Review: Aly Monroe – Icelight

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m a big fan of historical crime fiction. I’m not particularly choosy about the period in which the novel is set but it does need to be well written. One award that recognises excellence in this genre is the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger which announced last week its 2012 winner, Icelight by Aly Monroe. I had only reviewed one book on the list, the excellent Prague Fatale so I was keen to read the winner.

Icelight is set in 1947 London, the winter of the deep freeze. Forget everything that you have read in Scandinavian crime fiction about the romance of a cold climate. In post-war Britain, it is unrelentingly grim. Water is freezing in taps, fires are unlit due to a coal shortage and coats and scarves are worn inside the house for warmth. Against this backdrop of harsh deprivation we enter the world of counter-intelligence where Russian and American officials dine in luxury at London’s top class hotels on food of dubious provenance.

Peter Cotton is working on the Malayan Desk in the Colonial Department when he is seconded to Operation Sea-snake. His task is to rout out homosexuals in key positions in British society who are considered to be a security risk. An atomic scientist commits suicide after losing his security clearance and to investigate the man’s death, Cotton has to negotiate the inner workings of both British intelligence services, Special Branch, MPs and Glasgow gangs.

I have to admit a weakness for spy stories and I enjoyed this book very much. It took a while to get going; there was plenty of background information on Peter Cotton going about his job and lunching with various agencies in an attempt to gauge what exactly was the security risk posed by homosexuals. The wonderful descriptions of government bureaucracy, establishment suspicion of the post-war Labour government and attempts by ordinary people to feed their families occasionally overshadowed what was a fairly complex plot.

The character of Peter Cotton was very engaging. Icelight is the first book I’ve read by this writer, but it is the third in the series. There were occasional references to the two previous books, particularly to Cotton’s sojourn in the US but it didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book. In fact I am likely to go back and read the first two in the series. He has an romance in Icelight with a young Czech girl working in the theatre which is a transient affair and serves merely to highlight the situation of refugees seeking a new life in Britain and the suspicion that they worked under.

Overall I thought the book excellent and although the blurb made comparisons to Le Carre, I thought it more in the vein of the novels of Alan Furst. The book’s greatest strength in my opinion was to show how much Britain has moved on as a society since 1947 with the legalisation of homosexuality, the expectation of a national health service and the acceptance of a Labour government in mainstream politics.

The book has also been reviewed at Crime Scraps and Eurocrime.

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Review: William Boyd – Waiting for Sunrise

William Boyd is the author of one of the best spy books of the last decade, Restless, a story of espionage in Nazi occupied France and the subsequent ramifications of a great betrayal. It wonderfully combined both historical detail and modern day disengagement with some of the more difficult parts of the Second World War. Although I enjoyed his follow up thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms I was looking forward to Boyd returning to historical espionage in his latest book.

Waiting for Sunrise is the story of Lysander Rief, an actor and son of a famous British stage legend and an Austrian mother. Engaged to be married, he travels to 1913 Vienna to seek help for an embarrassing sexual problem and is treated by psychologist Dr Bensimon. On his visit to the clinic he encounters the beautiful cocaine addicted Hettie Bull and embarks on a passionate affair. Convinced he is cured of his sexual dysfunction, Hettie then accuses him of rape and with the help of the British Embassy in Vienna he escapes to England.

As war breaks out, his experiences leave him open to blackmail and manipulation and he is recruited by the original people who helped him flee his accusers to find a traitor in the high echelons on the British War Office given the codename Andromeda.

Boyd is an excellent writer who uses differences in tone and narrative voice to separate passages of his book. It gives the book a strange distracted air, which works well given the subject matter dealing with the secrets of espionage and the mental travels of psychoanalysis. Boyd is also a writer who is able to take the reader into the heart of the world he creates. 1913 Vienna, 1914 London, 1915 Geneva, the period comes alive as the Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrates and a new world emerges.

As a spy novel I found it less satisfactory. Like Restless there is a hunt for a traitor but I cared less about the identity of mole in this book. As perhaps befitting a novel with psychoanalysis as its theme, Lysander’s mother plays a significant role in the book but I found it difficult to untangle her involvement in the espionage. There are also some plot lines left unresolved, including the fate of Lysander’s son with Hettie Bull and the true causes of his original sexual problem.

It was, as I would expect from William Boyd, a good quality book but it read better as a historical thriller than a period spy novel. For that I would have to go back to Alan Furst and I have second book, Dark Star, waiting on my shelves to read.

Waiting for Sunrise has been reviewed by most of the major newspapers and by book bloggers Random Jottings and Book Munch.

Review: Alan Furst – Night Soldiers

I’ve set myself an unofficial challenge for 2012 which is to read all of Alan Furst’s books in the ‘Night Soldiers’ series in the correct order. I’m glad the challenge is unofficial becasue I’ve already cheated and read the first book.  I’ve read three or four of the series over the years, most recently Spies of the Balkans which I enjoyed immensely. Those of us who are fans of John Le Carré’s cold war thrillers, in particular those featuring the inimitable George Smiley, I think are struggling to find Le Carré’s successor. Of course Le Carré is still writing but as he has moved away from the 1960s/70s Cambridge circus setting his books have become less magical in my eyes. His last truly good book was the excellent Little Drummer Girl where the plot was daring and absorbing and his descriptions of the conflict in the Middle East so vividly portrayed. Of course, trying to compare Furst to Le Carré is a little unfair on both writers, not least because Furst is a contemporary author writing about the past. However, his thrillers are firmly set in the espionage genre and do share many of the characteristics of Le Carré. I was particularly struck by this when I read Night Soldiers.

In 1934 Bulgaria, Khristo Stoianev sees his brother kicked to death by a group of young Fascists. His anger and resentment over the killing makes Khristo ripe picking for the communist Antipin, who secretes him to Moscow where he is trained as an agent of the Soviet intelligence services. Excelling in his craft, Khristo quickly becomes aware of the turnover of agents as Stalin’s purges become more and more random. For his first major assignment he is sent to Spain, which is in the grip of civil war, to support the communist cause. When he is tipped off that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s latest cleansing, he escapes to Paris and adopts a new identity. However as the Second World War reaches France, the Communists use the chaos and disorder in the capital to settle old scores and Khristo has to embark on another journey to save his life.

Alan Furst has worked as a journalist across Eastern Europe and Russian and his knowledge of the region shines through this book. His experience however, has also obviously been augmented by extensive period research and I found his descriptions of the minutiae of Russian intelligence fascinating.  The recruitment and training of Khristo is wonderful and here I think you get the links with Le Carré. This is the era that proved the training ground for Smiley’s adversary Karla, who himself is the survivor of Stalin’s purges. I thought it entirely believable the paranoia and competitiveness that this environment brings and also how an agent must suppress his patriotism and inner emotions to survive in such an environment.

The later parts of the book dealing with Khristo’s flight from the Stalin regime were also excellent and here we were more in traditional thriller territory. The network of Soviet agents have tentacles that reach every corner of Europe and I was reminded of the modern-day Russian espionage scandals that have occurred recently in the UK. As is usual in Furst’s books there is a love interest but here it is at the very fringes of the narrative. I found Furst’s descriptions of the sophisticated Western female protagonists slightly less convincing than those of the world-weary and sexually promiscuous Eastern girls that Khristo encounters. But I can see that in both Spain and France, girls from middle-class America found themselves in situations completely removed from their restricted upbringing and these characters are another factor in an already complicated ethnic mix.

Overall this book is a tale of a battle for survival from the opening pages, set to the background of an epic encounter between communists and fascists that has repercussions right to the present day. It is an excellent debut novel for Furst. It is extremely well written and with a weary charm that I think he has made his own. I’m looking forward to plunging into the next installment, entitled Dark Star. I might even be able to wait until 2012.

Alan Furst – Spies of the Balkans

Greece is the latest country to feature in the Crime Fiction on a Euro Pass challenge hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. I’ve read a few books recently set in Greece, but my favourite by far was Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans.

Furst has created a niche for himself by writing thrillers set around the Second World War in the style of Eric Ambler and John Le Carre. Many of them are set in occupied Paris, but he has moved the narrative of his most recent book to Salonika in Greece. Salonika of the 1940s is a city influenced by the culture of the Ottomans to the East and the Balkans to the north.  Teetering on the brink of catastrophe, the defeated army of Mussolini have retreated but the German army is mobilising and the 50,000 Jewish citizens are beginning to fear for their safety.

The book’s hero is Costa Zannis, a special branch police officer, who has responsibility for the more delicate political assignments in the city. In the course of his work he becomes aware of an escape line operating to help Jews out of Germany, through Salonika and on to Istanbul. His assistance with the escape line brings him to the attention of the British intelligence and he is persuaded to help an English scientist escape from Paris. Although the action moves from Salonika to Paris and then onto Belgrade, the character and focus is firmly on Greece. The book is full of a wealth of detail about the city before its Jewish population was decimated by the Nazi invasion. The close relationship between the city and the neighbouring Istanbul is a surprise in light of ongoing tensions between Greece and Turkey but Furst convincingly portrays the loose allegiances that can develop in wartime. 

The character of Costa Zannis is very much along the model of many of Furst’s previous male spies but is nevertheless an interesting protagonist. The female characters are less developed which is a shame, given the important role they have in the plot’s development. Spies of the Balkans is Furst’s 12th book but in my opinion one of his best and a good place to start for those new to the writer.

On another note, I am actually writing this post in Greece. There is an oil refinery strike here at the moment and queues at petrol stations are getting tense. Has anyone ever written a thriller set in a petrol station I wonder?