spy fiction



Photo by Martin Biskoping used under a Creative Commons license.

Ian McEwan, The Innocent (Anchor, 1998).
A thriller set in the 1950s.  The protagonist, Leonard Marnham, is a young English technician detailed to assist with an American operation to tunnel under East Berlin to intercept Warsaw Pact communictions.  On his own time, he finds himself seeing a rather more experienced German divorcee. In time, these two parts of his life begin to interfere with each other, though it would be a shame to say much more about it.

Here are McEwan’s site and Wikipedia’s page on him. Bob Corbett recommends it as a quick and fairly interesting story, better than the run-of-the-mill popular novel. Orrin Judd calls it an adequate spy novel, with some interesting true background and some entertaining psychological twists and turns. Paul says that if you want an intelligent cold war thriller, and you want it about Berlin, then you could do much, much worse; he also recommends a Berlin bookstore. L.S. Kiepp (EW) calls it a haunting black comedy with a silver lining, charged with psychological complexity, sex, and suspense, full of narrative cunning and precise, darkly witty prose. Roger Boylan (Boston Review) says the novel’s Berlin is scented with the real thing, the diesel fumes and beery scents and the Wurstwagens and the bracing Berliner Luft, the air of Berlin. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) calls it a powerful and disturbing novel, a tour de force of horror and philosophical suspense. Shane describes it as a coming-of-age story wrapped up in an espionage novel. Madhvi Ramani calls a thrilling tale about lost innocence and loyalties that plays out in pre-wall Berlin, and says it’s one of her top 10 Berlin novels. Karen read it desperately to the end. Nathan Hobby (n.b. – spoilers) sees it as a precursor to later McEwan novels. Anne (spoilers) couldn’t suspend disbelief. Larry says beware: it’s not a Hollywood love story. Shuggie is becoming a McEwan fan. Devora calls it a bleak portrait of post-war and mid-Wall Berlin. P. says it captures the sense of the era. Don Swaim interviewed McEwan in 1990 about the book. Patrick McGrath interviewed him in for BOMB in 1990. Adam Begley interviewed him in 2002 for The Paris Review. Dan Zalewski profiled McEwan for The New Yorker in 2009. Caryn James (The New York Times) called the 1993 film a slowly satisfying thriller.

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Hotel Europejski
Photo of the Hotel Europejski by afagen used under a Creative Commons license.

Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw (Random House, 2008).
A spy novel set mostly in Warsaw in 1937, with the French military attache at the center of a complex cast of characters.  Furst is the master of atmospherics, of recapturing the mood and feel of a Europe on the brink of war.  His Warsaw is long, long gone, so this is hardly a guide to modern Poland, but that is the fun of it.  I liked this one more than Furst’s last few, and I really like all of them.

Here is Furst’s site. Here is Wikipedia on Furst. Take a look at Google Books. Tracee has an excerpt. Janet Maslin (The New York Times) says Furst can invest even the most humdrum situation with elegant acuity. Jonathan Shapiro likens Furst to Chopin. Fred Hasson says Furst’s depictions of old-world Europe are documentary and nostalgic. Jake Seliger was disappointed. David H. Schleicher was a little disappointed. Anna wasn’t. Oliver Marre (The Guardian) thinks Furst’s mastery of period detail is extraordinary. Listen to Furst read from the book. Jesse Kornbluth says the genius of the novel is that small people have large effects. Jonathan Yardley (The Washington Post) says it’s entertaining from first page to last. Steven E. Alford (The Houston Chronicle) says it brings an exotic world of sex and intrigue that is instantly recognizable as Furstland. Michael Lee calls Furst a master of setting. Clea Simon (Boston Phoenix) says Furst fans will recognize the small struggles of ordinary people as war clouds gather. Michael Kenney (The Boston Globe) says it conveys the sense of atmosphere. Alessandra Stanley (The New York Times) says it’s smarter and more soulful than most espionage novels. Mark Feeney (New York Observer) calls Furst’s novels suave, expert and very nearly weightless. Dan Cryer (San Francisco Chronicle) thinks a spark is missing. Jeff Lipshaw recommends it. Sandy Nawrot was disappointed that Warsaw’s essence wasn’t more developed. Jenny says Furst goes above and beyond the espionage genre. Liz Nichols offers a brief summary. Scott Timberg asks if any working novelist sketches atmosphere as well as Furst, and has a story about Furst’s awesome recall. Meghan liked it. Mark Johnson says Furst has a rare talent of allowing readers to experience his locations. Kenneth Crowe was unhappy with the ending. John League wishes it were longer. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says it hits a nice balance between familiarity and novelty. Michael Carlson says Furst recalls Eric Ambler. Here is an interview with Furst. Here is another with Beyond the Books. John Marshall interviewed him for The Daily Beast. Matt Poland interviewed him for Splice Today. Paul Constant interviewed him for The Stranger. Listen to Furst on KQED’s Forum. Or listen to this interview with Lewis FrumkesWatch Furst with Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show. Bookmarks links to many published reviewsThe New York Times uses the book as an entree to modern Warsaw, and Willard B. Moore enjoys the meal. CNN’s Kasla Ostrowski recommends it over your breakfast in Warsaw. And Furst picks five of his favorite spy novels.

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Lisbon Windows
Photo of Lisbon Windows by david ian used under a Creative Commons license.

Robert Wilson, The Company of Strangers (Harvest, 2002).
Andrea Aspinall, a English mathematician and spy, meets Karl Voss, a double agent in the German Legation to Portugal, one of the few neutral countries in Europe throughout World War II. When they meet, the Allied landings in Normandy and Hitler’s atomic weapons programs are the backdrop. Their affair may be brief, but its effects last long into the Cold War, and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Wilson, an Englishman, lives in Lisbon. More of a spy novel that some of his earlier works.

Reviews from Mostly Fiction, Curled Up, Marilyn Stasio (The New York Times) (scroll down), J. Kingston Pierce at January (scroll down) and his blog, Marius Silke (iVenus), and Erica Hanson.

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