CALL FOR THE DEAD by John Le Carre

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(the author)

Listening to David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carre on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago was fascinating.  It raised questions about his life and how much of his own experiences in the British intelligence community is replicated in his novels.  From the interview, like the good spy, it was difficult to ascertain what Cornwell’s life was and what was fiction.  Whatever the truth, it peaked my interest and after having avoided Le Carre’s work for decades I decided to take the plunge with his first novel, CALL FOR THE DEAD.

The story begins with a description of George Smiley by his ex-wife and a few others, a character who is at the center of many of Le Carre’s books.  He is described as boring, short, fat, and possessing a quiet disposition, and a person who spent a great deal of money on “really bad clothes, which hung about that squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”  The perfect non-descript person who could excel as a spy.

Smiley appears unconcerned about his divorce, and as an intelligence officer, according to the narrator, his job provided him access to the mystery of human behavior and an outlet for his strong deductive reasoning abilities.  Le Carre provides a great deal of background concerning Smiley’s life that provides much insight into his behavior and thought processes throughout the novel.  Before World War II Smiley had been a weak student at Oxford, but was recruited anyway by the British intelligence service, which was attractive to Smiley who liked to work alone.

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Smiley began his career at a German university recommending certain students for the “secret service.”  After World War II he became the Minister’s Advisor on Intelligence at the Cambridge Circus.  A number of years later the issue at hand was one, Samuel Arthur Fennan of the Foreign Office who committed suicide shortly after being interviewed by Smiley.  It appears that Fennan may have been denounced as a member of the Communist Party, which he had been in the 1930s when the world seem to be unraveling.  The central focus of the novel is the investigation into Fennan’s death.  A number of important characters emerge that include Sparrow Inspector Mendel, who Smiley works with on the case; Matson, a career bureaucrat at the “Circus,” a man Smiley despises; Elsa Fennan, the widow; and Dieter Frey, who may be an East German spy master.  After a number of killings and an attempt on Smiley’s life the novel becomes more interesting as the plot comes into clearer focus; was Fennan a spy, was Mrs. Fennan a spy, and if they were, what damage did their work do to British national security?

Le Carre writes in a sarcastic literary style, if one such style actually exists.  His description of the mundane is entertaining as his view of mankind.  Le Carre has created an amoral universe for Smiley to function in and his philosophy of life seems to meander throughout the novel.  I am glad to finally discover Le Carre and I hope to continue to do so.

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THE BLACK WIDOW by Daniel Silva

(ISIS overruns Raqqa, Syria)

While discussing his new book THE BLACK WIDOW in the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH author Daniel Silva pointed out that the Paris bombing described in his sixteenth installment of his Gabriel Allon series was a complete fabrication.  In light of actual events that seem to coincide with the book’s publication, Silva seems clairvoyant, a trait that allows him to create plausible scenarios when compared to real events.  In part, this characteristic is responsible for the popularity of his work, along with the development of the Gabriel Allon character over the years.  In THE BLACK WIDOW, Allon is about to become the head of the “Office,” the nickname for Israeli intelligence when a bomb explodes in the Marais section of Paris, known for its Jewish population.  The attack was centered on a conference organized by Hanna Weinberg, the head of the Isaac Weinberg Center for the study of Anti-Semitism in France. The jihadi attack is successful and we learn about a man who goes by the nomenclature of Saladin.

What follows is one of Silva’s best books as the author presents an accurate reality that hopefully will never visit America.  Through Silva’s characters the reader is exposed to an accurate history of the Islamic State or ISIS and the background presented affords the reader the expertise that Silva has tapped in preparing his novel.  Many names will be familiar to Silva’s audience as they were developed in previous Allon books.  However, a new person emerges as one of the most important that Silva has ever created.  Her name is Natalie Mizrahi, a physician who immigrated to Israel because of the treatment of Jews in France, a subject that Silva treats as he argues that Islamic terror is a serious problem for Jews in France, and that the French government has been very laissez faire in dealing with it.  Dr. Mizrahi is recruited by Allon and trained to penetrate ISIS and gather intelligence concerning Saladin’s plans.  Saladin is a former officer and intelligence operator in the Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Once the United States invaded Iraq and defeated Saddam’s forces Washington pursued the mistaken policy of “debathization.”  Because of this error hundreds of Saddam’s Sunni officer core had nowhere to turn.  Saladin, like many others joined al-Qaeda in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which eventually morphed into ISIS.

Sixth and I - July 2013

(author, Daniel Silva)

Throughout the novel Silva makes many astute judgements that currently affect the war on terror.  For example, the Brussels’ neighborhood of Molenbeek is presented as an ISIS oasis in the middle of the Belgian capitol.  Silva critiques President Obama’s Middle East policy (without mentioning his name) and statements concerning ISIS that he totally disagreed with.  The state of French-Israeli relations, the bureaucratic battles within the Israeli intelligence community are delved into, as is the sour relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv.  It is obvious that Silva has done a great deal of research in preparing his novel.  As I was reading the dialogue I had the feeling that I was reading from the works of Scott Shane, Michael Weiss, and Joby Warrick who have written extensively on ISIS and the war on terror, and lo and behold when I read Silva’s acknowledgements he cited these excellent journalist/historians.

What is fascinating about Silva’s approach is how realistic and believable his scenarios and characters are.  His description of turning Dr. Mizrahi into the Israeli agent Leila Hawadi is eye opening.  Further, the Mizrahi/Hawadi character’s indoctrination by ISIS is very disturbing as she witnesses the caliphate up close and what their raison detre is, as well as the actions they are planning.  Silva takes the reader on a thrilling voyage that I fear someday might come to pass.  If you are a fan of Silva’s previous efforts, you should find THE BLACK WIDOW a very satisfying read.

(ISIS overruns Raqqa, Syria)


(William Donovan, the man who headed the Office of Strategic Services  during World War II)

At a time when people are concerned with government spying on its citizens, it is useful to examine how two world wars and the Cold War led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Douglas Waller, a former correspondent for Time and Newsweek, and the author of WILD BILL DONOVAN: THE SPYMASTER WHO CREATED THE OSS AND MODERN AMERICAN ESPIONAGE has revisited the origins of the CIA by examining the men that William Donovan trained as intelligence operatives who went on to head America’s foremost spy agency.  In his new book, DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR II MISSIONS OF THE CIA DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR BILL DONOVAN, Waller follows the careers of Allen W. Dulles, William Casey, Richard Helms, and William Colby, and their interactions with Donovan as their careers  culminated in Langley, Va.  When I first picked up the book I was concerned that Waller would rehash a great deal of the same material he covered in his biography of Donovan.  To my satisfaction this is not the case.  There is some repetition, but the book can stand on its own merits as Waller has written a wonderful adventure story that weaves together the experiences of the “disciples.”  Based on archival material, the most prominent secondary sources, and pertinent memoirs the book is an excellent read for spy buffs and the general public.

Waller begins the book with short biographical sketches of each individual and the similarities in their backgrounds.  Waller points out that there was a common thread that ran through Dulles, Casey, Helms, and Colby.  Each was smart, intellectual, and “voracious readers, thoughtful, and creatures of reason….these were strong, decisive, supremely confident men of action, doers who believed they could shape history rather than let it control them.”  When one follows their careers Waller’s description appears extremely accurate.  Though their personalities differed; Dulles comes across with a much larger ego who rubbed many in power the wrong way; Casey, more of an introvert who worked behind the scenes and new how to navigate the bureaucratic morass of government; Helms and Colby, more adventurous and hands on, the result of which was they all would ascend the intelligence ladder at different rates to finally emerge as leaders in their own right.  All had important relationships with Donovan; some more testy, particularly Dulles who wanted Donovan’s job as head of the Organization of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, but in the end they worked together and laid the foundation for America’s post war intelligence operations.

(Allen W. Dulles, headed American intelligence operations against Germany during WWII and as CIA Director under Eisenhower launched numerous covert operations)

Waller traces the career of each of the disciples and what stands out is their roles during World War II.  Donovan was charged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create an espionage operation during the war by choosing him as the Coordinator of Information, a position that would morph into the head of the OSS.  Waller examines the rise of Allen Dulles first, tracing his career from World War I, his experiences as a diplomat at Versailles, and his relationship with his brother, John Foster, and their law firm Sullivan and Cromwell.  Dulles emerges as a self-confident individual who sought total control of all operations. Posted to Berne, Switzerland during the war, Dulles developed important sources though he was at times over the top with his predictions.  On a number of occasions he resented Donovan, but in the end went along with his boss.  William Casey’s education as a spy began as a lawyer in the 1930s where he became an expert on the tax code dealing with War Department contracts.  This attracted Donovan interest and he would recruit Casey for the OSS in 1943.  Casey, an organizational expert was sent to London where he worked under David Bruce, and implemented a management style that would lead him to oversee intelligence assets and commando operations in France and Germany.  Richard Helms joined the navy after Pearl Harbor and worked on strategies to deal with German submarine warfare.  By 1943 he was forced into OSS Psyops and by the end of the war he was sent to London to organize operations in Germany for the post war period.  William Colby, the most liberal of the four and a supporter of FDR, studied in France in the late 1930s, witnessed the Spanish Civil War, and developed a hatred for communism.  He would become a commando during the war and showed tremendous physical courage behind enemy lines in France and Norway.

(Richard Helms after a career in intelligence dating back to WWII became CIA Director in the 1960s and was eventually fired by President Nixon)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Waller introduces individuals who interacted with the OSS, and in particular the “disciples” during the war.  FBI Head, J. Edgar Hoover despised Donovan seeing him as a threat and unleashed his own agents to spy on the OSS.  We meet Julia Child, later known as “the cooking guru” for woman in the 1950s.  Along the way Arthur Goldberg emerges as a link to European labor movements, who would later serve on the Supreme Court.  British spymasters come and go throughout the book, particularly William Stephenson who at one time had an office next to Dulles in Rockefeller Center.  Fritz Kolbe, the OSS’ most important agent who allowed Dulles to penetrate the German Foreign Office in Berlin and whose work saved the lives of many allied soldiers takes a prominent role.  These and many other individuals and their own stories lend a great deal to Waller’s narrative.

(William Colby was a trained commando during World War II and parachuted into France and Norway who later became CIA Director under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford)

Waller does a nice job showing how the careers of the “disciples” intersected with Donovan during the war.  For example, Donovan’s visitations to commando training, witnessing Colby’s preparation for parachuting into France.  Dulles and Casey intersected as both were smuggling agents into France to link up with and supply the French resistance.  Casey was in charge of monitoring commando drops like Colby’s into France.  Casey also funneled Dulles’ intelligence reports to Washington, and in a number of cases felt that they were highly exaggerated. Helms finally left for London in early 1945 and was supposed to organize Dulles’ mission for Germany, but because of Hitler’s last ditch effort in France in the Ardennes, he never carried out the assignment and wound up with Casey overseeing agents in Germany.  In fact Casey and Helms shared an apartment in London at the time!   Colby and Casey would meet at General George S. Patton’s headquarters in September, 1944 as Casey became Donovan’s eyes in Europe and eventually would replace David Bruce as head of London operations, an appointment that Dulles greatly resented.  Donovan felt that Dulles was a poor administrator and lacked the leadership skills that Casey possessed.

Waller spends a great deal of time on the actions of American commandos behind German lines.  He describes Colby’s training in detail and takes the reader along with these men as they parachute into France and Germany, exhibiting courage and discipline as they try to reinforce the French resistance, and later gather intelligence in Germany to try and bring the conflict to a faster conclusion.  Waller also spends a great deal of time discussing the infighting among the “disciples” and their private lives.  By doing so the reader gains insights into each of these men and it helps explains how their post-World War II careers would evolve into directorships of the CIA.

The final section of Waller’s narrative focuses on American intelligence policies and actions during the Cold War as the OSS evolves into the CIA and focuses its attention on the communist threat.  Once President Truman forces Donovan into retirement Dulles takes over the newly created CIA and his reputation for mismanagement will result in what Blanch Wiesen Cook, in her book DECCLASSIFIED EISENHOWER, refers to as the “coup presidency.”  Dulles would launch covert operations in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, and the disastrous U-2 Incident, all resulting in his eventual downfall.  Dulles was succeeded by Helms, who unlike his predecessor believed in tight organizational control.  His mantra was “that there should be no surprises on his watch” and he was very popular within the agency.  Helms would be fired by Richard Nixon in part because he refused to cooperate with break-ins and cover ups associated with Watergate.  Colby’s tenure as director is most remembered for his testimony before the Church Committee in 1974 as leaked CIA documents called for congressional action.  Colby was the most politically liberal of all the “disciples” and this played a role in his cooperation with Congress which he was vilified for by Helms and Casey.  But, as Waller correctly points out his testimony probably saved the CIA from a wholesale reorganization that would have ruined its effectiveness.  The last of the “disciples,” William Casey took over the agency under Ronald Reagan and he tried to create the atmosphere that existed under his hero, William Donovan, who like his mentor “kept the door open to all ideas for operations, even the wacky ones.”  Casey wanted to recreate the can do culture of the OSS from WWII for the 1980s, focusing on the communist menace instead of the Nazis.  This would result in repeated machinations in dealing with Afghanistan, Central America, and the Iran-Contra scandal in particular.

(William Casey was a successful “spy master” during World War II who became CIA Director under Ronald Reagan)

Waller has written a fascinating account of the men who followed Donovan as leaders in American intelligence, and current implications for some of the policies they pursued.   Today we are faced with the ramifications of Edward Snowden’s leaks and issues over NSA and other surveillance.  It would be interesting to speculate how these gentlemen would respond to these issues.

(Major General William J. Donovan who led America’s intelligence operations during World War II)


THE SWIMMER by Joakim Zander

The Swimmer

I am always amazed when an author can come up with a new concept to explore in the mystery/espionage genre.  One country that seems to keep producing such authors is Sweden, and alas they have done it again with Joakim Zander.  The author has lived in Syria and Israel and earned a law degree in the Netherlands and spent his career as a lawyer for the European Union in Brussels and Helsinki.  This background contributed greatly to his first novel, THE SWIMMER that has been greeted with great acclaim.  The story line is somewhat different as Zander explores the role of American outsourcing of prisoner interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Zander creates a “Blackwater” type of organization that he calls “Digital Solutions,” which seems to be a dummy company that was kept heavily in the “shadows” to maintain deniability and protect those in charge.  The leaders of Digital Solutions become aware that there is evidence of their “enhanced interrogation” techniques, i.e.; torture at the time of the Abu Ghraib fiasco and they will do anything to get control of the evidence.  The scenario is believable and Zander has complete control of the political and diplomatic history that is involved.  An interesting example is his suggestion through his characters how the first Bush administration treated the Kurds in 1991.  The CIA agent leads his Kurdish allies to believe that American help will be forthcoming to protect them for Saddam Hussein’s revenge.  As history has shown that protection never was provided and the Bush administration allowed Saddam’s forces to crush the Kurds, probably employing chemical weapons.  These types of observations reflect the strong political views that Zander holds that appear throughout the book.

The story centers on a number of interesting characters.  As Zander develops them he does so in a very slow methodical fashion particularly the CIA operative who spends a good part of the book in search of his daughter who survived a terrorist explosion in Damascus in 1980.  The most important characters are Klara Walldeen, a political aide to a member of the European Union Parliament in Brussels and a former boyfriend, Mahmoud Shammosh, a Ph.D candidate whose dissertation dealt with the privatization of war, who involves her in the scenario where explosive evidence of what Digital Solutions is guilty of exists.  Another interesting character out of the Stieg-Larsson mold is “Blitzie,” a skinny teenaged hacker who will present a number of interesting surprises. The reader is taken into the world of the CIA and its outsourced programs and what they are capable of doing if things do not go as planned.  The reader is also exposed to the world of lobbyists to the European Parliament and the influence which they possess.  One member of a lobby firm, George Loow is also drawn into the tentacles of Digital Solutions and it is through him that Zander triers to create an effective morality play which sometimes is effective.  The plot revolves around a number of storylines that shift back and forth from the 1980s and Christmas, 2013.  At times this can be confusing as Zander does not integrate his CIA operative in search of his daughter as effectively as he might have.

No matter what minor flaws may exist in Zander’s debut novel, he more that makes up for it with an engrossing plot that is very contemporary and believable.  Zander definitely has an agenda that centers around the morality that the “world on terror” has produced that is evident in the conclusion of the book, but whatever your politics this book is a read that will capture your attention until you reach the final paragraph

PALACE OF TREASON by Jason Matthews

Palace of Treason 

For those who enjoyed Jason Matthew’s first espionage thriller, RED SPARROW, his second venture in this genre is as exceptional as the first.  Matthews, a veteran of thirty three years in the CIA as a Chief of Station, a clandestine operative collecting national intelligence, a recruiter in many dangerous regions of the world, and many other roles has overcome the problem of following a successful first novel, with a second, PALACE OF TREASON, that in many ways is more interesting and presented in greater depth than the first.  Many of the characters of RED SPARROW reappear; Simon Benford, a CIA veteran who controls all counter intelligence operations; Nathaniel Nash, the CIA covert operative and his Chief of Station Tom Forsythe, and his deputy Marty Gable; Dominika Egorova, a Russian trained “sparrow,” one who excels in the martial and sexual arts, and is a synesthete, a talent that allows a person to see auras around a person’s head that “allow them to read their passion, treachery, fear or deception;” Alexei Zyuganov, the Chief of Russian Counter Intelligence, Department of Service Line KR, a psychotic sadist who is jealous of Egorova; and Vladimir Putin, who plays a much larger role in PALACE OF TREASON.

There are many new characters in Matthews’ latest effort and they enhance the plot line and evolve as principle players as the story unfolds.  We are presented with a new handler for Dominika, a rookie agent, Hannah Archer who is exceptional in her spy craft, but also becomes part of an interesting love triangle; and Yevgeny Pletnev, a deputy to Zyuganov who succumbs to the wiles of a red sparrow.  The novel begins with the recruitment of Parvis Jamshidi, an Iranian physicist and expert in centrifugal isotope separation.  Both the CIA and Russian SVR are interested in him and learn greater details of Iran’s nuclear program.  For Russia it is seen as an opportunity for Putin’s kleptocracy to assist the Iranian program as a means of getting back at the United States, and as a bonus siphon off millions of rubles from any transaction.  For the United States, a plan is instituted to sabotage a German W. Petrs seismic isolation floor that would cause a major explosion, thus setting back the Iranian goal of acquiring nuclear weapons by at least five years.  In developing this story, Matthews employs a major secondary plot involving a disgruntled CIA bureaucrat, Sebastian Angevine, an Assistant Deputy for Military Affairs who is passed over for a major promotion, who believes in a lifestyle that his government salary will not support.  Angevine takes the initiative in becoming TRITON, a Russian operative who is a threat to the Iranian operation and Dominika, who is imbedded inside the Kremlin as an American agent.

Matthews’ expertise in spy craft is without question.  His details of surveillance and counter surveillance techniques are remarkable in their intricacy and realism.  Through the experiences of Hannah Archer, Matthews provides an amazing description of how an operative is trained in surveillance techniques that no other author has attempted.  The reader feels as if they are in the “cross hairs” of an operative trying to remain “black” and away from their pursuers. He takes the reader through the streets of Moscow, Washington, and Athens as operatives try to meet and practice their tradecraft. Through the eyes of Sebastien Angevine we see an individual on the “inside” of the CIA try to develop a strategy to offer themselves to Moscow.  Angevine, a former NCIS polygrapher is fully cognizant of the approaches made by Pollard, Ames, Hanssen, and Walker, and how they became sloppy and were exposed.  He develops sophisticated techniques to avoid their mistakes and will become a very effective mole.  An underlying theme that Matthews pursues is the evolution of CIA and SVR espionage practices.  Especially interesting are the changes in interrogation techniques employed by the Russian SVR as compared to old KGB practices.  Matthews provides details of how the new SVR goes about its craft, and contrasts it with KGB methods.  The reader is provided a unique window into spy tradecraft as it has changed from a lesser technological Cold War era, to the enhanced technological sophistication of today.  The “Putinization” of Russian intelligence is very clear, as all operatives fear making a mistake that could embarrass the Russian President and the consequences for their careers and probably their lives.

If you think you might be interested in a novel that presents chilling scenes that feature a psychotic torturer/executioner and his protégé, two agents deeply in love separated by the deep cover of their respective intelligence services, a megalomaniac who is hell bent in restoring his nation to the preeminent position it held over two decades ago, bureaucratic incompetence at its worst, modern spy craft and the application of its many techniques, and a well written and well thought plot, then PALACE OF TREASON is for you.  The narrative will keep you interested until the last paragraph and I won’t let you in on the ending, but parts of it may not be that farfetched.

RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews

Red Sparrow: A Novel

If you were going to create the proto-type writer of espionage thrillers you would want someone with experience in the art of spy craft.  Someone who had engaged in clandestine collection of national security intelligence, who recruited operatives in the Soviet Union, Middle East, and East Asia.  You would want a person who had been a CIA Station Chief, managed covert operations, and worked with American allies in counter terrorism over a career that spanned thirty three years.  A person with this type of background who was also a proficient writer would be heaven sent for espionage novel aficionados.  It is our good fortune to have such a person in Jason Matthews, whose first novel, RED SPARROW fits all the criteria of a superb thriller that keeps the reader fully engaged from cover to cover.

The story line in Matthews’ novel centers on a Russian spy master who is the Chief of the America’s Department in the SVR, or clandestine service.  This individual, code named MARBLE has been in the employ of the CIA for over fourteen years and is indispensable for American national security.  His handler, a young agent, Nathaniel Nash is forced to leave Moscow because of a bumbling CIA Chief of Station and winds up in Helsinki where the story unfolds as a “red sparrow,” a Russian trained agent in the sexual arts, as well as intelligence, is assigned to develop a relationship with Nash in order to learn the identity of MARBLE.  From this point on the plot revolves around the relationship between Nash and Dominika, the “red sparrow.”  Further it is intertwined with Russian attempts to uncover the mole in their intelligence service that is also complicated by a sociopathic and self-absorbed American senator who is Vice Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who happens to be working for Moscow.  Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is Matthews’ rendition of how Nash and Dominika try and recruit each other by applying their American and Russian training.  The author focuses on their belief system and doubts, and candidly explains how they affect the operational assignments.  Their relationship will form a major component of the plot, but it is only part of a larger more complex web that the author creates.

The dialogue between characters provides a wonderful vehicle for Matthews to present his own biases that date back to his intelligence career.  The infighting and lack of cooperation between the FBI and CIA is apparent and will lead to a botched scenario that comes very close to ruining a very promising CIA operation.  Not to be outdone, within the Russian intelligence apparatus we witness a great deal of careerism by important characters and the conflict between the old Cold War KGB methodology and the more modern technocratic approach that the SVR tries to employ.  Matthews is not very objective when it comes to the CIA, but to his credit he does an exceptional job discussing the “turf wars” that exist in the bureaucratic structure of intelligence.  He also weaves dead drops, honey traps, trunk escapes, surveillance tactics, and a myriad of other scenarios that one would expect in a spy novel with this type of storyline.

What separates Matthews from other practitioners of the espionage genre is an exceptional ear for dialogue and his quick wit.  He is able to develop an interesting array of characters from American Chiefs of Station of varying abilities, to a former KGB executioner who honed his skills in Afghanistan now carrying out his craft for the SVR, to Russian bureaucrats who want to please Vladimir Putin, who also makes a few guest appearances. In addition, Matthews integrates many retired agents in their seventies and eighties to conduct their tradecraft as they blend in so easily into the background to the point that Russian operatives have no idea that they have been made.  If you are a fan of Charles Cummings, Olin Steinhauer, Tom Rob Smith, Robert Littell, or Len Deighton you should enjoy RED SPARROW.  For a first novel, Matthews has done a wonderful job and has peaked my curiosity as the ending of the book leaves the reader longing for the story to continue.  Thankfully, his second effort, PALACE OF TREASON was published last week