Review: Defectors by Joseph Kanon

DefectorsJoseph Kanon’s Defectors moves deliberately but colourfully, with intelligent prose and a strong Cold War period feel. With his recent literary gems (Leaving Berlin, Istanbul Passage), the heir apparent to John Le Carré is doing a wonderful job re-sparking interest in classic spy fiction. Nobody is doing it better. Frankly, nobody can do it better.

In 1949, CIA agent Frank Weeks was exposed as a Communist spy and defected to the Soviet Union. Twelve years later, in 1961 when the Defectors opens, his brother, Simon, a New York-based book publisher, gets drawn into a dangerous scheme when Frank dangles the proposition of a tell-all memoir. Simon travels to Moscow, anxious about reuniting with his brother, whose treachery resulted in his dismissal from his work as an analyst (a position he had held with the OSS during World War II), not to mention discomfort over the his secret affair with Frank’s wife, Jo.

But more than that, Simon’s concern is based on uncertainty over Frank’s intentions. The man has made self-preservation an art form, and there is no way his KGB masters will agree to an unadulterated exposé — so what is the true purpose behind Simon’s visit? And will Simon agree to whatever scheme Frank has set in motion? Whatever he decides, there will be a cost.

Like Alan Furst’s The Foreign Correspondent and Le Carré’s The English Spy, Kanon’s latest perfectly encapsulates the potency of a spy thriller devoid of explosions and shootouts. This is a thriller that eschews video game shoot-’em-up style action, and instead relies on the the complexities of its characters and their confused loyalties to maximise suspense. Defectors is a virtuoso display by an author at his peak. It’s a masterful thriller, pure and simple.

ISBN: 9781471162626
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Jun-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: James Bond, Vol. 2: Eidolon by Warren Ellis & Jason Masters

9781524102722_p0_v2_s192x300Despite the exemplary creative team attached, the first volume of Dynamite Entertainment’s James Bond relaunch flattered to deceive. It was  packed with the staples Bond fans expect — shoot-ups, car chases, deadly cybernetically-enhanced henchmen, to name but a few — but lacked that special something. Less akin to Casino Royale, and more like Spectre. Thankfully volume 2 — produced by the same creative partnership of Warren Ellis and Jason Masters — rectifies the first’s missteps, and outdoes its predecessor in every way.

As dirty money is being laundered through MI5 — the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency — the Secret Intelligence Service has been neutered and disarmed. ‘Eidolon’ — another word for ghost, or spectre — has infiltrated the highest levels of British intelligence, and it’s up to Bond to terminate their operation. It’s a simple set-up, as the Bond novel plots have been since day dot, when Fleming wrote Casino Royale; but it means the creators get to focus on perfectly-choreographed, wide-screen action sequences, including one terrifically rendered car chase. There’s a dash of sex, plenty of thrills, and even features a visit to Q Branch, although there’s a distinct lack of high-tech gadgetry.

Ellis lets Masters take charge during the action scenes, limiting dialogue, allowing  these blockbuster moments to occur in silence. Masters pulls it all off with aplomb. It is brutal and visceral, but not gratuitous. But when Ellis does have the characters interacting, he nails their repartee. This is a tight script, full of great one-liners and scything commentary. One moment in particular had me chuckling, when Bond dumps a gun in a bin during an escape, and his companion asks: “You’re going to leave a loaded gun in a bin?” Bond’s reply is perfect: “It’s America. I don’t have time to give it to a child or a mentally ill person, so I’m leaving it in a bin for them to find.”

It is a shame, then, that with Eidolon, Ellis and Masters bid adieu. Just as they hit their stride and manufactured the perfect contemporary James Bond adventure, they’re gone. Still, what an exit. Any comic book reader with even a remote interest in 007 will dig this volume; so, too, any readers looking for a standalone action thriller.

ISBN: 9781524102722
Format: Hardback (267mm x 178mm x 19mm)
Pages: 152
Imprint: Dynamite Entertainment
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Publish Date: 14-Mar-2017

Review: Nobody Walks by Mick Herron

nobody-walksNobody Walks is a revenge story.

We follow Tom Bettany, a former MI-5 undercover spook, who takes it upon himself to investigate the suspicious death of his son, Liam. They weren’t close, this father and son; following the death of his wife — Liam’s mother — Tom eloped from the responsibilities of fatherhood, ditched his son for a nomadic life, and in the intervening years took on menial jobs to pay the rent and blunt the trauma of a lifetime of high-risk undercover work and the unravelling of his personal life.

Then he gets the phone call alerting him to the fact his son is dead.

So it’s back to London, back to a world of spooks and villains, and one man determined to expose the true forces behind his son’s death. All the while, it appears someone is pulling Bettany’s strings. Someone brought him back to London, out from the cold, for a reason.

Although Nobody Walks isn’t a Slow Horses novel — a trio of books (soon to be a quartet) I’ve absolutely adored, which include Slow HorsesDead Lions and Real Tigers — I was delighted to discover it takes place in the same universe, with familiar characters making an appearance, either at the forefront of the plot, or just in the background. And while it exists in the same continuity, Nobody Walks is a very different kind of thriller: more Richard Stark than John Le Carre. It’s stripped down and raw; a satisfying, immersive thriller, bold and brutal in its simplicity.

ISBN: 9781616956196
Format: Paperback (190mm x 126mm x 23mm)
Pages: 328
Imprint: Soho Press Inc
Publisher: Soho Press Inc
Publish Date: 3-Dec-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Dead Lions by Mick Herron

dead-lionsSlough House — a disregarded echelon of MI5 — is comprised of disgraced and incompetent agents, who are assigned an endless supply of demeaning and feckless tasks in an effort to wear them down until the pull the pin on their careers. Ruled by the legendary Jackson Lamb — possibly the most abominable protagonist to have ever been spotlighted in espionage fiction —  the inhabitants of Slough House are skilled operators, whose vices and mistakes have demolished whatever usefulness they might have to the service. But when a former agent, Dickie Bow, is found dead on a London bus, Lamb and his subordinates take it upon themselves to investigate. Bow’s final text message — “cicadas” — has ominous repercussions:  it signifies the awakening of a sleeper cell of foreign agents, which dates back to the Cold War. Suddenly, Lamb’s Slow Horses are in a race against against time to determine their enemy’s target, and stop it from taking place.

Slow Horses was a remarkable spy novel, and this second in the series, Dead Lions, is a fine sequel. With the pieces already set up on the board, Mick Herron wastes no time in thrusting readers into a whirlwind, multi-stranded plot, which is orchestrated with Bach-like precision. Herron’s stories have the same complexity as Le Carre’s, but are written with the economy of Richard Stark, and this combination makes for an incredibly page-turning read. There is a large cast of characters involved, but each are fleshed out, and boast distinctive personalities; a rarity in this genre, when one could easily swap out James Bond for Jason Bourne, or Sean Dillon, or Jack Ryan, and not really notice any discernible difference.

Mick Herron has breathed new lie into the landscape of the espionage novel. I haven’t breezed through a series of books this quickly in a long, long time. As I write this, I’ve started the third novel, Real Tigers, and may well dig into Herron’s other novels while I wait for Spook Street in February.

ISBN: 9781473641112
Format: Paperback
(197mm x 129mm x 23mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Publisher: John Murray General Publishing Division
Publish Date: 8-Sep-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

Black WidowIn his foreword, Daniel Silva notes that he began writing The Black Widow before the Paris attacks of 2015. That his latest thriller is published so soon after the devastating terrorist attack in Nice — a cruel coincidence — demonstrates just how prophetic these geopolitical thrillers can be.

Daniel Silva writes smart, sophisticated, highly literate thrillers. The fuse always burns slowly, which makes the explosion all the more impactful. The Black Widow – the sixteenth Gabriel Allon novel – is no different. It begins in the Marais district of Paris where ISIS detonates a massive bomb, killing hundreds; including a friend of Gabriel’s. The French government enlists the aid of the impending chief of Israeli intelligence to eliminate the terrorist mastermind responsible: the enigmatic Saladin. And so, Allon endeavours to accomplish the impossible: infiltrate ISIS and prevent its forthcoming attacks.

Of course, Allon is a recognizable spymaster; he can hardly penetrate the terrorist network himself. So he enlists a civilian, the French-born Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, whose background makes her the perfect undercover agent. This is where Silva derives much of the novel’s tension: a young Jew, with no field experience and minimal training, hiding in plain sight in the heart of the caliphate. Can she possibly pull off the impossible? Those who’ve read Silva before will know his plots always divert into the unexpected. Nothing is ever straightforward.

For some time now, Silva has been transitioning Allon towards his role as the director, rather than an agent, of Israeli intelligence. For the first time in the series, Silva presents Gabriel as more of a supporting character rather than protagonist, and if The Black Widow is anything to go by, his future novels might have a wider cast, with Mikhail Abramov and Dina Sarid poised to play larger roles. On the one hand, it’s sad to see Allon fading from the limelight; on the other, it’s so rare for a series like this to exhibit such character progression. Most leads in thriller-fic are stagnant, so this is a refreshing change. And if this is indeed Gabriel Allon’s final call to arms, it is a brutally fitting finale.

Every Daniel Silva novel is a treat, and The Black Widow is no different. The consistency of the Gabriel Allon series is truly astounding. The man is peerless; I’m certain I’ve used this line before, but it deserves repeating: no other writer is as capable of providing as many thrills and genuine heartbreaks, as Silva. Whether you’re a long-time fan or a newcomer, if you’re looking for a great thriller, you’ll struggle to find better than The Black Widow.

ISBN: 9780732298951
Format: Paperback
Pages: 496
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Aug-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

Divided Spy

Relentlessly fascinating, taut, atmospheric and immersive — get out your thesaurus and start looking for new superlatives. Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy deserves them all. Quite simply, spy thrillers don’t get much better than this.

While I hate revealing my ignorance, I must admit I was not familiar with the work of Charles Cumming prior to grabbing a copy of A Divided Spy from the shelf. I was looking for a page-turner, having just invested several hours in a book that was taking me nowhere but an unpleasant abyss, and the quotes accompanying the blurb seemed to promise as much. And for once, the blurb undervalued what was delivered: one of the best spy thrillers I’ve read in years.

A Divided Spy is the third book in Cumming’s Thomas Kell series, and while new readers mightn’t appreciate the depths of some of the relationships, and be privy to the entirety of their backstory, the novel can be read as a standalone. And if you’re anything like me, it’ll only entice you to immediately add the preceding novels to your reading stack!

Kell is a former MI6 officer, but after a lifetime of dedication to Queen and Country, and an operation that went particularly bad, he’s retired from the service. His days are now perfunctory, fueled by a desire for revenge against the Kremlin who took the life of a woman he loved. When Kell is offered a chance at vengeance, he takes it, and embarks on a mission to recruit a top Russian spy and turn him against his superiors — but with the Russian holding key information about  a devastating terrorist attack on British soil, Kell must decide what’s most important to him: personal retribution or protecting innocent lives. And can he live with the consequence of either decision?

A Divided Spy is a literate, exhilarating page-turner. It’s not a wham-bam actioner in the style of Robert Ludlum, whose best work  loosed bursts of violence on readers every second chapter, but that said, those who read thrillers purely for the gunplay won’t be disappointed by the novel’s conclusion. Indeed, Cumming’s sparse use of shootouts is precisely what makes the book stand out: it doesn’t need blockbuster action moments to propel the story forward, and keep you entranced. And that’s a surefire sign of a great thriller.

As things stand, A Divided Spy is my forerunner for spy thriller of the year, and it will take something truly spectacular to best it.

ISBN: 9780007467525
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 432
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 2-Jun-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

9780099576983The twelfth James Bond book marks a real low point in the series. More a travelogue than an espionage novel, and with fewer thrills than Ulysses, beyond the opening pages, which provide some genuine characterization and depth to 007 as he wallows in self-pity and guilt following the murder of his wife, there’s an overriding sense of boredom in Fleming’s prose and plotting. Fleming exhibited such imagination and bravado in his earlier works, but his trademark zest is in short supply here.

Since his wife’s death, Bond’s usefulness to Her Majesty’s government has expired. He is drinking more than ever, gambling gratuitously, and even worse, has bungled his most recent assignments. M is ready to pull the plug on 007’s career with the service, but is encouraged to send Bond on one final, “impossible” mission. And so, he is dispatched to Japan to convince the head of Japan’s secret intelligence service to provide Britain with information from radio transmissions captured from the Soviets. Alas, Bond and his superiors at MI6 don’t have anything Tiger Tanaka wants; but Tiger sees something in Bond, and demands he use his deadly skills to assassinate Guntram Shatterhand, who operates a “Garden of Death” in an ancient castle. And yes, you should take “Garden of Death”quite literally – it is a place full of toxic plants, where people come to commit suicide.

The big twist? Shatterhand is actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the man responsible for the murder of Bond’s wife, and former head of SPECTRE. So naturally, this is an assignment 007 accepts. But this time he’s not doing it for Queen and Country; this is about revenge.

The final fifty pages of You Only Live Twice pack some genuine excitement as Bond infiltrates Blofeld’s sanctum and seeks his prey. But even then, it’s all rather perfunctory, and far from Fleming’s best. And the cliffhanger ending – which worked brilliantly in From Russia With Love – is a tad insipid here.

It’s a shame, because the weary, shattered Bond we meet at the beginning of the novel is interesting. We have never seen 007 like this before, with such emotional baggage. But that baggage is rapidly eviscerated in favour of Fleming’s detailed account of post-war Japan. It’s set-up promises much, but fails to deliver; not even the rudimentary elements of the best Bond novels.

ISBN: 9780099576983
Format: Paperback  (198mm x 129mm x 19mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom