Saturday, December 31, 2016

John Lawton, Then We Take Berlin

John Lawton, Then We Take Berlin
Atlantic Monthly Press © 2013
Available both in print and as an ebook.

We meet John Holdernesse as a late-30s free-lance adventurer, hired to help bring the aunt of an American ad agency executive out of East Berlin, in 1963.  During, as it happens, JFK’s visit to Berlin.  But we are almost immediately taken back to his childhood, during World War II, when he is taken in by his grandfather (who is a thief).  The war ends, and then he is drafted; his aptitude for languages gets him pulled into a British espionage group.  Most of the book, as it happens, deals with that part of his life.

We also meet Nell Burkhardt, a 16-year-old German orphan living with her great-uncle as Germany is collapsing.  She makes her way toward Berlin, and, in what was for me the most moving part of the book, winds up working for the British liberators of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Not surprisingly, Holdernesse (who by now, and for some reason that is never really made clear, is now known as Wilderness) and Burkhardt meet in Berlin.  As a sideline, Joe and some others become actively involved in black market activities, mostly selling to the Russians (using a forgotten tunnel from the British zone to the Soviet zone).  Joe and Nell lose each other along the way.  The post-war Berlin segment is by far the greater part of the book.

But we circle back to the beginning, and the planned escape, and Kennedy’s visit.

Lawton (who has also written a 7-book series featuring a Scotland Yard detective, Frederick Troy) has clearly done his research on the times and places, and he has given us several memorable characters, and a memorable story.  (And, yes, the title has been borrowed from the Leonard Cohen song, "First We Take Manhattan.") There’s a second book recently published, The Unfortunate Englishman, which I’m looking forward to reading soon. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Edward Wilson, The Envoy

Edward Wilson, The Envoy
Arcadia Books (September 1, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-1906413125

Kit Fournier is the CIA bureau chief in London, with diplomatic cover, in 1956, just as things are heating up in Hungary and in Egypt.  And England is possibly inching toward some lessening of tensions with the USSR and, by the way, wants its own nukes.  Which the US is determined to prevent.  Fournier, who is apparently in his late 20s, maybe early 30s, is a rising star in the CIA; his London assignment is a plum for someone his age.

The story is fairly convoluted, and the major issues don’t emerge all that quickly or clearly.  And Fournier, for all that he’s a hot shot, seems consistently to do things that (should) get in the way of his doing his job.  Now, keep in mind that what I know about the life of a field intelligence agent is derived from what I have read—mostly from spy novels—so take my comments here for what they are worth.  But take just a couple of things.  Fournier meets (clandestinely) regularly—often—with his KGB counterpart, and the process is always the same.  One of them leaves a marker in the same place in a London park, always in the same way (pretending to re-tie a shoelace, while driving a “spike” with a message into the ground and leaving a chalk mark in a visible location.  And they always meet at the same place.  If either of them is under surveillance, how long do you think this will actually work?

And Fournier is sexually obsessed with his cousin (Jennifer) who just happened to be married to one of Britain’s leading physicists working on their fusion bomb project.  And no one seems to have noticed (well, until the very end).  (There are other behavioral issues as well—Fournier is clearly a bit off-center in a number of ways.)

A number of real historical personages (from the Dulles brothers to Eisenhower to Churchill and  Anthony Eden to JFK) make appearances or are referred to; virtually all these references are disparaging, which may be how the CIA viewed them all, but still seems odd.

And, at the end, we have a fairly extended coda telling us what happened after the story being told in the book has wrapped up.  Maybe we needed that, maybe not.

Wilson actually writes well, and continuing to read the book is not a hard thing to do.  But the story seemed not as well thought out, and the character motivations not as well considered or allowed to emerge from the events as we see them (for example, we learn a lot about some of the characters after things are pretty well wrapped up).  I’ll be giving the following books in this series a shot, but I can’t say, at this point, that I have high expectations.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Three poems (Frost, Thomas, and Yeats) and a Fourth I Cannot Recall

Over on Facebook, people keep posting a link to Robert Frost reading one of his more famous poems, "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1923), which I think I can get away with reproducing here:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.   
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.   
    The only other sound’s the sweep   
    Of easy wind and downy flake.   
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I remember when I was doing poetry reading in high school speech meets that I considered doing this as part of my repertoire (along with "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (1937),  "Easter 1916" (1916), and something else that I forget).  What, you ask, was the unifying theme of these poems?
Well, from the first time I read Frost's poem, I thought it was being spoken by a man considering suicide--the darkest evening, the dark and deep woods, the isolation, the silence (except for the harness bells).  Dylan Thomas's poem, written (famously) on the death of his father, is a cry of anguish against death:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And Yeats's poem is also, famously, about the deaths of men struggling, in the best way they knew (and if immediately unsuccessful, eventually their cause triumphed) for freedom.  Terrible, yes...I'm somewhat less sure about the beauty.
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wing├Ęd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?   
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born
Four poems (I forget the other one) about death--a potential suicide, a death from old age, deaths as a by-product of a failed revolution...
Anyway, that's how it seemed to me.  And today, hearing Frost read his own words, reading those words again, I wondered...why did that man, stopping in the woods, momentarily want to die?  Was it the harness bells that dissuaded him?  And did he, after those miles in front of him, actually sleep?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Timothy Hallinan, The Fields Where They Lay

Timothy Hallinan, The Fields Where They Lay
Soho Crime © 2016
eISBN 978-1-61695-747-6

Junior Bender, professional thief, is dragooned into trying to discover why shoplifting has spiked at a failing LA shopping mall.  The mall, as it happens, is owned by a group of Russian bad guys.  [Junior has to deal, mostly, with one of them who has re-styled himself Tip Poindexter, to whom he refers (to himself and to us) as Vlad.]  Most of the stores are near-failing (and their owners are pretty cognizant of it,, as Junior discovers when he tries to slip out of one of the stores with a bit of merchandise).  It also has two Santas--Dwayne, the drunk Santa and Shlomo, the good, but Jewish Santa.  And of course, we have not only shoplifting, but a murder--or a shop-owner, Bonnie, at whose store Junior got caught trying to shoplift.  And Shlomo, as it turns out, has a tale to tell, about his father and World War II.  It might seem that this tale, told in three parts, is extraneous, but it actually quite integral to the story, if not the mystery.  Junior also has to deal with his issues with Christmas, with the woman he loves, and with his 14-year-old daughter.  At one point, I was uncertain about the book--we get treated to a multi-page (accurate, but unnecessary) disquisition on the rise and decline of the shopping mall, which brings the narrative to a crashing halt.  But we recover, Junior unravels the shoplifting, solves the murder, and makes peace with himself.  And the last half of the book (or more) is extraordinary, and somewhat heart-rending.  Perhaps the best Christmas-themed mystery I have ever read.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The best mysteries I read this year

Every year, the subscribers to DorothyL--a listserv for readers of mysteries--submit their "best" mystery books read during the year.  So here are mine, in the format we're supposed to submit in (Author, title, date of publication; they obviously need not all have pen published in 2016).  I was a bit surprised that 9 of my 15 were published in 2015 or 2016.  I've added a comment to some of the books.

Satterthwait, Walter, New York Nocturne: The Return of Miss Lizzie, 2016
 The best piece of fiction I read this year.  Satterthwait does a brilliant job of creating a teenage, female, narrator.  And Miss Lizzie is just a wonderful character,

 Billheimer, John, Highway Robbery, 2000
Set in West Virginia, one of a series of 5books.  The settings are beautifully realized and the mysteries are very well done.

McAlpine, Gordon, Woman With a Blue Pencil, 2015
This is a strange book, consisting of a novel being written piecemeal and the editor's comment back to the author.  Set in World War II, in LA, just as people of Japanese descent were  being rounded up.  Eerie and compelling,

 Benn, James, The First Wave, 2007
Fourth or fifth in a series about a young Boston police detective (who made detective largely because of his father's and uncle's influence.  He winds up as a special investigator for Eisenhower.  The war parts and well done, and the characters are vivid and (among the good guys) people I at any rate want to read more about.

 Harris, Robert, Enigma, 1995
About the code-breakers.  An academic recovering from an illness winds up at Bletchly, working on decoding intercede messages.  But something else is going on...This was almost ad good as Harris's recent An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair.

 Pearce, Michael, Our Man in Naples, 2009
Our man is a British Special Branch inspector who keeps getting sent out to various Mediterranean cities to investigate crimes involving Brits.  The setting are well-researched and the mysteries, if slight, are well-resolved.

Cartmel, Andrew, Written in Dead Wax: A Vinyl Detective Mystery, 2016
A collector of old records becomes involved in the deaths of other collectors and a history that goes back to an obscure LA record label that lasted for less than a year in the 1950s.  Strange, but very good.

 Havill, Steven, Blood Sweep, 2015
Another series--over 20 books now--set in fictional Posada County (New Mexico).  The two main characters are Bill Gastner (now retired, in his early 70s) and Estelle Reyes-Guzman (the Under Sheriff--think chief deputy).  Havill does a great job with the local and in this case with eyes-Guzman's child musical prodigy.  The whole series is at its worst very good.

 Crais, Robert, The Promise, 2015
Another series character book (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike).  Cole is  hired by a teenage girl to find her mother (and to figure out what her father is up to).  Things (of course) blow up, and the body count is large.  (These are generally quite violent books, which is generally something I don't care fore, but Crais pulls it off.)

 Collins, Max Allan, Better Dead, 2015
Collins' PI, Nathan Heller, is hired by Joe McCarthy to find out what the FBI has on him.  Roy Cohn and Bobby Kennedy make appearances, and Heller manages to maneuver gracefully through the muck,

 Hallinan, Timothy, King Maybe, 2016
Junior Bender is hired to rip off a hit man, and thing go pear-shaped.  Junior's new girl friend (whose name I am blanking on) deserves a book of her own.

 Benn James, Blood Alone, 2008
See above.

 Crider, Bill, Survivors Will Be Shot Again, 2016
Sheriff Dan Rhodes (in book 23 in the series) has to deal with feral hogs, alligators, petty theft, and murder.  One of the highlights in a fine series.

 Brewer, Steve, Bank Job, 2005
A retired bank robber in his seventies (who has violated his parole, not that anyone much cares) is coerced by three young would-be crooks into pulling a bank robbery.  Nothing goes as you would expect.  Parts of the book are very funny, parts are fairly scary.  Brewer does this sort of thing as well as anyone.

 Thomas, Will, Hell Bay, 2016
The 8th book in the series about Cyrus Barker, a London PI in the 1880s, narrated by his Welsh assistant Thomas Llewelyn.  Barker is hired to provide security at a secret meeting between the French ambassador and a high Foreign office official being held on a small island off the west coast of England.  Things go very badly and people start dying.  Who is killing them, and why?  (Not an original hook, but Thomas handles it adroitly.)  The period details seem correct.  Again, the entire series is strong.