Book Review

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Judas 62, by Charles Cumming

From the strapline on the front cover of this book—“He thought the mission was over. Now Moscow has him in their [sic] sights.”—and the photo of a Lada with an obviously eastern European, possibly Russian licence plate, the reader might be tempted to assume that the 62 in the book’s title refers to the year in which the story is set. Not so: the Judas referenced is a ‘hit list’, of Russian intelligence officers, military personnel and scientists living in the West who had been targeted by Moscow for reprisal assassinations, as in the case of the real life victims Skripal & Litvinenko, to name but two. The impression is given that the author, whose name is vaguely familiar [but I am not familiar with any of his other work] knows of what he writes: in his very brief biography at the front of the book, we are tantalised with the information that “Shortly after university, he was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), an experience that inspired his first novel, A Spy by Nature.” So is it safe to assume that he was recruited? Presumably, he could tell us, but then he’d have to kill us…… not easy, if he is anticipating a numerous readership.

This book is the second in what promises to be some sort of a series [something I seem to be making a habit of: jumping in to a series mid-way, but given the random access nature of public library usage, inevitable], the previous one of which was called BOX88. The significance of this name might have been explained in the eponymous tome, but it isn’t here, other than to impart the information that it is “a top-secret Anglo-American spy agency” which, given the protectionist mentality of both countries when it comes to sharing secret intelligence, does seem slightly implausible, but for the sake of enjoying the story, it is necessary to suspend that disbelief: it is well worth it, however. We are also expected to swallow the fact of a young student, who had not yet graduated from university, being sent into the heart of post-Soviet Russia by BOX88 in the summer of 1993, to exfiltrate a biological weapons scientist, Yuri Aranov, who wanted to defect to the West. That being the case, this story is in three parts: the fairly lengthy narrative of the exfiltration, bookended by events in the present [2020], in which COVID is affecting everything: even the London location of the BOX88 headquarters.

When the protagonist, Lachlan Kite, who is now middle aged, but by now in a senior position in BOX88, finds out that his erstwhile cover name, Peter Galvin, is on the Judas list, assigned the number 62, hence the book’s name, naturally enough, he is concerned; the question is how this could have happened, given that there is an unwritten law in espionage that intelligence agencies do not target each others’ operatives for elimination; but also, Kite is worried for the safety of his erstwhile girlfriend, from whom he is now estranged, but who played a significant part in his covert operation in Russia in 1993. A sting operation is decided upon, to be played out in Dubai, but using better backup facilities than Kite was able to call upon previously. This is a substantial book, of nearly 500 pages, and although the infrastructure of BOX88 is not in the le Carré mould, the plotting & the characters are as believable as he might have used, so this is definitely a book which, for me, easily held my attention all the way through, and the possibility of a further story in the series is implied at the end, so I will certainly look out for another book, be it the forerunner or a sequel; and Cumming has written other series and standalone stories, so I would be happy to find any one of those. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0083-6350-5.

Book Review

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Last Flight to Stalingrad, by Graham Hurley

This is not the first of the author’s Spoils of War series I have read: in fact, it is at least the third, and possibly the fourth, but it is the first I have chosen to review, for a variety of reasons [none of which was that the other ones were less enjoyable]. It is actually the penultimate book in the series, as of 2021, so I am not doing my readers any favours by jumping in here, for which I apologise. The backstories of the main characters don’t need conveying in any great detail which might compromise enjoyment of earlier stories, so they are standalone to that extent, but I would recommend, in advance of, and notwithstanding the following review, locating the earlier stories, if possible, which comprise, in sequence: Finisterre, Aurore, Estocada, Raid 42, the current book, and Kyiv [sadly, again relevant]. As you might be able to infer from the title under review here, the subject of the series is World War II and slightly before, but the stories are set in a variety of locations, partly to demonstrate the many countries adversely affected by the tragic events therein described.

This is a story which culminates in an act of revenge; not an act or a process which is subject to an easy or simplistic moral judgement; but the story also concentrates on one of the most devious, whilst also demonstrably successful, of the vile characters in the heinous hierarchy which comprised the National Socialist government of Germany from 1933 to 1945. It is Joseph Goebbels, who was Reichsminister for propaganda, and it is the relationship of a fictional character called Werner Nehmann with him which forms the backbone of this narrative. Nehmann is not German: he is from Georgia, but he assumed a German name for purely practical & expedient reasons, and Goebbels has come to rely on Nehmann’s journalistic prowess, which can sometimes involve surprising Goebbels with copy which doesn’t always strictly toe the party line, but which Goebbels has hitherto tolerated and even, in general, capriciously or mischievously encouraged. However, Nehmann is under no illusions as to Goebbels’s credulity, and as events progress, Nehmann comes to realise that Goebbels is a lot cleverer than he thought, and has always been a few steps ahead in the chess game which is their lives.

The timespan of the narrative begins in early July 1940, when Nehmann is effectively living in a confiscated apartment, ‘belonging’ to a rich fellow Georgian, Guramishvili, on the Wilhelmstraße in Berlin, and runs to mid-January 1943, when the tide of the war is turning against Germany, which is painfully obvious to all except the Führer, and his circle of slavish devotees. Goebbels makes the mistake of entrusting Nehmann with a billet doux to be delivered in Rome to Goebbels’s former Czech mistress, an actress by the name of Lida Baarova, who fled to her native Prague, after suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of the vilification she had received, orchestrated by Goebbels himself after being instructed in no uncertain terms by Hitler, who adored Goebbels’s three children, and also had a soft spot for his wife, Magda, to end the very public extramarital relationship. Nehmann tries a very risky manoeuvre in the course of this operation, thinking that it will give him leverage against Goebbels, but he is only too well aware that it could also prove to be his undoing.

The narrative includes at least one other real character, in addition to Goebbels: Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen, who was a cousin of the Red Baron, and was one of Hitler’s favourites, as a result of his swashbuckling prowess, and Nehmann has some interaction with him, during the German military’s ill-fated incursion into Russia. Aside from the fictional characters, whose dealings with real characters such as Goebbels are not consequential when set against real events, the narrative broadly follows the real course of the war during this time period, so scholars of real history who also enjoy historical fiction should not be disappointed with this story, although I was irritated by a few mistakes & inconsistencies, but I won’t detail these, because overall, they shouldn’t detract from enjoyment of a decent wartime yarn; and, as stated, the previous stories are worth seeking out. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Head of Zeus Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7885-4756-7.

Book Review

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Liberation Square, by Gareth Rubin

I really wanted to enjoy this story; it is the first novel by this author, whose CV is very brief, and his current work environment is somewhat contradictory: as well as being an author [possibly something of an exaggeration, given that as stated, this is his first novel], he is a journalist, who writes for the Observer and Daily Telegraph, which in my humble estimation, do not make obvious or comfortable bedfellows—perhaps he is just endeavouring to be even-handed? The cover of the paperback I read; published by Penguin Books, 2019, ISBN 978-1-405-93061-1 [originally published by Michael Joseph, 2018]; is a striking monochrome image of an imposing domed building, but the surmounted red star, vertical draped red banners, on the frontage, showing a white hammer & sickle under a white outline star and over a white surrounding wreath, on the road in front a red London double-decker bus with an upper-level banner showing Russian cyrillic script, and a woman [rear view, retreating] wearing a coat in the same hue of red, all seem somewhat superimposed, instead of being fully integrated into the scene: but perhaps that is a deliberate device to communicate the origin of the story? Background information under the book’s title is: “London, 1952. The wrong side of the Wall.”

This was a fascinating premise for me: as a refreshing change from the [albeit mostly enjoyable] alternate universe scenarios in which Britain lost WWII and ‘now’ is an outpost of the German Third Reich, this one posits that, although this initial prerequisite was satisfied, Germany was then ousted from England in short order by Russia, with assistance, albeit unsought, from America. A helpful pair of maps is provided at the front of the book, showing England divided into the Republic of Great Britain [presumably evoking an earlier age], which occupies the territory below a line arcing from the eastern tip of The Wash, through the border city of Oxford, to the Bristol Channel, approximately 15km [all metric now] above Bristol, and the Democratic United Kingdom, occupying the rest of the British Isles & Northern Ireland, as a result of American forces landing in Liverpool and preventing a wholesale Russification. An inset to this first map shows London divided, as an analogue of postwar Berlin in the ‘real’ world, with the RoGB occupying 2/3 in the north, east, and south, and the DUK occupying a rump in the north-west; the passageway between the London DUK and the remainder of the country is apparently a narrow corridor terminating in Oxford, known as “the Needle”. A second, larger-scale map shows central London, from the Tower of London in the east, to Hyde Park in the west, with the later dividing wall bisecting the Thames, running south from above Westminster Bridge, and west to the National Gallery, where there is a Checkpoint Charlie [not sure about the plausibility of that one, but whatever], then north west to curve around the northern periphery of Regent’s Park and onwards further north west toward the northern perimeter.

This should have been a good palette on which to paint a portrait of a postwar Soviet satellite, but unfortunately, it disappointed me for two reasons: firstly, notwithstanding that it is a fictional narrative, and not an alternative ‘real’ history, there was insufficient background information [except in a “Chronology” section at the end, which should have been superfluous] to support the premise that Russia had just been able to sail a warship up the Thames in 1947 and oust all the remaining German occupying force from the southern sector; and secondly, the meat of the story is a somewhat squalid tale of the death of a beloved British actress, Lorelei Cawson, who supported the new régime and made propaganda films for its benefit, and the quest of the second wife, Jane, of the actress’s first husband, Nick Cawson, to find out if she was actually murdered, and whether the husband had continued to see his ex-wife in secret. The story is narrated by Jane, and although this might seem a somewhat harsh assessment, I was continually irritated by how weak-minded she was, but I am prepared to concede that this might be an unfair judgment, given that she must have been traumatised by finding Lorelei dead in a bath, and suffering concussion when she blacked out & hit her head on the bath. When Nick is arrested by NatSec [National Security] on suspicion of causing Lorelei’s death, Jane has to take in Nick’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Hazel.

Jane manages to establish a working relationship with a police sergeant who was also present when Nick & Jane were first questioned, before Nick’s arrest; Tibbot is a “Blue”, one of the civilian police who deal with non security-related crime, including suspicious death and, although initially reticent, it soon becomes apparent that the Blues are made to feel subservient to NatSec, so he is not averse to working independently to help Jane, although he makes it very clear to her how careful they will have to be to ascertain the facts in this situation. A certain amount of the party apparatus is illustrated on the way to the dénouement; several names familiar to us from the period are used for authenticity: Anthony Blunt here is Comrade First Secretary, and other personalities are scattered about in various rôles, including Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Arthur Wynn, and John Cairncross. I wouldn’t want to deter potential readers from this book, but for me anyway, it could have been slightly better constructed; I would be willing to investigate any further efforts, in the hope that progress has been made.

Book Review

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Defend or Die, by Tom Marcus

Tom Marcus doesn’t exist: given that he is a former member of MI5, the use of a nom de plume must surely be not only recommended, but essential, for reasons too obvious to list. This book is his second novel, succeeding Capture or Kill, and they both follow his first book, Soldier Spy which, according to the bio at the front of the book, was cleared & vetted for publication by his former employer, so it must be a safe assumption that the two novels were too. I will refrain from further comment about his background, not least because of my beliefs about the way national security is manipulated globally, but murderous outrages have been perpetrated around the world and will continue to be, whatever the security services do, so whatever can be done [within reasonable limits] to prevent them should be done, failing more accommodation at a global level of differing belief systems, which I fear will only arrive very slowly, and probably painfully. While reading this book, I had to suspend my dislike of authoritarianism, and see it as a street-level spy yarn, which I did.

Matt Logan is a member of a British ’black’ government organisation [i.e.: totally secret & deniable] known as Blindeye; which is certainly not an original idea; and it is tasked with neutralising threats to the UK’s national security. The latest threat [because there always is one, isn’t there?] comes from our favourite bête noir, Russia, so the prime candidate, a billionaire oligarch living in London, is put under surveillance. At the same time, but seemingly unconnected, initially, two people with prior connections to MI5 have died from a heart attack and a car accident, but at least one of the team finds this suspicious: the problem is finding evidence linking their deaths & the circumstances surrounding them. There is a network around the oligarch, including the inevitable security operatives, but surveillance doesn’t immediately reveal anything obviously suspicious. Logan is compromised to some extent, because he is still traumatised by the recent deaths of his wife & young son, whom he ‘sees’ and talks to when he is on his own, but he manages to operate at a tolerable level of efficiency, even when he has to undergo total isolation to facilitate a ‘spiritual cleansing’ as part of the latest undercover operation.

It takes a while for the reality of the threat to be discovered, but when it is, inevitably there is a race against time to neutralise it: Logan is totally lacking in scruples or emotion when it comes to dispatching people who stand in his way, but he hasn’t completely lost his humanity in the process. How believable the characters in this story are is very difficult to assess: there is no shortage of previous associated fiction with which to make comparisons, but given that we are never going to learn the true extent of how any country’s security services work, we have to treat such stories as fiction with an arguably greater or lesser degree of truth to them. For my own part, I think I enjoy reading this genre more if I think the fiction quotient is higher, because it is easy to become prey to so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ [many of which subsequently are found to be true, incidentally, when more evidence comes to light] when grains of truth of governments’ duplicity, deception & thuggery are revealed. This story was published in 2020, by Macmillan, and as yet, no sequel is in evidence; the paperback, ISBN 978-1-5098-6364-8, was published in 2021 by Pan Books, London.