A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carre

This 2017 work has a wonderful opening, offering just the perspective, just the framework, that has always fascinated me. A retired spy, Peter Guillam, living in France, is summoned to London. Because certain lawyers are challenging a decision he and his superiors made a generation ago during the Cold War, a decision that resulted in the death at the Berlin Wall of one of their operatives, Alec Leamas, plus an innocent girl, Elizabeth Gold. The lawyers are acting for the two children of those victims.

What I loved so much is this perspective of a mature narrator reviewing a more innocent past, and seeing that past in a new light. Often a more ironic and more introspective light. And in doing so here, le Carre is also revisiting the climax of his first successful espionage novel, A Spy Came in from the Cold. This involved the British penetration of the Soviet and East German spy apparatus, a splendid accomplishment for those times. And that early novel is a highlight of the author’s career, just as the espionage story was the same for Guillam’s career.

But now Guillam also sees the challenge to this past escapade as a challenge to the legitimacy of his entire career. Whereas the new generation sees only the dark side of that operation, and these children of the two victims are seeking justice for the death of their respective parents.

Such questioning is a frequent theme in the author’s other espionage novels. Indeed, his hero Guillam, expresses his own reservations near the end of this tale: “How much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free?” As a former spy himself, a member of the British Secret Service that is called here the Circus, le Carre has long felt that bringing forward the dark side of espionage is a legitimate way to portray his former profession.

The problem for me is that much of the novel involves flashbacks to memorable events of the Cold War. For Guillam seeks to recall those past events in order to justify them to himself before he faces any tribunal. But the problem is that many of the details of the operation are introduced through official reports of the World War II era, a technique that may help Guillam recall the past but which have no perspective, and which, each time, slows the dramatic flow of the those events.

The result is that we have lost the perspective of the present evaluating the distant past. Instead, the past is evaluating the past. And as Guillam attempts to remember the details of his past effort that is now being challenged, there is a further complication. Because the operation and its aftereffects were quite complicated, and are not easy to follow

This is Le Carre’s 24th novel, most of them espionage novels. And he is 85 years old. One senses that this may be his last such novel, and that he may have used his first spy novel as a crutch to recreate once again the world that he was so much a part of.

One wonders, indeed, if he may also be poking us in the rib, as if to say: here’s another look at that early novel that you were not aware of. But one must also say that this latest work has the intellectual and moral depth that one expects from a le Carre novel. What it lacks is the dramatic tension as the discovery of the operation’s deaths become known. There is one surprise death, but, being in the past, it does not have a major impact. And surely more of the self-doubt and guilt that Guillam now feels in the present should have also existed at the time of the operation. Instead, there may have been sorrow back then at the operation’s failure, but there is no suggested second-guessing of their actions by these gung-ho operatives.

This work offers a behind-the-scenes look at the author’s first successful novel. It thus deepens the moral evaluation of that novel by raising new doubts about the legitimacy of our heroes’ actions. What it also reflects is an elderly author revisiting his past, and finding new depths to explore. As Robert McCrum says in the Guardian: “’Le Carre’s new novel displays a grand old man of English letters conducting a masterclass in the genre he has made his own.”

If this is the last of le Carre’s espionage novels, it is a good way to go out. Even if it lacks intense drama, it probes the impact of a major event that has rested, quietly, within one man’s conscience. That is the legacy that this spymaster now acknowledges. (August, 2019)

The Unlikely Spy, by Daniel Silva

Written in 1996, this is Silva’s first novel, which I did not realize when I bought it. But one can see from the early pages set before and during World War II, why he has established himself since with a series of popular espionage novels.

This work is built around the preparations for the invasion of France on D-day. The Allies need to conceal from the Germans that they plan to land on the beaches of Normandy, rather than at Calais, just across the narrowest part of the English Channel. But to move troops and armaments ashore, the Allies need a harbor complex, of which there is none at Normandy. So, to create one, they build huge concrete structures to tow across the channel, but they need to hide this strategy from the Germans, since it will betray that their actual landing site is Normandy.

This novel, presumably fiction, suggests how they tried to deceive the Germans with Operation Mulberry. It required a complex plan, and Silva creates many interesting characters to execute the plan, as well as the German characters whom the Allies are working to deceive. This means that Hitler, Himmler, Canaris, and other Germans appear regularly in this novel, along with Churchill and Eisenhower in smaller parts.

The main adversaries are Alfred Vicary for the Allies and Kurt Vogel for the Germans. Vicary does not create but he does implement the plan to make the Germans think that the huge floating harbors being built are actually anti-aircraft batteries. Meanwhile Vogel is running two sleeper spies in England who are actually half English, and whom the Allies know nothing about. He assigns them to find out the real site of the Allied landings and the purpose of those huge concrete structures. If they learn the truth, of course, the entire invasion and the future of the Allied war effort will be at risk.

To further the suspense, Silva continually switches back and forth between the sleeper spies and what Vicary and his MI5 colleagues are doing to discover them. One of his achievements here is to make the German spies, Horst Neumann and Catherine Burke, not her real name, very human. Indeed, the reader identifies with them as they develop sincere relationships with other Englishmen. One is even drawn toward rooting for them, although they are both, especially the woman, brutal killers. Meanwhile Vicary, their adversary, is also quite human, with his doubts about himself, about his boss, and about what he is being asked to do.

And the intrigue doesn’t stop with Vicary vs. Vogel. Vicary’s boss, Basil Boothby, also acts very suspiciously, frustrating Vicary at times. And the reader wonders at his true motives. For we learn from the Germans that they also have a secret spy within MI5 who is passing information to them. Meanwhile, over in Germany, Himmler is plotting to take over the Abwehr, which under Canaris is running German espionage operations in England. Because he suspects, as is true, that Canaris is foiling the German spying efforts because he despises Hitler and his methods.

The plot begins when the Allies hire an American engineer, Peter Jordan, to see to the construction of the huge floating harbors. Vogel learns about Peter, and assigns Catherine Burke to seduce him and to discover more about those huge constructions. Which she does. Indeed, the two also fall in love, prompting Catherine to wonder if she is the cold-blooded person she assumes she is. Which earns the reader’s additional sympathy. Momentarily.

But it illustrates Richard Bernstein’s comment in The New York Times that Silva “has a knack for allowing the unforeseen, the accidental, the all-too-human to intrude, pushing the plot in an unexpected direction.”

While this is a highly suspenseful novel, the strategic duel between Vicary and Vogel is less suspenseful than it might have been. That is, while each side reacts to the other’s actions, the reader never feels that the Germans are one step ahead of the Allies, and thus likely to succeed. Indeed, one knows from history that they did not. But from a strictly fictional standpoint, if the Germans could have been more clever—anticipating Vacary’s moves, for example—the suspense could have been even more intense than it is.

And the final moments of the novel are truly gripping, as the two German spies are convinced the information they are sending back home, that the Brits are building anti-aircraft batteries, is false; and so they flee across Britain toward a German submarine hovering just off the coast. It will take them back to Germany, where they will expose the Allies’ deception. Which, in turn, will help the Germans realize the true invasion site: Normandy.

At the same time, their desperate flight prompts their own brutality, which the reader realizes but has been reluctant to accept. For they kill many anonymous and innocent people—as they also have, particularly Catherine, earlier in the novel. It is perhaps Silva’s way of stressing the desperation of spying. But one might note that at the end, one of his characters remarks about how many Allied lives were saved in the invasion because of some innocent lives that were lost earlier in defense of the invasion’s security.

What is unclear is how much of this tale is fictional. My suspicion is that Silva has created fictional characters and fictional events at the heart of his story, but has based them on the fact that the Germans did seek to learn where the Allied invasion would land and that the Allies did plot to deceive them regarding the true landing site. And the events he proposes here do work as one logical possibility.

But Silva also raises an intriguing interpretation at the end. That Vicary—and the reader—were not told how elaborate was the fiction being created for the Germans, such as Peter Jordan’s involvement. That his presence as the engineer working on the harbor project was no coincidence. Nor was his seduction by Catherine. And that Vacary was not informed of this because his chiefs wanted his reactions to events “to feel real to the other side.” Which leaves the reader with the realization the deception is at the heart not only of all spycraft. But also of such novels.

This novel certainly makes one interested in more of Silva’s works. However, the knowledge that most of his additional works of espionage feature one of two main characters prompts one to wonder if they may not be more formulaic than this intriguing and promising first novel. (April, 2019)

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

McEwan certainly had fun writing this 2012 novel. It recalls the finale of a Christie tour de force, which I did anticipate here, but only just before the ending. Perhaps because it was the kind of ending another writer might anticipate.

This is the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) an innocent young graduate who has an affair with a married college tutor named Tony Canning, a suitor who jilts her but recommends her for a job with the domestic counterintelligence unit, MI5. The main portion of the novel is about that job, in which she is assigned to work with a writer friendly to the Western allies, Tom Haley, a writer that MI5 agrees to support financially without his knowledge in the hope that this writer will create works sympathetic to the English cause. The project is given the name of Sweet Tooth, presumably because such money is so tantalizing, but it also reflects for me the artificiality and lack of substance behind this novel.

The novel’s momentum begins on the very first page when Serena confesses that, “Almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The secret mission to support the writer takes place in the early 1970s, when English politics was in turmoil, there was unrest in Ireland and a Suez crisis, and the Arabs threatened the economy by raising the cost of oil. But while this political environment adds texture to the novel, it has no impact on Serena’s mission.

We read, however, to learn how that mission by Serena turned into a love affair. And it is a measure of McEwan’s craft that he makes her reaction to Tom believable. For Serena is never sure of her future, or of her professionalism, when she is drawn emotionally to this client, and never sure of him if she should tell him her role in providing money. In fact, she is ordered not to tell him. Not until the very end, however, do we realize how significant is that forty-year gap between the events being described and the publication of what we are reading.

The complications of Serena falling in love with the innocent Tom, and being ordered not to tell him why she has entered his life, introduces the main theme of this novel. This is the complexity that results from deceit and hypocrisy—especially when the deceit and hypocrisy has an honorable purpose. Indeed, such honorable purposes go back to Canning’s initial betrayal, as well as to Serena’s potential betrayal of Tom and his eventual betrayal of her. And, of course, to McEwan’s betrayal, in a sense, of the reader.

As I was reading this novel, it seemed to be a lightweight entry in the McEwan canon. It simply offered the complexity of a love affair against an espionage background. Would she or wouldn’t she, reveal to him her true role in MI5? And would he or wouldn’t he, accept her love as real? I was also bothered by the extensive descriptions of Tom’s shorter fiction. What was the purpose of this? For the examples were not that interesting. But I had underestimated McEwan. The answer would come in his surprise ending.

This work truly captures the infighting that takes place within governmental departments, in this case among counterintelligence people whose job is to create artificial worlds in order to deceive others. And who encourage betrayal in order to achieve their own ends. The virtues of truth vs. the benefits of deceit. But it also exposes such hypocrisy, and it presents people on both sides of the issue. It is reminiscent of LeCarre’s portrait of the espionage business.

While Kakutani’s review in the Times is more negative than mine is, she does have a point when she writes: “McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing.” In other words, that life is a creation just as is art, a creation by ourselves of our own life; and that there is also deception in both writing and spying, in the creation of worlds that are not factually real.

My reaction is that making this point through a love affair is not giving the crux of Serena’s dilemma enough substance. Destroying one’s own love affair is no match for destroying the lives of other human beings. As an aside, I would also note that Kakutani has tended recently to summarize a book’s content rather than truly analyze it—simply conveying her evaluation in a few telling phrases, such as using “a clever but annoying novel” and “self-conscious contrivance,” to describe this work.

Serena’s character certainly reflects this novel’s approach to artificial reality. She reads a lot of fiction, which is an artificial world. She also says she reacts to characters rather than to themes or descriptions. And this novel’s style also reflects that. A political atmosphere, yes, it does have. But this work is primarily based on the nuances of character, such as in her emotional reactions to the men she meets, to Canning, to her bosses in MI5, and, eventually, to Tom, the man she loves.

On another level of her character, she prefers Jacqueline Susann to Jane Austin, which challenges the reader’s perception of her as a reliable judge of fiction, especially Tom’s fiction, which, as I said, McEwan later explains. But this serves primarily to cap off the metafictional aspect of this novel. For critics have noted that Tom’s fiction often mirrors the early fiction of McEwan himself. Which might be taken as self-criticism, but also, perhaps, of laziness by McEwan.

While disappointing overall, this novel does not turn me off McEwan’s future fiction. I simply would hope that he selects a more significant theme and probes more deeply into it. He can still deal with fiction and reality, but on the level of Atonement, not of Sweet Tooth. I am also not a fan of metafiction, unless it serves to convey an interpretation of mankind, rather then, as here, an O’Henry surprise. (February, 2016)

The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

One can see why this 1943 work is often considered both an “entertainment” and a novel. Because it is both. The entertainment is the story, the intrigue about a gang of spies and a secret microfilm they are trying to sneak out of the country. The novel element exists in the way the story is told, in the mood of wartime London during the blitz and in the probing depth of the various characters, especially that of Arthur Rowe, the main character.

When we meet Rowe he has just been released after the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife. He is filled with guilt for what he has done, and the reason he has killed her, he believes, is his sense of pity. This may well be Greene’s first use of that sense, which will culminate with Scobie. Indeed, it is so prominent that Greene’s initial title for this work was, The Worst Passion of All. In the novel, note, these words are followed by, “we don’t outlive it like sex.” But Rowe’s guilt also grows out of a pity for himself, that perhaps it was not his wife’s suffering that bothered him but a doubt of his own ability to witness that suffering.

This is a rich novel whenever we share Rowe’s emotions or his intellect. Indeed, he is a mix of guilt, love, redemption, and memory loss. He has lost his memory when a bomb explodes nearby, and he spends much of the novel not sure he wants to regain it. For he is happy, and he does not want to lose that happiness. Nor do the villains, for they do not want him to remember the cake he has won in a lottery, a cake which contained that microfilm they want to get out of the country.

The mechanics of the plot require Rowe to move about abruptly from setting to setting. Thus, he moves from the charity bazaar to his bombed home; from a séance to a hotel room to a sanitarium after he has lost his memory, being held there by the spies; and finally from tagging along with Inspector Prentice as he pursues the spies to a climax in which Rowe pursues them on his own. Each scene is completely believable, but the transition in each case is somewhat arbitrary. This is especially so when Rowe is trapped in a hotel room and opens a mysterious suitcase, whereupon an ellipses ends the scene. The next scene has Rowe being treated in the spies’ sanitarium for his loss of memory. One critic declares that a bomb has been dropped on the hotel. But is that one bomb too many? For an earlier bomb has dropped on Rowe’s home, enabling him to escape the spies a first time.

There is also a love story, and a not entirely convincing one. For the woman Rowe meets, Anna, the sister of Willi Hilfe, the spies’ ringleader, is not complex enough. In fact, as I recall, Greene was often criticized for the weakness of his female characters. Is she so elusive in this case because Greene, to create suspense, does not wish to reveal which side she is on and how much she can be trusted? In any event, she starts helping Rowe so quickly that her allegiance to him rather than to her brother is not convincing. Nor is the vestige of loyalty that she still has for her brother near the end—introducing a false complexity with no repercussions. But a fine Greene touch at the end offers that the two lovers, Rowe and Anna, will have to lie to each other until the end of their lives (about how much Rowe has regained his lost memory and how much he knows about her brother’s fate).

The Ministry of Fear, one character speculates, is a government agency that rules people through fear, much as Rowe in the sanitarium is being ruled by a fear that his recovered memory will end his current happiness. The psychology of his captors, however, is not entirely convincing, as they try to persuade converts that one’s loyalty is owed to individuals and mankind rather than to a particular society or country.

Arthur Rowe, the main character, is a complex man worthy of Greene. As William Du Bois wrote in 1943 in the Times: “Few writers can distill drama from a twisted soul with more skill than Mr. Greene; few experts in the field would dare to combine all the elements you will find in The Ministry of Fear. The novel begins as a case-history in psychiatry, and ends as a spy hunt…Arthur Rowe is Mr. Greene’s illustration of the schizophrenia that is corroding the world today. Probably no one else would have chosen Rowe as a protagonist. When he ghosts into the novel, he is dank with malaise….And yet, when the story ends, he has developed a strange courage.”

I have not read this novel in nearly 60 years. My first review ended: “In other words, this book can stand a rereading.” And now that I have, I find my reaction to be remarkably similar. That the melodrama, such as the opening auction mix-up and the séance murder, is overshadowed by the literate writing. And I also agree that “the espionage plotting seems worked out by Green to control his hero’s life as much as by the spies themselves.”

Regarding pity, I said: “This novel reaches its peak only when Rowe has forgotten his pity. Why? Perhaps pity is too deep and too real an emotion to supplement a fully external plot, especially when pity seems to be used to give Rowe the character he has and the lonely circumstances he lives in. The pity is turned chiefly on his past, moreover, not onto the events taking place.”

However, I do not agree that the pity applies only to the past. Rowe seems to have some pity for Anna, for this Austrian woman, this refugee who identifies more with English justice than what she has left at home. And he also has pity for Stone, his fellow victim at the sanitarium, as well as for some of the staff. His action at the end even reflects pity for Willi Hilfe.

To sum up, this is a beautifully written melodrama of espionage. Its author introduces various twists, but what follows each twist works. And the novel itself works because Arthur Rowe is complex and believable. He faces dire situations with uncertainty and fortitude, and outmaneuvers shallowly drawn villains. And Greene is always there to probe the novel’s heart, with such lines as: “If one loved one feared.” That one could lose love. And: “Perhaps after all one could atone even to the dead if one suffered for the living enough.” That there is redemption after a mercy killing, but one must earn it. No, Greene never ignores one’s conscience, one’s soul. (June, 2015)

Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd

Boyd wanted this book from 2012 to be a thriller, and in this he succeeds. However, thrillers require misdirection and coincidence, which are extensive here. And they are not a mark of literature. The result is a highly readable work but not as serious a work of fiction as are Boyd’s other works.

The story begins in Vienna, moves to London, then briefly to the World War I battlefront in France and to Geneva, and then finally returns to London. The hero is Lysander Rief, an actor, who travels to Vienna before the war to resolve a personal, psychological—well, sexual—problem. There, he encounters several characters who, during the war, will involve him in the search for a traitor who is revealing military secrets to the Germans. He is obliged to work with these British officials because earlier they had helped him escape from Viennese authorities after he had been falsely accused of rape.

The Vienna scenes are the most effective in the book, because we are not involved yet in an espionage work, but rather with the characters. The author is merely setting the foundation of what is to come. The battlefront scene is also effective, but brief. The remainder of the book, set around London, sacrifices a valid atmosphere for the sake of the espionage thriller, as Rief’s search and the reader’s suspicions shift from one character to another.

Boyd uses two methods to tell his tale. One is a straight third-person narrative. The other is a first person narrative in a journal Rief is keeping. It works within the book, because his Vienna psychiatrist has suggested it; but it is not clear to me why the author resorts to this different viewpoint. I can see it only as symbolic of the contrasting facets of the espionage world. That is, Rief is not sure of where truth, or where reality, lies in his mind as well as in this unique world of espionage.

At the end, Boyd chooses not to explain matters clearly, perhaps also consistent with the espionage world. He suggests but does not spell out the role of Rief’s mother, nor the role of the three military men who oversee his search for the traitor. We know in general what has happened, who the traitor is, but the details are not clear. Did the traitor mail the letters to himself about military details, and then code the content—just to suggest someone else was working over him? Why were his superiors so accepting of Rief’s initial misleading identity of the traitor? And why did they accept Rief’s final revelation, when his conclusion was more theory than proof?

Boyd apparently sought to give depth to his hero, by first giving him a sexual problem, and then by describing his interesting encounters with three women. One. Hettie. falsely accuses him of rape, and another, Florence, shoots him (in the most unbelievable surprise moment), while fellow actress Blanche beaks their engagement and then reconsiders. It is Hettie who is the most complex character, but that complexity seems somewhat forced. She becomes less real as her emotions change and she keeps contradicting herself.

The title comes from the climactic scene, in which Rief waits at dawn to encounter the actual traitor. Even there, however, Boyd deliberately confuses the reader, when Rief seem to be distracted by the first man he encounters. And like in many an espionage tale, Boyd has Rief turn a significant character, Rief’s uncle, into a surprise accomplice to help save him.

   To sum up, this is a fast-paced work that does not pretend to be literature. And so, it is a disappointment in terms of the author’s past work. But as a thriller, it earns high marks. Even if it is also overly complex. That is, while we are in suspense because we do not see where the action is headed, some of this suspense is achieved through deception, and through coincidence. Too much coincidence, in fact.

In addition, because the reader does not understand the perspectives, the motives, of the various characters around Rief—are they friends or enemies of England?—the characters themselves lack depth. Yes, it builds suspense, but it is a handicap in every thriller, and here we are uncertain about nearly all the major characters. About Rief’s mother, about Hattie, about the friendly woman spy who shoots him, and about the three military officers who are overseeing his search for the traitor. Only his uncle and his psychiatrist seem to be what they purport to be.

Perhaps the main handicap in terms of being literature is that Rief is continually trying to figure out where the other characters stand, where are their loyalties, and is his safety compromised by what he is doing with them. Whereas, to be literature, Rief should be concentrating on trying to figure himself out. Does he have psychological problems with women? Does he have mixed loyalties because he is half Austrian? Is he troubled by the ethics or morality of his assignment. Does he accept that any conduct is valid because he is acting under orders and it is for the security of his country?

I will continue reading Boyd, but do wonder what level of literature he wishes to achieve. This book seems to strive for popularity rather than consideration as serious art. It does have some texture, however: British bureaucracy, pre-War Vienna, and London society.

But it is the characters who should have the greatest texture, the greatest complexity—both in terms of the plot and in their own individual psychology. Hettie’s internal contradictions are not enough; and she is too obvious, in any event. On the other hand, the British officials appear to accept Rief’s explanation only because it is the most convenient. While Blanche resolves her situation with Rief too easily, a nd Rief’s own acting career doesn’t matter to me. (August, 2013)