OK, it’s a period piece Spy Novel. Think Ian Fleming. Sean Connery. In this caper, Paul Christopher works for the CIA and he speeds around the world piecing together the hidden culprits behind JFK’s assassination. Christopher’s hypothesis is Oswald was hired in retaliation for American attacks on prominent Vietnamese families. I’m not much into Kennedy conspiracies — there seem to be an bottomless well of them — but the book rings true mostly because its author was a spook himself in the CIA. The craft of 1960s Cold War spying appears realistic even if from our current vantage point it feels like it is being rendered in black and white with a cheesy saxaphone soundtrack. Vietnam, the Congo, Rome, and Paris are all atmospherically accurate — you can just about taste the Parisian drizzle and can hear the street calls in Saigon — and the characters are about as authentic as any on Mad Men. I’m not sure anyone who was born after 1980 would get this book, but if you can recall the 1960s, Tears of Autumn is a nice trot down memory lane. Tears of Autumn is the second novel in the Paul Christopher series.
On the first page, Ursala Todd has the opportunity to shoot Hitler in 1930 and does so. No wait. A few pages later Ursula is born in 1910, but dies soon thereafter because the umbilical cord is wrapped about her neck. Or maybe she isn’t so dead, but has the opportunity to live another life after life. Each chapter is captivating and linear, characters are fully drawn, relationships are meaningful, and suspense is palpable. The Luftwaffe’s blitz on London covers us poor readers in heaps of broken timbers and a coating of dust so thick it is hard to clear our eyes. Sirens blair. And then we relive the blitz again. And again. Each bombing run is perceived by Ursula slightly differently because she has taken a different path in life. We care about Ursula, her brothers, sisters, parents, and aunt and their rural British home but recognize that her life, like ours, is a series of “What ifs?”
It is the mid 1980s in Mississippi and Seth Hubbard, a cantankerous old buzzard, and self made millionaire hangs himself. Just before setting out for a sycamore tree with a rope and a ladder, he writes a new will cutting his immediate family out of any of his inheritance. Instead, he leaves 5% to his long-lost brother, 5% to his church, and the remaining twenty-odd million dollars to his black housekeeper of only three years, Miss Lettie Lang. Grisham is the master of the legal thriller and he does not disappoint. Lawyers, Hubbard family members, relatives Lettie Lang didn’t know she had all dive at the money like birds of prey. And while the legal maneuverings informed by greed are all fascinating, what really stands apart is how unapologetically this book faces up to issues of race. Rural Mississippi, at least in the 1980s, is defined by an undying antipathy of whites toward blacks and a history of racial discrimination so embedded it borders on toxic. Grisham tells it like it is.
To ferry supplies, munitions, and personnel to the European front in WW II required skipping across allied airfields in Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. The major impediment was the weather in Greenland makes for some of the worst flying conditions in the world: violent winds, spontaneous storms, and viciously cold weather. Frozen in Time is primarily the story of a transport plane that went down in one of those storms. A rescue plane with nine crewmen is sent out to search, but it too crashes in bad weather, destroying the plane and damaging, but not killing any of its crew. Over the course of days, then weeks, then months additional rescue attempts are launched, and a third plane disappears, yet the crew from the second plane, battling frostbite, gangrene, broken bones, and depleted spirits survives for months buried in a hand-hacked ice cave on the edge of a yawning crevasse. Zuckoff does a brilliant job of keeping us on the edge of our seats. He is a little less successful in holding the tension of his secondary story: the contemporary search for the plane and men in the third plane, now buried somewhere beneath three dozen feet of ice.
Joe, the story’s thirteen-year-old narrator, is a Native American living on a reservation in North Dakota. His mother has just been raped, not unusual as one in three Native women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. His mother is broken, dead in her soul, and yet not alive either. His father, a judge and legal scholar maintains his grace, but barely, and Joe? Well, Joe is thirteen, now part motherless child and simultaneously on the edge of manhood. He is driven by competing desires to bring justice for his mother, to sneak out on his bicycle with his buddies to smoke cigarettes and drink beer, and longing for just one chance to see a woman’s breasts. As Joe matures, sort of, the mystery of the rapist’s identity is slowly revealed only to be confounded by a crime which occurred in a kind of legal no-man’s land. The suspect is immune in tribal courts, but it isn’t clear that either Federal or state laws apply either. Neither the crime, nor the subsequent legal confabulations form the backbone of this story. Rather, it is Erdrich’s compelling storytelling and richly drawn characters who defy stereotype while remaining true to their native heritage. Winner of the National Book Award 2013.
The ninth book in the Detective Armand Gamache series is a completely lovable installment. Gamache must locate a missing person with a false identity at the same time he has to survive the destruction of his stable of best assistants. Little by little Gamache’s superiors have transferred all the best detectives out of his unit and placed them in lackey jobs in the Montreal police department. More terrifying, still, is that Gamache’s right hand man and close confidante, Beauvoir has not only been taken away, but Beauvoir is addicted to painkillers and his mental health is deteriorating rapidly. A phone call arrives from one of Gamache’s friends in the tiny, off-the-grid community of Three Pines. An old woman who had planned to come for the Christmas holiday has failed to arrive. The combined mysteries of the missing person and the motive for who might be attempting to disable Gamache’s capacities to investigate are carefully and exquisitely plotted. Warm tea, comic relief, and old friends bustle about Three Pines and welcome you to get cozy while you, the reader, work with the Chief Inspector to solve his latest cases.
Sheldon Horowitz is 82-years-old with a prostate, he lets us know right away, the size of a watermelon. After his wife’s recent death he is schlepped to Oslo, Norway to be cared for by his granddaughter and her inscrutable Norwegian husband. All Norwegians, he says, are like boy scouts. They all seem so good and upstanding and emotionless. Horowitz may or may not be senile, but he has some repenting to do for not having been old enough to fight the god damn Nazis during World War II. He gets the chance to make amends when an upstairs neighbor in need of shelter from her abusive boyfriend is absorbed, with her son, into Sheldon’s apartment. Only the vicious neighbor busts down the door, murders the girlfriend while Sheldon and the boy hide, and Sheldon relying on skills he may or may not have learned as a soldier in the Korean War takes flight with the woman’s young son. Norwegian by Night combines the suspense of a thriller with some serious pondering about the meaning and value of memory. A very fun read.
Why are so many contemporary detectives so depressed? Here’s another: Detective Avraham Avraham, a lonely, single, self-doubting Israeli detective slogging into a job that utterly consumes him. His first case, or at least the first in the series, revolves around a missing teenager, Ofer. Ofer is sixteen, introverted, sharing his bedroom with his younger brother, and spending way too much time on his computer. Ofer has a creepy neighbor downstairs, tense inattentive parents, and apparently no real friends. After Ofer heads to school on Wednesday morning and doesn’t return, Avraham Avraham has to find him. Someone once said you read mysteries only in part to figure out whodunnit. The other part is to learn about foreign places and times. The Missing File, translated from Hebrew, does reflect contemporary Israel, but only subtly. This mystery could have taken place anywhere. It’s an easy read, so credit goes also to the translator as well as the author, but also a little scary, probably because of the emphasis on foreshadowing that heightens the feeling of anxiety.
An Mi-6 spook, Thomas Kell, on involuntary leave for perhaps roughing up an Afghan captive in Kabul is called back into service when the incoming Division head of Mi-6 goes missing. Kell has all the latest hi-tech tools of his trade at his disposal, but in this suitably suspenseful caper, he mostly relies on his wits and experience to track down his old boss and the bad guys who are after her. He travels to Tunisia, returns to Marseille by ferry across the Mediterranean, and gets caught up with double agents, rogue agents, and territorial battles between spy agencies that bring us very much up-to-date now that the Cold War is over. Suddenly it is the Arab Spring that has the attention of intelligence agencies from all the Western countries. The action clips along while spies with crumbling or just plain boring personal lives and strong professional ambitions remain reasonably credible throughout. It is difficult to recount much of the plot without inserting spoilers, but as these types of books go, A Foreign Country is a winning diversion.
A computer hacker living in an unnamed Arab country with enough liberties to allow full internet access crosses the secret police who are monitoring his activities. So far so good. As he runs for his life his narrative intersects with mystical stories from the Quran and A Thousand and One Nights and we are somehow supposed to draw cosmic conclusions about the intersection between the Internet and the ancient mysteries of Jinns (ghosts), prophets, desert humans with animal tendencies and the oppression of autocratic regimes. All too much when the characters aren’t particularly deep, the dialog is amateurish, and even the description of how hackers works sound like the author doesn’t really understand it herself.