Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Should we believe in coincidences? I believe I should. Lately, I picked up several books in a row that all repeated a similar theme. It meant either that plenty of authors have similar dreams, or my reading picks are not as random as I thought. It may also be a sign that I am meant to write about these books. Their main idea is that what goes around comes around, and what you did during World War II will come back to haunt you, no matter where you did it. It is usually Sister Mary who has the goods on skullduggery during the Second World War, but I will trespass just a little bit today.

William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." This quotation might be the best part of his Requiem for a Nun and it really came to mind with Death on the Marais by Adrian Magson.

Marais is the French word for marsh, or quagmire, and that is what Inspector Lucas Rocco finds when he is transferred from his Paris job to Poissons-les-Marais. He had been a Paris policeman for a long time when a new broom in the Interior Ministry felt that the more rural provinces needed some Parisian expertise in law enforcement. Rocco was exiled to this country village in Picardie, a northwestern province of France. His superiors had a few interesting things to say of him, like that "he was an insubordinate bastard, insolent as well as pushy, dogmatic and a nobody, reckless … a rebel. A good cop, though."

Rocco expects the new assignment to be quiet, uneventful and maybe boring, but he doesn't expect that the first thing he will run into in the village is a crowd pulling a dead woman from the marsh at the edge of a war cemetery. The shocker is that she is wearing a Gestapo uniform––when World War II has been over for 20 years.

This novel is set in the 1960s, and Rocco's war experiences are of another war, not World War II. He spent his army days in the jungles of Indochina during the conflict between the French and the Vietnamese, after France reoccupied the area after World War II. He had developed sharply-honed survival skills that come back to him as he negotiates the treacherous bogs of the marais, as well as the vagaries of the locals as they once again align themselves into separate camps of collaboration and resistance.

Once the woman is identified as the daughter of a well-connected wealthy man named Phillippe Bayer-Barbier, Rocco heads back to Paris, following the trail of very dirty secrets. The detective is astounded at the man's reaction to his daughter's death. Bayer-Barbier begins to lie and then distance himself, behaving as if she brought this on herself. He is a man with many skeletons in his closet, most of them nasty, and most of them having been buried during the war.

There is an interesting cast of ancillary characters in this village: the local policeman, a tramp whose expertise is defusing bombs left over from the war, as well as several people who service a small mansion where Parisian men come for nefarious, mostly sexual, purposes and perversions. Rocco doesn't know whom to trust, and the seemingly calm waters hide dangerous undercurrents. The mystery is exciting and as murky as any marais, and what has happened in the past lies bubbling just under the surface.

The dogs of this war refuse to lie down in other countries as well. In Italy, there is still a pas de deux featuring people who took different sides in the war, and who still distrust each other, but now must perform together amicably.

Jill Downie's Daggers and Men's Smiles begins in Guernsey, a Channel Island that was the site of great German fortifications and an Organisation Todt forced-labor camp in which prisoners were worked to their deaths. Detective Inspector Ed Moretti returns from a trip to Italy to find that while away, he has been assigned a new female partner, DC Liz Falla. There is also an international production company on the island, making a movie based on a bestselling novel about an aristocratic Italian family at the end of the Second World War.

The novel is called Rastrellamento and dramatizes a military round-up of partisans who had been betrayed to the Nazis. Guernsey's cement bunkers, underground command post and hospital make for excellent film locations, and the cream on the pie is that the manor house is still inhabited by expatriate Italians, the Vannonis.

Ed Moretti himself is of Italian heritage. His father was a prisoner of war in the Todt camp and his mother was a native Guernsey girl who risked her life to give him food. After the war, he came back and married her. Ed speaks Italian and this is of help when a series of murders shakes up the island.

First to die is the philandering son-in-law of the Vannonis, and then the pompous author of Rastrellamento. The striking feature of both murders is the use of a ceremonial dagger similar to one on the Vannoni coat of arms.

There is quite a bit of mystery surrounding the Vannonis, and the past is never spoken of. The solutions to the crimes lie in Italy and in what went before. The Vannonis were, at one time, involved with Mussolini, fascism and more. Moretti goes to Italy to find his answers.

Both Death on the Marais and Daggers and Men's Smiles are the first in a series. I liked Rocco, Moretti and Falla. Both of the Guernsey cops moonlight musically in the evenings, when they have free time. Ed plays a mean jazz piano and Liz is a folk singer with an Enya sound.

Even in the US, the echoes of the World War II past come back like ghosts. In Desert Run, by Betty Webb, the mystery is fashioned on some of the real events surrounding the German POW camps in Arizona. A documentary is being shot at Papago Park about the German POW camp that had been located there, and the "Great Escape" of Christmas Eve, in 1944. The film is to tell the story that during the autumn months, the prisoners dug a tunnel under the desert floor to a nearby river, which the escaping Germans planned to use to transport themselves to Mexico.

With the help of a map, which appeared to show that a nearby river flowed all the way to Mexico, and under the cover of singing Christmas carols, 28 escapees went under the fence. They soon discovered that in the Sonora Desert, rivers are usually dry and go nowhere. Most escapees were recaptured in days.

One surviving escapee, Kapitan Erik Ernst, is now 90 years old and about to be interviewed about these past events. Before he can speak his piece, he is murdered. Scottsdale PI Lena Jones is doing security for Warren Quinn, the director of the documentary. Both Quinn and the Ethiopian caregiver, who has been accused of Ernst's murder, want Lena to find his killer. The answer may lie in the past.

During the escape, three men separated from the others, who were recaptured. Ernst was among the three who avoided immediate recapture. They fled into the mountains, where they were suspected of brutally murdering a local family. Another suspect in Ernst's death is Chess Bolinger, the only member of the family to survive the massacre. He had plenty of motives to kill Ernst, because he had been living under the suspicion of being the murderer of his family as well. And he knew the truth.

Nothing is known of the other two men who were with Ernst, and Betty Webb weaves an intriguing tale about what happened to these men. In a postscript, she gives the reader a short history of the POW camps, the 1944 escape and the recapture off all of the 25 escapees. She mentions that several former POWs moved to Arizona after the war. In 1985, there was a reunion of former POWs at the site, which is now part of the Oakland Athletics training fields.

Out of the blue, the next book I picked up was Kate Ellis's The Armada Boy, which tells a tale of a D-Day veteran returning to England for a reunion.

Fifty years after D-Day, a group of elderly Americans have returned to the Devonshire town of Bereton, where they had prepared for the Normandy invasion. One of the old soldiers, Norman Openheim, is found murdered on the grounds of an old chapel where the GIs used to meet the local girls for romantic encounters.

The people of the area have long memories––many of them good, but most bitterly recall that their village was taken from them by the authorities, and when they return, it was a shambles. It was no secret that the GI influence over the local girls was resented.

It seemed also that Norman might have left more than just memories behind. His wartime girlfriend was pregnant when he was recalled to the US. Norman's wife does not seem particularly saddened by his demise when Detective Sergeant Wesley Peterson begins his investigation by interviewing her. Motives swirl around this case, because one of the reunion party is suspected of raping a local girl and one of the GIs was supposed to have shot a local man who was poaching in an out-of-bounds area. Yes, indeed, the past is where the answer is to be found for this death in the present.

The historical facts of the matter were that there was an area of Devon evacuated at the end of 1943 so that the US troops could rehearse the D-Day landings there. All the local people and their animals were evacuated and had to find alternative places to live. There is a memorial on Slapton Sands in South Devon to the American troops who died during Exercise Tiger, a practice for the D-Day landings held in April 1944. Nearly 800 men (more than the number who died during the actual invasion of Normandy) were killed in the exercise, one of the great tragedies of World War II.

I began with Faulkner and end with Faulkner, who really understood the past and the present. "It's all now you see. Yesterday won't be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Review of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Our protagonist is Ursula Todd, the third of five children of Harold Todd, a banker, and his young wife, Sylvie. They live in the English countryside, at a large house they call Fox Corner. We begin on the snowy 1910 night of Ursula's birth––which is also the night of her death.

It should make for an awfully short book to have the protagonist die on the same page she is born, but Ursula is an unusual sort of person. She makes a sort of habit of dying. Born dead, dead in her crib, dying multiple times as a child, as a young woman, and on and on. But, after each death, there she is again, with another chance to avoid catastrophe––at least the particular catastrophes that came before.

Ursula becomes anxious about the sense of deadly déja vu she sometimes has, while her family worries about her anxiety and about the odd and unpredictable things she says and does. The Todd family's maid, Bridget, says young Ursula has the second sight, but the psychiatrist she's packed off to see thinks she is an "old soul," and that her memories are of future events. If she is an old soul, does that mean she can devise a plan that will avoid these calamities, personal and more wide-ranging, that life seems to have in such plentiful supply?

The Mitford family
Just as Ursula's life takes many different paths––or, I should say, lives take many different paths––there are different ways of reading this inspired novel. You may read it for the sheer pleasure of the story, which often resembles Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, a semi-autobiographical comic novel about the famous Mitford family, with their six daughters and one son, who were (mostly) Bright Young Things of the 1920s, and notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for their extreme (and violently varying among them) political views. Ursula's sister Pamela reminded me of Pamela Mitford, her brother Teddy of Tom Mitford, her aunt Izzie of Nancy Mitford. Several events in the book are reminiscent of those described in The Pursuit of Love and in nonfiction books about the Mitfords. There is even a brief reference in Life After Life to one of the Mitfords, which made me think that the resemblances between the Todds and the Mitfords wasn't accidental. (But let me be quick to say that you don't have to have any familiarity with the Mitfords or to have read The Pursuit of Love to appreciate Life After Life.)

Reading any Kate Atkinson novel just to enjoy the storytelling is rewarding, because she has a gift for narrative; capturing the tragic comedy of life, where history and circumstance make all of our plans foolish. Her stories nonchalantly gambol along, even amidst brutality and grim death. Like Pogo, Atkinson seems to believe that life ain't nohow permanent––so we might as well get the most out of it all, even its grotesqueries.

Atkinson makes it easy to fall in love with her characters, despite––or maybe even because of––their flaws. And Atkinson's depiction of time and place are so vivid I felt I was there on the terrace at Fox Corner with the shadows lengthening on a summer evening; there building sand castles on the beach with the Todd family; there in London with Ursula during the relentless bombing of the Blitz, and the endlessly cold and gray days after the war, when continued scarcity of food, gas and electricity made life as bleak and grinding as wartime––except without the excitement of the bombing and the feeling that every day of survival was a blow struck against the Nazis.

But while you're reading this Mitford-esque, but oh-so-Atkinsonian, story, it's hard not to get caught up in the intricate structure of Atkinson's clever plot. I found myself paying careful attention to the chapter titles, and poring over the table of contents to study the construction of the book and tease out hidden meanings. When you read it, as I hope you will, make sure to draft some friends to read it at the same time, so that you can talk about Ursula's lives, how one's actions affect the course of one's own life and those of others, whether you would want to have multiple lives yourself and what you might do with them.

Wry, suspenseful, thrilling, poignant and thought-provoking, Life After Life is a delightfully fresh and inventive novel that should make many 2013 best books lists, and very possibly become an enduring classic.

Life After Life will be published in the US by Reagan Arthur Books (an imprint of Little, Brown and Company) on April 2, 2013.

Note: I received a free publisher's review copy of this book. A version of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads and other review sites under my user names there.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Random Thoughts

No theme post or book review today. Just some stream-of-consciousness musings from the past few days.

I'm continuing my current espionage craze. I'm probably the last person to read Daniel Silva's The Unlikely Spy, from 2003, but better late than never. This historical thriller pits university don Alfred Vicary, now with British intelligence, against the Nazis' sleeper agent, Catherine Blake. Vicary's task is to implement plans to trick Germany into thinking that the D-Day invasions will come at Pas de Calais and Norway, rather than Normandy. Blake's orders are to find out the Allies' invasion plans––and avoid getting caught by those who suspect the Nazis have an agent on the case.

This is a real ham sandwich of a story, a guilty pleasure filled with action, over-the-top melodrama and plenty of cheese and mustard. Some of the writing may cause heartburn (how can somebody glare without any expression in his eyes?), but there is thrilling storytelling on display. I can't say much for the audiobook narrator, but he's not actually painful to listen to.

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You know you might be reading too much espionage when somebody starts chatting with you via comments on your book reviews on Amazon and your mind leaps to wondering how book review comments might be used to pass secret messages.

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Della's review of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared grabbed my interest and I downloaded the audiobook. What a piece of inspired silliness! It's a charming yarn, a bit of a shaggy dog story, and the perfect selection to put a smile on your face.

Now I need to move on to the next book inspired by my colleagues here on Read Me Deadly. Periphera's review of Murder at the New York World's Fair inspired me to request that chestnut from interlibrary loan and I'm excited about reading it––even though the copy I received is a beat-up old paperback with a completely out-of-whack spine. It should make a nice change of pace from my other ILL books: Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 and Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.

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I've mentioned before that one of my guilty pleasures is watching TV crime dramas. There are many recycled plots that make me roll my eyes, but there's one that I just can't stand, and that's kidnapping, taking hostage or otherwise threatening the protagonist's family members. Well, it must be February sweeps, because we have the teenage daughters of the protagonists in two TV crime dramas kidnapped. Yes, this is the cheap melodrama featured in both Body of Proof and a two-parter on Castle. My eyes aren't just rolling, they're at full spin––and you could get scorched from the steam coming out of my ears.

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David Tennant plays DI Alec Hardy in Broadchurch
I wrote last September about my annoyance at having to wait for British crime fiction to be published in the US. Now I'm grumbling about British TV crime drama. Britain's ITV recently completed filming on a new police procedural series called Broadchurch, starring David Tennant, the marvelous actor who played the 10th Doctor Who (and my favorite) from 2005 to 2010. Broadchurch will begin next month in the UK. Supposedly, we'll get it in the US on BBC America sometime later this year, but I don't know when. Why must I wait?!

UK viewers will also shortly get to see a miniseries based on Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher mystery series. It was produced in Australia and shown there last year, and a second series will begin airing there shortly. As far as I know, there is no US telecast scheduled, though Acorn has purchased the rights to distribute the DVDs in the US.

You Downton Abbey fans know this frustration. That bang-up finale that US viewers saw on February 17 was telecast in the UK on Christmas Day, and spoiler-y comments about it have been all over the internet since then.

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I keep seeing promotions for a new ABC show called Red Widow that premiered earlier this week. I couldn't figure out from the promos what the heck it was about, but I finally looked at the show's web page and see that it's about Marta, a woman who "has tried to stay out of her father's world of organized crime, but everything changes after her loving husband is brutally murdered." Guess what ethnicity her father's gang is? If you read my post here, then you will know to buzz in and say "What is Russian, Alex" for the Daily Double answer.

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This last random thought doesn't have anything to do with mysteries. I've been reading Barbara Pym's Excellent Women for my book club meeting tonight. I read it many years ago, but I think this is a book that can be best appreciated when you are "of a certain age." It's wonderful in several ways, one of which is its many one-line zingers. I'll leave you with some of my favorites, at least one of which may be worth keeping in mind as we head into the weekend:

"I had observed that men did not usually do things unless they liked doing them."

"I did part-time work at an organization that helped impoverished gentlewomen, a cause very near to my own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one."

"I was a little dismayed, as we often are when our offers of help are taken at their face value."

"Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Investigating the Detectives

Most mystery readers have a few detective series that they follow closely, as much for the characters as for the stories. And authors are very clever, releasing personal information about their characters' current and prior lives very s-l-o-w-l-y. They can take quite a few books to build up a reasonably robust picture of the protagonist's life and character for the curious reader. During a recent spate of hurry-up-and-wait appointments, I had time to ponder a few of the more memorable detectives whose adventures have enlivened my days.

Elizabeth George's Thomas Lynley, eighth Earl of Asherton and Scotland Yard Inspector, is a very interesting character with a brooding Heathcliffe touch. He was in college when his father died, leaving him with the title and estate and some responsibility for a younger brother, Peter. The tangled relationships within his family and his guilt at the accident that crippled his best friend, Simon Allcourt-Saint James, led him to abandon his mother and brother after his father's death in favor of the police force. He has acquired quite a reputation as a ladies' man, and goes home to his estates as seldom as possible. His friend Simon is engaged to Deborah, who had an earlier fling with Lynley, whose interest in her lingers in the early books. Lynley's partner, Sergeant Barbara Havers, comes from an entirely different working-class background. Her father is critically ill, and her mother beginning to show signs of incipient dementia. Barbara's in-your-face attitude and gritty hardscrabble home life is quite a contrast to Lynley's, whom she initially loathes. You can follow this cast of characters through a satisfying series of now 17 Lynley books, the first of which, A Great Deliverance, won numerous prizes. Several of the stories have appeared on PBS, with actor Nathaniel Parker in the title role.

I am seriously intrigued by Louise Penny's compassionate, philosophical Armand Gamache in her Three Pines series, and have followed the gradual unfolding of his personality and life with avid interest from book to book. An honest, observant, even-tempered man, he has reached his position of Chief Inspector of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec through effort and talent alone. In contrast to Lynley, Gamache's home life is full and satisfying, if seldom glimpsed by the reader. He has been married for many years to the elfin Reine-Marie, and they have two grown children; a son in Paris and a daughter in Québec. We learn early that Gamache had been orphaned in childhood, and that there is something odd about his late father. Gamache is a supportive leader and mentor to his team, who trust him implicitly. His relationship with his second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, is paternal as well as professional. It is not until Gamache meets the coldest woman in the series that I got a fuller––if viciously biased––picture of Gamache's father from a deliberately hurtful woman who happened to be the mother of his friend Peter Morrow, a Three Pines artist.

The town of Three Pines, in the beautiful secluded Eastern Townships of Québec, is as much a character in this series as the people. The author says "Three Pines wasn’t on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road. Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in the valley all along. Anyone fortunate enough to find it once usually found their way back." Artists, damaged people, and general misfits tend to find it and settle there, offering a heady brew of characters for the novelist. Cell phone and television reception are unreliable; the village gets its outside news from visitors or the newspapers. Even the postman lingers there, to have an espresso in Olivier's bistro and watch the enchanted, slow-moving panorama. Most of the cases in the series are set in or have their roots in this hauntingly beautiful hamlet.

It is hard to believe that Sister Mary Murderous introduced me to this series only a few years ago. I feel that I have known this place and these people forever; yet each book offers fresh insights into the place and characters. The author has finally approved a series of made-for-TV movies based on the series, which PBS will surely pick up for viewing in the states. Curiously, actor Nathaniel Parker, who played Thomas Lynley, will also play Gamache. He didn't work well for me as Lynley, so I will be curious to see how he meets my expectations as Gamache––a more demanding role and character.

The author has said that the character of Gamache is modeled on her husband of many years. If so, these books are a remarkable collection of love letters to a  good and fortunate man and a place many of us have dreamed of finding someday. Each of the eight books in this character-driven series has been a feast of personalities and place, well worth lingering over and rereading. The last, The Beautiful Mystery, closed with an unhappy resolution for the characters, so I am hoping for a better outcome from the next book, How the Light Gets In, due for release in August.

Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey was my first serious fictional crush, and one of my most enduring. Dorothy L. Sayers's Golden Age aristocratic detective is the second son of the late 15th Duke of Denver and the half-French Dowager Duchess Honoria Delagardie, who is a recurring and charming character throughout the series. His brother, the current Duke, is a traditionalist and a bit of a stuffed shirt, and his younger sister Mary fancies herself a bluestocking and a Socialist. While Wimsey presents himself as an affable idiot in society, his keen gift of logical deduction and strong sense of responsibility involve him in the solution of murder mysteries and occasional sensitive diplomatic missions for His Majesty's government.

At the beginning of the series, he is suffering from what today we would call PTSD, as a result of having to order men to their deaths during World War I. His mother and doctors are in despair; he stays in his bed at Denver, terrified to give any order to anyone for fear of possible consequences. Not until his army batman Mervyn Bunter shows up and takes him in hand does he begin to recover. I remember a bit from one of the early books when his mother comes into the London flat and Bunter beams at her and carols "My Lady, he just told me to take away this damned slop and bring him some sausages."  While he continues to recover, Wimsey has recurring bad episodes when murderers are hanged as a result of his investigations throughout the series.

Not until the fifth book, Strong Poison, does Wimsey meet the love of his life, a woman who eludes him through most of the rest of the series. Young author Harriet Vane is accused of having poisoned her artist lover because he was unfaithful. Wimsey becomes involved in the case at the request of a friend, and proves the lady's innocence. He also falls deeply in love with her, and thereafter proposes at least once per book, but she will have none of him. The endless permutations of this most prickly and poetic romance enliven the rest of the series until and even after the lady yields. Common knowledge has it that Sayers herself fell in love with her detective, and even if she didn't, many readers around the world certainly did. The older books in this series of 13 contain references that are shockingly politically incorrect by today's standards, but were ordinary and expected usage for the period in which they were written. At the request of Dorothy L. Sayers's estate, author Jill Paton Walsh completed Sayers's final Wimsey/Vane novel, Thrones, Dominations.  She has since published two more Wimsey/Vane novels, A Presumption of Death and The Attenbury Emeralds.

All of these series are worth reading in order, and rereading from time to time. I am a bit in love with all of these detectives. (Fortunately, my husband isn't the jealous sort.) While I may forget parts of which mystery occurred in which book, I can pretty well track the development of the characters and their relationships throughout the series. They are developed enough to provide good company in boring or frightening times, and never yammer or intrude when not wanted.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sleeping Dogs Lie

By coincidence, I was listening to the audiobook of Robert Littell's The Company: A Novel of the CIA when the new FX series, The Americans, debuted. What with listening to the one and watching the other, I'm starting to look at people on the street from a whole new angle.

Littell's book is a doorstopper: 896 pages; 34.5 hours on audio. Littell manages to make a story about the CIA entirely human by turning it into a sort of family saga. Yale University undergrads and best friends Jack McAuliffe, Leo Kritzky and Ebby Ebbitt are recruited to "The Company," the successor to the World War II OSS, right after its inception. The book follows them through their marriages, the births of their children and the entry by some of their children into the CIA as well.

The story begins in Berlin, at the start of the Cold War, and we take a time-and-distance trip through some of the key moments in the intelligence war: Budapest during the 1956 anti-Communist Hungarian uprising, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the Russian war in Afghanistan, and the 1991 attempted right-wing coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Littell blends fiction so well with these historical events that I kept going back to Wikipedia and historical reference books to see where the seams were between fact and fiction.

Budapest during the 1956 uprising
As the book follows the trio of friends and their long careers in the CIA, parallel threads follow key KGB agents on the other side of the intelligence war, and the search for Sasha, the code name for a KGB mole whom the CIA believes has infiltrated its upper echelons. Even when compared to the spectacular world events depicted, the story of undercover agents and tradecraft are gripping. On the KGB side, the legendary figure of Starik coordinates espionage in the US. He recruits Yevgeny Tsipin, the son of a Soviet diplomat stationed at the UN, to become a deep cover agent. Yevgeny, having gone to high school in New York and college at Yale (where he was acquainted with Jack, Ebby and Leo), speaks English with a New York accent and is completely familiar with the American lifestyle.

Yevgeny (Gene in his new persona) isn't given the job of intelligence gathering directly. Instead, he acts as a "cutout," an agent who picks up intelligence from moles and passes it on to Starik. Gene occasionally works with some Americans who are ideologically committed to the USSR, such as the liquor store owner who allows Gene to act as a deliveryman, so that he can make contacts with moles. But Gene's only regular contact with someone who knows he is a KGB agent is his own cutout agent, Ada Tannenbaum. In the decades Gene is in the US, about once a year he hears a coded message on the radio that puts him in contact with Mrs. Tannenbaum, who moves to a new apartment after each contact. He telephones her and she acts as the information exchange between him and Starik.

The Blaine House in Washington in 1960
Despite her minor role in the book, Ada Tannenbaum is one of its most poignant characters. She'd been a Communist in Poland during World War II, and her young son was murdered before her eyes by the Nazis during a raid. This only intensified her commitment to communism and, when she came to the US as a refugee after the war, her sole occupation was to act as a cutout agent for the KGB. Posing as a widow on a small pension, she lives in a succession of small apartments in Washington, DC. She comes to treasure her rare contacts with Gene and to love him as if he were her own lost son.

It's one thing to be a mole. At least the mole is directly involved in intelligence on a day-to-day basis and lives in that world. The sleeper or deep cover agent, on the other hand, has to pretend to live an ordinary American life, but without revealing anything of his real identity to any of the people with whom he regularly comes into contact. While it's certainly a precarious and sometimes dangerous life, the intense loneliness and untethered-ness may be more of a hardship than the danger. Over the decades he spends as a deep cover agent in the US, Yevgeny/Gene has no direct contact with anyone back in Russia, including his family and the young woman he fell in love with and was forced to leave behind, without explanation, when he received his assignment to go to the US. Ada Tannenbaum makes no friends in America either, and only after many years decides that the Party would not object to her adopting a stray cat. Yevgeny/Gene and Ada Tannenbaum have little other than their ideological commitment––and their brief and rare telephone conversations––to sustain their spirits.

Anna Chapman
You might remember the sensational news stories in 2010 about the dozen Russian sleeper agents who were arrested by the FBI after living as ordinary Americans for many years. The agent who got the media all worked up was Anna Chapman, a femme fatale, but the other agents included several couples whom the Russians put together to act as husband and wife in the US. The agents were instructed to lead ordinary, middle-class lives, but also to work to make contacts within the US government, so that they could pass on intelligence about US foreign policy to their Russian handlers.

This real-life story was the inspiration for the new FX network series, The Americans, which was created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, to all appearances an ordinary Washington, DC suburban couple with a son and daughter. But they are actually deep cover agents who were recruited to the KGB at a very young age and rigorously trained for their lives in the US. Complete strangers when paired up by the agency, they were instructed always to call each other by their American first names, to speak only English––even when alone with each other––and never to share their real identities or life stories with each other.

The show is set in the early 1980s, a time when the USSR was still intact and the Cold War was still going on, but when the Soviet system was in decline. We follow Philip and Elizabeth's espionage work––like chasing down and abducting defectors, seducing high-level government employees and their loved ones to gain intelligence from them, and planting bugs in homes and offices––but we also see their cover lives.

Philip and Elizabeth go to their children's school events, shopping at the mall and all the usual suburban family activities. When they drop in on their new neighbors, the Beemans, to introduce themselves and give them some of Elizabeth's freshly-baked brownies, they discover that Stan Beeman is an FBI agent. Well, FBI agents have to live somewhere, so maybe it's not an ominous sign, Elizabeth remarks.

While most of the real-life agents who were the subjects of the Illegals Project, as it was known at the FBI, looked only too ordinary and didn't seem to have accomplished much, Elizabeth and Philip are a different story. Their agent jobs seem quite a bit more action-packed than those of the real-life agents in the Illegals Project, but I suppose that's to be expected for a television series. The action part of the show is interesting enough but, as with The Company, it's the way that a life of secrets affects the characters as people that is the most intriguing part of the story.

Imagine the cognitive dissonance of having to pretend, even to your own children, to be an ordinary American, while your true allegiance is to a country on the other side of the world––a country that is the sworn enemy of the US. Imagine never being able to speak your own native language, eat the food you grew up with or observe any of your old customs. Imagine growing up a member of the Soviet Young Pioneers, and now pledging allegiance to the United States at your children's school.

How is it possible for a deep cover agent to sustain his commitment? In Elizabeth's case, pure ideological fervor and patriotism seem to be enough, at least so far. She finds Americans "soft" and believes that the US would destroy her beloved homeland if at all possible. Philip, on the other hand, enjoys the life they've made in the country where the electricity nearly always works and anybody can buy cowboy boots at a shopping mall. As the tasks assigned to them become far riskier, he wants to at least discuss the possibility of defecting. How will the couple work this out, especially when it's not entirely clear whether they're a real husband and wife, or just each other's cover?

I recommend The Company and The Americans to anyone who shares my fascination with people living double lives.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Black Mystery Month

I am not sure when the penchant for honoring the trials and tribulations of life by hooking them up with a month or day began, but the practice has been around at least for a few decades. Despite February being duration challenged, it keeps up with every other month when it comes to honors heaped upon its head. For instance, it is American Heart Month, Black History Month and Cherry Month. There are a few other tributes worth celebrating as well, like Library Lovers Month, Pull Your Sofa Off the Wall Month and, not least, Spunky Old Broads Month. There is something for everyone.

It was in the 1920s that Black History Month had its origins.  In the beginning it was a week, but by 1976, it graduated to a month because it had been a wildly popular notion. Canada and the United Kingdom also celebrate a Black History Month. The UK named October to be the fitting month, while Canada and the USA elected February for the honor. In this country's case, it was because both Abraham Lincoln as well as Frederick Douglass had February birthdays.

Some of my favorite fictional sleuths deserve a mention this month. In fact, I think one of these, Virgil Tibbs, made a little history.  Recently named one of the top 100 mystery novels of the century, John Ball's In the Heat of the Night tells the story of Tibbs, a black detective looking for a murderer in Wells, a small Carolina town, during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. I don’t have a copy of this book any longer, but I rewatch the movie anytime it comes on TV.

Tibbs is from Pasadena, California, on a visit to Wells, and has more experience with homicide than any of the police in this town and he's going to get his man no matter how many would like to keep the status quo in this southern burg. Tibbs is a calmer man in the book than in the movie, but the theme of earning respect is present in both. In the Heat of the Night is the first of seven books in the Tibbs series.

Even Virgil Tibbs might have had his prejudices shaken up if he had been told back in '65 that there would be women in the police force doing his very job.

One of these is State Trooper Desiree "Des" Mitry of Connecticut. The Mitch Berger/Des Mitry series, by David Handler, features an odd-couple pairing of the black, beautiful and athletic Des with Mitch Berger, a pudgy Jewish movie critic. In The Burnt Orange Sunrise, the fourth book in the series, Mitch and Des have been invited to join a large party of glitterati gathering from both the East and West Coasts to celebrate nonagenarian Ada Geiger's return from France.

Ada was once an up-and-coming film director who worked in Hollywood with her husband, until they were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. The gathering is to be at Astrid's Castle near the coast. Astrid's Castle is now an exclusive hotel that is being run by Ada's daughter, Norma, and Norma's husband, Les. Built for Ada by her husband on the Gold Coast of Connecticut, in little Dorset, it was a faux castle built into a hillside and had become a tourist mecca, not only to stay there but simply to marvel at.

On this festive evening, they are in the midst of a terrible ice storm that is to be followed by several inches of snow. The glitterati have sent their regrets and the party is a small one; mostly family except for Des and Mitch. Before long, in the best Agatha Christie tradition, the storm isolates the castle and Des and Mitch are on their own as one after another of the guests is murdered.

This may not be the book to read if you are one of the unfortunate victims of Storm Nemo. Brrr.

Across the pond, despite many complaints of racism and obstacles to promotion, one in five recruits to the Metropolitan Police is from black and ethnic minorities, as pointed out by The Guardian newspaper.

There are a few fictional recruits from minority backgrounds whose careers in British law enforcement I am following.

I first ran across Charlie Peace when he was introduced as an astute young Cockney witness in Robert Barnard's Bodies (part of Barnard's Perry Trethowan series). Charlie Peace joins the police and moves quickly into the detective ranks at Scotland Yard. In A Hovering of Vultures, Peace is a Detective Constable. The mystery surrounds a long-dead brother and sister who wrote dreary literary works that are coming into fashion again, largely due to the efforts of entrepreneur Gerald Suzman. Suzman has organized a foundation and a museum, and now sponsors a conference. Charlie Peace is attending the conference undercover, while he tries to figure out Suzman's angle. Suzman is known to the police as a con man and, so far, his motive for resuscitating the interest in the dead siblings is not obvious. Peace fits in easily with the authors and readers. This is a good example of what I like about Peace's character. Barnard never feels he has to explain him. The reader takes for granted that he is smart and well read, because that is how he is presented. Too often in fiction a person who can quote from the greats in literature comes from the upper classes or has at least been educated in private schools alongside the privileged. There are 10 books in this series, so far, and I am leisurely reading them all.

Wesley Peterson is a Detective Sergeant transferred from the Met to South Devon, England. Of West Caribbean ancestry, he has a degree in archeology, and he investigates crimes that are associated with digs and English historical events. In Kate Ellis's The Merchant’s House, first in the Wesley Peterson series, there are a few different story lines that meld the past and the present in a clever way. However, so far in this mystery and the next in the series, The Armada Boy, Peterson remains a cipher. The reader knows where he came from and that he has an interracial marriage, but little else about what goes on in his mind outside the solving of crimes. This is a lengthy series––16 titles to date––so maybe I will find him fleshed out as the series progresses.

If you have a yen for a trip to the past, read about Ben January from Barbara Hambly’s A Free Man of Color. It is timely in that it takes place during Mardi Gras in the 1830s. January is a Creole with a medical background, which he obtained in Paris. His mixed race means he can't make a living with his degree in New Orleans, so he teaches music. There is a murder at The Salle d’Orleans where he is playing the piano for the evening's festivities. He is a free man of color, but still the perfect scapegoat. January has to find the culprit himself if he is to remain free. This is also an intriguing series (11 titles so far) because of the different perspectives regarding the mixed-blood individuals who are an important part of New Orleans life.

There are so many other characters appropriate to Black History Month whom I enjoy, like Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, Blanche White from Barbara Neely, and Jake Hines from the books of Elizabeth Gunn, all of whom my compatriots and I have discussed before on Read Me Deadly. The list is long and feel free to add to it if you have a favorite.

Some day it would also be fun to talk a bit about characters who should be celebrated as part of Spunky Old Broads Month.