The Spy House

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The Spy House, published by Matthew Dunn in 2015, is a competently written thriller and one of the most annoying books I’ve ever read.  I’m sure I’ve read some other Dunn thrillers featuring joint MI6 and CIA agent Will Cochrane, but this one made more of an impression because the plot is over-the-top ridiculous and Dunn, according to the book’s cover, is a former MI6 officer who must know better.

The plot was obviously taking an odd direction when the assembled personnel at a White House meeting agree that Israel is a “rabid dog”.  This seems a bit extreme as a consensus about a democratic ally, although certainly possible.  But it turns out that Israel is literally crazy.  The Israeli ambassador to France has been assassinated and Israel believes that this was done by Hamas and intends to wipe out Hamas in Gaza in retaliation.

Let’s ignore, for the moment, that when hundreds of rockets were launched into Israel from Gaza, this being not probably but indubitably the responsibility of Hamas, Israel, for it’s own sake, was determined not to wipe out Hamas and saddle itself with Gaza.

According to Dunn’s scenario Israel intends, at the same time as it attacks Hamas in the south, to attack both Hizballah, in Lebanon to the north (an entirely separate entity to Hamas) and the Palestinian Authority to the East.  In other words, Israel plans to start wars simultaneously on three fronts.  And it announces these plans two weeks in advance to the assembled bureaucrats of the U.S., Britain, and France (i.e. to the whole world).  This would really require Israelis to be mad dogs, just as likely as pit bulls to chase you down the street and sink their teeth into your ankle.

The United States, Britain and France are worried that if Israel goes to war it will cause havoc in the Middle East, because Sunnis will start fighting Shiites.  The reader is not supposed to have noticed that at the time of the book’s publication there was already havoc in the Middle East, and that Sunnis and Shiites started fighting without waiting for Israel to attack them both (and wouldn’t this be more likely to make them stop fighting each other and cooperate against their common enemy?)

Dunn’s plot clearly isn’t meant to be entirely realistic.  His protagonist is almost a super-hero, and he inhabits a fictionalized spy world in which a master spy might have all of his antagonist’s friends and family killed just to make him feel bad.  Dunn may have thought that there was no point thinking up a realistic plot for this kind of book.  I disagree with that.  Realistic would be good, and even barely plausible would be better than completely ridiculous.

Another possibility is that Dunn simply assumed that his readers either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care.

My best guess – Dunn entrusted the plot to an early version of a computer program, something like “Plot-a-Thriller 1.0”, gave it as key words Israel, Hamas, Hizballah, and Gaza, and pressed “enter”.

 

 

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The Travelers

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The Travelers, published by Chris Pavone in 2016, is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time.  And that’s interesting, because his basic premise could easily have been too far fetched to support a short story, let alone a 646 page (in the edition I read) tome.

Maybe one of the things that helps the book succeed is the main character, a travel writer who is a nice young man with standards in life, including doing his job well and being faithful to his wife.  A second positive factor is that while Will Rhodes is the main character, several other personages, both good and bad, are presented in non-judgmental detail.  This leads to the source of the suspense that carries the plot along – which of the characters are the good guys and which are the bad guys?  Except for Will, whose motivations are innocent as he gets himself in trouble, we don’t know which side the other characters are on.  One side may represent the CIA, even though it engages in some apparent crimes, but which one?

I can think of a third factor that makes the book enjoyable, and that is the development of Will Rhodes as he marshals his strengths, which are diligence, thoroughness, and willingness to try new things and to head undeterred into unappealing situations, to solve his problems.

The New Mrs Clifton

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I’m an impatient reader.  This means, among other things, that I don’t enjoy long, intense, and as far as I’m concerned pointless novels about random peoples’ (usually) tragic lives.  As my English teacher’s old aunt said when he offered to take her to a Shakespeare play, “Murder, rape, incest – no thanks, I have enough of that at home!”

The New Mrs Clifton, published by Elizabeth Buchan in 2016, is one of those books that I generally avoid, but with two mitigating features.  It has an interesting and apparently well researched setting, World War II Berlin and London immediately after the war.  And it starts with a hook for readers like me.  Buchan has managed to add an element of mystery to her story by beginning it with the discovery in 1974 of a woman’s body buried in a London garden.  The scene immediately switches to 1945 and introduces four women, one of whom will presumably somehow end up buried in the garden.  With the solution to the mystery to look forward to, I read and enjoyed the relatively long (401) pages and quite tragic story.

For anyone who might be interested in reading the book, I can add that the story concerns a young Englishman who comes home immediately after the war with a German bride, to the consternation of his two sisters and his jilted fiancee.

The Madman’s Tale

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The Madman’s Tale, published by John Katzenbach in 2004, is a very well written mystery/suspense story told mostly from the point a view of a certified schizophrenic.  The challenge here is to see things as the schizophrenic does, which is a little like trying to write from the point of view of a psychopath or homicidal maniac, made slightly easier by the possibility of talking to an actual schizophrenic without requiring armed guards.

In this story Francis Petrel, a young man who hears voices, is committed to a mental hospital where a young nurse is brutally murdered.  The female prosecutor who arrives to investigate has the cooperation of the two men who found the body, a fireman who has committed a crime of conscience and been sent for observation and Francis, who is saner than most of the other inmates and whom the fireman has befriended. Actually, the voices Francis hears in his head are the sorts of thoughts and responses that go through everybody’s head, such as, Run!  Hide!  This is a bad idea!  Francis is certifiably insane because he hears these things rather than just thinking them, and the voices all talk at the same time.  This may be a description of a rather benign form of schizophrenia, but I can see that it would still cause a mental mess.

The hospital is described as a depressing place but one where people are mostly trying to do their jobs, and if the two doctors in charge aren’t concerned about justice for the probably innocent inmate who’s been arrested, it’s mainly because their overriding interest is to avoid problems for themselves.

The murderer must be either a patient or an employee of the hospital, but there is no easy way to figure out who it is.  An annoying aspect of the writing was young Francis periodically thinking that as a bona fide lunatic himself, he’s achieved some profound insight into the thinking of their murderer, followed by a comment like, “he must be smart”, or “we can tell that he isn’t afraid,” pronouncements that the prosecutor and the fireman seem to appreciate.  It reminded me of an old joke from the time when PC users were frustrated by attempts to get assistance from Microsoft Help:

A small plane approaches Seattle in a thick fog.  The pilot has no idea where he is until he spots an office building poking out of the mist.  As he flies past a lighted window, he shouts to the man at the desk inside, “Where is this?”

“It’s the accounting department!” the office worker shouts back.

Now the pilot can find the airport, because the reply told him immediately that he was at the Microsoft building.  That’s because the reply was perfectly accurate and completely useless.

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife

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I can wholeheartedly recommend The Zookeeper’s Wife, published by Diane Ackerman in 2007 and recently made into a movie.  I haven’t seen the movie, but I can see why Ackerman was interested in writing the story and why it could make a good movie.  The story provides a fascinating insight into some aspects of World War II, from the often described Warsaw Ghetto to the lesser known activities of the Polish Underground, and especially the part played by zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina.

Added to the drama and suspense provided by the setting, the fact that Antonina kept a diary must be what made the story irresistible to a conscientious writer of non-fiction, one who makes an effort to be accurate and avoid making up details to fill out the material.  Here I’m inserting my only quibble –  you don’t have to put every detail you learn into your book.  Ackerman apparently noticed in a photograph that Jan Zabinsky’s wrist seemed hairy.  I can understand that she wanted to utilize every bit of information she had, but by dragging in mention of the “hairy wrist” she creates what seems to be an inappropriate distraction.  Was Jan Zabinsky unusually hairy?  Did this hairiness affect the story in some way?

The movie almost makes itself.  You have wartime Poland, with bombing and invasion by German, and later Russian, soldiers.  You have a zoo full of exotic animals to add an unusual touch to the setting.  And finally, you have a series of colorful characters, refugees from the murdering gestapo, who are given shelter in the zoo.

Oops! Wrong Book!

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Deathlist, published by Chris Ryan in 2016, is mainly about disgusting people being killed in disgusting ways.  I did read it, skimming in parts, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it.  For those who aren’t attracted by the disgusting aspects there is a straightforward plot (at least until the very end) of soldiers taking revenge on terrorists who assassinated a bunch of special forces trainees at an exercise in England, including details of how the perpetrators were captured and all vehicles and weapons involved.  The book doesn’t have much else to recommend it, since the avenging soldiers are great at killing and torture but are worthless in the conversation department.

At first glance the personalities of the avengers might seem realistic, but I’m not sure that’s the case.  My counter example is a book I read years ago by a retired British mercenary whose name I can’t remember.  He had to leave his special forces unit ( I think he wasn’t great at following orders) and spent some years as a mercenary, during which time he trained soldiers in various Middle Eastern and African countries and also was hired by some governments for other purposes.  On one of his missions he was one of a group hired to capture or kill (I don’t remember which) a Basque terrorist the Spanish government was anxious to be rid of but wanted to distance itself from the ridding.  His memoir was fascinating and very well written and although he doesn’t come across as a “nice guy”, he’s a far cry from the thuggish bunch presented by Ryan.

 

Too many coincidences

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The Last Innocent Man was first published by bestselling author Phillip Margolin in 1981, but that’s not the problem.  Mystery/thrillers about criminal defense lawyers age well and there has been no change in either the law or the ethical dilemmas of prosecutors, defenders, and police.  But even a pro like Margolin can fall into the trap of creating too many coincidences for a satisfying plot.  I think that in this book he got lazy.

How’s this for an unbelievable plot twist:  Brilliant Portland defense attorney David Nash is hired to defend a fellow lawyer (whose wife he has fallen in love with) on a murder charge.  Husband and wife swear that they were at home together on the night of the crime and Nash assumes that they’re telling the truth until he’s accidentally reminded of the date of the crime – it’s the day he first met the wife at a big party given by a member of his firm, and she was definitely not at home with her husband!   For months brilliant attorney Nash has somehow not noticed that the date of the important party and the date of the important crime are the same, and his memory wasn’t even jogged by the fact that it was the same day on which he met the love of his life.  Phooy!

This elephant in the room left me with no patience for the statistically surprising coincidence that the suspect was similar in size and build to the actual killer, owned a patterned shirt identical to that worn by the killer and similar trousers, drove a car of the same make and color as the killers car, and had curly blond hair just like the wig the killer chose as a disguise.  A final complaint – no ingenious detective work or clever deduction was required to find the real killer – he turns out to be a psychopath who doesn’t mind confessing to his crimes.