The strange obscurity of Eugene Burdick


Mark Pack explains why the work of a now almost forgotten political novelist is worth seeking out…

A best-selling author shifting millions of books in the post-war decades, a renowned public intellectual, a friend of celebrities such as Marlon Brando, a highly respected political scientist and famous enough to feature in an advert for Ballantine Ale, Eugene Burdick’s career was tragically cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1965, aged just 46.

He’s now an almost completely forgotten figure, so obscure that the majority of his books do not even merit their own Wikipedia pages and the only people I encounter who know of him are those I’ve already shared the mystery of his obscurity with.

The unpopularity of his views on Vietnam – he combined liberalism with fierce anti-communism, making him a public supporter of the US government’s military intervention – don’t really explain this obscurity, especially as they trigged his novel turned successful Marlon Brando movie The Ugly American. Nor does his choice of topics, for three of his novels have themes which should make them frequent contemporary reference points.

The Ninth Wave, published in 1956, follows a political campaign complete with then cutting-edge innovations of opinion polling, computers and the use of campaign consultants. Though we now know – even in a world of Facebook and Obama – that data and numbers can’t quite predict and control political outcomes in the way the book lays out, the world has turned out close enough to Burdick’s picture of the future to make The Ninth Wave a prescient and still relevant story, and one that should be loved by people who are into the mechanics of politics, despite the rather uneven quality of the writing (caused in part by it being ‘written’ via dictation without subsequent editing.)

Loved too should be Burdick’s 1965 novel, The 480. The title is a reference to the 480 different groups the electorate has been divided into by that novel’s political campaign stars – a set of slicing and dicing closely based on the real work done by John F Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential election campaign.

As with The Ninth Wave, we know political campaigning has turned out to have a greater role for art than the pure-science envisaged in the novel, but once again it’s easier to see how the book could have remained a favourite of political geeks rather than one that faded into obscurity, especially given the JFK-approved veneer it gives to modern targeting techniques.

Then there is his 1962 Cold War nuclear drama Fail-Safe, co-written with Harvey Wheeler about a series of mistakes which result in a US nuclear bomber force heading off to obliterate Moscow. Made into a successful film directed by Sidney Lumet and staring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, its subsequent obscurity (save for a televised play in 2000) is at least more understandable in that the year of the film’s release, 1964, also saw Dr. Strangelove hit the cinema.

Fail-Safe may have been a good movie (and you can enjoy its trailer here) but Dr. Stranglove, with a similar subject matter, was an all-time classic movie.

Indeed, Fail-Safe was so similar to Red Alert, the book on which Dr. Strangelove was based, that legal action was taken for copyright infringement, with a view to delaying the Fail-Safe movie until after Dr. Strangelove has been released. The result was both an out-of-court settlement and Dr Strangelove indeed getting released first. (Somewhat confusingly, this Burdick work was originally was published in Britain with a different title – Red Alert – and with the author using a different name, Peter Bryant.)

Yet none of that really explains why Eugene Burdick has so firmly disappeared from view. So if you like political thrillers, Cold War dramas or both – take a look at his work and enjoy.

1p Book Review: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

sebastian knight penguin 1971

Nabokov’s ‘page-turner of exceptional literary quality’ is very like a masterpiece, argues Nige…

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (published 1941) was the first novel Nabokov wrote in English. My copy is a Penguin reprint dating from 1971 – that handsome set with the Nabokov signature aslant the cover – and it would be around that date that I first read it. If I’ve read it again since, it would have been at least 20 years ago, so I was glad to find how much of The Real Life I remembered – scenes, phrases, images, the overall shape…

It’s a quite extraordinary book, this one, and seems all the more so on rereading. Ostensibly an unnamed narrator’s (or rather named only as V) account of the life and works of his adored half-brother, the distinguished Russian-born novelist Sebastian Knight, The Real Life soon has the alert reader questioning what exactly is going on here.

Are V and SK ‘really’ separate entities, or is one the creation of the other – and if so, which way round? Of course both are the creations of VN and have their being in the novel The Real Life, which itself contains the novels of SK, an abysmally bad biography of SK by one Goodman, and (by way of SK’s autobiographical Lost Property) the ghostly presence of VN’s yet to be written Speak, Memory – not to mention the later novels The Real Life prefigures, notably Pale Fire and Transparent Things.

All of which makes The Real Life sound like some tiresome postmodernist exercise in metametafiction – but it is no such thing. Nabokov’s grace, wit and style, working through the medium of the somewhat plodding V and the brilliant SK, keep the narrative shimmering with life.

As the story proceeds – in a series of Knight’s moves, naturally (the novel is full of chess allusions) – it becomes a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner, albeit a page-turner of exceptional literary quality.

I had a lurking doubt that this reread might prove a disappointment – but in the event I was impressed anew by what now seems to me very like a masterpiece.

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Review – The Narrow Road to The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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Last month’s Dabbler Book Club choice has reached the shortlist for the 2014 Man Booker prize – but does it live up to the hype?

Burma, 1942. In disease-ridden jungle 240,000 prisoners of war labour night and day for their Japanese captors, destroying bodies and minds to finish a rail line linking the gulf of Thailand and the Indian Ocean. Of this army of expendable slaves, 9,500 are Australian – and over a quarter of them will die. Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s father was one of the survivors of the Burmese ‘Death Railway’ and this book is his monument to those who lived and died on the line.

Woven amidst tender flashbacks of pre-war love and maritial infidelity, Flanagan conjours up a stark and frighteningly beautiful story of friendship and loyalty; of starving men worked to death, beaten or beheaded for small infractions of discipline.

The Japanese guards are crazed on crystal meth, a ragtag bunch of scrawny Nietzschean psychopaths, reciting cold haiku to codify their will to power. Flanagan shows us that they too suffer in the jungle, twisted under the weight of their nation’s crazed expectations. In the desperate struggle to appease their masters, any concept of mercy towards the weak is rejected, and the POWs become mere units of energy, to be discarded when spent; the railway a grotesque version of industrialisation taken to its nightmarish end point.

The hallucinogenic descent into madness and brutality described contains strong echoes of Flanagan’s excellent previous work ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’. But where that book had the air of a surreal magic fable, this seems painfully real, especially knowing that there are still some men alive who experienced these privations first hand.

The ultimate irony of course was that all the lives lost on the line were in vain, as the railway was never really used. Once the tide of the war turned, the tracks and sleepers and used-up bodies rapidly vanished back into the jungle. What survived instead were the memories of those who experienced it and the lives that were touched by the slow repercussions of those experiences.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North artfully captures the psychological fallout of war, and asks whether a man who has lived to very edge of survival can ever hope to fit back into the mundanity of a normal civilian life. Now shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and with a strong chance of winning, this novel is a devastating, poetic read that stays with you long after you put it down.

Each Month we feature the very best new books in our Dabbler Book club – to find out more and be in with a chance of winning review copies, sign up to our free monthly newsletter.
You can purchase your own copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North HERE.


Acts of Omission by Terry Stiastny – Review, and win a copy

acts of omission terry stiastny
Terry Stiastny – the former BBC journalist who has Dabbled here – has a debut novel out on July 17, published by John Murray. Acts of Omission is a tale of political intrigue and the legacy of the Cold War. Here’s Brit’s review, plus your chance to win one of 10 free copies…

It has been alleged that when I was Home Secretary I failed to deal adequately with the bundle of papers containing allegations of serious sexual impropriety that I received from the late Geoff Dickens MP. This is completely without foundation… As I made clear … I passed this bundle of papers to the relevant Home Office officials for examination, as was the normal and correct practice.

Lord Brittan, speaking last week about the alleged loss by the Home Office of a large number of documents compiled in the 1980s relating to a possible high-level paedophile ring.

There’s something very British about that phrase ‘bundle of papers’, isn’t there?  It reeks of bumbling amateurishness, a cock-up waiting to happen. Here are some more stories. In 2000 an MI5 man caused a major security alert when he accidentally left his briefcase containing secret documents on a train while on his way to a meeting in Dorset. Earlier the same year another MI5 spy had had his laptop containing classified information about Northern Ireland stolen at a Tube Station, and a few days after that an MI6 agent left his laptop in a taxi after drinking in a tapas bar. In 2010 a GCHQ employee seconded to MI6 was found dead in a red North Face bag, padlocked from the outside. The coroner’s verdict was that “on balance of probabilities he was killed unlawfully”, but a Met reinvestigation concluded that ‘the most probable scenario’ was that he’d died alone after accidentally locking himself in the bag during some weird, possibly escapology-related misadventure.

Thus British spies.

Terry Stiastny’s debut novel Acts of Omission is set in the real world. John le Carré stripped away the 007 glamour of espionage, but although his spies lived in damp flats and visited grubby pubs, they were still extremely clever. Stiastny’s protagonists are much more like us: that is, they are a bit rubbish. There are top-level politicians who don’t know what they’re doing; spies who lose disks with ‘Secret’ written on the labels; even the investigative journalists are really just flailing around, hoping for the best. Everyone is promoted out of their depth, is muddling through, making it up as they go along. It is not a simple question of cock-up or conspiracy; there are cock-ups, following which the conspiracies to cover up the cock-ups are themselves cocked-up, yet these are only uncovered by incompetent hacks getting lucky. It all rings horribly true.

Acts of Omission is set in the late 1990s and tells its tale of conspiratorial cock-up through the eyes of three central characters: Alex, a lowly MI6 employee who misplaces his laptop and with it a disk containing secret files related to UK-based Stasi informers; Anna, a young newspaper journalist into whose hands the disk falls; and Mark Lucas MP, a rising star of government newly appointed to the Foreign Office, for whom the intelligence leak has potentially career-destroying consequences.

Stiastny is an ex-BBC political reporter and she guides us around the newsroom, Whitehall  and Parliament with an insider’s eye and effortlessly clear, precise prose. She is particularly good on the great games of Westminster, and on the language of journalese. This is Mark reluctantly leaking information to the newspaper:

‘This has to not come from me,’ Mark said. ‘Or I can’t say anything. You’ll get a “no comment” from the Foreign Office and a “no comment” from Downing Street and that will be it.’

‘Sources?’ she suggested. ‘Friends of?’

He shook his head. ‘Not even that.’

‘It’s understood that…?’

Mark stretched out his hands in a gesture of reluctant acceptance. ‘I know that whatever I say it’ll turn into “this paper has learned exclusively”, but I can live with “understood.”.’

Equally insightful and amusing is Stiastny’s exposition of the ‘grammar’ of TV news. For example, after an interview Mark has to spend “a pointless few minutes being filmed walking down some stairs” – a staged visual for the television reporter to waffle over and, you suddenly realise, just the sort of meaningless thing that fills up 24 hour news broadcasts. Mark Lucas is a great character: a slightly vacuous, New Labourish type saved by a degree of self-awareness and by a basic decency which sets him apart from his more Machiavellian superiors (there are no obvious caricatures, but the ghost of Mandelson hovers nearby). As his problems start to pile up he becomes increasingly sympathetic. There are neat little humanising touches, such as his feelings of insecurity when having to cross into the House of Lords. On returning to the other House he walks “down the corridor into the green-carpeted zone of the Commons. It felt slightly shabbier there, but more comfortable, like putting on a second-best pair of shoes.”

In the second half of the novel the three characters’ adventures start to intertwine, the plot thickens and broadens and it becomes genuinely gripping (I fair rattled through the last third). When the unravelling of Lucas’ reputation comes it is shockingly swift. This is the strongest part of the book, and Stiastny orchestrates the politician’s demise with remarkable adeptness. As his so-called friends and colleagues fall over themselves to ditch him and the ministerial perks disappear with unceremonious haste it is all terribly unfair yet also quite inevitable and, in the end, something of a relief. As the wheels come off his once-promising career, Lucas sits watching the rolling TV news:

Then he saw himself: he was making the familiar walk down a staircase, into shot and out again, acting as though there were no camera there…In the end, this was what his career came down to. He was just a man in a suit, descending a staircase to a landing, again and again and again.

Although satisfyingly twisty in its plot, Acts of Omission is neither a conventional spy novel nor a conventional political thriller. Rather, it is a beautifully crafted story of three frail human beings trying to navigate paths through three great, symbiotic, dehumanising institutions – Westminster, the Secret Service and Fleet Street,  each with its history, secrets and banal cruelties – while retaining their own humanity. They don’t entirely succeed, but thankfully, Stiastny grants them just enough room for a shot at redemption.


Thanks to our friends at John Murray, we have 10 copies of Acts of Omission to give away. All you have to do to be in with a chance is sign up for the free Dabbler Book Club. If you haven’t already done so, you can complete the form below.

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Penguin no. 61/no. 6: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Penguin 6 806

Karyn Reeves is the curator of the A Penguin a Week blog, which gathers reviews of her collection of thousands of Penguin’s paperbacks. She wrote about her addiction to Penguins on The Dabbler here, and today she introduces a notable early publication…

Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused hom more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published twice by Penguin during its early years, the first time as the original no. 6 in 1935, and then later as Penguin no. 61. It was one of two titles originally provided to the fledgling company by Bodley Head for inclusion in their first ten books, but contractual problems led to its withdrawal a few months later and its replacement with the alternative Agatha Christie title The Murder on the Links, numbered initially as Penguin no. 6A.

But in later reissues, to confuse matters, The Murder on the Links was renumbered as Penguin no. 6, so that Penguin’s first ten actually comprises eleven titles. This variability is captured in the photo below (coutesy of Eifion on Flickr). It shows two different titles published as Penguin no. 6, and The Mysterious Affair at Styles published with two different Penguin numbers, though he also notes that the first no. 6 came in two forms so that determined first issue collectors must find five different vintage Penguin books if they wish to cover all of the no.6/6A/61 possibilities.


The copy I read was a reprint of no. 61. That it is from the ninth reissue, yet still published before the war, and at a time when the company was only a few years old, gives some indication of just how popular the Penguin enterprise must have been from the start, or perhaps it shows how well they had selected their initial titles.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first attempt at detective fiction, and it is the book in which she introduces Hercule Poirot. We learn that he is one of a number of Belgian refugees being accommodated in a small house in the village of Styles St. Mary and Hastings, who narrates the story, records some dismay that the renown of the man being sheltered is not more widely appreciated by his fellow villagers. Yet while Hastings is full of admiration for Poirot’s earlier achievements, he has his doubts about his continuing effectiveness. Undeterred by his own deficiency of experience in solving cases, Hastings has plans for a career as a private detective, and as events unfold he can only see in the divergence between Poirot’s conclusions and his own evidence in support of his hypothesis that the great man’s faculties must be diminishing with age.

The mysterious affair concerns the sudden death of Mrs Inglethorpe, owner of Styles Court. From early in the story it is clear that she cannot be destined to live much longer, as her recent marriage to a much younger man has not gone down well with her step-children or her other dependants, all of whom seem to have problems with money and to be quietly awaiting her demise. It seems that she is a generous woman, devoting her time to philanthropic pursuits, and willingly providing a home to these various dependants, but her charity tends to come at a price: she uses it to control the lives of others, and she enjoys their awareness of their dependency. But enforced dependence inevitably encourages feelings of resentment, and these feelings are intensified by the belief that the money should never have been hers to disburse: the estate and the income she was left by her husband should really have gone to his children.

She dies one morning, just before dawn, with most of the members of the household gathered around her bedside. They had been summoned from their own beds by her cries, and then broken into her locked bedroom and watched as she was racked by contorting pains indicative of strychnine poisoning, and then as she succumbed to asphyxiation. The principal mystery lies in just how the poison had been administered, for strychnine is a fast-acting poison, and her bedroom had been locked and bolted from within. Her husband’s absence is noted, and as the most disliked member of the household, he immediately becomes the principal suspect. Later that day Hastings suggests that Poirot should be brought in to investigate.

With his extreme fussiness, his idiosyncratic way of talking, and his propensity to gambol when excited, Poirot is portrayed here as a comic character, and a figure of amusement to his fellow villagers. I found the most entertaining aspect of this story to be the interplay between Hastings and Poirot, with Hastings consistently overestimating his own abilities, jumping to all the obvious conclusions, and ignoring all details which cannot find a place in support of his conjectures, while remaining dubious of Poirot’s efforts. Yet Poirot cannot solve the crime without him; in the end it is Hasting’s rambling reflections which alert Poirot to the detail he has overlooked, so in a way they find the solution together.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles has at least one further Penguin link, in that it was first accepted for publication in 1920 by (Penguin founder) Allen Lane’s relation and benefactor John Lane, for Bodley Head, subject to an altered ending. And when the alternative ending was later found, it showed that Agatha Christie had initially planned that Poirot should reveal the murderer’s identity from the witness box during a court case. Prompted to change it, she had altered it to the type of scene which then became the convention, with the answer revealed at a gathering of all the potential suspects.

Karyn Reeves lives in Perth in Western Australia, works as a Research Officer at Murdoch Uni, is a mother of five, and did her PhD in biostatistics. She blogs about her collection at A Penguin a Week.

The Pirate’s Tale – by Janet Aitchison, aged five and a half

the pirates tale

Frank celebrates one of the finest children’s stories ever written…

Fossicking in a cupboard the other day, I came upon a set of a dozen issues of Puffin Post from the late 1960s. This was the quarterly magazine of the Puffin Club, an association for bookish tinies run by Puffin Books editrix Kaye Webb. I was a keen member of the club, though as far as I recall my activities did not extend much beyond poring over the magazine and badgering my parents to buy me some of the books it brought to my attention.

Among the interviews with authors and book extracts and other features, Puffin Post encouraged contributions from readers. I am sorry (and, in retrospect, rather surprised) that I never submitted anything myself. One child who did, though, was a certain ‘Janet Aichison’ (sic), aged five and a half. Her story The Pirate’s Tale, published in Vol. 2 No. 2 from 1968, is so glorious that I feel compelled to transcribe it for Dabblers. Bertolt Brecht wrote a few rambunctious early stories on a piratical theme, and this seems to me as good as his work, if not better.

Janet Aitchison will be middle-aged by now. Who knows, she may even be a Dabbler reader. We can only hope she gets in touch if she sees this.

The Pirate’s Tale

By Janet Aitchison (age five and a half)

Once upon a time there were some bad pirates. They sailed to a mountain. They dug in the mountain and found gold and silver. The mountain was a volcano.

They saw a bit of volcano then they ran back to their ship and they sailed away to their mountain and hid the gold and silver in their cave and guarded the treasure. A dwarf stole the gold and silver. The pirates woke up and killed the dwarf. The pirates got the gold and silver and the dwarf’s gold and silver.

The king dwarf sent an army to fight the pirates and to hurt the pirates. Who knows which side won the battle? The pirates! The pirates caught the king dwarf and they killed him and they threw him into the sea. A whale threw him up again and the pirates threw him down again. A shark came along and ate him up. The pirates laughed to see the dwarf being eaten up by the shark.

One day the pirates found a crab. It pinched a pirate. The pirates screamed to see the crab. The pirates ran away to the ship and sailed to the mountain and got the guns and killed the crab and the pirates laughed.

One day the pirates found a rat and killed it. The pirates had a cat and the cat ate the rat and the cat died. The pirates looked sad. A pirate found a house and opened the door and went in. It was dusty. He tidied it and dusted it. The pirate found a mouse and gave the mouse a piece of cheese. The cheese was magic.

The pirate said “Oh dear. The cheese is magic. I shouldn’t have given the mouse the cheese.” The mouse died.

One day the pirates found a forest. The forest was bewitched. The pirates went in the forest. The pirates turned into frogs and leapt about all over the place and croaked, trying to talk.

One day the pirates found some children. The pirates kept the children for their wives to cook for them. The wives cook nice things for the pirates. The pirates liked the food and ate it all up. The pirates liked the fish best. They caught the fish themselves from the sea.

One day the pirates weren’t very well. The pirates had mumps. They were very ill. One day the pirates got better and sailed away to the mountain and saw a shark and killed it and the pirates’ new cat said, “meow meow”. The pirates said, “Be quiet, new cat.”

One day the pirates found a ship. The ship had some gold and silver. The pirates stole the gold and silver. The gold and silver is magic.

The pirates died. The cat died.


Editor’s note – unbeknownst to Frank at the time of writing this post, Puffin actually made Janet Aitchison’s (for her surname has a ‘t’, which she herself obviously didn’t realise at age five and a half) into a lovely book, illustrated by Jill McDonald. Brit did know this because by coincidence he happens to have a copy, and very good it is too.

1p Book Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Willa Cather
Nige recommends a lesser known novel by My Antonia author Willa Cather…

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather [available for a penny from Amazon] is an apparently slight novel of some 160 pages that achieves the kind of depth and makes the kind of impact you’d expect from something twice the length.

It’s the story of a beautiful and fascinating woman, married to a much older man – a retired railway pioneer – and living in a small town in Nebraska. She is first presented to us through the adoring eyes of a boy, Niel Herbert, who swiftly falls in love with her – and no wonder. Marian Forrester is deftly and vividly brought to life, with all her entrancing ways – but, as we soon discover, there are hidden depths to Mrs Forrester, there is much that we don’t know. She is as vulnerable as she is seductive, as weak as she is strong, as faithless as she is steadfast.  A Lost Lady delivers shock after shock beneath its apparently tranquil surface, not all of them related to its heroine.

As well as being the portrait of a lady, the novel is also a picture of changing times, as the old ways of the pioneering days, based on honour and trust and mutuality, die away in the face of ruthless amoral commercialism (embodied in the book by the aptly named ‘Poison’ Ivy, a memorably vile young man).  Marian Forrester seems to be herself a victim of this process after her husband dies, but this is a woman who never stays a victim for long.  Young Niel, who observes her through increasingly disapproving eyes as his idealism turns to priggishness, never has the true measure of her…

Willa Cather manages the story with quiet but exquisite skill, never missing a word, a fragment of dialogue, a gesture or look that might illuminate the action and reveal character. We don’t, happily, see everything through Niel Herbert’s eyes; other viewpoints are deployed, including the author’s own.

All of this is put to the single overriding purpose of giving us Marian Forrester in the round and as if alive. It succeeds brilliantly, and movingly. It is – like the portrait of the heroine in My Antonia – written with that rare quality among novelists: love.

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1p Book Review: One Day by David Nicholls


ZMKC is captivated by a romantic comedy which is also a ‘remorseless satire of the eighties and nineties’…

The action of One Day (available for 1p on Amazon) takes place over twenty years and follows the lives of two characters – Emma and Dexter. These two spend the night together at the very end of university but remain relatively chaste during the experience, thus setting up that acronymic situation that LA scriptwriters are apparently taught is vital to a TV show’s success – MUFT?, SMURF? – in which two people made for each other somehow keep not quite falling into each other’s arms.

It is evidence of what a good writer Nicholls is that he manages to persuade the reader – or this one anyway – that on that first night Emma and Dexter do control themselves. Even greater evidence of his skill is the fact that the novel does not, as so many do these days, (including some of Nicholls’s own earlier works), start off engaging and hilarious and then disappoint, but remains throughout its full 435 pages extremely funny, observant and utterly engrossing.

Moreover, although the book is to a large extent a remorseless satire of the eighties and nineties – (and, despite the absence of any pretension on his part to ‘great writer’ status, the portrait of his own society that Nicholls gives is every inch as masterful as Jonathan Franzen, for example, would like his various offerings to be) – and although one of the main characters is at times almost nightmarish in his self-absorption and self-destructiveness, astonishingly Nicholls never loses our sympathy for his two protagonists. This is largely because his characterisation is so good and his insight so acute, (his rendering of the dangers that the gifts of good looks and charm can pose to an individual struck me as particularly original and apposite in our superficial age).

In conclusion, I cannot recommend One Day highly enough. I do not remember the last time I was so captivated by a novel. My only criticism might be that my desire to keep reading was almost too intense; I found myself wishing I could get away from my friends and family in order to return to Dexter and Emma. The fact that, as well as being moving and full of romantic suspense, the book is also exceptionally funny only adds to its attractions. I have nothing more to say apart from: read this book.

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Patriot or Traitor?

Spies of Summer

Rita works her way through a summer’s worth of spy novels, and looks for parallels with real-life events…

Patriot or Traitor?  That question has lingered over the summer as the Edward Snowden whistle-blower case has played out in front of the world’s media at Moscow Airport. Americans seem to be about evenly split on the question, as they are on so much else, with many feeling that life in Russia under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin is a fitting punishment.

Meanwhile I’ve been exploring the patriot or traitor question in my summer reading, a trio of spy novels and yet another book on my long reading list about Elizabethan England.  Here is what I learned about the state of play in the spy game.

First up is John Le Carre’s latest book, A Delicate Truth.  Le Carre leaves the Cold War setting of his classic novels behind to write about the contemporary world of terrorists and arms dealers.  But we don’t really see much of the terrorists; the real villains here are the Americans, who draw the British into a top-secret operation in Gibraltar that goes terribly wrong.  Le Carre portrays the British spies and Foreign Office diplomats as a bunch of craven careerists and bungling idiots easily duped by the wily Americans.  The only hero is Toby Bell, secretary to the Minister, who stumbles on the truth about the operation and must decide, at risk to his life of course, whether to be a whistle-blower in the cause of truth despite appeals to his patriotism.  There is very little real suspense here and the plot creaks and groans.  Would an ex-special forces military man really end up as a traveller selling leather crafts from the back of an old truck?  It seems to be just a way to get him into the countryside so he can be recognized by Sir Christopher Probyn, the obtuse retired diplomat who was used as a cover of respectability for the operation.  It is sad to report that the great John Le Carre has let his anti-American animus and seeming self-loathing of the British get in the way of his writer’s instincts.  How I longed for George Smiley while I was reading this book.  Those were the days when British spies, patriots or traitors, were at least brilliant at the game.

I turned next to Le Carre’s American counterpart, Charles McCarry, who has made a smoother transition to post-Cold War spy writing, perhaps because his specialty is China.  McCarry spent years as an undercover CIA agent in Asia and the character Paul Christopher, who appears in a classic series of books beginning with The Meirnik Dossier, is surely an alter ego.  But the main character in his latest novel, The Shanghai Factor, is the unnamed narrator, a young American spy living under deep cover in Shanghai, improving his Mandarin and waiting for a more specific assignment from his boss in a super secret unit within the CIA.  He begins an intense relationship with Mei, a young woman who accidentally crashes into him on her bicycle.  But was it an accident?  Or is she a spy for the notorious Chinese secret agency, the Guoanbu?  The narrator learns his hazardous assignment and the plot twists on to involve a ruthless Chinese businessman and the hunt for a mole in the CIA.  Along the way there is plenty of sex and violence, double-crosses and betrayals, blurred lines between patriots and traitors, all the classic ingredients of the spy genre mixed expertly by McCarry.  His deep knowledge of China lends an immediate authenticity to the book.  While Le Carre’s effort seems tired, McCarry’s is as fresh as today’s news headlines about Chinese business and political scheming.

But the next spy novel I picked up, Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, blew both Old Masters out of the water even though it is a first effort by the former CIA undercover agent.  Here is a new classic in the Americans v. the Russians tradition, updated to the present, a dense, richly layered narrative with fully realized characters, an absorbing, suspenseful plot, and convincing details of spy tradecraft.  Unlike so many lesser writers, Matthews actually gets the geography of the Washington area correct, including its outer suburbs, which makes his descriptions of Moscow and a host of other European cities all the more believable.  The plot gets underway when the beautiful former Russian ballerina Domenika Egorova is recruited as a spy by her uncle and sent to “Sparrow School” where young women and men are taught the arts of seduction to entrap foreign agents.  The scenes at the school, where the students watch pornographic videos and are instructed in everything from sexual techniques to making polite conversation at diplomatic soirees, veer from hilarious to horrifying.  The chief instructor, a former madam with the values of the old Soviet era, is an inspired characterization and I couldn’t help seeing Helen Mirren playing the part in a future movie.  (Sorry, Dame Helen).  Once her training is complete Domenika is assigned to seduce Nate Nash, a handsome young CIA officer who is suspected of running a high-level mole inside the Russian Intelligence Service.  Soon both Domenika and Nate are trying to recruit each other to their own side, a game that keeps everyone guessing as the search for the mole intensifies.  Who are the patriots and who the traitors in this world?  There are no simplistic answers here, as the spies follow their own code of honor and perhaps feel the greatest loyalty to their own kind.  Those who betray their country feel that their country betrayed them first.  Perhaps Edward Snowden feels this way.  Vladimir Putin himself makes much more than a cameo appearance in Red Sparrow; in fact his portrait alone makes it worth reading the book.  The conclusion is a masterful homage to John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a reminder that the torch has been passed to a new generation of spy novelists.

Lest anyone think this retired librarian reads nothing but spy thrillers, let me hasten to assure you that I am also an avid history reader.  It is hard to imagine now, but back in my university days I could write entire papers on such abstruse subjects as the Eucharistic theology of the Reformation.  I’m sure I couldn’t manage a complete sentence on the topic now, but I have kept up my reading on the Tudors and Stuarts and the English Reformation.  It was just a co-incidence that a history book I picked up this summer was also on the theme of spies, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford.  Sir Francis Walsingham’s spy network working on Elizabeth’s behalf was pitted against spies for the Catholic powers of Europe and English Catholics who yearned to return their country to the true faith.  English priests based on the continent were smuggled into England where they lived in hiding trying to foment a Catholic uprising and depose the Protestant Queen.  The life of Elizabethan spies, known as intelligencers and pursuivants, was not so different from their later counterparts in MI6, the CIA, or the KGB.  Disguises, cover identities, secret codes, underground communication networks, safe houses, and the ever-present fear of betrayal, exposure, and death.  Then as now the definition of patriots and traitors depended on whom you asked.  The young Catholic gentlemen Walsingham recruited as double agents were traitors to their faith and their families, but they were patriots in the eyes of the Elizabethan state.  Catholic priests like the Jesuit Saint Edmund Campion, who was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn as a traitor, are revered as martyrs by Catholics.  But in this book Campion comes across as a cold, scheming fanatic; his saintly reputation a construct of the propaganda pamphlets churned out by the underground Catholic press after his death.  From the vantage point of several centuries later it is easy to wonder “can’t they just all get along?”

But we are mired in our present controversies and only history will prove how ridiculous they are.  As to the question of the day about Edward Snowden, my summer reading gave me some insight into the matter.  His fate is indeed ironic, in that by protesting a surveillance state he finds himself resident in the mother of all surveillance states. No one who reads Red Sparrow can doubt that Edward Snowden has Russian intelligence “sticking all over him like ticks” in Jason Matthews’ memorable phrase.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

Win a free copy of The Kills by Richard House

A rather exciting coup for the Dabbler Book Club this month as we have 5 copies of Man Booker longlisted blockbuster The Kills up for grabs…

An astonishing landmark novel in four books, The Kills is both a political thriller and a bravura literary performance.

The Kills is an epic novel of crime and conspiracy told in four books, now collected into this one volume. It begins with a man on the run and ends with a burned body. Moving across continents, characters and genres, there will be no more ambitious or exciting novel in 2013.

In a ground-breaking collaboration between author and publisher, Richard House has also created multimedia content that takes you beyond the boundaries of the book and into the characters’ lives outside its pages. This material and much more can be found on

About the author:



Richard House is a writer, artist, film-maker and teacher. He is the author of two short dark novels, published by Ira Silverberg a number of years ago in the Serpent’s Tail High Risk series (Bruiser and Uninvited). He is a member of the Chicago-based collaborative, Haha (whose work has appeared at the New Museum, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Venice Biennale). He now teaches at the University of Birmingham. He is the editor of Fatboy Review, a remarkable digital magazine.

Thanks to our friends at Pan Macmillan We’ve got 5 copies of The Kills to give away at random to members of the Dabbler Book Club – you have to be a signed up member to win – more details can be found here

Join the free Dabbler Book Club here for your chance to win this and other free books:

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Ts &Cs: All entrants will automatically be entered into the Dabbler Book Club. This means that you will receive occasonal emails from us about the next monthly book and other items of bookish interest. However, we will not pass your details on to any third party and you can unsubscribe from the email. Winners will be drawn at random from the Dabbler Book Club members at 5pm on Wednesday 21 August 2013. The judges’ decision is final. The Dabbler reserves the right to offer an alternative prize or to offer no prize and withdraw the competition at any time for any reason. More competitions are available at Free UK Competitions