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Spies, Television

TV: London Spy

June 12, 2017

The conspiracy thriller genre lives on in London Spy, a solid British miniseries that transcends its hopelessly lukewarm title. Created and scripted by spy novelist Tom Rob Smith, it’s a deliberate, intriguing slow-build of contemporary espionage that benefits from a killer premise, terrific acting, and a strong emotional core.

Danny Holt (Ben Whishaw) is a hard-partying loner in London and a hopeless romantic. After a rough night, Danny has a chance encounter with an attractive jogger named Alex (Edward Holcroft), who briefly elicits a heartfelt show of concern before jogging off into the morning. Detecting a spark of interest, Danny labors to encounter Alex again, and when his efforts pay off the two strike up a gentle friendship that soon escalates into romance. Danny feels he’s found the love of his life — but then one day, Alex vanishes. Danny’s investigation into the disappearance ensnares him in a perilous worldwide conspiracy, forcing him to hack through a tangled skein of lies to get to what may well be the ultimate truth.

Unfolding in a leisurely, incremental manner, London Spy will likely repel impatient viewers, but to me it felt perfectly clocked, its weighty build-up making every timely reveal and emotional payoff feel that much more earned. The plot is intricate and slickly executed, and the MacGuffin driving it may be the ultimate conspiracy thriller premise for the post-truth era. But while its spy-genre street cred is impeccable, London Spy really goes the extra mile in its human story. The Danny-Alex romance is one area where the careful, patient storytelling pays off, as is Danny’s friendship with an older government official named Scottie (Jim Broadbent) with whom he shares a storied history. It’s a rare spy story where cynicism, while absolutely warranted, does not entirely win the day over hope and love. I do wish it had labored for a more relevant and evocative title, and a crucial line delivery in the final scene struck me as tonally odd and jarringly out of character. But overall, this is a well constructed spy mystery with heart, its high stakes both geopolitical and emotional.

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Film: The Journey

April 24, 2017

Twenty minutes into The Journey (1959), I found myself rather surprised I hadn’t heard of it. With its unique backdrop, excellent performances, and engrossing plot, it’s a stirring, overlooked gem full of intrigue and drama.

Set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the story involves a group of foreigners stranded in Budapest when violence erupts between the Russian military and the Hungarian resistance. Among these travelers is Diana Ashmore (Deborah Kerr), a British woman assisting an ill countryman, Henry Flemyng (Jason Robards), back to London. Or that’s how they’re presenting, anyway…in fact, Flemyng is a wounded Hungarian rebel whom Diana is attempting to rescue after his release from a long and brutal prison term. Unfortunately for Diana, she and Flemyng are put on a bus with an international group which happens to include an acquaintance, Hugh Deverill (Robert Morley). Deverill gradually deduces that Diana is dissembling, which complicates her cover when the party is waylaid by a suspicious Russian major named Surov (Yul Brynner). He sequesters the travelers in a hotel on a bureaucratic pretext, and slowly starts to put the pieces together. But Surov, who initially comes across like an officious, duty-bound servant of the Soviet state, turns out to have a more complex agenda, putting Diana’s play-acting skills to the test.

The Journey benefits from a striking technicolor look, convincing eastern European location work, and a subtle, intriguing plot involving amateur spies facing dire circumstances. But first and foremost it’s a powerful showcase for actors. Kerr is exquisite as the desperate Diana, and there’s quality support from Robards, Morley, E.G. Marshall, and Anne Jackson, among others. But best is Brynner, whose Surov is the focus of the film’s penetrating central character study. Surov’s outward bluster and confidence conceals an inner conflict and torment that Brynner, as the film progresses, performs expertly. While his hidden agenda leads to some squicky moments of gender dynamics between the leads, the relationship between them is ultimately quite poignant, bolstered by the performers’ clear chemistry.

I also appreciated the fraught backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution, an under-explored setting of oppression and resistance that resonates strongly against the world’s current political troubles. In particular, a fiercely delivered monologue from Robards late in the film really got under my skin.

The things you do to weaken us only give us strength to survive, and anger. Yes, anger. Deep, dark anger. Anger that used to be love, until you and your kind made it curdle and turned it into hate. That’s the one thing I’ll never forgive you for: making us hate!

These words, sadly, are as relevant now as when they were written, and their ultimate effect on the plot infuses a dark and tragic tale with an inspiring kernel of hope.


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Music, Spies, Television

Music: Mission: Impossible – The Television Scores

April 17, 2017

I’ve written a boatload of words about the original Mission: Impossible, but one aspect of the series I haven’t mentioned much is the music. This is unfortunate; music is the show’s secret weapon, consistently contributing to the suspenseful atmosphere and jazzy style of the series. Fortunately, by releasing a six-disc compilation of Mission music, La-La Land Records has given me the perfect excuse to rectify this oversight. Without quite knowing it, I’ve been waiting for Mission: Impossible – The Television Scores for decades; little did I know it had been out for over a year and a half already.

Everyone’s familiar with Lalo Schifrin’s iconic Mission: Impossible theme song, the explosive, urgent 5/4 track that’s been parodied into the ground and has followed the franchise throughout its history, including the recent film incarnations. That original theme song may be one of the most perfect TV tracks ever recorded — indeed, it’s so perfect, every subsequent reimagining of it has just sounded wrong to me, including the alternate versions on this set. But the theme is just the tip of the Mission music iceberg, as this robust, limited-edition box set points out.

Unsurprisingly, my favorite compositions tends to correspond to my favorite seasons. Season one’s scores, which set the tone for the show’s musical style, are almost uniformly outstanding. Particularly brilliant is Schifrin’s pioneering work for three early episodes: the pilot, “Memory,” and “Operation Rogosh.” Emerging from these scores the IMF theme “The Plot,” an addictive melody that would often be deployed as a musical cue to the team’s arrival onscreen. “The Plot” ultimately has more staying power and versatility than the theme song does; its melody would be repurposed inventively throughout all seven seasons. There are times when its presence feels like overkill, but it’s an infectious melody that Schifrin and the show’s other composers work creative variations on.

Schifrin has impressive help in the early seasons. There’s Walter Scharf’s lovely “Old Man Out” score, and Gerald Fried’s lively Meditterrean-flavored tracks from “Odds On Evil.” Jack Urbont contributes jazzy backgrounds for “The Ransom” and romantic string work for “The Short Tail Spy.” These composers would continue into season two, which also added composers Robert Drasnin (“The Slave”) and Jerry Fielding (“The Council”). Their work would become familiar and influential in later seasons. The music continues to impress through seasons three and four, with Schifrin’s “The Heir Apparent” score a particular highlight. The blend of upbeat jazz and symphonic orchestration contribute energy, tension, and class to the series’ classic early years.

Season five’s drastic shift in style, which includes an inferior version of the theme song, would send the show in a slightly different direction — often, I think, to the detriment of the music. Attempts to make the music more “contemporary” (at the time) made it more dated. Even so, Schifrin works some groovy twists on “The Plot” for his “Takeover” score, and certain atmospheric sections from the later seasons blend seamlessly with the early classics. I’ve taken to playing the entire set on random, and it makes spectacular background music, especially for a spy fiction writer. With six discs and nearly eight hours of music, Mission: Impossible – The Television Scores is a must-have for series diehards.

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Spies, Television

TV: Berlin Station (Season 1)

April 3, 2017

I’ve been shouting Olen Steinhauer’s name from the rooftops for years now, so it should surprise no one that his first foray in episodic television, Berlin Station (Epix, 2016), met with my fervid enthusiasm. Happily, my excitement was rewarded; playing out like one of the author’s intricately plotted novels, Berlin Station’s first ten episodes comprise one of the best seasons of spy television ever produced.

Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) is a CIA analyst who, after ten years behind a desk, returns to the field as a man with a mission: uncovering the identity of “Thomas Shaw,” an anonymous whistleblower who’s been causing chaos by strategically leaking the agency’s dirty secrets. Having identified who he thinks is Shaw’s press courier, Miller is assigned to Berlin Station to investigate the lead. Outwardly it’s a routine posting, but he soon finds himself ensnared in the complex station politics of its principal officers. The station chief, Steven Frost (Richard Jenkins), is a cagey forty-year veteran of the service whose faith in the mission is starting to waver. His deputy, Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser), is a fiery, foul-mouthed patriot. Then there are the case officers: the steely Valerie Edwards (Michelle Forbes) and the shifty, haunted Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans), with whom Miller shares a storied past. Miller’s arrival portends a tumultuous turn of events at the station, as his investigation interfaces awkwardly with the many schemes and motives of the players, turning Berlin into a hotbed of American foreign-policy controversy.

Sometimes the weight of expectation leads to disappointment, but Berlin Station delivers on nearly every level. Steinhauer’s densely woven storytelling sensibility works just as effectively onscreen as it does on the page, and indeed the author’s scripts are standouts, from the gripping intrigue of the pilot to the miraculously tight resolution of the finale. The cast is a treasure trove of talent, led unsurprisingly by the sensational Richard Jenkins, who perfectly mixes world-weary cynicism with exhausted emotional turmoil in an awardworthy turn. Armitage, who proved his mettle in a similar role during his MI-5 stint, makes for a dependable central presence, while Forbes and Orser provide fiery, convincing support as high-ranking officers. Meanwhile, Ifans’ Hector DeJean is a riveting, scene-stealing figure whose grim, callous outlook gradually achieves a richly imagined, heart-breaking backstory. In unsure hands, the kind of detailed, complicated story-telling Steinhauer favors can come across as torturous and mechanistic, but there’s so much humanity to the characters and urgency to the scenario that no such problem befalls Berlin Station. Indeed, the performances inject that little something extra to make the drama special.

This is also a potently political show, and fearlessly so, in a manner that will probably be off-putting to the militantly right wing, but makes for wrenching, scathing critique for the rest of us. In a genre where the heroes often labor in support of a safe, conventional status quo, Berlin Station makes for a fierce, angry counterpoint, savaging not just the methods of the spy business, but the cruel political systems that prop it up. The finale manages, with astonishing success, to thread together the many characters and subplots into a conclusion both structurally and thematically satisfying. It mercilessly — but also beautifully — turns a mirror on the viewer for their complicity with the world’s systemic injustice.

Only a few nitpicks mar the season, and just barely. David Bowie notwithstanding, the credit sequence lyrics are rather on-the-nose. A couple of key side characters meet disappointingly expected, and sociopolitically unfortunate, fates. And a handful of predictable TV tropes, especially common to the spy genre, make unwelcome appearances. These blemishes are surrounded, however, by so many sparkling moments, and integrated into such a robust, thoroughly thought-out scenario, that it’s hard to take the show to task for them. Ultimately, Berlin Station is a near-masterpiece of the genre, in my view ranking alongside The Honourable Woman, season six of MI-5, and Rubicon as one of spy TV’s best seasons of all time.

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Film: The Recruit

March 20, 2017

Flawed but polished, The Recruit (2003) is a confidently executed post-9/11 spy thriller. James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is the ne’er-do-well son of an oil man who died thirteen years earlier under mysterious circumstances. A technical genius without ambition, Clayton’s curiosity is awakened by Walter Burke (Al Pacino), a talent-spotter for the Central Intelligence Agency. Burke charms his way into Clayton’s life, enticing him to apply for the CIA with the unspoken promise of finally learning the truth about his father. But Clayton’s journey through “the Farm,” which involves a flirtatious rivalry with fellow recruit Layla Moore (Bridget Moynihan), winds up being more fraught and challenging than expected. The complex exercises of CIA training soon start to feel all too real, until Clayton can’t tell the difference between the tests and reality.

Thanks to Farrell’s energetic performance, brisk pacing, a meaty script full of thematically loaded dialogue, and an assured, striking tone, The Recruit makes for thoroughly entertaining, highly professional spy fare. While the plot escalates well, there is an inherent structural flaw: once the action starts rolling, it quickly becomes clear there’s only one logical way for the story to play out. Fortunately, some clever late reversals rescue the script’s more problematic early beats. As a past-it spook, Pacino is peculiar casting; his real-life persona looms over the role loudly, somewhat undercutting his persuasiveness as an invisible man behind the scenes. But he’s still great fun, leaning into the affair with his usual conviction, and the dramatic fireworks between him and Farrell help gloss over some of the sketchier technical issues and questionable spy-world details. Viewers less steeped in the genre might find this a decent gateway drug for classic spy tropes, but even an old hand like me found enough to make it worth the watch, despite its issues.

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Film: The Holcroft Covenant

March 6, 2017

I spent most of The Holcroft Covenant (1985) thinking to myself: “Is this really the same John Frankenheimer who gave us The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds?” The answer is yes, but it’s rather odd to witness how its visual sensibility, which worked so well in the 1960s in black and white, can seem so utterly weird in a synthetic, color 1980s context.

In the dying days of World War II, a trio of repentant Nazis set up a Swiss bank account full of stolen funds from the German war machine. Forty years later, Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) — a British-born American citizen and a mild-mannered architect living in New York — is lured to Switzerland by a lawyer named Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale). Manfredi’s job is to contact the Nazis’ children, who are to establish and manage a foundation with the stolen money that will make up for their parents’ war crimes. Holcroft wants nothing to do with his father’s legacy, until he learns that the money now amounts to four and half billion dollars, and he imagines all the good he could do with it. But that’s an enormous gift horse to look in the mouth, and sure enough there are strings attached, as Holcroft is drawn into a tangle of intrigue surrounding the money — and his role in the affair turns out to be more precarious than anticipated.

There are certain types of films from around this time that seem stuck between eras, and The Holcroft Covenant is one of them. The film’s stagy, old-fashioned thriller trappings and Nazi fortune storyline seem better suited to the technicolor vibe of the sixties than the artificiality of mid-eighties cinema. Frankenheimer’s inventive, cockeyed camera angles occasionally offer glimpses of the old artistry, but the talky script and painfully synthetic soundtrack frequently step on any potential movie magic. Caine’s talent doesn’t disguise the fact that Noel Holcroft makes for a rather naive hero. The trap he waltzes into is fairly obvious, robbing the story of surprise, while the dramatic tension leans too heavily on an unconvincing, sparkless romance between Holcroft and one of the other Nazi descendants, Helden (Victoria Tennant). A glimmer of spy thriller fun is as far as its gets, alas; by and large, this one is a disappointment.

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Novel: A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

February 22, 2017

Charles Cumming’s latest is A Divided Spy (2017), which completes the trilogy featuring his outsider-spy protagonist Thomas Kell. While it doesn’t quite match the addictive quality of the previous volumes, it’s a bracing, accessible read that satisfyingly caps off the series.

Kell is again at loose ends as the story begins, when a former colleague, Harold Mowbray, lures him back into the game. By sheer chance, Mowbray has uncovered a deep, dark secret about Kell’s nemesis in Russia’s SVR, Alexander Minasian, that may make him susceptible to blackmail. Kell sees this as the opportunity it is: to turn Minasian back against the Russians as a double agent. But is it too good to be true, or is he being baited into a trap? Before bringing in MI6, Kell decides to run an investigative operation of his own, which leads to escalating treachery and violence in the secret war.

A Divided Spy boasts most of Cumming’s strengths: nuanced characterization, cleanly executed plot, and a trademark focus on the emotional cost of the business, particularly as it relates to Kell, for whom spying has become a form of self-destructive addiction. But he also provides Kell with a compelling foil in Minasian, a hated opponent who at first motivates him to revenge, but later comes to feel very much like a sympathetic opposite number. Their rivalry and relationship is the heart of the book, providing its most interesting insights and interactions.

Where A Divided Spy falls short, I think, is in its stakes. This failing may be a byproduct of the novel’s release amidst the upped-ante, conspiracy-theory nature of the current political climate, which I suspect has raised the bar on convoluted spy novel plotting for decades to come. Of course, Kell’s personal motives are clearly more central to the story than any wider political situation; the human element has always been more Cumming’s focus. But it feels a touch pro forma that, to inject some thriller trappings, a crucial side plot involves a fairly stereotypical jihadist martyr plotting a terrorist attack on British soil. Radical Islamic terrorism may never go out of style in this genre, granted, and inserting this thread contributes a much-needed ticking clock and climactic action setpiece. But it’s a less-than-imaginative thread, somewhat marring an otherwise solid and engaging tale of espionage from one of the field’s best scribes.

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Film: The Cape Town Affair

February 21, 2017

The lure of remaking Samuel Fuller’s noir thriller Pickup on South Street is certainly understandable, but The Cape Town Affair (1967) is an unfortunate result. It’s a shoddy, unimaginative reshoot that relocates the action from Manhattan to South Africa but barely tweaks the script, and executes it flatly.

Candy (Jacqueline Bisset), a courier for communist spies in Cape Town, is being tracked by intelligence officers on her way to an important rendezvous when her purse is looted by pickpocket Skip McCoy (James Brolin). McCoy’s simple act of greed hoses up everyone’s plans, complicating the lives of the communist agents looking to retrieve the microfilm, the South African spies trying to identify and stop them, and a scheming stool pigeon named Sam (Claire Trevor) who gets caught between them all.

With its noir trappings and catchy lingo, Pickup on South Street had a style and ambience that worked for the dark, twisty story. The Cape Town Affair dusts off the script and attempts to give it a glamorous, technicolor veneer in a new locale, with more conventionally attractive leads. But the rough edges of Fuller’s script, which gel nicely with stark black-and-white visuals and Richard Widmark’s snarl, don’t play well with Brolin’s handsome smirks and Cape Town’s sunny climate. A monotonous soundtrack and punchless pacing don’t help matters.  (Nor does the fact that the grubby print I watched looks like it plucked out of a lint trap.) Aside from providing background noise while I folded my laundry, this one really didn’t do anything for me.

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Film: The Human Factor

February 16, 2017

The Human Factor (1979) has cachet to burn in its creative lineup: Otto Preminger’s last directorial effort is based on a Graham Greene novel, features a Tom Stoppard script, and even boasts a credit sequence from Saul Bass. So, how’s the film? Well, spy fiction afficionados will enjoy it; I certainly did. For others viewers, I suspect mileage will vary wildly.

MI-6 has a leak, and its new security man, Colonel John Daintry (Richard Attenborough), has been assigned to plug it. Based on information passed back from a Moscow agent, it’s suspected that someone on the Africa desk is responsible, but is it mild-mannered bureaucrat Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson), or his hard-drinking bachelor colleague Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi)? MI-6’s higher-ups hatch a low-key scheme to catch the traitor out so they can quietly deal with the scandal, but a tangle of circumstances escalates the situation from a quiet matter to a shattering tragedy.

Structurally, The Human Factor is a satisfying espionage puzzle with a complex, devious plot that entangles callous intelligence officers and innocent bystanders alike. The focus is less on action and suspense than on the mundane needs and desires of desk-bound servants whose personal and professional lives get hopelessly tangled. It’s less Bond than Smiley, then; indeed, in terms of style and ambience, le Carré’s  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People adaptations starring Alec Guinness are obvious touchstones. It’s also of a piece with The Sandbaggers, which has a similar focus on the grubby corridors of intelligence world bureacracy. (The appearance of Richard Vernon here, in a role not dissimilar to his Sandbaggers one, further cements this comparison.) Fans of these properties will find plenty to like in The Human Factor.

On the other hand, there’s a certain flatness of affect to the drama. Attenborough, Jacobi, and a gleefully sinister Robert Morley all have their usual spark, but the story relies heavily on a sparkless romance between Castle and his South African wife Sarah (Iman). Williamson is well cast as a good-natured civil servant, but there’s little chemistry. Other key roles are filled by actors who deliver in distancing monotone, and occasional scenes are awkwardly staged, framing actors in conversation who weirdly aren’t looking at each other. Viewers not entranced by the plot will probably find themselves bored.

Nonetheless I enjoyed the movie, which despite its flaws is much better than many of Spy 100 list’s entries. If for no other reasons, its elegant plot and unusual geographic focus render it a memorable, worthy entry in the spy film canon.

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Novel: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

February 10, 2017

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne NesbetInfusing middle-grade fiction with the dark and twisty tropes of the spy novel might sound like a counterintuitive notion at first, but Anne Nesbet’s wonderful Cloud and Wallfish (2016) delivers the best of both of those worlds. Briskly paced, with smooth, accessible prose and likable young characters, it’s a great, informative read for kids that also satisfies as a historical espionage puzzler, immersively depicting the end of the communist era in East Germany.

Noah Keller is smart young kid with an astonishing stutter and a photographic memory, and he’s about to go on an remarkable journey. In 1989, his parents take him out of school, change his identity, and bring them with him to East Berlin. Evidently his mother is behind the Iron Curtain to work on a dissertation, while his father’s along for the ride writing a novel. But as Noah acclimates to his new life behind the Iron Curtain as “Jonah,” he senses that his peculiar parents aren’t entirely what they seem…and neither is anything else in this bleak, paranoid country. Even more mystery is afoot when he meets the clever girl from the downstairs apartment, Claudia, with whom he becomes fast friends — much to the consternation of a very suspicious East German government.

Persuasively conjuring its era, Cloud and Wallfish is a bracing, entertaining read that seamlessly integrates classic spy tropes into a fun, educational middle-grade read. The common denominator, of course, is pretending: a confident voice manages to walk the line between the wide-eyed, make-believe fantasy of childhood play and the serious, high-stakes play-acting of secret agents in a hostile environment. The resulting tale is successful for readers of all ages, I should think, thanks to its likable protagonist, masterful historical world-building, and the endearing, loyal friendship at the story’s core. This book is a joy.

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History, Spies, Television, World War II

TV: The Heavy Water War

January 15, 2017

With resistance to tyranny much in the news lately, The Heavy Water War (2015) is highly relevant viewing. But this historical drama is just as much about complicity with tyranny, an angle which lends a tragic aftertaste to its annals of remarkable heroism and horrifying moral conundrums.

Set during World War II, The Heavy Water War follows the story of Germany’s efforts to develop the atomic bomb. According to brilliant German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), the key to their research is deuterium oxide (“heavy water”), which is being produced at Norsk Hydro in Norway. After the German invasion, the Nazis install Erik Henriksen (Dennis Storhøi) as Norsk’s director in order to increase production. But the British, when they learn of this initiative, quickly move to stop it, with the strategic assistance of escaped Norwegian officer Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner). Together with British officers of the Special Operations Executive, Tronstad plans a number of daring commando raids on the plant to foil Germany’s nuclear ambitions.

The Heavy Water War dramatizes its corner of history quite effectively, an educational and rather suspenseful look back at a lesser-known struggle of the Second World War. Evidently some of its characters are fictitious, added for dramatic effect; Anna Friel’s intelligence officer Julie Smith, for example, is inserted in an expected but well executed romance-under-fire subplot. But overall the series’ mission is to depict the exploits of the men who risked their lives to keep the atomic bomb out of German hands, as well as the impossible moral decisions of the officers in charge of the sabotage. Like many great war epics and spy films, the thorny politics of cost-benefit analysis come into play. But the series also has insightful subtexts about the insidious lure of complicity, as shown in the shady, opportunistic paths followed by Heisenberg and Henriksen, who sacrifice all decency in the name of ruthless personal ambition. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even if the details of its history don’t deliver the justice of its message, The Heavy Water War comes down on the right side of this moral argument.

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Fiction, Spies

Novel: Breaking Cover by Stella Rimington

December 23, 2016

Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle series is like an unexceptional but comfortable and friendly pub. The food isn’t spectacular, but the drinks go down smoothly, the faces are familiar, and the atmosphere is just right.

The series’ ninth episode, Breaking Cover, finds Liz working light duty in MI-5’s counter-espionage section, recovering from personal tragedy. But the workload’s about to intensify: she and her erstwhile sidekick Peggy Kinsolving soon begin tracking signs of a potential Russian subversion operation, that may be reorienting toward damaging the intelligence services. With the assistance of her long-time colleagues in MI-6, GCHQ, and the CIA, Liz works tirelessly to identify the treacherous agents responsible and protect the service.

Breaking Cover doesn’t shake up the formula at all, and its mysteries aren’t particularly complex; indeed, veteran spy novel readers will sniff out most of this one’s gentle twists pretty easily. It doesn’t help that the Russian plot on display, while timely, seems relatively quaint in light of recent events. But the simple, elegant prose and welcoming style makes this another cozy, speedy read, for me the literary equivalent of comfort food. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a good burger.


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