Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Live and Let Die: Ian Fleming

Summary from the back of my edition...
Bond has never met an adversary like Mr. Big, a gangland kingpin who uses voodoo to control his vast criminal empire. And Bond has never met a woman like Solitaire, the beautiful Creole fortune teller Mr. Big keeps under lock and key. When a crooked trail of smuggled gold leads through Mr. Big's New York City hideout to SMERSH headquarters in Moscow, 007 flies to America to investigate. The racket will take him from the streets of Harlem to the Florida Everglades, into and out of Solitaire's arms, and deep beneath the waters off a secret Jamaican island where nothing but danger and bloodthirsty sharks await.

Many spy stories are thrillers, less cerebral than a mystery and concentrating more on action and tension. This story goes in that direction to the extreme. There is a search for pirate treasure and undersea battles with sea creatures, and a lot of blood and gore. And it is a very exciting story that I could not put down, even when some of the reading was very distasteful to me.

I will start with the negatives first. A good part of the plot centers on a large criminal organization run by Mr. Big, a very powerful black man who works for SMERSH. He uses fear and superstition to control the people who work for him in Harlem, in Florida, and on a small island near Jamaica. The descriptions relating to black people in this book are painful to read. I did not feel like Ian Fleming was racist, yet the writing on that subject made me wince. And a large part of the book has those elements, so it is hard to bypass.


But there were many positives. The story was well written and entertaining, if a bit more fantastical than I care for. The change of location to the US was fun. Bond's visit to New York and reunion with CIA agent Felix Leiter was entertaining. I always enjoy books that feature trains; here there is a train trip to St. Petersburg. There were some barbed comments on the retirement communities in Florida. The story then moves to Jamaica.

Here is Solitaire's description of St. Petersburg:
'Everybody's nearly dead in St. Petersburg,' explained Solitaire. 'It's the Great American Graveyard. When the bank clerk or the post-office worker or the railroad conductor reaches sixty he collects his pension or his annuity and goes to St. Petersburg to get a few years' sunshine before he dies. It's called “The Sunshine City”. The weather's so good that the evening paper there, The Independent, is given away free any day the sun hasn't shone by edition time. It only happens three or four times a year and it's a fine advertisement. Everybody goes to bed around nine o'clock in the evening and during the day the old folks play shuffleboard and bridge, herds of them. There's a couple of baseball teams down there, the “Kids” and the “Kubs”, all over seventy-five! Then they play bowls, but most of the time they sit squashed together in droves on things called “Sidewalk Davenports”, rows of benches up and down the sidewalks of the main streets. They just sit in the sun and gossip and doze. It's a terrifying sight, all these old people with their spectacles and hearing-aids and clicking false-teeth.' 
'Sounds pretty grim,' said Bond. 'Why the hell did Mr. Big choose this place to operate from?' 
'It's perfect for him,' said Solitaire seriously. 'There's practically no crime, except cheating at bridge and Canasta. So there's a very small police force. There's quite a big Coastguard Station but it's mainly concerned with smuggling between Tampa and Cuba , and sponge-fishing out of season at Tarpon Springs...'
Shortly after reading the book my husband, son, and I watched the movie. I haven't seen many of the Bond movies starring Roger Moore, so it was new to me. There were a lot of changes. In this case I guess I prefer the movie because there were no racial slurs. The movie was released in 1973, nearly 20 years after the book was published.

The characters are mostly recognizable but changed. Yaphet Kotto plays Dr. Katanga, a Caribbean dictator, who rules an island where heroin poppies are farmed. He controls the psychic, Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour. In this case, Solitaire and James meet in New York, then James flies to New Orleans and they meet again on the island in the Caribbean.

My husband noted and liked the lack of gadgets. Desmond Llewelyn featured as Q in all of the Sean Connery films except the first one, Dr. No. He was unable to appear in Live and Let Die but returned for the next eleven Bond films, through The World Is Not Enough.

See these posts on Live and Let Die:

Patrick's review at Scene of the Crime

Two posts at Moira's Clothes in Books, Part I and Part II.

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Publisher:   Thomas & Mercer, 2012 (orig. pub. 1954) 
Length:       230 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       James Bond, #2
Setting:      New York, Florida, Jamaica
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Trouble on the Thames: Victor Bridges

Trouble on the Thames by Victor Bridges was published in 1945, but is set in the late 1930's, in the lead up to World War II. Owen Bradwell loves his career as a naval officer but fears he will be stuck with a desk job because he has become color-blind. His former skipper has sent him to talk to Captain Greystoke about a possible assignment. Greystoke requests that he go undercover and watch a man who is suspected of being a Nazi agent. As luck would have it, he was already planning to vacation near the area he needs to surveil. He will borrow a friend's punt to travel down the Thames. If you are like me and don't know what a punt is, here is a definition: "a long, narrow, flat-bottomed boat, square at both ends and propelled with a long pole, used on inland waters chiefly for recreation."

A second set of characters is introduced: Ruth Barlow and Sally Deane, who own and run an interior decorating shop. An unsavory character is blackmailing Sally's younger sister and Sally plans to come to her rescue. She ends up rescuing Oliver when he walks into a bad situation and  is hit on the head, resulting in amnesia.


This novel is described as a spy thriller but it is heavy on the adventure and romance, and thus not my usual cup of tea. Yet I was thoroughly engaged in the story. I can't say why exactly, but it really pulled me in and kept me turning the pages. There were some slow parts at the beginning when the author set up the various characters and their background and in the middle when Owen is punting around, but the rest of the story moved at a nice pace. Publisher's Weekly described this book as a "charming entertainment" and I would agree with them.

The characters seemed like stereotypes to me. There was the spunky heroine (Sally), the brave male protagonist (Owen), etc. Most of the characters were described as very good or very bad, with very few shades of gray. Yet I did like the main characters quite a bit. The bad guys were not portrayed with much depth.

Although this book was published in 1945 and the setting is London and surrounding areas right before the beginning of World War II, the writing felt more modern to me. The text did have its share of ethnic slurs, although this fit in with the times, with war threatening.

This book was my choice for the Crimes of the Century meme, hosted by Rich at Past Offences.

Per the Poisoned Pen Press web site:
Victor Bridges (1878-1972) was a prolific author of crime and thriller novels from the years before the First World War to the 1960s. Much of his fiction was set in Essex and East Anglia. His most popular book, Greensea Island, sold over 300,000 copies, but his work has been largely forgotten since his death.
Martin Edwards wrote the introduction for this edition, and he provides more information about the author.


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Publisher:    Poisoned Pen Press, 2015 (orig. pub. 1945)
Length:        222 pages
Format:        Trade paperback
Setting:        Late 1930's, UK
Genre:         Espionage fiction
Source:        I purchased my copy at my local independent bookstore.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

What is Mine: Anne Holt

This novel, set in Norway, follows two investigations. The primary plot line is the abduction of several young children. Inspector Adam Stubo wants Johanne Vik, a former FBI profiler, to work with him on the case. Johanne is currently doing legal research, and she rejects his requests for her assistance. Stubo feels strongly that Johanne's investigative gifts will make the difference in the investigation, and he continues to pester her regarding his case.

The secondary plot is Johanne's investigation of a man's conviction for the rape of a young girl over forty years ago. Aksel  Seier may have been wrongly convicted; he was later released from prison with no explanation. He moved to the US after he was released and purchased a house in Harwich Port, Cape Cod. Johanne travels to the US to interview him.

I liked that the story was told from multiple points of view and moved to different locations. The multiple story lines and points of view can get confusing, but I think it was this style that pulled me into the story. And the very interesting characters.

Although the police investigation of the child abduction case is important, this is not a standard police procedural. It focuses more on the main investigators and their relationship, working and personal. Both are individualists, not great at working in a team environment. Their idiosyncrasies and family relationships add to the richness of the story.

The only complaint I would have is that the final resolution involves too many unrealistic and convenient coincidences. That is somewhat typical for a thriller but I felt that this novel was more than that. However, I liked the novel overall and I will be coming back to this series.

What is Mine was the English language debut of Anne Holt, a Norwegian author, and the first book in the Vik and Stubo series. The title in Norway was Det som er mitt; in the UK it was published as Punishment. Several novels in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series were published prior to this one in Norway, and most of the books in both series have now been translated into English and published in the US and the UK.

Also check out Bernadette's review at Reactions to Reading and Rebecca's review at Ms. Wordopolis Reads.

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Publisher:   Warner Books, 2006 (orig. pub. 2001)
Translator:  Kari Dickson
Length:       391 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Setting:       Norway
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased this book.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Call for the Dead: John le Carré

Early Wednesday morning, Smiley is summoned to the Cambridge Circus because a civil servant, Samuel Fennan is dead, a suicide. Smiley had interviewed him on the previous Monday to investigate an anonymous tip that he was a member of the Communist Party at Oxford. The interview had gone well and Smiley had told the man that he would be cleared of any suspicion. However, Fennan claimed in his suicide note that Smiley had ruined his career. Maston, head of the Circus, requests that Smiley follow up by interviewing Fennan's wife.

The title refers to a wake up call for the dead man that is received the morning after he died. This call comes to his home, and Smiley answers the phone. This convinces Smiley that the man did not commit suicide, even though all of the evidence points towards suicide. He insists on investigating further, against the wishes of Maston. This book introduces us to Peter Guillam and Inspector Mendel, who work with Smiley on the case; both have roles in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It also has the first appearance of Mundt, who features prominently in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

I first read this book in 2007. In January of this year, I finally started reading the remainder of the Smiley novels. When I got around to reviewing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Sergio of Tipping My Fedora noted the connection to Call for the Dead, which I had forgotten entirely. Now, after going back and re-reading it, I do see that this book is a good introduction to the later books.

However, it did take me another nine years to come back to le Carré's after reading Call for the Dead the first time. I did not dislike the book on the first read, but I don't think I was terribly impressed. Now, after reading several other of the Smiley books, I had an entirely different reaction.

This time I found Call for the Dead clever and compelling, a very short novel with a lot of depth for its length. It is primarily a detective story, and Smiley's ability to analyze and evaluate facts is highlighted. But it is also set within the framework of MI6 operations and its bureaucracy.

Having now read the first five books featuring Smiley, I find myself confused at the time line of the books overall, and from what I have read at other blogs, I am not the only one. It doesn't really matter for the enjoyment of the books,  but I have a mind that likes to organize things, so I keep trying to figure it out. Are all the books told in the order of Smiley's career? It seems like every book I have read mentions Smiley coming back out of retirement. The first chapter in the book is devoted to an overview of Smiley's career, and you would think this would straighten out the time line but it did not help.

Also see these posts:



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Publisher:   Pocket Books, 2002 (orig. pub. 1961) 
Length:       144 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       George Smiley novel
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Web of Deceit: Katherine Howell

From the summary at the author's website:
When paramedics Jane and Alex encounter a man refusing to get out of his crashed car, with bystanders saying he deliberately drove into a pole, it looks like a desperate cry for help. His frantic claim that someone is out to get him adds to their thinking that he is delusional. 
Later that day he is found dead under a train in what might be a suicide, but Jane is no longer so sure: she remembers the terror in his eyes. 
Detective Ella Marconi shares Jane's doubts, which are only compounded when the case becomes increasingly tangled.
Although this is the sixth book in an eight book series, this is only the third book by Howell that I have read. I read the first two books, Frantic and The Darkest Hour.  Detective Ella Marconi is the main character in the series but each book also features a paramedic who gets involved with a crime, and the case that Marconi is working on intersects in some way with the issues in the paramedic's life. In this book, we have two paramedics featured: Alex, a single father of a teenage daughter who recently was involved in a traumatic episode at work, and Jane, his partner, who is in a troubled relationship with a married man.

Katherine Howell is very good with characterization, and I find the people in the books very realistic. So realistic, in fact, that I get irritated with them and want them to get themselves straightened out. I also like the pacing of the stories. I have read the first two books in the series, and the pacing is what pulled me in. The second one, The Darkest Hour, was very long, nearly 500 pages in my mass market paperback edition, but I hardly noticed because the story moved so well. This one is a more reasonable length, 347 pages.

In some ways, this is a typical thriller. Some of the characters end up doing very stupid things that lead to problems in their lives, and the connections between various plot threads and the ending strains belief. But the story keeps the reader (at least this one) engaged, and it is easy to get involved and suspend disbelief. Although this is primarily a police procedural, I enjoy the elements of the story that follow the paramedics in their jobs and in their off hours.

Web of Deceit is the first Ella Marconi mystery published in the US. The publisher, Minotaur Books, provided me with my copy and I was very grateful. I have found it difficult to get copies of Katherine Howell's books here. I hope they will be publishing more of her books.

I did not have any problem reading the 6th book in the series without having read the three books that went before. Based on Ella's relationship with Dr. Callum McLennan in this book, some events have happened in her life that I missed by not reading books 3 - 5, but enough background detail is included. Many reviewers of this series of novels have commented that the books can be read as standalone novels, and I agree. Especially with the addition of a new paramedic each book, each story works alone very well.

See other reviews:


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Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2015 (orig. pub. 2013)
Length:      347 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Ella Marconi #6
Setting:      Sydney, Australia
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:     Review copy provided by the publisher.



Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Billion-Dollar Brain: Len Deighton

Brief summary at Goodreads:
The fourth of Deighton's novels to be narrated by the unnamed employee of WOOC(P) is the thrilling story of an anti-communist espionage network owned by a Texan billionaire, General Midwinter, run from a vast computer complex known as the Brain. After having been recruited by Harvey Newbegin, the narrator travels from the bone-freezing winter of Helsinki, Riga and Leningrad, to the stifling heat of Texas, and soon finds himself tangling with enemies on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
I have read four books in the nameless spy series by Len Deighton. Ipcress File was the first Len Deighton book I read and I was totally confused the whole time I was reading it. I liked Horse Under Water much better; I was more used to the style of writing and the character, and the plot seemed much more straightforward to me. Funeral in Berlin was very good; I liked the setting especially, and the plot and new characters were entertaining.


Billion-Dollar Brain seemed quite different from the others. More James Bondish, more fantastical and fun. I was still in a state of confusion for a good bit of the time, plot-wise, but enjoyed the book regardless.

Both le Carré and Deighton write about the bureaucracy in espionage; the difference is that le Carré's writing is much bleaker and Deighton's books are more fun to read. Or that is my experience so far. Admittedly, I get less confused about the plotlines with le Carre's books.

This book has memorable characters, in addition to the unnamed agent and his boss, Dawlish, and his secretary, Jean. Harvey Newbegin and the KGB colonel, Stok, were both in Funeral in Berlin. General Midwinter is larger than life and very scary. There is a young Finnish girl, Signe Laine, who is an agent for some group, maybe the Americans, maybe the Russians.

And on a side note, the depiction of a supercomputer in this novel (and the film) was interesting to me. Although I work in computer technology, I don't know much about the history of computing and what was available when. I worked in computers in the 1980s, although at a level of data entry and computer operations at that point. I remember using punch cards and reel-to-reel tapes. Very nostalgic.

Deighton's introduction to the book adds more value and insight. He talks about his travels to all of the places included in the story, and the importance of going at the same time of year as the setting of the book. Since the protagonist visits Helsinki, Latvia, Leningrad, New York, and Texas, that is a lot of traveling.

Deighton also talks about the writing process:
Editors and publishers said my books were too cryptic; too fragmented and demanded too much of the reader. They all pressed me to conform to the orthodox methods of 'popular fiction'. For instance, they were united in expecting a full description of each character at the first entrance. I resisted all this fiercely; I hadn't followed any such rules in my previous books and I refused to be tied to them now. I reasoned that, just as one never gets to the end of discovering new aspects of old friends and relatives, so I wanted all my characters -- even minor ones -- to be more completely revealed as the story continued.

The film adaptation, Billion Dollar Brain, with Michael Caine, Karl Malden, and Ed Begley, was also fun. I have pointed out that the book is more the James Bond type of story than any of the previous books in the series. Same for the movie.

There are many differences between the book and the film, including the way the plot is resolved. The film adaptations for The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin were closer to the books, and watching them illuminated my understanding of the books. In this case, the two were very different, and hard to compare.

Just a few notes:

  • There  were cameos by Donald Sutherland and Susan George but they were so brief I did not notice them.
  • A lot of the names are changed but most of the characters are there. 
  • The novel features a rich billionaire running a conspiracy plot with a huge computer, but the computer is not the most important aspect of the story. The movie gives more time to the computer and General Midwinter's invasion.
  • The computers in the film were provided by Honeywell.

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Publisher:  Reissued 2011 by Sterling (first published 1966)
Length:      282 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:       Nameless Spy
Setting:      Helsinki, Latvia, Leningrad, New York, and Texas
Genre:       Espionage fiction