man by Alex Berenson

the-silent-manThe New York Times starts its review of The Silent Man by Alex Berenson this way:

A novel can, and should, do many things, but a thriller need do only one. If it thrills, it succeeds, and if it does not, no matter how well it does everything else, it fails. Alex Berenson’s third novel, “The Silent Man,” succeeds in seizing the attention from the start and never letting go until the end.

I might want to argue with the first two sentences, or at least quibble a bit, but I think the review is right when it comes to Berenson’s latest book.

As we have discussed in our reviews of the previous John Wells novels (The Faithful Spy and The Ghost War), John Wells started out with an interesting hook (first Western spy to infiltrate Al Quada, convert to Islam, etc.) but hasn’t much developed beyond all round tough guy super spy.  Not that he is a particularly one dimensional for the genre, just that he is typical of the genre.

What Berenson does well is set up a plausible terrorist attack or military threat and then start the clock on Wells’s attempt to keep it from happening.  As the story plays out the pace quickens and the tension rises.  And Berenson gives the reader the view from all sides; inside and out of the plot – minor and major characters.  In the end you know Wells will save the day, but you don’t know how and how many people will die in between.

This time the focus is on a plot to smuggle a  nuclear bomb into America and detonate it for maxim damage: at the State of the Union address.  Character depth aside, Berenson again delivers an entertaining high stakes action thriller.

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The Ghost War by Alex Berenson

Cover of "The Ghost War"

Cover of The Ghost War

You had to think Alex Berenson felt a little pressure on his second book.  The first won an Edgar Award after all and ended with its hero saving New York City from a biological attack.  How to top that?

In The Ghost War Berenson continues the exploits of John Wells while mixing in a little more geopolitical tension.  Here is how Publishers Weekly describes it:

Having foiled an al-Qaeda plot targeting Times Square in 2006’s The Faithful Spy (which won an Edgar Award for best first novel), maverick CIA agent John Wells confronts a very different threat in this pulse-pounding sequel from New York Times reporter Berenson. When the CIA’s efforts to extract Dr. Sung Kwan, a North Korean scientist and an invaluable source on Kim Jong Il’s nuclear ambitions, result in the deaths of Kwan and the rescue team, Wells’s significant other, Jennifer Exley, searches to identify the person in U.S. intelligence who compromised Kwan’s security. Meanwhile, Wells returns to Afghanistan, the scene of much of the action in The Faithful Spy, to find out what outside country has been helping the Taliban reassert itself. While the mole hunt will be familiar to genre buffs and the characters and the perils they face aren’t as nuanced as those in John le Carré or even David Ignatius, the author’s plausible scenario distinguishes this from most spy thrillers.

If the first book was focused on the character of Wells, the second book is propelled more by the looming conflict between China and the US.  It also introduces the stress and strains involved in the relationship between Wells and Exley.

Berenson continues to give you a variety of perspectives as you see the action through the eyes of multiple characters.  As the plot points touched on by PW above reveal, he builds up a series of seemingly unrelated but ultimately interconnected threats and/or plot threads.  North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, and China all play a part.

But the big picture is China.  The tension builds as Berenson lays out a plausible scenario whereby the US and China could find themselves on the brink of war.

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The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson

Cover of "The Faithful Spy: A Novel"

The Faithful Spy: A Novel

I used to read a great deal of espionage thrillers.  I especially liked a series with a repeating central character.  In high school and college I used to devour them.  I would find an author I liked and read every book they had written.  There was somehing satisfying about being emersed in a series and a character.

These days my tastes are a little more eccelctic and I have a great deal less time.  No more going back and reading a newly discovered author’s backlist from the start.  This bugs me because I am the kind of person who likes to read a series in order for fear of missing some key fact or even just the more nuanced perspective you get from reading every book in a series or even in an author’s career.

But when Alex Berenson’s latest John Wells novel, The Silent Man, arrived at my door I felt like I needed to read the first two books before jumping in.  Thankfully it was only two books and they are quick reads.

Which brings us to the first book in the series, The Faithful Spy, which won the Edgar Award for a first novel in 2007.  If you like “ripped from the headlines” thrillers with a nice blend of action and geopolitical tension then The Faithful Spy is your kind of book.

Despite being firmly in the international/espionage thriller camp, Berenson brings a great deal of plausibility to his plots and depth to his characters.  They are fast and entertaining reads.

More below.

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