.
T

he spy thriller genre is a curiously mixed bag. On the one end of the spectrum are cheap thrillers where heroes and heroines in implausible scenarios single-handedly take down a generic “baddie” often without the help of any agency or organization (who may in fact be part of the conspiracy, mind you). Tailor made for repeated adventures, these one (wo)man armies survive repeated brushes with death, have an encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts, weapons, and everything else under the sun, and often spout painfully bad one-liners. Strikingly, for spies, they have very little command of actual tradecraft. They are the intellectual equivalent of a cheat meal—high calorie, but devoid of substance.

On the other end of the spectrum are the deeply introspective looks at the art and craft of espionage. Grounded plots proceed at a slow, but methodical pace, as very human characters do very little in the way of action—but much in the way of espionage. At the core of these books is the complexity of the characters, their motivations, and flaws. Unpacking and exploring these very human nuances is as much a central feature of the story as are dead drops, one-time pads, and microfilm. John le Carré, at least early le Carré, is the pinnacle of this type of storytelling. George Smiley, le Carré’s frequent main character is thoughtful, ponderous, deeply incisive and probably more reflective of real spies than Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne.

Personally, I tend to prefer the latter more than the former and thankfully there have been some excellent entries into the more considered, slow boil, professional side of spy fiction, if you will.

BOX 88

Charles Cumming is an author who has gotten progressively better with each outing and is in the tradition of John le Carré, but modernized: a sober writer who crafts vivid characters, intriguing plots, with just the right touch of obligatory thrills and set-piece action scenes. His latest book “BOX 88” is further evidence of his maturation and growth as an author. “BOX 88” centers around a mysterious Anglo-American intelligence agency, the provenance of which isn’t entirely clear, and the main character Lachlan Kite’s involvement with said organization. After the suspicious death of his friend, Kite is pulled (literally, in this case) into recounting the case which began his unplanned career in intelligence, changing time and location from England to the South of France.

Cumming’s characters are well written, with just enough left out that you want to know more. His pacing is exceptional as he jumps between scenes, settings, and characters, from today to Kite’s past. Perhaps most importantly, the plot grounded that while one could quibble with its genesis—a metaphorical tap on the shoulder of an 18-year-old who happened to be in the right place at the right time for this intelligence operation—it remains geopolitically viable. There is the requisite gun play that is almost expected in today’s spy thrillers, but it isn’t the central or defining feature of the story; it happens and it is swiftly over without the typical salivation that is present in American thrillers. There are a few threads left undone (and not fully tied together) and several questions unanswered, but it is done in such a way that the reader actually wants a sequel, and luckily there is one, “JUDAS 62” on the way.

JUDAS 62

For other authors, there is a tried and true model from which they rarely deviate. “The Cellist” is Daniel Silva’s latest entry into his Gabriel Allon series and very much in this vein. Allon, the one-time art restorer and part-time assassin, now the head of Israeli intelligence, seeks to avenge the death of his London-based oligarch friend/savior at the hands of (well orders of) Russia’s president. What follows is a fairly formulaic novel that is quintessentially Silva, if mixed with a bit too on-the-nose pokes at today’s state of affairs.

The Cellist

There is an exceedingly dodgy German bank that is enabling the Kremlin’s illicit financial flows called the “Russian Laundromat”, a beautiful cellist/compliance officer who is roped into the overly complicated plot involving previous and regular Silva characters, all designed to bring Russia’s president to his knees by cutting off his money. On top of this is layered the 2020 election, Covid, and the 6 January assault on the capitol. While the former two can be forgiven, the latter (and subsequent inauguration) is so forcibly added to the plot that it makes for awkward reading.

“The Cellist” retains some of what makes Silva’s books enjoyable, but seems to sacrifice a bit of that uniqueness in the name of expediency. His books have had an anchoring in art—a lost painting or art theft to draw in the target—and here it has that, but it is an afterthought. The appearance of the painting in question is swiftly joined by the titular cellist and a world-renowned violinist, both of whom are used to lure (at a party organized by a global democracy initiative that appears overnight (and no one suspects a thing, a bit of a bridge too far)) in the Kremlin’s money man, after which the story is off to the races.

Silva very much sticks to his model and sometimes that is a good thing. If it works and readers enjoy it, why change? The problem is when the model and the characters start to wear down, and that once enjoyable hook is replaced by generalities and tropes. Sadly, I fear that Silva is getting very close to that late-stage of plotting, where changing up the model, or exploring a different angle would revive the series and the characters themselves.

Of course, characters are what make the spy thriller so enjoyable. A general or commonplace plot can certainly be saved by interesting characters, but the same can’t be said in reverse. Stale characters cannot salvage a thrilling plot.

Slough House

Mick Herron in his Slow Horse series is one of the finest character authors out there today. The plots themselves are interesting, if a touch outlandish at times, but are a canvas onto which he paints the riveting and vibrant characters. His latest book in the series “Slough House” is a fantastic example of this with his vile, vulgar, but eminently entertaining Jackson Lamb, helming a cast of misfits and outcasts from the Security Service. Herron weaves together a covert war with the Russians, an assassination, retaliation for said assassination, and an attempt by the Security Service to secure an outside line of funding into a coherent and entertaining plot, but it is his characters that stand out. He ends “Slough House” on a fairly aggressive cliff hanger and one that demands a sequel, but one wonders whether the Apple TV show will hit the airwaves before the next book arrives.

While Herron’s characters are deeply flawed, almost broken individuals, their motivations are worn largely on their sleeves.

Red Widow

By contrast, Alma Katsu’s main characters in “Red Widow” are written with a depth and nuance that I found profoundly refreshing. Her title characters Lyndsey and Theresa are vibrantly written with emotional complexity and depth. Katsu, a former intelligence analyst with the CIA and NSA, also clearly knows the craft and it is on display in her book. In “Red Widow” trust is very much the currency of the realm and it is unclear who the characters can trust, but Katsu writes in such a way as to bring the reader to question characters’ motivations, rather than merely presenting the situation as suspicious—she shows, rather than tells, which is novel in the genre these days.

There are layers of trust and deception, the pealing of which gradually brings the plot into focus in “Red Widow”. It is well grounded, in effect a spy hunt, that takes readers through twists and turns in such a way that brings to life what could otherwise be a fairly procedural book in lesser hands. Katsu navigates the internal workings, culture, and dynamics of the Agency, providing readers with what one suspects is a peak behind the fence at Langley—office politics and all. It is a touch disappointing that the characters beyond Lyndsey and Theresa don’t receive the same level of investment and development, but it is perhaps unsurprising given the plot and storyline.

Escapist fiction is best shaken, not stirred, and thankfully in this strange summer, there are plenty of spy thrills that will take you away from the craziness and into worlds of intrigue and skullduggery.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

A Suitably Strange Summer for Spy Fiction

July 24, 2021

Escapist fiction is best shaken, not stirred, and thankfully in this strange summer, there are plenty of spy thrills that will take you away from the craziness and into worlds of intrigue and skullduggery.

T

he spy thriller genre is a curiously mixed bag. On the one end of the spectrum are cheap thrillers where heroes and heroines in implausible scenarios single-handedly take down a generic “baddie” often without the help of any agency or organization (who may in fact be part of the conspiracy, mind you). Tailor made for repeated adventures, these one (wo)man armies survive repeated brushes with death, have an encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts, weapons, and everything else under the sun, and often spout painfully bad one-liners. Strikingly, for spies, they have very little command of actual tradecraft. They are the intellectual equivalent of a cheat meal—high calorie, but devoid of substance.

On the other end of the spectrum are the deeply introspective looks at the art and craft of espionage. Grounded plots proceed at a slow, but methodical pace, as very human characters do very little in the way of action—but much in the way of espionage. At the core of these books is the complexity of the characters, their motivations, and flaws. Unpacking and exploring these very human nuances is as much a central feature of the story as are dead drops, one-time pads, and microfilm. John le Carré, at least early le Carré, is the pinnacle of this type of storytelling. George Smiley, le Carré’s frequent main character is thoughtful, ponderous, deeply incisive and probably more reflective of real spies than Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne.

Personally, I tend to prefer the latter more than the former and thankfully there have been some excellent entries into the more considered, slow boil, professional side of spy fiction, if you will.

BOX 88

Charles Cumming is an author who has gotten progressively better with each outing and is in the tradition of John le Carré, but modernized: a sober writer who crafts vivid characters, intriguing plots, with just the right touch of obligatory thrills and set-piece action scenes. His latest book “BOX 88” is further evidence of his maturation and growth as an author. “BOX 88” centers around a mysterious Anglo-American intelligence agency, the provenance of which isn’t entirely clear, and the main character Lachlan Kite’s involvement with said organization. After the suspicious death of his friend, Kite is pulled (literally, in this case) into recounting the case which began his unplanned career in intelligence, changing time and location from England to the South of France.

Cumming’s characters are well written, with just enough left out that you want to know more. His pacing is exceptional as he jumps between scenes, settings, and characters, from today to Kite’s past. Perhaps most importantly, the plot grounded that while one could quibble with its genesis—a metaphorical tap on the shoulder of an 18-year-old who happened to be in the right place at the right time for this intelligence operation—it remains geopolitically viable. There is the requisite gun play that is almost expected in today’s spy thrillers, but it isn’t the central or defining feature of the story; it happens and it is swiftly over without the typical salivation that is present in American thrillers. There are a few threads left undone (and not fully tied together) and several questions unanswered, but it is done in such a way that the reader actually wants a sequel, and luckily there is one, “JUDAS 62” on the way.

JUDAS 62

For other authors, there is a tried and true model from which they rarely deviate. “The Cellist” is Daniel Silva’s latest entry into his Gabriel Allon series and very much in this vein. Allon, the one-time art restorer and part-time assassin, now the head of Israeli intelligence, seeks to avenge the death of his London-based oligarch friend/savior at the hands of (well orders of) Russia’s president. What follows is a fairly formulaic novel that is quintessentially Silva, if mixed with a bit too on-the-nose pokes at today’s state of affairs.

The Cellist

There is an exceedingly dodgy German bank that is enabling the Kremlin’s illicit financial flows called the “Russian Laundromat”, a beautiful cellist/compliance officer who is roped into the overly complicated plot involving previous and regular Silva characters, all designed to bring Russia’s president to his knees by cutting off his money. On top of this is layered the 2020 election, Covid, and the 6 January assault on the capitol. While the former two can be forgiven, the latter (and subsequent inauguration) is so forcibly added to the plot that it makes for awkward reading.

“The Cellist” retains some of what makes Silva’s books enjoyable, but seems to sacrifice a bit of that uniqueness in the name of expediency. His books have had an anchoring in art—a lost painting or art theft to draw in the target—and here it has that, but it is an afterthought. The appearance of the painting in question is swiftly joined by the titular cellist and a world-renowned violinist, both of whom are used to lure (at a party organized by a global democracy initiative that appears overnight (and no one suspects a thing, a bit of a bridge too far)) in the Kremlin’s money man, after which the story is off to the races.

Silva very much sticks to his model and sometimes that is a good thing. If it works and readers enjoy it, why change? The problem is when the model and the characters start to wear down, and that once enjoyable hook is replaced by generalities and tropes. Sadly, I fear that Silva is getting very close to that late-stage of plotting, where changing up the model, or exploring a different angle would revive the series and the characters themselves.

Of course, characters are what make the spy thriller so enjoyable. A general or commonplace plot can certainly be saved by interesting characters, but the same can’t be said in reverse. Stale characters cannot salvage a thrilling plot.

Slough House

Mick Herron in his Slow Horse series is one of the finest character authors out there today. The plots themselves are interesting, if a touch outlandish at times, but are a canvas onto which he paints the riveting and vibrant characters. His latest book in the series “Slough House” is a fantastic example of this with his vile, vulgar, but eminently entertaining Jackson Lamb, helming a cast of misfits and outcasts from the Security Service. Herron weaves together a covert war with the Russians, an assassination, retaliation for said assassination, and an attempt by the Security Service to secure an outside line of funding into a coherent and entertaining plot, but it is his characters that stand out. He ends “Slough House” on a fairly aggressive cliff hanger and one that demands a sequel, but one wonders whether the Apple TV show will hit the airwaves before the next book arrives.

While Herron’s characters are deeply flawed, almost broken individuals, their motivations are worn largely on their sleeves.

Red Widow

By contrast, Alma Katsu’s main characters in “Red Widow” are written with a depth and nuance that I found profoundly refreshing. Her title characters Lyndsey and Theresa are vibrantly written with emotional complexity and depth. Katsu, a former intelligence analyst with the CIA and NSA, also clearly knows the craft and it is on display in her book. In “Red Widow” trust is very much the currency of the realm and it is unclear who the characters can trust, but Katsu writes in such a way as to bring the reader to question characters’ motivations, rather than merely presenting the situation as suspicious—she shows, rather than tells, which is novel in the genre these days.

There are layers of trust and deception, the pealing of which gradually brings the plot into focus in “Red Widow”. It is well grounded, in effect a spy hunt, that takes readers through twists and turns in such a way that brings to life what could otherwise be a fairly procedural book in lesser hands. Katsu navigates the internal workings, culture, and dynamics of the Agency, providing readers with what one suspects is a peak behind the fence at Langley—office politics and all. It is a touch disappointing that the characters beyond Lyndsey and Theresa don’t receive the same level of investment and development, but it is perhaps unsurprising given the plot and storyline.

Escapist fiction is best shaken, not stirred, and thankfully in this strange summer, there are plenty of spy thrills that will take you away from the craziness and into worlds of intrigue and skullduggery.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.