Friday, 3 June 2016

Reading Challenges - The Spy Novel

For the past few years, one of my Goodreads' reading groups has had a monthly genre challenge, that being each month a specific genre is chosen for us to choose books to read from. Gad, how convoluted a statement was that. Last month, the genre was Film Tie-ins, books that were turned into movies basically. I managed to find a couple in my book shelves; Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin and Catching Fire (Book 2 of the Hunger Games) by Suzanne Collins.

This month the chosen genre is Spy Novels, hence the title of this Blog. I figure that I can manage at least two novels from this genre in June without impacting any of my other challenges. I spent yesterday going through my book lists to see what I might like to start with. I just finished one of the books I've been reading so I guess I'll be choosing one today. So without further ado, here are some of the books I could choose from. I think I know what the first book will be, but maybe as I write down this list, I'll change my mind. (Note: Please don't think this is an all-inclusive list of spy novels. They are only books I've read or plan to read. Maybe they might give you some ideas if you've not delved into this genre before and provide you with a flavour of the variety of writers in the genre)

John Buchan's Richard Hannay books - Over the course of his life, 1870 - 1940, John Buchan, who was one of Canada's most popular Governor Generals, was a prolific writer. He is known for his series of 5 books, which featured Richard Hannay, a series of spy adventures. The first is also one of my favourite movies, Alfred Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps. I've read the first three books in this series and have the other two books sitting on my bookshelves, so the fourth book is definitely a possibility for Jun. These are the books

1. The Thirty - Nine Steps (1915). I've read this a couple of times, most recently in Nov 2011;

"This is a classic, an interesting, exciting story. It's similar but at the same time a fair bit different from Alfred Hitchcock's movie. Interesting story of a man caught up in extraordinary events which have the potential to dramatically change the outcome of the impending war, who uses his ingenuity and basic smarts to avoid his enemies. I'll leave it there as I don't want to spoil for anyone who hasn't read before. Excellent story."

2. Greenmantle (1916). This books finds Hannay off to Turkey on behalf of the British government. I read this in Mar 2012;

"A perfectly admirable sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps. Richard Hannay appears again, now a Major in the British Army during WWI. He and three companions are asked to go behind German lines and to follow a route to Turkey to find out what the Germans are plotting there. It's a well-paced, well-written adventure thriller. Most enjoyable, entertaining story. I look forward to reading the other stories in the series."

3. Mr. Standfast (1918). In this story, Hannay wanders through the Highlands of Scotland trying to find a master spy. I read it in Jun 2015;

"Mr Standfast is the third book in the John Hannay thriller/ spy series written by John Buchan. The first two, The 39 Steps and Greenmantle, were both excellent and this third story follows easily with another excellent, well-paced, thriller. In this story, John Hannay, now a General in the British Army is called back from the front (WWI) to help find an old adversary. The Germans are infiltrating pacifist factions and using these people to help their ends, as a conduit for passing information, and other activities. Hannay follows a trail to northern Scotland and back to the front in this wartime adventure. There are excellent characters in this story, Buchan writes thoughtfully and the story, especially the ending is all excellent. An excellent follow-up to the first two books."

4. The Three Hostages (1924). I'm due to read this book as it has been a year since I last visited with Mr. Hannay. Definite possibility; and
5. The Island of Sheep (1936)

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903). I won't be reading this book as I did a few years ago. I mention it because it is one of the early examples of the espionage novel. In 1903, with tension between Europe's nations on the rise, the UK perceived the build-up of the German Navy to be a major threat to its national security. That is the gist of this novel, with two friends going sailing in the Baltic and discovering this hidden fleet. It was a very enjoyable, tension - filled book.

Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence books - Agatha Christie specialised in mystery novels, with most of her books featuring either Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. There were four books which featured the husband and wife team of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. I think the spy genre might hang somewhat loosely on their shoulders, but I've read one of the series, N or M? and their was a strong espionage element to it. So, I may try The Secret Adversary, the first book just to see if it fits into the genre. These are the books that make up the Tommy and Tuppence series.

1. The Secret Adversary (1922);
2. N or M? (1941). Below is my review of this novel;

"Loved it. My first Tommy and Tuppence book and I enjoyed so very much. Intrepid spies from the First World War, sort of put out to pasture at the start of the 2nd. But they manage to get an assignment with the government trying to find out who are the German Fifth columnists at a resort hotel on the coast. Interesting, well-paced story, Tommy and Tuppence are a lovely couple, the guests are all suspicious. Excellent!" I gave it 4 stars

3. By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968); and,
4. Postern of Fate (1973).

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. Conrad is another of the classic writers, his most famous novel might be Heart of Darkness, which I think was a book in one of my English courses during my university days. And, no, I don't think I actually read it. The Secret Agent was another of the early spy novels, originally published in 1907 and deals with espionage, anarchism and terrorism. I read this back in Jun 2012 and gave it 4-stars.

"This book was a slow start for me. It's a style of writing I'm not used to these days, but once I got into it, the story flowed nicely and it was a thoughtful, interesting read. I enjoyed having to think about what I was reading. The characters were well-developed, the story well-crafted and tragic. Mr Verloc, the spy, is caught up in a tragic situation and his wife Winnie, taking care of him, her simplish brother Stevie and her mother, must deal with unexpected death... Also an interesting, if unresolved interplay between the Assistant Commissioner (unnamed) and Chief Inspector Heat, each with his own motives and thoughts on dealing with the key 'incident'. I'm glad I worked my way through the story, it was quite excellent."

Len Deighton's Secret File series. Deighton is one of the group of writers, like le Carré and Ludlum and others who made the Cold War their genre for the spy novel. He did write many other books, but these make up the Secret File series. A number of them were made into movies as well. I may read the 4th book in this series.

1. The Ipcress File (1962). I read this in Aug 2012.

"I very much wanted to like this book as it is a classic movie as well and in parts I did. But ultimately, unfortunately, it kind of just left me feeling sort of blah. I got the gist of the story; brain-washing, infiltrators into the UK spy organisation, but it was sort of all over the place. This was Deighton's first story and heralded a great writing career. I do have a couple of other books by him to read and this hasn't put me off, but I do think it could have been better."

2. Horse Under Water (1963). I haven't found a copy of this one yet.
3. Funeral in Berlin (1964). I read this in Jan 2015 and enjoyed it much more than the first book.

"I enjoyed this story. In some aspects, I had no idea what was going on, but at the same time, it didn't matter. This is a Cold War spy mystery, that meanders along to its ending but is so well-written, that it was a pleasure to read. The basic premise is that the main character, Harry Salzman, a British operative, is in Berlin trying to arrange for the smuggling of a British scientist from the East through the Berlin wall back to the West. But that is the story at its simplest.
The tale wanders from London to Berlin, east and west, to Czechoslovakia and France and contains a cast of characters, from Salzman, to his capable assistant (one of my favourite characters even if she is only rarely in it), Jean, to his boss, Dawlish, the Russian, Stok, etc. You love meeting them and enjoy the interactions. Each chapter discusses the rules of chess and various plays and moves and ultimately, this is the crux of the story, a chess game with players feinting and moving across the board until the end. And who will win the game? You have to read Funeral in Berlin. Enjoy!"

4. Billion Dollar Brain (1966);
5. An Expensive Place to Die (1967);
6. Spy Story (1974); and
7. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Spy (1976). I read this in Nov 2013 and gave it 4-stars.

"I haven't read a lot of Deighton's books. This was an excellent cold war spy thriller; defectors, chases across 3 continents, well-paced and well-crafted. I liked very much."

David Downing's John Russell series. Downing is a modern writer but his John Russell series is set during the build-up to WWII and features Anglo-American newsman, John Russell, who lives in Berlin with his German wife and finds himself getting caught up in Germany's wartime build-up and aggression against its own people. He is also almost blackmailed into providing information to both the Russians and the British. He is an everyday man who is forced to perform heroic acts. All of the books titles are German train stations. I've read the first book so far and the second is the one I'm leaning most to reading next. I only have the first three books on my shelf at the moment but they are all listed below.

1. Zoo Station (2007) - I read this in Feb 2015 and it was one of my favourite books of the year.

"I was very pleasantly surprised by this mystery/ thriller. I rarely give 5 - star ratings to mystery/ thrillers, but this was an such an engrossing story. It's my first book by David Downing, the first in his John Russell series. Russell is a British reporter living in Berlin just before WWII as the Nazis are consolidating power in the country and beginning to make waves in the world. He's a bit of a cynic, reporting on small items, making ends meet, living with his girl friend, German actress, Effi and spending time with his German son, Paul on weekends.
While in Danzig gathering information for a news article, he meets a Russian spy who offers to pay him well to write a series of stories on Germany, a comparison between Communism and Socialism (and maybe also provide the Soviets with information useful to them). Russell is also given a job teaching a Jewish family English, a family who are trying to gain exit visas from Germany (as are countless other Jews at that time).
Russell finds himself becoming more and more involved in issues, trying to help the Jewish family, trying to avoid the Gestapo, and so on. It's a very well-written story and the development of Russell's character is carefully and thoughtfully crafted. I liked many of the characters; I think I've got a bit of a crush on Effi. The story builds tension excellently and keeps you deeply engrossed. All in all, I'm glad I discovered this series and look forward to continuing to see how Russell manages to survive in Nazi Germany as war becomes more and more of a given and also to see what other situations he will find himself in. Excellent!!"

2. Silesian Station (2008)
3. Stettin Station (2009)
4. Potsdam Station (2010)
5. Lehrter Station (2012)
6. Masaryk Station (2013)
Downing is now starting a new series set during and after WWI, featuring Jack McColl.

Ian Fleming's James Bond (007) books. I won't get into these here, except to say that Bond is one of the classic British spies. I read many of the books when I was much younger and have, in the past few years, begun to enjoy them again. I've read nine of the books in the series. Next on my list will be On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which was originally published in 1963. I did write a Blog on Bond back in Dec 2010 if you are interested. Just click on Bond and it will take you there.

Alan Furst's Night Soldiers. I was introduced to this series back in 2011 when I saw Spies of the Balkans, the 11th book in this series. Furst is another of the modern spy writers who has centred his stories during WWII. While Night Soldiers is a series, each novel can be read as a standalone as each features a different individual working against the Nazi war machine, risking his or her life to weaken their stronghold on Europe. I've read three so far and enjoyed each of them. Spies of the Balkans has probably been my favourite. I've got 4 more of the series awaiting my attention and this is another possibility for Spy month.

1. Night Soldiers (1988). I read this in Nov 2012 and gave it 3 - stars.

"This is the second of Alan Furst's Night Soldiers series that I've read; the first being Spies of the Balkans, which really grabbed my attention. Night Soldiers is the first book and features Bulgarian Khristo Stoianev, who is recruited by the Russian NKVD in 1933 after the murder of his brother by Bulgarian fascists.
The story moves to Russia, through the Spanish civil war and around Europe as WWII progresses. I enjoy how Furst develops characters and portrays Europe in the pre-war period and during the actual war. His characters wander through momentous times and in their small way, as they deal with the events around them, provide heroic actions.
The feel of the time really comes through, from the desperation to the way people manage to live on. I also enjoy the aspects of the story dealing with spying, the training of the NKVD, the OSS, the actual activities, passing of messages, communication, etc. All around a fascinating book."

2. Dark Star (1991)
3. The Polish Officer (1995). I read this in Nov 2015 and gave it 4 stars.

"This is one of my favourite series, the Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst. Each story features a different person, but the underlying theme is one of heroism in the face of the onrush of Nazi tyranny.
This book, as the title says, is about a Polish officer, a cartographer by profession, who, with the Nazi invasion of Poland, becomes a spy for the Polish intelligence service. His missions take him to Rumania, France and ultimately back home. He finds himself and his friends in dangerous, life-threatening situations as he works amongst the Nazi army, trying to gather information useful to the war effort; helping prevent the invasion of England and other things.
I like how these people are thrust into their roles, generally accepting them without question, and, ultimately, performing such heroic actions. The portrayal of the characters and the tenseness and seeming desperation of the period is so very well drawn. Excellent series so far. I highly recommend."

4. The World at Night (1996)
5. Red Gold (1999)
6. Kingdom of Shadows (2000). This is the next book in the series that I have on my bookshelf.
7. Blood of Victory (2003)
8. Dark Voyage (2004)
9. The Foreign Correspondent (2006)
10. The Spies of Warsaw (2008)
11. Spies of the Balkans (2010). I read this in Nov 2011 and gave it 4 5 - stars.

"I loved this book and couldn't put it down. I bought it by chance because I liked the cover and when I read the synopsis, it sounded like a story I might like. I was right; it was great! A historical spy novel set in Greece in 1940 as Greece and the Balkans prepare for the Nazi invasion.
The main character is Costa Zannis, a police official who by accident almost becomes involved in working an escape route from Berlin to Salonika. He is heroic in a normal way, his friends as well.
The story is so matter of fact but at the same time very exciting. Extremely well-written, it will draw you in, make you wait impatiently to see what happens next. I will definitely be reading more Alan Furst."

12. Mission to Paris (2012)
13. Midnight in Europe (2014)
14. A Hero of France (2016)

Graham Greene has written some of my favourite books and I've begun to read him quite voraciously the past few years. He writes such a variety of books such a wide variety of styles, fiction, thriller, spy, travel, biography. These are a few of the spy novels of his that I have both read or which sit on my shelf awaiting my attention.

1. Stamboul Train (1932). I read this in Mar 2013 and gave it 4 stars.

"Nice to read Graham Greene again. He has a way of unfolding a story. It's basically a series of events on the Orient Express from Ostend to Constantinople, how the lives of various people intertwine; who gets on where and their stories. Loved it."

2. Our Man in Havana (1958). A past favourite of mine. I've read at least twice, most recently Nov 2010 and gave it 4 - stars.
3. The Confidential Agent (1939). This may be the next book of Greene's that I'll read, but I've got many on my bookshelf to check out.
4. The Ministry of Fear (1943)

John le Carré's George Smiley books. Le Carré has long been a favourite writer of mine. I was introduced to his writing when I read the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People. At the time, I also read some of his follow-on books, The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy and others. It's only been recently that I've begun to explore his earlier works, the books that introduced us to George Smiley, the MI6 agent, caught up in the Cold War. Reading these books has rekindled my interest in his writing. Most of these books have been made into movies and TV mini-series. The books below are the Smiley books.

1. Call for the Dead (1961) - I read this in Dec 2011 and gave it 5 - stars.

"This is the first of the Smiley novels. I've read others before, but not the earlier ones and I now regret that. It was excellent; introducing George Smiley, already somewhat cynical, now involved in a case that traces its roots back to his work during WWII. I liked his character very much and also his two compatriots, Mendel and Peter Guillaum. Excellent introduction to the Smiley books.. Great story"

2. A Murder of Quality (1962). This will be my next selection from le Carré.
3. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) - I read this in Apr 2012 and gave it 5 - stars.

"Fantastic story. A classic spy novel, classic Le Carré story. His third novel, it features tired spy, Alec Leamas, the British Secret Services Berlin organiser, who is called home for a special mission. I won't get into too many details as there are so many interesting surprises throughout the story, that I wouldn't want to ruin it.
There is a brief role for le Carre's most famous spy, George Smiley, but the story revolves mostly around Leamas. The spy craft is interesting, the plot twists and turns. The story fascinating and one you will have difficulty putting down. It is an excellent story for those who enjoy spy dramas and it also has a nicely historical feel for the Cold War between the West and East.. Great stuff.."

4. The Looking Glass War (1965)
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
6. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
7. Smiley's People (1979)

I have read many others of le Carré's spy novels, most recently, A Small Town in Germany which was published in 1968. There is also a biography of le Carré that came out in 2015 by Adam Sisman which I will eventually take a look at.

Alistair MacLean was one of my favourite authors when I was in High School. He wrote war stories, spy novels, thrillers, some great, some not so great. But they were always entertaining. Over the past few years, I've been revisiting my teen years by finding, buying and rereading MacLean's books. His books often featured an individual, from some unnamed organization, who finds himself in the middle of a situation, his life threatened, but always coming out on top in the end. Great stuff! These are some of my favourite spy novels of his. It's not an all-inclusive list, but they might be starting points for his work.

1. Puppet on a Chain (1969)
2. The Last Frontier (1959)
3. Night Without End (1959)
4. Circus (1975)
5. Fear is the Key (1961)

John P. Marquand's Mr. Moto books are set during WWII and feature Japanese spy, Mr. Moto, a seemingly non-descript, benign man who manipulates and controls the other characters in getting his aims accomplished. There were six Mr. Moto books and I've read 3 so far.

1. Your Turn Mr. Moto (1935). I read this in Jul 2014 (3 - stars)

"This is the second Mr Moto spy novel I've read and I enjoyed it very much. John Marquand wrote the series in the late '30s, pre-WWII. This story once again features the enigmatic, pragmatic Mr Moto, a Japanese spy trying to find a document that will help the Japanese navy gain an advantage over the US and Russian navies in the Pacific. Also along for the ride is a drunken, US ex-aviator (the centre of the story) and a beautiful Russian spy.
Casey, down on his luck and out of money in Japan, is attracted to an offer by Mr. Moto, to fly a Japanese aircraft to the US. On a ship to Shanghai, he is caught up in intrigue. There is a dead Chinese courier and Casey finds himself at risk by Moto and his men and, in Shanghai, by the Chinese Mafia.
Mr. Moto works for the Japanese, but for what part of the Japanese structure is unclear. He is more than willing to kill (or have killed) to achieve his aims, but is also pragmatic enough not to hold grudges. I enjoyed the story, it was well-paced and interesting enough to catch my attention and to hold it until the very end. A different sort of spy story, worth trying."

2. Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936). I read this in Jan 08 and gave it 3 stars.
3. Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)
4. Mr. Moto is So Sorry (1938). I read this in Jul 14 and gave it 3 stars.

"This is the third Mr. Moto book I've read and I've enjoyed them all. Mr. Moto is a spy for the Japanese but often finds himself in conflict with more conservative elements of the Japanese military. He also manipulates those main characters on whom the story is based. In this he works with Calvin Gates to ensure a cigarette case is delivered to Mongolia. What is the reason for the case? Time will tell. Also along for the ride are an American woman, an artist and an Australian soldier of fortune. Entertaining and mysterious."

5. Last Laugh, Mr. Moto (1942). This is the next Mr. Moto book on my book shelf.
6. Stopover: Tokyo (1957)

Somerset Maugham is a favourite writer of mine, one I finally discovered in the past few years. So far I've enjoyed The Razor's Edge and The Moon and Sixpence. I recently purchased a book, published in 1928 which may fit the spy genre category. It is a collection of short stories loosely based on the author's as a member of British intelligence during WWI.

So there you have it, my incomplete suggestions of Spy novels. I could also mention a couple of others. I read Tom Clancy's Cardinal of the Kremlin which came out in 1986. If you like a book that highlights spy craft; dead letter drops, etc. and is tense and well-crafted, this might be a possibility. I've recently purchased two books by Daniel Silva, The Unlikely Spy and The Mark of the Assassin. I purchased these on recommendations from another Goodread's compatriot. I can't say anything about them yet, but hope to give the author a try before year's end.

As a final note, I've enjoyed a few non-fiction books about spying and these might interest you. Family of Spies by Pete Earley is about the Walker family, a family in the US Navy that spied for the Russians for a number of years. The Irregulars: Roald and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant which was about a group of British spies in the US which passed information to the Americans in an effort to encourage the US to enter the war. Finally, there is Spymistress: The Life of Vera Atkins by William Stevenson, which discusses the life of Vera Atkins who became a key member of the British spy team that fought the Nazis during WWII.

So there you go, I hope that your interest is tweaked in some of these authors and stories and gets you exploring this genre.

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