THE ENGLISH SPY by Daniel Silva

The ENGLISH SPY, the latest in the long line of Gabriel Allon mysteries by Daniel Silva centers on a plot to kill the venerated Israeli intelligence operative and art restorer.  Allon has numerous enemies, but one in particular is very upset that a plan to get the English Prime Minister to sign over lucrative North Sea drilling rights to a Kremlin owned Energy Corporation has gone array – so revenge is at the forefront.  A further inducement to be rid of Allon revolves around the future accession of Israel’s most effective assassin as head of the “Office,” the Jewish state’s intelligence agency.  Silva reintroduces a number of important characters from previous books, most important of which is Christopher Keller, a former British SAS agent, now a professional assassin.  Keller, who has his own agenda, becomes Allon’s partner in hunting down a number of individuals who are linked to the plot.  Because of Keller’s background, Silva will weave the “Irish Problem” into his story as a number of his characters were deeply involved in IRA violence in Northern Ireland.

The English Spy (Gabriel Allon Series #15)
(FSB-the successor to the Soviet KGB headquarters in Moscow)

The story begins as the former princess and recently divorced wife of the future king of England is killed while vacationing on a British yacht.  Allon is called in by the Head of MI6, Graham Seymour to uncover the truth concerning the princess’ death.  Allon is convinced it is no accident.  Israeli intelligence assures him that the chef on the boat, a Colin Hernandez is responsible for the explosion, and it turns out that Hernandez is none other than Eamon Quinn, a former IRA bomber.  After peace in Northern Ireland was achieved, Quinn became a free-lancer whose record of employment included; Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and Iranian intelligence.  Years earlier the Israelis had offered to kill Quinn, and now Seymour finally takes them up on their offer.

Allon and Keller track Quinn and his accomplice, Anna Huber, a Russian agent trained from her time in an orphanage, until they are led to a bombing at Brompton Road in London.  Keller and Allon escape death, but Allon is convinced that the princess’ demise and the bombing are linked in a plot to kill him.  From this point on Silva introduces a number of important new characters as he constructs a scenario that has great relevance to the international scene at the time of the book’s release.  The Iranian nuclear negotiations are front and center of the story and the policy goals of the United States, Russia, Iran, and Israel are played out in an accurate fashion.  Silva maintains the clipped dialogue and sarcastic humor that were on display in his previous work and those new to Silva’s approach will find that they soon will become engrossed in the story.  The problem for readers who are familiar with the Allon series is that it seems a bit formulaic as Silva constructs the novel in a somewhat predictable fashion, though the story has a number of surprising twists and turns it does not grab the reader like earlier works.

Allon will stage his own death as a means of catching Quinn and the people who are behind him, resulting in a number of interesting situations.  The character development remains strong as we are introduced to Reza Nazari, an Iranian turned Israeli spy who is part of the Iranian negotiating team; Madeline Hart, a former Russian sleeper agent that has come over to the British side; and Alexei Rozanov, an SVR agent who has been dispatched by the Russian “Tsar” to eliminate Allon.  Other Allon associates appear including the irascible Ari Shamron, the twice former director-general of Israeli intelligence and Allon’s mentor.

Throughout the novel Silva presents background history of individuals and places, be it a snow covered Vienna neighborhood that the Nazis emptied during the war or description of the lives of his characters, like Madeline Hart who was orphaned almost at birth and trained in spy craft and sexual matters in a Russian orphanage to be used as a weapon against powerful men.  Speaking of background history, as the book progresses more and more Allon is convinced that Rozanov and Quinn played a major role in, or actually were responsible for the explosion that killed his son Dani, and resulted in institutionalization of his wife Leah, a number of years before.

Overall, the book is a typical Allon yarn, with some commentary pertaining to the real world of terror and espionage.  New readers will be satisfied and will want to move on to the next book in the series, THE BLACK WIDOW, while returning readers might have to think twice.

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BOBBY KENNEDY: THE MAKING OF A LIBERAL ICON by Larry Tye

(Robert Francis Kennedy)

Early in the morning on June 6, 1968 I got out of bed and turned on the news and learned that Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated.  Kennedy had just won the California primary and as a college freshman I was convinced that had he lived he would have been elected president.  For me, the “what ifs” of American history applied, particularly because of the path taken by the Nixon administration.  I often wonder what would have been the course of American history had Bobby Kennedy lived – Civil rights?  Vietnam?  Income equality?  But counterfactuals are an intellectual exercise, not reality.  There have been numerous books written about Robert Kennedy and one must be careful to look at the entire picture, not just the last few years of his life when he evolved into a liberal icon.    A new biography by Larry Tye entitled, BOBBY KENNEDY: THE MAKING OF A LIBERAL ICON is a major contribution to the RFK literature as it is a very nuanced analysis of the former Attorney General and relies on a vast array of materials, interviews, and newly released documents from the Kennedy Library that results in a fresh approach to examining the life of the third Kennedy brother.

The key to Tye’s narrative is that he is able to effectively chart Robert Kennedy’s transformation from a rabid cold warrior who had been counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, plotted the elimination of Fidel Castro, wiretapped Martin Luther King, supported the war in Vietnam to the liberal hero who was on the precipice of the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1968 when he was struck down by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles.  The question that emerges is could he “have stitched back together a divided land whose vision seems at best as resonant in today’s polarized America?”  It is hard to forget the violence and hatreds that the upheavals of the 1960s wrought with Robert Kennedy at its center; as Attorney General and his brother’s main advisor on domestic and foreign policy, and as a senator from New York.  Many argue had he lived the latter part of the 20th century would have been quite different, but it was not to be. Tye’s work is impactful because of the attention he devotes to the earliest, hardest-edge part of Kennedy’s career and how his conservative roots fostered his later transformation.  In addition, the author has the ability to unearth, then describe the senator’s unabashed humanity and empathy for others no matter the color of their skin or their religious beliefs.

Of all the Kennedy children, Bobby was most like his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.  He took to heart his father’s adage that family came first, and in a crunch, it was only your parents and siblings that you could count on.  Like his father he would see life in terms of “black and white,” and eventually he was able to prove to his father that he had another able son who could carry on the work of his brothers.  Tye’s organizes his book into a series of chapters highlighting the most important aspects of Bobby’s career.  Beginning with his service on McCarthy’s Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations we see evidence of how his reputation as a ruthless and vindictive operative developed, a reputation that would stay with him for most of his life.  Tye describes the relationship with the Wisconsin senator in detail and we see how the concept of loyalty developed in Kennedy’s mind.  Tye provides incisive analysis of their relationship and why they remained friends until the senator’s death in 1957.

(Jimmy Hoffa flips off Robert Kennedy during hearings into Teamsters and organized crime)

Tye examines the often told story of the Kennedy-Jimmy Hoffa feud.  He relies on the usual documentation as well as a new book by James Neff, VENDETTA that explores the war between the two men in detail.  What is interesting is that Tye argues that part of the reason the war between the two men intensified over the years was their similar personalities, i.e., tenaciousness, competitiveness, and the refusal to lose.  What is also interesting is that over the three years of hearings Robert Kennedy received more press that his brother Jack, and more importantly it allowed him to emerge from behind his father’s shadow as well as his brother.  Employing many of the tactics he used working with McCarthy, the Hoffa hearings were extremely beneficial to Bobby’s career.  The feud will remerge once Bobby becomes Attorney General and Tye provides numerous anecdotes based on his research of conversations between the two men, as well as legal transcripts.  The Hoffa war was integral to Bobby’s expansion of the Justice Departments war on organized crime.  This expansion also carried over into the Civil Rights division, adding lawyers and federal marshalls which became the basis of the Kennedy administration’s attempt to harness the civil and voter rights issues that exploded in the early 1960s.  Tye covers the standard material dealing with events in Mississippi and Alabama, but what makes his approach unique is that we see events through the prism of the President’s brother and the strategy they pursued.  In the end the events in the south would be so impactful that it helped Kennedy further understand the poverty and lack of rights that black American citizens suffered.

Robert Kennedy’s evolution in foreign policy is on full display as he was his brother’s most trusted advisor.  This is abundantly clear during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis as Bobby becomes obsessed with getting even with Fidel Castro, a major error that he would come to realize later as he let his vendetta against the Cuban dictator get in the way of broader goals and values, just as he had done with his Hoffa campaign.  Further, Tye is correct to point out that the book THIRTEEN DAYS, an account by Robert Kennedy of the missile crisis is not an honest appraisal of Bobby’s role, but what is really important is that Kennedy gained a new perspective on the nuclear world he lived in, and how accommodation was just as important as sabre rattling to achieve the nation’s national security goals.

For Tye, Robert Kennedy does not emerge as a complete person until the assassination of his brother.  Having earned the respect of his father during the 1960 presidential campaign, he would begin to evolve into being his own man during the Cuban crisis, but it took the death of John F. Kennedy for him to complete the process.  He would assume greater family responsibilities for his own children and those of his brother.  He became the person the family could lean on, but he himself grew depressed and lost his focus concerning his future.  He was able to recover in part by jumping into the New York senatorial race in 1964 and his burgeoning political and personal war with Lyndon Johnson.  Bobby viewed the president as the usurper of the Kennedy throne, and Johnson who suffered from an Adlerian inferiority complex when it came to the Kennedys, despised the man he referred to as that “grandstanding little runt.”  The relationship would only spiral downward as past slights and two extremely divergent personalities dominated the relationship as is described in greater detail in Jeff Shesol’s book MUTUAL CONTEMPT: LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT KENNEDY AND THE FEUD THAT DEFINED A DECADE.

(Freedom Rider bus attacked in Mississippi in 1961)

Robert Kennedy’s reputation was enhanced during the 1963 Freedom Rides summer and his election to the Senate, a move that would provide the therapy to deal with the loss of his brother.  Once ensconced on Capitol Hill he threw himself into his work as he traveled to the Mississippi Delta and experienced the ills of poverty first hand.  Further he took a major interest in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY where he witnessed the effects of white flight from urban areas and the resulting racial tension and poverty.  Though he was a senator, it was the Kennedy name that allowed him to confront the federal bureaucracy to try to mitigate social, economic, and racial problems that he confronted.  The key to burnishing his new found liberal reputation was his changing opinion on Viet Nam.  Tye examines the evolution of Kennedy’s cold warrior view of the war in Southeast Asia, beginning in 1951 and sees the change in his perception coinciding with Johnson’s expansion of the war in 1965.  At the outset Bobby was careful not to alienate the President, because so many Kennedy appointees were part of the Johnson administration.  However, after witnessing the corruption of the South Vietnamese regime by February, 1967 he called for a middle way when he was informed by a French diplomat that Hanoi was open to negotiation in return for an unconditional bombing halt.  Tye includes a number of LBJ-RFK conversations in his narrative and it is clear that their relationship had hit rock bottom, particularly when Bobby went public with his views.  From this point on Tye takes the reader inside Kennedy’s thought process as he enters the 1968 presidential race.   Kennedy’s motivations become clear as the campaign unfolds and the reader will begin to feel that they are a part of a new crusade to alleviate poverty in America and end the war in Vietnam.

(Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson campaigning together in New York in 1964 despite their extreme distaste for each other)

Tye confronts all the major myths and rumors associated with the Kennedys and Bobby in particular in a reasoned and thoughtful manner.  Be it their proclivity toward affairs, getting even with people who opposed them, or just plain everyday matters, he breaks each controversy down into what is real and what is imagined and comes to acceptable conclusions or argues what could be possible, and what never happened.  However, Tye’s evolutionary theme as to how Robert Kennedy grew as a person is clear and accurately portrayed.  For Tye, the “good Bobby,” outweighs the “bad Bobby,” in this important new biography of a man, who had he lived might have greatly altered the world in which we live today.

(Robert Francis Kennedy)

AND AFTER THE FIRE by Lauren Belfer

(Weimar, Germany-where the story begins)

The author Lauren Belfer has written two excellent works of historical fiction; A FIERCE RADIANCE and THE CITY OF LIGHT.  Both center on murders related to important scientific discoveries, one deals with hydroelectric power outside Buffalo, and the other the development of penicillin during World War II.  Both novels exhibit Belfer’s capacity to intertwine fictional and non-fictional characters that create historical realism and accuracy.  Belfer’s third novel, recently released AND AFTER THE FIRE breaks new ground as she creates a story that revolves around an original cantata of Johann Sebastian Bach that incorporates the Holocaust, Jewish society and the growing anti-Semitism of 18th, 19th, and 20th century Berlin, the niece of a man haunted by his actions at the end of World War II, and a contemporary debate and mystery surrounding what should be done with the sheet music that turns up after the man who took the cantata’s sheet music after World War II commits suicide.

The novel begins in May, 1945 as two Jewish American GIs are making their way back to a military base outside Weimar when they arrive in a well preserved German town located near Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp.  They decide to enter what appears to be an abandoned house when one of the GIs, Henry Sachs decides to take the sheet music that is inside a piano bench.  Upon doing so a disheveled German teenage girl appears with a gun and a shooting transpires resulting in the wounding of the second GI, Peter Galinsky, and the death of the girl.

American troops, including African American soldiers from the Headquarters and Service Company of the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, 8th Corps, US 3rd Army, view corpses stacked behind the crematorium during an inspection tour of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Among those pictured is Leon Bass (the soldier third from left). Buchenwald, Germany, April 17, 1945.

(American troops encounter Nazi savagery at Buchenwald in May, 1945)

At this point Belfer moves the story to June, 2010 in New York City where we meet Susannah Kessler, the Executive Director of the Barstow Family Foundation, where she coordinates grants designed to assist the city’s poor children.  Susannah’s life will radically change that summer as her marriage ends in divorce after she is sexually assaulted in an ally on the way home from work.  As she tries to cope with her failed marriage and the attack she learns that her Uncle Henry who had greatly impacted her life has committed suicide.  Susanna must now deal with another painful loss and learns from her Uncle’s suicide note what happened to him at the end of the war.  Her inheritance includes the sheet music he had taken which may be an original from Johann Sebastian Bach.  The note asks Susannah to determine if the sheet music is original and to do with it what she deems appropriate.  From this point on I became hooked on the storyline as Belfer introduces a number of important new characters both historical and fictitious.

We meet Wilhelm Friedemann Bach the son of the famous composer and music teacher of Sarah Itzig, who is Jewish and the daughter of Daniel Itzig, Frederick the Great’s Jew who was a financial genius who assisted the Prussian monarch as he launched his aggressive foreign policy.  What plays out among these characters and their families is the moral issue faced by German Jews of the time period- should they assimilate into the larger German society or remain committed to their Jewish identity.  This problem will result in many Jews converting to Christianity or hiding who they really are. Through Susanna we meet other important characters including Daniel Erhardt, an academic expert on Bach, Scott Schiffman, the curator of music manuscripts at the MacLean Library in New York, and Frederic Augustus Fournier, a Yale Centennial Professor who has his own agenda when it comes to the sheet music under question.  Susanna turns to each man to try and solve the riddle of the possible Bach cantata.

Belfer structures the book by alternating chapters and historical periods.  She moves easily from 18th and 19th century Berlin as she explores the Itzig family history and its relationship to Bach’s music, and Susanna’s quest to ascertain the legitimacy of the cantata. The role of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are just below the surface throughout the story.  The problem is that the cantata in question contains anti-Semitic lyrics that conform to Lutheran theology and prevalent beliefs of prominent Prussians at the time.  Belfer does an excellent job discussing upper class Jewish society of the period and how they tried to cope with the developing racist ideology that surrounded them.  In addition, the author does a wonderful job capturing Berlin’s attempt at developing into a cultural center following the reign of Frederick the Great, particularly salons, but also the undercurrent of anti-Semitism of the Prussian aristocracy that is dependent upon Jewish bankers.

Belfer possesses an elegant writing style that enhances her story telling and character development.  She does a superb job explaining the structure of Bach’s music to the novice.  She breaks down his work and the cantata in question so the reader can understand its importance whether it is real, or as a historical document that lends insight into German the social and intellectual milieu of the time period covered in the novel. In conclusion, Belfer has written a wonderful book that is surely her best and I believe it will satisfy a wide audience.

And After the Fire: A Novel

GOING TO EXTREMES by Joe McGinniss

Recently I was in a bookstore in Anchorage, Alaska and came across a book by Joe McGinniss entitled, GOING TO EXTREMES. Having read his THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968 about the attempt to repackage Richard Nixon for the 1968 presidential campaign, and CRUEL DOUBT which centers on a society murder in a small North Carolina town in 1988, I was intrigued.  After reading the introduction to the new edition written in 2010, as the original was published in 1981, I learned that McGinniss had thanked Sarah Palin for the inspiration to revisit Alaska after the 2008 Republican Convention and how the state had impacted him in the mid-1970s.  The book itself is part memoir, geographical guide, and history of the 49th state that was admitted to the United States sixteen years before what McGinniss describes in his own thought provoking and humorous style as the transformation of Alaska due to the domination of “big oil.”

A few weeks ago while standing below a section of the Alaska pipeline outside Fairbanks I learned that 85% of the state’s revenue is a result of oil and that each Alaskan resident receives a check for $2-3,000 a year as a tax rebate depending on the whims of politicians and oil production.  The money pays college tuition and numerous other costs for Alaska’s citizens and one cannot imagine where Alaska would be today without the money stream from “big oil.” McGinniss’ main motivation in visiting Alaska in 1975 was to experience the awesome beauty of its primal wilderness and mountains, for what he feared might be the last days of the last frontier America would ever have.

(Denali, over 20,000 feet above sea level, the highest peak in North America)

McGinniss would spend a year traveling and living among the native Eskimos and local citizens trying to get to the core of what it meant to be an Alaskan native, and those characters who settled in Alaska by choice for many diverse and unusual reasons.  The book describes a state that in many parts seems to be a world where things remain just as they had been forty or four hundred years before.  However, with the political and economic pressures fostered by the Alaskan pipeline they were about to change radically as I witnessed on my recent visit a few weeks ago.

The reader accompanies the author as he crosses the state from an amazing trek through the Brooks Range as he describes the Oolah Pass, part of the Continental Divide not between east and west, but the Arctic Divide.  Below this point water flowed south, emptying into the Pacific Ocean.  Beyond the Pass it drained into the Arctic Ocean!  We meet many fascinating characters who lived in the wilderness, towns, villages, and cities, from the state capitol in Juneau which cannot be reached by road, to Barrow which lies 330 miles above the Arctic Circle in the north, Seward in the south, and Denali* in the center.  Alaska’s topography make it a necessity for people to have pilot’s license if they are to survive the state’s rugged terrain, and in fact one out of every six residents do.  The need for air transport also serves as a time machine as you fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks to the north and on to coastal areas that seem fifty years behind.

(Oolah Pass, the Arctic Divide)

McGinniss spends a great deal of time exploring the impact of western technology and the coming of the white culture.  It has had a particularly devastating effect on younger Eskimos who were not set in the ways of the older generation.  What emerges is that Eskimo culture is being destroyed as they confront the Americanization of Alaska brought on by the wealth produced by the oil pipeline.  They are migrating to cities in great number seeking welfare aid, taking jobs on the pipeline earning money that they have no clue on how to deal with, or trying to survive in their villages.

In his trek throughout state, McGinniss meets a cavalcade of individuals unique in character and possess outlandish life stories that seem to culminate in Alaska.  World War II veterans abound, Grateful “Deadheads,” policemen from Denver, former businessmen and educators, writers, bureaucrats, and many who are recently divorced and trying to put their lives back together.  Others are seeking freedom, adventure, or just to get rich quick from the oil boom.  We meet people who arrive from Seattle on a barge in what appears to be a “hippie coup” of a small village as they take over the radio station, newspaper, and school library.  The descriptions and stories abound like Duncan Pyle, a former bestselling Canadian author who for a time was the Chairman of the Language Department at the Inupiat University of the Arctic, a university housed in a shack.  As Olive Cook who grew up in Bethel which is located at the confluence of the Bering Sea and the Yukon River who left for a job in Washington, D.C., but she could never reconcile her Eskimo culture and white technological society.  We also meet Eddie the Basque, a pipefitter from Idaho who hoped to make enough money from the pipeline to retire, however, by the time he arrived the pipeline was almost completed.

(The Alaska Oil Pipeline outside Fairbanks)

It seems that everyone that the author meets left the lower forty eight states for Alaska without any knowledge of what they were getting themselves into.  A case in point is Tom and Marie Brennan who left newspaper jobs in Worcester, MA and set out in their International Harvester Travel All pulling a houseboat on wheels.  After traveling 5000 miles they eventually reached Anchorage were they got jobs on the Anchorage Times and witness the spectacular growth of Alaska’s largest city, and Tom, who escaped Massachusetts, would soon become the Public relations Head for Atlantic Richfield and the oil pipeline!

McGinniss’ description of Fairbanks is as if it did not exist on earth, “but on a distant planet; a planet that was much farther from the sun.”  In fact, many of the author’s descriptions have that out of the earth’s universe feel to it as Alaska is not like any other area in our union, particularly the winters.  Many stark descriptions of the landscape are offered, but despite these comments, the sheer beauty of Alaska’s bareness comes through, from the Kahiltna Glacier 7200 feet above sea level which is the staging area for hikers to climb Denali or the Yukon River that flows from the Bering Sea all the way across Alaska into Canada.

GOING TO EXTREMES is a unique look at our 49th state, a view that is hard to accept for many natives because of the way their lives have changed.  However, for the Alaska novice like myself in conjunction with my recent visit it was eye opening what the oil boom has done to the state and its people.  Whether you are a conservationist, an individual who believes in the development of Alaska’s natural resources, or someone who wishes that the government would just leave Alaskans alone there is something worthwhile to be taken from McGinniss’ narrative.

*The name of the highest mountain in North America became a subject of dispute in 1975, when the Alaska Legislature asked the U.S. federal government to officially change its name from Mount McKinley to Denali. The mountain had been unofficially named Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector, and officially by the United States government in 1917 to commemorate William McKinley, who was president of the United States from 1897 until his assassination in 1901. (Wikipedia)