Friday, August 18, 2023

Spy Novelists Well Worth Shadowing

(Editor’s note: Northern California resident Peter Handel has reviewed and written about crime fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Portland Oregonian, Pages Magazine, Mystery Readers International, and CrimeReads. In the essay below, he recommends three increasingly prominent spy novelists whose work is guaranteed to please even the most jaded espionage-fiction fan.)

John le Carré may be gone, but three writers in particular stand out as his descendants in the spy novel realm: Olen Steinhauer, Charles Cumming and Paul Vidich. Both Steinhauer and Cumming have been at it since early in the 21st century, while Vidich published his first book, An Honorable Man, in 2016.

All three write utterly compelling and smart stories that, like those from le Carré and Graham Greene, take readers into murky territory, where betrayal is common, sex can be dangerous, and violence is always lurking.

Steinhauer was kind enough to answer my questions about his literary efforts, back when I was writing a crime-fiction column for the late—very late—Pages Magazine in 2004. At the time, he was in the middle of creating his five-book series, the Yalta Boulevard Sequence, which began with 2003’s The Bridge of Sighs and concluded with 2007’s Victory Square.

“Essentially,” said Steinhauer, “the idea has always been a series of crime stories in a fictional Eastern European country, one for each decade of the Cold War … to me, this series is a personal and literary experiment to find out what I can pull off within the confines I’ve set for myself.” Obviously, he made it happen; the novels can be read either in order or as standalones.

Then, Steinhauer notes on his Web site: “After finishing the Yalta Boulevard Sequence of Cold War novels, I made a conscious decision to move into the contemporary world. This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but I'd spent my entire professional career writing about a time and place rather distant, and so the idea of moving to ‘today’ was a bit disconcerting. However, it was also necessary, for I was starting to fear I was escaping the confusing present to hide out in the past. So, I jumped feet-first into the post 9/11 world with the CIA's Department of Tourism, and Milo Weaver, a spy who just happened to be my first American main character.” Milo is an antihero, and a “Tourist” is basically a serial killer—just one we happen to like. (Unlike how totally repellant actual serial killers really are—Long Island, I’m talking to you.)

The four Milo Weaver novels truly pick up steam as the series proceeds. While The Tourist (2009) is your basic page-turner, the second and third entries, The Nearest Exit (2010) and An American Spy (2012), respectively, are even better. (I have been sitting on the finale, 2020’s The Last Tourist—one of those books you are dying to read, yet don’t want the “good times” to end!)

Steinhauer also has several standalones, including The Cairo Affair, a straight-ahead espionage thriller set in 2011, and an unusual political parable, 2018’s The Middleman, which considers radical, lefty political activism and a female FBI agent’s efforts to unwind a mysterious movement called The Massive Brigade. No word yet on his next novel, but it’s bound to be as killer as all the rest.

The prolific British novelist Charles Cumming also writes both series and standalones. He began in 2001 with A Spy by Nature, seemingly drawing from his own real-life experience. As his Web sites explains: “In 1995, Charles was approached for recruitment by the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). A Spy by Nature, a novel partly based on his experiences with MI6, was published in the UK in June 2001. The novel’s hero, Alec Milius, is a flawed loner in his early 20s who is recruited by MI5 to sell doctored research data on oil exploration in the Caspian Sea to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).” He rather blows the whole thing. It’s a chastened, hapless Alec we encounter in the sequel, 2006’s The Spanish Game, wherein he gets wrapped up in Basque separatist intrigue.

But back up now to Cumming’s second novel, The Hidden Man (2003). It’s a standalone that follows two argumentative brothers who investigate the murder of their ex-spy father at the hands of Russian bad guys. It does feel at times like the proverbial second novel, but all the same makes for an engaging read.

It was with Cumming’s fourth book, Typhoon (2008), that he began to evolve into the truly remarkable stylist and plotter we know him to be today. So far unread by yours truly (but sitting prominently in my Cumming bedside stack), the story in Typhoon takes place in Hong Kong, as MI6 and CIA agents mix it up.

The Trinity Six, released back in 2011, is Cumming’s take on the biggest spy scandal in Britain’s history: the Cold War moles who were embedded in British intelligence—the infamous “Cambridge spy ring”—and in the pay of the Soviet Union.

But wait, there’s more, much more! Cumming’s Thomas Kell trilogy debuted back in 2012, beginning with A Foreign Country, which revolves around an MI6 officer given a last chance to redeem himself when the first woman head of MI6 disappears. Can Kell sort it all out? Of course he can. It’s thrilling writing and reading. A Colder War (2014) and A Divided Spy (2016) complete that triumvirate.

Another Cumming standalone, 2019’s The Man Between (aka The Moroccan Girl), precedes the utterly smashing soon-to-be-trilogy, the BOX 88 novels. Those latter three books, beginning with BOX 88 (2020), are based on a highly secret sub-organization involved in counterintelligence unknown to most members of both the CIA and MI6. BOX 88 follows the evolution of Lachlan Kite (“Lockie”), recruited as an 18-year-old, initially to gather information about a rich Iranian who may have been involved in the Lockerbie plane explosion over Scotland in 1988. Your intrepid correspondent here is almost finished with that first entry, and I’m chomping at the bit to read its follow up, JUDAS 62 (2021). I very much look forward to finding the third book, Kennedy 35, due out in November from The Mysterious Press.

If you wish to acquaint yourself with Cumming’s work, and you really should, then I recommend starting with BOX 88—it’s a tough call, but somebody has to make it.

The last of this new breed of spy novelists, and one who has wonderfully monopolized my time, is Paul Vidich. He’s published five novels to date, and his deeply researched stories have more than a little dose of reality-based action. His frequent, primary protagonist, George Mueller, is a typical world-weary CIA op. In Vidich’s debut, An Honorable Man, Mueller is tasked with exposing a Soviet mole in the Agency during the early 1950s. (Lots of moles out there …)

A year after The Honorable Man reached bookstores, Mueller was back in The Good Assassin, traveling to pre-Castro, revolutionary Cuba to determine if a CIA agent stationed there—an old friend—has gone rogue. It’s a terrific use of what has been an overlooked setting in recent years.

Mueller is a very peripheral presence in The Coldest Warrior (2020), another fact-based story about the mysterious death of a government scientist who was exploited in the CIA’s infamous experiments with a new drug: LSD. (The things that CIA got up to!) Here is a thriller that begins in the early ’50s and concludes more than 20 years later.

2021’s The Mercenary, set in Moscow, circa 1985, pits a grizzled, troubled ex-CIA agent named Alex Garin against the KGB—for which he once worked as an agent, until he defected to the United States. In this tale, Garin is apparently the only person who is trusted by a high-level Russian intelligence agent wanting to make his own defection.

On to Berlin, 1989—shortly before that city’s Soviet-era Wall came down—and The Matchmaker (2022). It introduces Vidich’s first female protagonist, American translator Anne Simpson—happily married, she believes, to a loving East German man, a “piano tuner” by trade, who disappears suddenly and whose body is soon discovered. So he’s seemingly … dead. It’s up to Anne to find out what the truth is and to maneuver her way through duplicitous Stasi and CIA agents. Vidich again takes real-life events/people and fictionalizes the story around them. And the ending is a genuine stunner.

This fall, Vidich, like Cumming, has a new book due in stores: Beirut Station (Pegasus Crime), set in Lebanon in 2006.

Any reader who wants to escape into the labyrinthine world of espionage will find no better guides than these three gifted offspring of le Carré.

READ MORE:How Paul Vidich Builds His World of Spies,” by Peter Handel (CrimeReads).


Anonymous said...

Killer review, Peter!

Anonymous said...

Thanks anonymous!

George Easter said...

I agree that Steinhauer, Cumming and Vidich are very good and I have read all three and admire their work. Cumming's new novel KENNEDY 35 is excellent. But for my money the best espionage writer today is Mick Herron. By a mile. George Easter

TracyK said...

This is an excellent article. Very useful to me. Steinhauer is already among my favorite authors of spy fiction. I thought I had read all of his books, but it turns out I still haven't read The Middleman. It is on my shelves. The Yalta Boulevard Sequence is fantastic and I have kept my copies to reread someday.

I am also a fan of Charles Cumming, but I have only read 5 of his books, including Box 88. This article will help me decide where to go next with his books.

Paul Vidich is new to me. Or, that is, I have heard the name but it did not stick. I will definitely follow up on his books now, see what I can find. An annual book sale is coming up in September and I will put him on my list to check for.