Book reviews: spy and investigation genre fiction

Updated December 20, 1996

New (December 20, 1996): Added a review of John Le Carre is most definitely the master of the spy fiction genre. I highly recommend The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Russia House. However, be forewarned that Le Carre tends to be rather contemplative and thus his material sometimes moves slowly. After reading these two books, I went out and bought his whole catalogue, which I am slowly working my way through. Some of them are real clunkers! I'd be interested in hearing from other Le Carre enthusiasts.

On a road trip last fall, I had the chance to listen to a 6-hour abridgement of Le Carre's A Perfect Spy, read by LeCarre himself. I had twice attempted to read the book, but had become bogged down after about 150 pages, or one quarter of the way through. I didn't have the patience for the slow pace. Listening to the abridgement, I found that the story doesn't pick up much, but it was excellent for our drive from Toronto to Cincinnati.

The story is about a spy (what else?) Pym who escapes the service. It follows two timelines: one is the story of Pym and his father, and the other is the chase to find Pym, wherever he is.

People from the net (hello out there!) have recommended LeCarre's Quest for Karla trilogy to me. It consists of the three novels Tinker, Sailor, Soldier, Spy, followed by The Honourable Schoolboy, and finishes with Smiley's People. Apparently the first and last are quite good, and the second is worth reading to get the entire sweep of the story.

Martin Cruz Smith

One of my favourites is Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park. It isn't a spy novel or political thriller per se, but it appeals to the same side of me that is attracted to Le Carre's work. Gorky Park is a murder story told from the point of view of a Moscow investigator. It resonates with the ring of truth throughout its layers of complexity, both of plot line and of character. I also liked its sequel, Polar Star.

I've just finished (June 1996) the third book in the sequence, Red Square. It too is excellent. The last chapter gives quite a moving picture of the essence and meaning of Russian democracy.

To give you an idea of the depth and ``ring of truth'' atmosphere in these books, Red Square goes into some detail about the Chechens in Russia/USSR. This book was the first place that I had heard of the Chechens -- and this was months before the Russian/Chechen war broke out. (I started reading Red Square in the summer of '94 but had to stop. I only went back to it in June of '96.)

I'm so impressed with Smith that I may just acquire and read his a good portion of his entire body of work as well. I've just bought (June 1996) Stallion Gate, Smith's fictional story of the early stages of the Manhattan Project. I hope to read it very soon.

Other authors

In the fall of 1996 I read Enigma by Robert Harris. It bills itself as ``documentary fiction'', following the story of the fictional Tom Jericho in the very real setting of Bletchley Park, England during the World War II. Bletchley Park is the British code-breaking hothouse, where Alan Turing and company broke German U-boat Enigma codes. Jericho's story intertwines the historical events of the battle of the Atlantic, the battle to break the codes, and a spy story. There is love, deception, history, politics, and more. Harris does a good job of rolling them all into one believable, even gripping novel.

This deserves to be a best-seller.

I tried reading Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October but for me the story got bogged down in all the technical detail with which he was trying to impress. If I had wanted to read a manual, I would have gone out and read a manual. Go see his movies instead. Besides, Clancy's too much of a right-winger for me.
I had read of Robert Ludlum's reputation, so I went and bought The Icarus Agenda. 675 pages of improbable trash. At least my copy was second hand. :)
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