Whodunit: A spy game during the Cuban Revolution
It’s 1958, and Cuba is a wildly popular tourist destination. Ernest Hemingway holds court in his home outside the capital; tail-finned and chromed cars cruise along Havana’s Malecón; but talk of revolution is beginning to spill over into the cities, threatening the lucrative casinos and the tourist industry at large. Among the U.S. spy community, there is suspicion that Cuba-based CIA agent Toby Graham has grown sympathetic to Castro, a decidedly un-American move—especially when the CIA is clandestinely supporting Batista. They’ve been sending weapons his way, some of which are inexplicably showing up in the hands of Castro’s rebels. Enter career academic George Mueller, the reluctant once-and-future spy hero of Paul Vidich’s fast-paced novel The Good Assassin. He has known Toby since college, and if anyone can get to the bottom of this, it will be George. But does he really want to? After all, American policy vis-a-vis Cuba is notoriously corrupt, and Toby and George share a history of camaraderie and a mutual respect. Duplicity, intrigues within intrigues and a fat fistful of surprises abound in one of the best recent additions to the world of espionage fiction.
BEHIND NAZI LINES
The spy theme continues with William Christie’s A Single Spy, a wickedly suspenseful novel of intelligence and counterintelligence, opening in 1936. The protagonist is Alexsi Smirnov, a Russian double agent with no real loyalty to anyone but himself. In all fairness, he should owe no allegiance to his handlers, who gave him the choice of prison or becoming a mole in prewar Nazi Germany. His cover is that of a high-ranking Nazi official’s long-lost nephew, and in that guise he remains for seven years, until he is recruited by the Abwehr, the wartime German intelligence agency. This plays right into the Russians’ schemes, never mind that it firmly places our hero in a no man’s land that is equal parts chessboard and minefield. And then comes the Tehran Conference, where Allied leaders will gather to plot their next moves in the war, unless the Gestapo can count on Alexsi to pull off the Grand Troika of assassinations: three world leaders in one go. History, atmosphere and suspense—it’s all here, and then some.
THE LEGACY OF AN OUTLAW
Retired lawman Bob Lee Swagger has had quite the career. G-Man is the 10th in Stephen Hunter’s popular series, and nowadays Bob professes to be comfy resting on his laurels. His wife knows different. She doesn’t want him to go back into law enforcement, but she has this crazy idea that he should write a book. He is at first dismissive of the notion, but when a strongbox full of his grandfather’s possessions (a well-preserved .45 automatic, assorted memorabilia dating back to 1934 and cryptic directions to a unidentified treasure) is unearthed on the old family property, Bob has a starting point for a book. Or, if not a book, at least the sort of investigation that will get him out from under his wife’s feet for a time. Bob knows very little about his grandfather, Charles Swagger; the man died before Bob was born, and Bob’s father never talked much about the old man. The chapters alternate between the present day and Charles’ cop work during the gangster era of 1930s Chicago. The tension is palpable, helped along by the shifting of time and two generations of Swaggers, in all their swaggering (and sometimes staggering) glory.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
The Thirst is the 11th installment in Jo Nesbø’s award-winning and critically acclaimed suspense series featuring Oslo cop Harry Hole. It is, in many ways, a look back at Harry’s One Failed Case. The one that got away. Every police detective has one story like this, and a modern-day wave of killings is certainly stirring up some frightening ghosts for Harry, as it bears striking similarities to his failed case that refuse to be ignored. The killer is high-tech, targeting users of the popular dating app Tinder (clearly an idea whose time has come).
With several of his demons at least momentarily at bay, Harry is married as happily as a recently tormented man can be, and life is more or less on an even keel. Except for the nightmares about the One Failed Case. Oh, and there is the small matter of his corrupt boss (and longtime nemesis), Mikael Bellman, who summons Harry to spearhead the Tinder murder investigation—not with any interest in solving the crimes, but rather to further Bellman’s political aspirations. If you’re looking for a straightforward police procedural, look elsewhere. Like the novels that preceded it, this installment is long on character development, atmosphere and nuance, but the path from the crime scene to the resolution is convoluted with a capital C. That said, the series has sold some 30 million books, so clearly Nesbø’s style has been resonating with lots of folks since day one.