Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Cairo Affair

I've blown hot and cold on Olen Steinhauer and this is the first thriller of his that I've finished. Comparisons to Le Carre are more aspirational than actual, but this book succeeds in creating an atmosphere of moral ambivalence that is quite convincing.

What attracted me to the book, bought on remainders, was the setting in Cairo -- which is where I would like to situate the second Lord Leighton adventure. There is the obligatory passage through Budapest because Steinhauer seems to really like that city (his first novel, Prague, was actually set in the Hungarian capital). Cairo itself is conveyed a little too sketchily, but the desert scenes are good. Also, interestingly, the drive along the coast into Libya was like those coastal trips of Robert Wilson's protagonist in Instruments of Darkness, giving the reader a new sense of place by bringing alive a stretch of the map.

Steinhauer's narrative here from multiple points of view means there is no single protagonist. Rather, it is like a relay race with first one, then the other character taking on that role. The author makes it clear which of these runners he finds most sympathetic, but even in that case there is some moral ambivalence. The end result, however, is somewhat less than satisfying, because none of the characters then is fully developed.

The action revolves around an American couple, a diplomat who is murdered early on and his wife. We meet Emmet Kohl again in flashbacks to their oddball honeymoon, which for some reason they decided to take in the war zone of Novi Sad. Sophie Kohl is the one thread from the beginning of the book to the end, but she shares screen time with the other characters. She improbably decides to go from Budapest, where her husband was killed, to their previous posting in Cairo to see if she can find out why he was killed. It is a premise already that requires considerable suspension of disbelief and we are never given a convincing motivation for it.

The rest of it, however -- the CIA staff in Cairo, the Egyptian secret service, the rogue operators stretching from the Balkans to the Maghreb -- is full of betrayal and twists that are indeed Le Carre-esque. Above all, the inescapable bureaucratic element of intelligence services is convincingly portrayed. The plot, based on the Arab Spring and the Libyan overthrow of Qaddafi, is quite timely.

It is, in short, an ambitious novel, reasonably well executed and well written. Le Carre it is not, but worth reading on its own merits.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lexicon

Max Barry's neurolinguistic thriller has a ton of blurbs praising it and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. He creates a conceptual world and a great cast of characters; he keeps the narrative rattling along with suspense and a big dose of humor. For the most part, he keeps the time frame of the disjointed narrative clear enough, though by the end there are so many folds into folds as the times converge, that it's a bit confusing just which one you're following. At that point, though, it hardly matters as you just want to finish in a blur to the end.

A shadowy "organization" of so-called poets maintains a discipline of what they call persuasion, and the rest of us would call manipulation. They categorize people into "segments" that allow them to use certain nonsense words to penetrate the psychological barriers each of us sets up and leave the individual powerless to resist a command -- even if it means shooting yourself or killing others.

Emily Ruff is recruited into this organization at 16 and shows an aptitude for persuasion but lacks the discipline expected of members. The plot is driven by the conflict within her between neurolinguistic manipulation and basic emotional drives. Much of it concerns retrieval and use of a "bareword" -- a potent symbol that penetrates anyone's defenses regardless of segment.

But the story doesn't start with Emily. It starts with Wil Clarke, who is kidnapped in the Portland airport by individuals who think he has the bareword because he survived the annihilation of the entire population of Broken Hill, a dying mining town in Australia. The mysterious death of 3,000 people was attributed to use of the bareword by a person first identified as Wolf, then Woolf, marking her as a renegade poet (members of the organization are given the name of a famous poet). Wil has no idea why he is being kidnapped, no recollection of ever having been in Broken Hill, and no knowledge of anything like a bareword. However, his abductor, Tom Eliot, is convinced he is the "outlier," the only survivor of the Broken Hill massacre.

Only then does the scene switch to Emily's recruitment into the Academy, the training school for the poets. The reader soon realizes this narrative is in a time preceding the opening scene and it doesn't take too long to figure out what poet name Emily is going to get when she graduates. The narrative then alternates between the two timelines, eventually introducing timelines within those timelines.

It is, then, an extremely high-concept scifi thriller, but one that bears its concepts lightly and peopled with sympathetic characters. The villain of the piece is the leader of the poets' organization, Yeats. We know he is evil because he has "flat" eyes. It turns out he also has a simple fetish that makes him vulnerable. He is of course not sympathetic and in fact the least convincing and most two-dimensional character in the book. His motivation is unclear, though his role is less ambivalent as the narrative draws to a close. As a result of the weakness of this character, however, the denouement is something of a letdown and not up the drama Barry has created.

Much of the action takes place in Broken Hill. I've never visited that town but I did spend several weeks in Australia and wrote often about Broken Hill Proprietary, the mining company headquartered there, during its heyday. Barry apparently is Australian and has some fun portraying the pros and cons of his native country and its residents.

The notion of neurolinguistic manipulation is of course very topical in our digital age, and one of the riffs by a member of the organization regarding a project they have to feed people only news they have shown they like so that anything else seems biased is scarily close to what is actually happening.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

All the Great Prizes

I've enjoyed reading this long biography of John Hay by John Taliaferro. What intrigued me is that he began his career as private secretary to Lincoln throughout his presidency and ended it as secretary of state under Teddy Roosevelt -- what a span! When you encounter him in other biographies or histories, he pops up so often, you think there must be several people named John Hay, or father and son, or some such -- but it always the same person.

The time with Lincoln and his subsequent career as a journalist and writer who knew everyone from Mark Twain to Brett Harte were interesting. His various friendships, especially with Henry Adams (so close they built houses together on Lafayette Square that are now the Hay Adams Hotel), are also interesting. I'm abandoning the 600-page book more than halfway through, however, for a couple of reasons.

One is that as admirable as Hay was in many ways he is not a particularly sympathetic individual. He was something of a dandy, and, having married into an industrial fortune, something of a playboy. He put off entreaties of his father-in-law (the source of his fortune) to return home because of the latter's growing depression over a fatal accident on one of his railroads, so that Hay could gallivant around in Europe visiting all his wonderful friends. While he dallied, his father-in-law committed suicide. The author then relates in excruciating detail Hay's infatuations with a couple of the belles of Washington and his letters that would make an adolescent blush. Taliaferro would have us believe that these relationships, if not exactly Platonic, were not consummated, which is a stretch even for that period.

But that brings us to the second reason. Taliaferro has taken Hay mostly through the interim period between Lincoln and Roosevelt without giving much sense really of what was going on in the Gilded Age. The biography seems driven by research in Hay's correspondence and makes little effort to put his activity -- or for much of the time, his inactivity -- in the context of the times. We get glimpses and glances of social ferment as labor forces rise up against the oppression of the plutocracy, but nothing more. Hay, of course, a Republican and plutocrat, has little use for any of that while he writes his gushing letters to his current infatuation, but a true appreciation of his role in history would make such context desirable.

The long and short of it is that Hay has justifiably been forgotten, except for those elusive appearances in the lives of others. Interesting and prominent in his time, he was not a great man. He was in fact a snob and a social climber who lived by his wits and charm, with enough of each to be a zelig in American history. I have too little time to read biographies to spend it on a second-rate figure. So now I'm tackling The Last Lion, William Manchester's epic biography of Winston Churchill.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Breed

This horror thriller by Scott Spencer writing as Chase Novak is a real page-turner, as a deep under-current of satire keeps it buoyant.

Miranda July referred to the book in the By the Book column in the NY Times Book Review on Sunday and I was intrigued enough to download it on my Kindle. I interrupted my reading of Gutenberg's Apprentice -- a good book, but somewhat ponderous -- for this romp through Gothic horror in modern Manhattan.

Leslie and Alex Twisden have tried every form of fertility help and are desperate enough to make the trek to Slovenia to see a specialist who has had miraculous success in helping previously infertile couples produce children. Dr. Kis is successful once again and the couple raises the twins Adam and Alice. The narrative resumes when the twins are 10 and at a critical point in their lives.

It was evident from the beginning that Dr. Kis's treatment -- which relied on an injection of "completely organic" extractions and a special serum -- had some peculiar side effects. In using what we later find out are lupine and ursine hormones to enhance fertility, the good doctor transmitted some other physical and psychological traits from the animal kingdom.

Spencer/Novak is having a lot of fun with this book. Modern obsessions about appearances, prestige, food and, well, having children, are all mocked mercilessly. The horror is real enough -- you never know terrible thing is going to happen next -- but much of the narrative is tongue in cheek, with a sly irony that is profoundly satirical. Dr. Kis, after all, and a novel called Breed where the first litter is named with A's.

Spencer is an accomplished writer. His prose breezes along with occasional lyrical flourish as he shifts effortlessly among various points of view interspersed with old-fashioned commentary as an omniscient narrator. The characters are sympathetic and the reader stays with both the parents and the children as the tension between them comes to a head.

It was a good tip.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dominion

It's been a long time since I ripped through a 600-page book as quickly as I did with this alternate history thriller by C.J. Sansom. It's another variation on the theme of Hitler winning the war. This time, Lord Halifax becomes British prime minister in 1940 instead of Churchill and signs a separate peace with Germany.

The story picks up in 1952 as a disaffected civil servant, David Fitzgerald, joins the resistance, led by a Churchill in hiding, opposing the pro-Nazi government of Lord Beaverbrook. He photographs secret documents in the Dominions Office where he works, playing on the affections of a coworker to get access to files. Then he is given a special mission to rescue an Oxford classmate, Frank Muncaster, who has been confined to an asylum after he pushed his brother out a second-floor window in his home. His brother, a scientist working on weapons research in the U.S., had confided information on his project to Frank, who was horrified and went into a rage at the information.

The plot turns on this, admittedly, far-fetched premise, but part of Sansom's artistry is that he convinces the reader to go along with it. If any novelist's task is to make the reader care about his characters, Sansom achieves this with flying colors. He carefully controls the suspense as he takes time to explore extensive backstories not only for David, but for Frank, for David's wife Sarah, and eventually for the German Gestapo agent set on their trail, Gunther Hoth.

David and Sarah have lost their only child, who died in a tumble down the stairs. David learned from his mother on her deathbed that she was Jewish, a fact concealed after her family immigrated to Ireland, making him half-Jewish -- or, as he reminds his friend in the novel, since there is no such thing as a half-Jew in the Nazi world, making him Jewish. The only other person who knows this is his father, safely emigrated to New Zealand, but David lives in fear his secret will be revealed.

Much of the narrative tension comes from the growing strain between David and Sarah, as he pursues his life of secrets and lies. She of course first suspects an affair, and David's mission-related flirtation with his coworker fuels this suspicion. There is also the fragile trust between Frank and David, who was one of Frank's few friends in university. Frank is unstable, an odd child bullied and shunned through school and fearful of the secret he has learned from his brother.

And so the plot progresses through a credibly rendered 1950s London unmarked by the ravages of a war that never took place, with forays to the asylum in Birmingham, and eventually the flight of Frank, David, and his resistance colleagues as they seek to keep Frank and his secret out of clutches of the German, or even the collaborating British.

This builds to a satisfying climax over a couple of hundred pages as the resistance mission scrambles to achieve its goal against the backdrop of an ailing Hitler nearing death and the prospect of civil war in Germany over his succession. Sansom even makes an historic smog in London an important factor in the plot.

Sansom is a skilled writer and the book is a pleasure to read. I had read Dissolution and perhaps another one of the Shardlake novels, set in Elizabethan England, as well as Winter in Madrid, but I am fascinated by these alternate histories. This one bears comparison to Fatherland and is at least as good if not better.

There is evidence of sloppy or nonexistent editing. A car's headlights are turned off twice within the space of a paragraph. We are told one of David's resistance colleagues bonded with Frank after sharing the story of her brother, but then several pages later treated to a scene where she is actually doing the sharing.

But these scarcely interfere with the flow of the narrative, enlivened by sharp sketches of the other characters -- David's pompous superior at work, a Special Branch officer assigned to work with the Gestapo in tracking down Frank, a female resistance operative who falls in love with David while assisting him in the rescue of Frank, complicating his strained relationship with Sarah, and several other skillfully drawn minor characters who don't remain two-dimensional plot devices.

Sansom discloses in passing in the acknowledgements that he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer during the writing of the book and underwent (apparently successful) treatment, making his accomplishment even more admirable.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Instruments of Darkness

This noir thriller by Robert Wilson brings the Gold Coast of West Africa to life in all its seedy and seamy glory. The hero, Bruce Medway, shuttles back and forth between Togo, Benin and Ghana, with forays into Nigeria and a glimpse of Ivory Coast, the way the rest of us go to Baltimore or Arlington. The lawless chaos that coexists in the coastal capitals of Lome, Cotonou and Accra with the country club gentility of the white expat population is the ideal setting for a convoluted mystery involving smuggling, drugs, payoffs and treachery.

Wilson is a good writer who makes this background vivid and believable. I enjoyed his bestseller, A Small Death in Lisbon, but was unfamiliar with these earlier thrillers set in Africa until I came upon this book in the second-hand bookstore in Austin, South Congress Books. Apparently they were largely unavailable in the U.S. until the success of Lisbon.

The first-person narration is done with a jaunty, if sometimes forced, humor, but witty enough to make you laugh out loud on occasion. However, none of the characters, including the narrator, elicit any consistent sympathy from the reader. Characters that appear quirky and eccentric eventually are unmasked to be psychopathic or sadistic in a way that requires too much suspension of disbelief. The array of women characters are vampy and have an almost fetishist obsession with smoking. Medway's travails -- a succession of beatings, captivity and brushes with death -- matches Dick Francis's characters in its relentless masochism. Motivations are murky and some characters are strictly utilitarian, fulfilling their role in the plot without engaging the reader.

It is, in short, not a great book, though quite readable. It could be the indelible atmosphere of expat life in West Africa will draw me back to one of the three other novels Wilson sets in this world, but maybe not.

Friday, December 12, 2014

An Officer and a Spy

I actually thought this novel by Robert Harris would be a kind of alternate history, like his Fatherland, using the Dreyfus Affair as a springboard for an imaginative historical thriller.

But it is a dramatic retelling of the Dreyfus Affair, based on the voluminous documents and featuring the historical characters -- first and foremost Georges Picquart, the army officer who stubbornly followed the evidence clearing Dreyfus and leading eventually to his exoneration.

As Zola exclaimed at one point in the novel (who knows, perhaps he really said this), "Such a tale has never been told." It is totally gripping. Minute details of the original trial, the second trial that once gain found Dreyfus guilty and the denouement of exoneration, which might have been tedious in less gifted hands, become a mountain of clues worthy of Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason.

It is told in the first person from Picquart's point of view, so there is no moralizing, no distance, no distractions. It is about the intricate framing of a Jewish officer through misplaced zeal and the determination of an officer, who thought Dreyfus was guilty and was unwittingly even part of the conspiracy to frame him, who was willing to put honor above ambition and follow the trail that showed it was indeed someone else who delivered those trifling secrets to the Germans, that Dreyfus was simply a convenient (Jewish) scapegoat, that the coverup of the this miscarriage of justice was worse than the crime itself.

Picquart is immensely sympathetic, though not unflawed. Dreyfus, on the other hand, is portrayed as decidedly unsympathetic, possessed of a stiff pride and arrogance that did nothing to help his cause. Both were terribly wronged by the army they loved, but both returned to service. Dreyfus actually came out of the reserves to fight in World War I and died in the 1930s. Picquart became Minister of War and was spared the tragedy of the war when he died falling of his horse.

The novel is a lovely map of Paris, each street there today as it was in 1895. Picquart meets Zola, Debussy and a host of other personalities from that period in the City of Light. The glory and shame of France live side by side in this fin-de-siecle cocoon that has such a dark underbelly.

I feel immeasurably enriched to have such a detailed understanding of the Dreyfus Affair. Its role in history can hardly be underestimated and the New York Times had a headline this week about growing anti-semitism in France. Plus ca change!

A wonderful book.