Showing posts with label spies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spies. Show all posts

11 November 2020

The Ipcress File


 One of my Facebook groups, The Deighton Dossier (link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/deightondossier), put up a flare that The Ipcress File was newly available on a KL Studio DVD, and I immediately snapped it up.  I’m happy to report that it’s a fine color transfer, with nice, deep blacks, something the picture requires - and it’s a deal at $14 ($20 for the Blu-Ray).

 

It’s worth remembering that this was a ground-breaker when it was released.  Dr. No had dropped in ‘62, From Russia With Love in ‘63, and Goldfinger in ‘64.  The Ipcress File slipped in just ahead of Thunderball, in late 1965.  Bond was a huge phenomenon – and Thunderball was the picture where Bond turned the corner toward eye-popping FX set pieces: stunts and spectacle.  Not to diminish how flat-out terrific they were, and the vigorous confidence that Sean Connery brought to the table.  I was just as ga-ga for Bond as anybody, and Bond set the bar high.

 


The Ipcress File is sly.  It has the confidence of the ordinary, of homely detail.  It begins with Harry making coffee.  He’s a little fussy, and fastidious.  He wears a pair of rather thick-framed glasses.  You’re not thinking some smoothie at the baccarat table, you’re wondering if he’s wandered into the wrong movie, or you did.  And then the focus begins to skew.  Otto Heller’s camera angles and Sidney Furie’s fey direction, a sort of oops, we led you to think one way, when actually you should have been looking at the fish tank off to one side (this is a rhetorical device, there are in fact no fish tanks, for which we could be grateful), and we begin to pay closer attention.

 


The device that Ipcress File uses is to make the ordinary sinister.  Simple details seem to gain weight.  And then they don’t.  Bluejay writes a phone number down for Harry, but it’s disconnected.  Harry’s aggravated.  Dalby takes the scrap of paper, and turns it over.  It’s a program for a musical recital.  Not the number, Dalby points out, but the piece of paper it’s written on.  The tradecraft isn’t a mystery.  It’s elemental. 

 

All of Ipcress is like this.  Half the time, it seems like everybody’s scoring points on each other.  The class issues are worn on their sleeve.  “You’ve got a good job for a passed-over major,” Ross tells Dalby.  “A word in your shell-like ear,” Dalby says to Harry, putting him in his place.  This fuels the whole story.  Ross and Dalby are offering Harry a place above the salt, and both pretending it’s of no consequence to them.  Dalby and Ross wear regimental ties, but Harry, in the end, really doesn’t give a shit.  One of them betrayed him. 

 


The Ipcress File made Michael Caine a star.  I know, Alfie, but that just confirmed it.  He’d done Zulu, a couple of years earlier, and he’d read for the part that went to James Booth, the slyboots lower-class enlisted, private Hook.  Cy Enfield, the director, cast him as Bromhead, the aristocratic officer.  Only because Enfield was a Yank, and didn’t know any better, Caine later said, because a Brit director would never have cast me.  Class is cast in stone.

Accent is destiny.

 

The sound of Bow Bells.  Caine is a Cockney.  So is Roger Moore, point of fact.  He had to pretend to a kind of generic mid-Atlantic, that wouldn’t fool a Brit, but might work on the rest of us.  When the two of them worked on Bullseye! together, they were clearly having a lot of fun.  Bob Hoskins once remarked that Michael Caine opened the doors ‘for the rest of us.’  I think you might go back to, say, Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  It was a time coming.  Rita Tushingham in A Taste of Honey.

I don’t think there was any one single moment.

 

The Ipcress File comes close to that single moment.  It doesn’t date that badly.  The brainwashing parts are pretty lame, but the personal and political tensions are vivid.  It gives us immediate difficulties.  We might make fun of those contrived shots through the cymbals, but the revealed accidents are sudden and genuine.

 

In my opinion, a great movie. 

 

22 July 2020

Charlotte Gray


My sister gave me Charlotte Gray, and I left it lying about for a while. I wasn't familiar with Sebastian Faulks, nor was I terrifically compelled by the jacket copy,  and when I did start reading it, I resisted. It seemed too domestic, it didn't appear to have much urgency, but then I fell into the rhythms of the story, and it caught me up. Charlotte Gray isn't a thriller, quite, although it has thriller elements, and it isn't a romance, either, although it's enormously romantic, in its own way. It's more of a meditation on those themes. Which doesn't mean Faulks is trying on literary costumes, or condescending to the genre; he's feeling his way into it, as if it were new to us.



The story is about a young Scots woman who's recruited to the Special Operations Executive during WWII and dropped into Occupied France to service a Resistance network. SOE did a lot of dodgy stuff in the war, some of it marginal, some of it extremely effective, and they had no problem using women for clandestine work. More than a few of their number were compromised, tortured, and then executed by the Germans.

As with an Alan Furst novel, or a le Carre, we learn about tradecraft, and the threat environment, and the strengths and flaws of character, but there's an interesting simplicity about Charlotte herself. As she inhabits her French cover story, she uses 'Dominique' as a counterpoint, one step removed, a frame of reference at right angles - not an alibi, but a different narrator, somebody else telling her own story. Charlotte is herself well aware of the ironies, but as a device, it allows her to hold the story up to the light and reexamine it. This isn't studied or self-conscious: the author isn't breaking in, it's the character who wonders what part she's playing. I found it compelling, and more than that, completely convincing. You might think, Jeez, c'mon, the SS and the Vichy milice are hot on your trail, you don't have time to second-guess your place in all this, but it makes Charlotte real.

There's an authenticity of feeling, throughout the book. I think what threw me, in the beginning, is that the story isn't told as a narative of event. The episodes are emotional, which just sounds unlikely, coming from a male writer. You're used to the idea that a guy is going to present building blocks, a structure, rising action. It took me by surprise to realize the story lay, not in what was happening, exactly, but in how people engaged with what was happening. Even a fatal hinge point, the moment where Charlotte and Julien realize they have to assassinate a collaborator, is necessary because of who they are, and its inevitability lies in their sympathy for one another.

Of course, the book is not entirely interior, and there's more than enough razzle-dazzle, as it develops, but I'm still struck by the method, the lack of the literal, even though the story is full of concrete, obdurate detail. There is, as it happens, a movie adaption. The novel came out in 1999, and the movie in 2001. I'm now curious to see it. Movies are nothing if not literal, in the sense that you see an object presented. I can't quite imagine how this reconnaissance of a story, this narrative of suggestion, would translate. Charlotte Gray isn't dreamlike, it's in fact very specific, but not specifically about the visible. It's specific about the heart.

11 March 2020

Agent Running in the Field


Like a lot of people, I always looked forward to the new John le Carré. I admit I found The Looking-Glass War unconvincing - for very specific reasons: it was my old operational area, as it was le Carre's, and I thought the premise was faulty. As for The Naive and Sentimental Lover, I've never managed more than the first fifty pages. But in general, what an astonishing run.

Then, after The Little Drummer Girl, we have (dare I say?) a falling-off. I don't buy into A Perfect Spy, despite the amazing portrait of Ronnie, and how clearly the book resonates with le Carre himself. He roars back with The Russia House, but follows up with three more duds. Tailor of Panama is a full-on score, and then four, or even six, passable novels that limp in. I know we're holding him to higher standard, but that's exactly the point.

So, let go of your apprehension. I'm here to tell you that Agent Running in the Field (one of his more clever titles, by the by) hits it out of the park. The old boy definitely isn't hanging up his spikes just yet.

I like the way he's been telling his stories, lately. The impatience with exposition, when he used to be more lapidary. Dutch Leonard once said, skip all that crap the reader is going to skip. It's unnecessary. If you trust you're in honest hands - and who more honest than Dutch or John le Carre? - oh, wait. Either one would cheerfully lead you down the garden path, and you know full well you'd follow along without a moment's hesitation.

Agent Running is in many ways a return to form, although he mercifully leaves out the domestic betrayals this time around, the defections in place, and concentrates on the operation, its collateral, and the product. The scope is necessarily tight. The guy himself isn't some old soldier, turfed out and weary, but mid-career and restless. You might wonder, in the moment, why he so credulously accepts a challenge from a younger self, when the kid so generously telegraphs his own disaffection, but the weakness here is vanity. In fact, when Nat, our hero, takes on the job he's offered, he clearly thinks it's beneath him.

Agent Running is really more Smiley's People than any of the recent books. For all that Karla used Ann to blind Smiley to the serpent Haydon, the narrative spine of Smiley's People is always Eyes On The Prize. Karla is looking for a legend for a girl. This is the single detail that drives the story. Smiley fills in the context. In the new book, context appears in the foreground, but of course misleadingly, because as always, the devil is in the details.

I don't know if you'll find this as interesting as I do. Legacy of Spies was elegiac and regretful, a swan song, the old boys revisiting past triumphs over a snifter, and not liking their history revised - although George Smiley had a bracing cameo, still with all his buttons and most of his teeth. Agent Running revisits not just Smiley's People, but Call for the Dead, le Carre's first book. It's a story about treachery, how not? That's le Carre's stock in trade. What's refreshing, oddly, is the very retrograde approach: sources and methods.



11 December 2019

Smiley


"I've got a story to tell you," Ricki Tarr says. "It's all about spies."

I fell into a familiar comfort zone this past weekend, and watched Smiley's People again. I needed something reliable and even stately, after the random disturbances of late.



George Smiley was introduced in Call for the Dead (filmed in 1967 as The Deadly Affair), but he slips out from the wings, almost apologetically, and takes center stage in the Karla trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People. He has a couple of curtain calls later on, but they're essentially cameos.

Smiley's been played by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, and Gary Oldman. For most of us, including John le Carre, Alec Guinness holds the crown. Nor has le Carre been poorly served, for the most part, by the movies. Deadly Affair and Spy Who Came in from the Cold are both excellent. On the down side, the feature film iterations of The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House and Tinker, Tailor aren't as successful - probably due to the necessities of compression. A Wanted Man and The Tailor of Panama fall somewhere in the middle. The books work better as TV miniseries, when they're given room to breathe. Not that the long form is foolproof. A Perfect Spy and The Night Manager both suffer from being over-faithful and leaving in too much.



Which is where the BBC/Guinness versions of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People seem so exact, rigorous narratives that still allow for silence, melancholy, inhalation, even the appearance of accident, although no detail is accidental in George Smiley's world. "Topicality is always suspect," he says, in Tinker, Tailor. In other words, when you buy intelligence product, it pays to be skeptical if the product fits your needs too perfectly. And he's of course proven right: the Witchcraft material is manufactured, it's been carefully massaged to send all the wrong signals.

My particular weakness for Smiley's People is I think due to its structural integrity. It doesn't have, for example, anything like the extraordinary supporting turn by Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon - although Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase comes close. It simply seems all of a piece. 



Originally, the producers meant to follow the story arc of the complete trilogy, starting with Tinker, Tailor, following with Honorable Schoolboy, and wrapping with Smiley's People. Schoolboy apparently presented production difficulties, and they skipped it. Quite honestly, Schoolboy is the weakest of the three books, but more to the point, Smiley isn't in fact the lead actor. It makes dramatic sense to move on to book three. (It actually took five years in between.)

When it was first shown on the BBC, radio guy Terry Wogan ran a weekly feature called, "Does anybody know what's going on?" Let's storyboard Smiley's People out.



The old lady in Paris writes the General in London. He, in turn, takes a bullet in the face on Hampstead Heath. George, the old man's former vicar, is called in to clean up the mess and put the whole thing to bed. George smells a rat. What is it Toby Esterhase tells him? Karla is looking for a legend for a girl (a legend, in the jargon, is a manufactured biography, a cover story). And with only this to go on, George begins to tease out the plot.

The plausible back-story, the collateral. Otto's pal in Hamburg, the sex-club owner. The spymaster's mistress, and her hidden child. The secret Swiss bank account and the fumbling Russian diplomat in Bern. The long coat-tails of KGB's foreign operations, and why in this particular instance the organs themselves can't be trusted.



Of course it's a tangle. How not? The method is that we learn only as much as George learns, although he might very well be a step ahead of us, from habit and his larger experience. But how he proceeds has a firm logic. Toby, then Connie Sachs, which leads him to Claus at the club in Hamburg, to the kids house-sitting Otto's place, and the campground, with Otto's boat moored in the shallows and the music unbearably loud, to drown out the torment.

The formality, the inexorability, makes it all the more satisfying. Smiley gathers his resources, and closes his hand. The title is a pun, not simply Smiley's crew, his favored inside team, but his people in the sense that Kipling used it, Mine Own People, Great Britain and the British. There isn't much of the moral relativism le Carre is sometimes faulted for. Smiley's defeat of Karla isn't ambiguous, in spite of the cigarette lighter Karla discards on the cobblestones. The win is personal.



Smiley, then, represents a certain kind of Englishness. Decent and disciplined. The war generation, We Happy Few. They took on Hitler, and then fought the Cold War. "Survivor of every battle since Thermopylae," Connie Sachs says. Le Carre himself might smile, and shake his head, to imagine George characterized that way. But he's said in the past that a country's spy services reflect the nation's character. Mossad, KGB, MI-6, CIA. The way they conduct operations reveals their inner nature and their calculation of political gain or loss.

Smiley is also betrayed by his wife (with his best friend, who's also of course a Soviet asset), and you could make the case that British SIS, once dominant, is the cuckold of the intelligence world, abandoned and orphaned by its CIA stepchild. Or perhaps that's too fanciful. Let's just say that Smiley, like Alec Guinness, is emblematic of his time and class. We might even be allowed to think of class as the key to Smiley, his protective coloration. He navigates the currents, eddies in still waters, and waits his turn.





03 January 2019

The Spy Who Loved Me


Dusty Johnson's July 15, 2015 tweet praising Maria Butina.
https://kelo.com/news/articles/2018/jul/18/
congressional-candidate-dusty-johnson-
praised-maria-butina-in-2015/
Some of you might remember - not that long ago! - when I did a couple of blog posts  (Mata Hari in South Dakota) about Russian spy Maria Butina and her paramour, South Dakota's own GOP operative, Paul Erickson.  They lived here in Sioux Falls and Ms. Butina did the South Dakota speaking tour, representing her own [Russian] Right to Bear Arms organization.  The tour - all about God, Guns and Let's Be Friends With Russia! - included SDSU, USD, and the Teenage Republicans Camp in the Black Hills.  The last was an interesting example of how you should be careful who you bring in as a guest speaker, considering the number of past and current South Dakota legislators (including recently elected US Representative Dusty Johnson!) were counselors, attendees, or just there for the party.  Bet Dusty's banging his head every day over this little tweet:

Well, now Maria's pled guilty to conspiring to be a foreign agent in the U.S., and is cooperating with authorities.

Her partner, in more ways than one, was Paul Erickson - whose resume includes:
  • National political director / campaign manager for the 1992 Pat Buchanan presidential campaign, 
  • Advisor to both of Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns. 
  • Former board member of the American Conservative Union, the group that organizes the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).[5] 
  • South Dakota Trump campaign, claimed he was on the Trump presidential transition team. and during the 2016 NRA convention sent an e-mail to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump (via Trump's campaign advisor Rick Dearborn and then-Senator Jeff Sessions) with the subtle subject line: "Kremlin Connection."  
Mr. Erickson has been hiding in Virginia, and has recently "lawyered up", which is the best idea he's had in years. For one thing, he's "Person 1" who, according to the Statement of Offence, "agreed and conspired, with a Russian government official [that’s Alexander Torshin, Russian billionaire and close personal friend of Vladimir Putin] and at least one other person [ooo! a new mystery player!] for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of [Torshin] without prior notification to the Attorney General.” The purpose of this conspiracy was for Butina to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. policies… for the benefit of the Russian Federation.” Butina acknowledges that she used the National Rifle Association to forward the Russian Plan, because she believed the NRA "had influence over" the Republican Party.  (Thanks, Cory Heidelberger, for the summation)

NOTE:  The NRA is STILL staying silent as a tomb about Ms. Butina, despite the fact that there are pictures out the wazoo of her at various NRA functions (see below),
even though both Ms. Butina and the missing Mr. Torshin were made lifetime members of the NRA.
AND former NRA president David Keene visited Moscow at Mr. Torshin's behest.
AND the NRA spent a lot of money on Donald Trump's campaign.  $30 million, to be specific.  All of this is currently being investigated.  

Ms. Butina in 2014 with James W. Porter II, then president of the N.R.A.; Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president; and Rick Santorum, the former senator.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/04/us/politics/maria-butina-nra-russia-influence.html
NOTE: Russian President Vladimir Putin - who was eager for her release while she was first arrested - currently says he never heard of her.  Considering that Alexander Torshin has gone missing and is rumored murdered, Ms. Butina may want to try to stay in the US after trial, rather than be deported back home.

Image result for paul erickson south dakota
Meanwhile, though, a lot of people have asked me the simple question:  why South Dakota?  Why did she come here, other than for Paul Erickson's rugged good looks?  

Well, South Dakota is a large rural state with a very small population (under 900,000).  Our politicians are extremely, notoriously frugal - i.e., cheap.  Our current assets are $3.13 trillion (yes, you read that right) in commercial and savings bank assets.  We have the weakest reporting regulations you can imagine.  The FBI recently busted a major New York auto theft ring using South Dakota because, "South Dakota, a state that lets people register out-of-state vehicles by mail and wasn’t thoroughly checking to see if they were stolen, the FBI said." (Citation)  We also have (among?) the most pro-business laws regarding credit cards, payday loans, and setting up LLCs and their like in the country.  In my last blog I mentioned that Butina and Erickson formed a couple of LLCs here in Sioux Falls - which, it turns out, may have been laundering money from Torshin and from an as-yet unidentified Russian oligarch (perhaps the anonymous person cited above?) who has a net worth Forbes estimates to be about $1.2 billion.  (This Vox article is still pretty darned good on the ins and outs of the whole thing.)

Anybody can form a shell corporation in South Dakota for $50 per year, without requiring a physical presence and a minimum of personal information.  We have had at least two major scandals - EB-5 and Gear Up! - in which suicide (?) and/or murder-suicide and/or plain old murder followed on millions of federal dollars going missing (and still unfound).  (For that matter, we haven't yet found the Westerhuis safe.)  We are ranked 3rd in the country for corruption, because of single-party government, lack of transparency, backdoor decisions, and we got an "F" in executive and legislative accountability, as well as next to last in lobbying disclosure.  

In other words, you can could get away with a lot in South Dakota, and nobody would notice.  It was the perfect place for a red-haired, gun-toting, freedom-loving, handy Russian to be.

Which leads me to the second obvious question:  why did everyone fall so hard for, and buy so completely into, Maria Butina, and her story about her pro-gun rights Russian organization, Right To Bear Arms?  In Vladimir Putin's Russia?  HAH!  But buy it they did.

The quick answer:  look at the photos:

Maria Butina, Washington Post




  Image result for maria butina instagram  Image result for Maria Butina sexy photo with gun

I wrote back in April of 2015 that "As societies show greater respect for "the interests and values of women" things get better, more peaceful, more prosperous, as a whole.  Ironically, we're currently trying to masculinize women both in business and entertainment, where the ideal woman is now presented as a slim, beautiful, brilliant, athletic ninja warrior."  (The Better Angels...)  Meet Maria Butina.  Or at least her photographs.

"Maria Butina was the ultimate NRA Cool Girl" says a Washington Post article, and goes on to add, "But is there a surfeit of highly intelligent, hot, bilingual Eastern European graduate students who love Jesus, cooking, guns, big-game hunting, bourbon, lipstick, cowboys and tenderly repairing the hearts of damaged men?"

Maybe.  At least, that appears to have been the general conservative male hope.  And, according to Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl, THE male hope.  Read all about the Cool Girl HERE.

Back to WaPo:  "The fact that Butina became so popular in conservative circles so quickly seems to point in the other direction: There aren’t a lot of (real) women like her. “She was like a novelty,” a former Michigan GOP chair told The Washington Post last week. “Friendly, curious and flirtatious,” described another anonymous source, who met her through the Conservative Political Action Conference.  The men who championed her were so pleased to meet a woman who fit an ideal mold, they never stopped to think that maybe she was an ideal mole."  Washington Post

Red Sparrow came to South Dakota, [Grateful] Deadheaded the NRA, was invited to and attended the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, CPAC, and everything else she could find.  Even John Bolton made a video for her in 2103. (YouTube.)   Hell, she even interviewed Candidate Trump, who was happy to take her question and answer freely (and exceptionally eloquently):  You Tube Video.

Everyone loved her.  No one could get enough of her.  But they're being awfully quiet about it now.




"What is the right to life, ingrained in our constitution, if you don’t have the right to bear arms?" says group founder Maria Butina.
Maria in Moscow,
2012
PS:  A lot of Russians also bought Maria's story and her organization.  The Right to Bear Arms united almost all the gun rights' organizations in Russia, largely thanks to her personality. Butina was the "battery that ignited everyone" and "things started to decline" after she left, said the improbably named co-founder Muslim Sheikhov.

But Vladimir Milov, a veteran Russian opposition politician, said he noticed at the time how "well technically equipped" Butina's group appeared to be and the quality of the merchandise at their rallies. "There was a clear idea from the beginning that somebody is behind them." But, at the time, "Butina's associates... believed that Right To Bear Arms was being funded mainly thanks largely to member fees and the sale of several furniture stores she owned in her Siberian hometown of Barnaul." Radio Free Europe

Instead, it was Russian billionaires Alexander Torshin and Konstantin Nikolayev, both friends of Putin.  And with that knowledge comes the fear that the charismatic Butina had "founded" an organization whose chief purpose was to infiltrate Russian opposition groups and, later, the NRA.  And which succeeded in doing both.

In other words, Putin managed to find a way to kill two birds - in two countries - with one stone.  

02 January 2019

Spy TV


I recently had an experience that carried me off on a cheerful wave of nostalgia.  Our current TV package provides access to an obscure channel called TubiTV.  And on it I was able to make my reacquaintance with The Sandbaggers, a spy series from Britain's ITV.  I had watched it on PBS back around 1980 when it premiered.  I was surprised at how much I remembered and how well it held up.  (It also seems to be available on Youtube.)

The series revolves around the Secret Intelligence Service (never called MI6 in the show), and it's Director of Operations, Neil Burnside (played by Roy Marsden, before he became better known as Adam Dalgleish).  Burnside is in charge of all the British agents in foreign countries around the world, but his first love is the Special Operations Section, known as the Sandbaggers.  These are the smash-and-grab boys, the ones who get sent to perform an extraction or an assassination (or prevent one). Please don't compare them to James Bond or Burnside will slit your throat.  He hates Ian Fleming's famous creation.

And as for slitting your throat, he is himself a former Sandbagger, and as ruthless as they come.  And yes, this crowd is pretty ruthless.  In the 20 episodes you will see virtually all the characters lying to each other, and often doublecrossing their superiors and allies.  Burnside would defend himself by saying he is true to the service and to his ultimate goal: destroying the KGB.  And he is willing to destroy his own career to do it.

An example of Burnside's charming personality.  In one episode he is in a restaurant and someone informs him: "I just saw your ex-wife out on the street."

"Best place for her."  Like I said, charming.

One thing I love about the show is the title.  I like to imagine it made John Le Carre, the master of fictional spy jargon, terribly jealous.  His name for the same type of group was the Scalphunters, but Sandbaggers is so much better.  "To sandbag" means "to launch a sneak attack" but it also means "to build emergency defenses."  Clever, eh?

The show had its flaws, of course.  The SIS is seen to be strangled with personnel shortages but it felt like that had more to do with TV budgets than anything else.  The inside sets look like a high school drama club production.  So many of the international crises take place in Malta that one can only assume ITV had a deal with the local tourist board.  And the last episode of the show only makes sense if you forgot everything that happened four episodes earlier.

None the less, it has been called one of the best spy shows of all time, and I'm not arguing.

The show was created, and most episodes were written, by Ian MacKintosh, a former naval officer.  Because of the series' sense of realism there was speculation that he had been involved in the spy world, but he played coy about it.  The series ends with a (hell of a) cliffhanger, because MacKintosh died unexpectedly and the network decided no one else could do it justice.

But I oversimplified when I said MacKintosh died.  In reality he and his girlfriend disappeared in a small airplane over the Pacific Ocean after radioing for help. The plane disappeared in a small area where neither U.S. nor Soviet radar reached.

I wonder what Burnside would make of that.

Oh, the show also has a great musical theme (just about the only music ever used in the program). Listen all the way to the last note.



But wait, there's more!  In the midst of my Sandbaggery I discovered a very different spy show which is, curiously, both older and newer than The Sandbaggers.  Available on Netflix A Very Secret Service (Au Service de la France) was created in 2015, but is set in 1960. And now let's give Grandpa a moment to marvel here over the fact that The Sandbaggers is set closer in time to 1960 than to 2015.

The series (in French, with subtitles) tells the story of Andre Merlaux, a naive young man who is forcibly recruited into the French Secret Service, which promptly makes it clear that they don't much want him.   It is a rather peculiar agency where doing your job is much less important than turning in proper receipts and wearing suits from the correct tailors.

On his first day on the job Merlaux gets in trouble for committing the incredible faux pas - I know you will be stunned by this blunder -- of answering the ringing phone on his desk. Quel imbécile!

This show is wildly and wickedly funny.  In one episode Merlaux assumes that a suspect cannot be a terrorist because she is a woman  His tutor firmly instructs him: "In cases of terrorism women must be considered humans!"

In another episode the French capture a German on his way from Argentina and suspect he is a Nazi. Fortunately they have a scientific survey which allows them to detect such barbarians.  (Sample question: "Adolf Hitler: pleasant or unpleasant?")

The best spy in the bunch is Clayborn, who will never get promoted because she is a woman.  All her operations are described as "courtesy missions," which means they involve getting naked with someone, but don't think that means they don't also involve theft, blackmail, and murder.

At one point Merlaux pours out all his troubles to Clayborn. She is, of course, sympathetic: "You feel out of place.  I understand.  This is the women's bathroom."

Neil Burnside would not be amused, but I was.


05 February 2018

Shades of Gray


John Lutz
John Lutz
featuring John Lutz
When I read the Baltimore Bouchercon guest list, one attendee caught my eye, the primary person I’d like to tip my hat to. Big-name authors find themselves inundated with clutching fans, leaving one to wonder– When does adulation grow old? I relegated myself to someone pointing out John Lutz across the room.

Then James Lincoln Warren arranged a dinner party (the same JLW who notes I write excessive introductions). I knew all the attendees except one couple. I introduced myself.

I almost spilled my drink. I wasn’t sure I heard right. The John Lutz and wife Barbara? Ever play the fantasy dinner guest list game? He’s the Victorian era’s equivalent of inviting Arthur Conan Doyle, La Belle Epoque’s homologue of Agatha Christie. John Lutz is my favorite author of my era.

After I gabbled or blabbled, I settled down at dinner, thoroughly charmed. James’ dinner became my Bouchercon highlight. So, when Jan Grape suggested recruiting John Lutz for an article, I nearly fell off my perch.

Credit for today’s article goes to Jan who is experiencing computer woes, else she would be writing this introduction mentioning Edgar and Shamus and movie awards. Unfortunately, she left me the onerous task of introducing John’s article.

So without further yammer and blather, Jan and I take pleasure introducing Mr John Lutz as he talks about his new spy novel.

— Jan Grape, Leigh Lundin



The Honorable Traitors
by John Lutz

How did I come up with the idea for my new series hero, secret agent Thomas Laker? You might assume that since I’ve written books in every other genre of mystery and suspense fiction, it was logical and predictable that I’d turn to espionage. But there’s nothing logical or predictable about coming up with ideas.

Here’s how it happened: I was reading a World War II history book, which set me musing that spies are our modern Cassandras, doomed to prophecy truly and not be believed. German agents found out where the Allied invasion of France was going to happen, and the generals dismissed their report. Soviet agents found out when the German invasion of Russia was going to happen, and Stalin blew them off. 

Not being believed must be a standard frustration of the spy business. I thought: What if there was a small, super-secret agency that operated in a more freewheeling fashion? Its agents, though of course unknown to the public, would be people with high reputations in the espionage fraternity. When employees of the CIA and FBI were being frustrated by bureaucrats and politicians, they’d turn to the people in my agency.

Honourable Traitors
Knowing that when agents of The Gray Outfit receive ‘actionable’ intelligence, they act.

That was the name that came to me for my agency. I decided to call its top agent Thomas Laker.

As my readers know, I like a hero who’s his own man, and does things his own way. My earlier series characters were private eyes in one-man agencies and retired cops who were so good the NYPD had to call them back to work on their own terms.

Laker’s like that, too– though he does have to report to his tough-as-nails boss Sam Mason, head of The Gray Outfit. Luckily Mason has as much disdain for routine methods as Laker.

My readers will also know that my series characters don’t work entirely alone.  Soon enough they meet up with a woman who gets under their skin.

In Laker’s case, it’s a beautiful and brainy NSA codebreaker named Ava North. The secret she brings him that is too hot for anyone else to handle concerns not her work but her family. The Norths have been Washington insiders for generations. The beginnings of the story of The Honorable Traitors go all the way back to World War II, but its unimaginably violent final act will take place in the future… the very near future.

27 September 2017

Legacies


My pal Michael Davidson, himself a thriller writer and a former career CIA officer, remarks of John le Carré's new novel Legacy of Spies that it's up to his usual high literary standards, while going on to say, "...the work of MI6 is portrayed as exceedingly cynical and inhuman." I don't know about 'inhuman,' but 'cold-blooded' fits the bill, many of the characters all too slithery and reptilian, even for public school Brits with upper lips shot full of Novocaine. The book's dark heart is the chill of moral frostbite.


le Carre then
A Legacy of Spies is something of a swan song, or a curtain call. George Smiley takes his last bow. And a good many ghosts gather at his elbow. Alec Leamas, for one, the original Spy Who Came In From The Cold, along with Bill Haydon (Kim Philby's avatar), and Peter Guillam, one-time head Scalphunter and later Paris station chief, and even a cameo from Jim Prideaux. It's fair to say that if you're unfamiliar with Spy, and Tinker, Tailor, and in fact the earlier Call for the Dead - which first introduced the East German Steel Mission and Hans-Dieter Mundt - then this story's going to fall on deaf ears. Then again, it's unlikely you're going to push old ladies and small children into oncoming traffic to get hold of Legacy if you haven't already inhaled the ozone at the top floor of the Circus, and you need the icy rush it promises. Fear not. The old spook hasn't lost his tradecraft, and he can still wind the clock, before he starts shaking the tree.  

It's ill-advised, as a rule, to conflate a writer with his characters, but you suspect that George Smiley, if not le Carré's exact double, or even his reflection, does on occasion speak for him. There's the moment in Smiley's People when George, chasing an old asset in Hamburg, casts his mental eye East, along the shores of the Baltic, and imagines a prison empire and its subject peoples, a horizon empty of hope. This is the closest we ever get, if I'm remembering it right, to any kind of rationale on George's part, in any of the books. Is this le Carré's voice? Hard to pin down. Yes, it sounds right for George, the war generation, first Hitler, then Stalin. "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Then again, we know better than to trust in absolutes, or orthodox certainties. Smiley doesn't. He's lived through a damaged century.

What about loyalties, though? Bill Haydon betrays the Service, and his country, and - perhaps most unforgivably - his friends. He sleeps with George's wife Ann, first because he can ("Love to Ann - everybody's love to Ann"), but under instructions from Karla. Curiously, too, everybody involved in Operation Windfall, and the Testify cock-up, give their loyalty personally to Control, or to Smiley, cutting out the Witchcraft circle, the tainted and suspect. And for the Mustache Petes, like Guillam, their institutional loyalty isn't to the present-day Service, the glassy cubicle farm on the Thames, but to the Circus of old, not just the ill-lit corridors but its habits of mind, its Druid impenetrability.

Le Carré uses Legacy of Spies to post his epitaph on the Cold War. Or more exactly, he has Smiley do it, and we can't be entirely sure who's speaking. But when Smiley tells Peter Guillam that it was all an exercise in futility, that the clandestine wars had no real result, no satisfying narrative coda, it rings false to me. It doesn't sound like Smiley. It sounds like le Carré. And this is where I have to part company with him. I know a few other people who were once in the secret world (the above-mentioned Michael Davidson, for one) who don't buy into this, either. I think that what we did in those years, not to put too fine a point on it, kept the Cold War from getting hot. Your mileage may differ.



This isn't to say that le Carré hasn't made his bones. For sheer operational skills, he's hard to top. I still think Little Drummer Girl is extraordinary, even if you take it purely as a roadmap on how to mount covert. Legacy of Spies doesn't disappoint, I don't want to give that impression at all. In fact, I wish the book were three hundred and fifty pages long, instead of two-fifty. I'm only saying that le Carré and I take different lessons away from our own histories, our own private fictions.

20 September 2017

Cold War Words, Hot War Words


You may remember that my last piece here was about the importance of empathy as illustrated by two very different books about intelligence work: John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Nicholas  Rankin's Masters of Deception.  Today I want to go back to those books to discuss a  different topic: language.
Le Carré is renowned for his plotting and characters but it is his use of words that dazzles me the most.  He invented a vocabulary of spying, most of it in Tinker Tailor, which is both memorable and believable.
When TTSS was adapted for TV and appeared on PBS there was a full-page ad, sponsored by Mobil, I believe, promoting the show and explaining the vocabulary.  Clearly someone thought the average viewer would be baffled by the jargon and give up even before they had a chance to be baffled by the plot. 
The most famous example, of course, is mole, for a double agent, especially one who was working for Side A even before he dug his way into the ranks of Side B.  Le Carré says he borrowed it from Russian intelligence circles although it turns out Sir Francis Bacon used it in the 1600s.  Le Carré says he had not read Bacon, and why should we doubt him?.  What is certain is that mole is part of everyday usage now.
Here are a few more of Le Carre's memorable coinings:
The Circus: MI-6 , so nicknamed for its (fictional) location in London at Cambridge Circus, but of course suggesting the chaos that often goes on there.
Lamplighters: The secret communication and dead letter people.
Breakage: People quitting the Circus.
 Scalphunters: The dirty work crowd, killers, kidnappers, etc.
Joe: Any agent in the field.  "I have to meet one of my joes."
Coat-trailing: Trying to convince the other side that you are a likely candidate to work for them. 
Honey trap: An attractive person set to woo a spy with their physical charms.
And so on.
But it isn't just terminology that makes Le Carré's language so vivid.  Let's take a couple of examples from a later book, Smiley's People.  An old Russian wants to tell George Smiley that he has acquired three facts that might be used to destroy their deadly enemy Karla.  But the coded message he gives is "I have three proofs against the Sandman."  Sends a shiver down my spine.
A few pages later Smiley reflects on the fact that a spy in trouble immediately discards the most valuable thing he is carrying.  But here is how that comes out:  "in the spy trade we abandon first what we love the most."  And that brings it to a whole different level, doesn't it?


My favorite of Le Carre's non-Smiley books is A Perfect Spy.  The protagonist of that one, Magnus Pym, is a double agent (this is not a spoiler) and he writes a confession to his son, although he certainly knows that the boy will never be allowed to read it.  Discussing the years just after World War II, he writes, "Vienna was a divided city like Berlin or your father"  For me, that's a real gut-punch.

What about the new le Carre novel, A Legacy of Spies?  It's very good but only two bits of language leapt out for me.  There is a safe house which Smiley named the Stables.  If that strikes you as having a mythological reference, at least one character in the book agrees with you.

And in a flashback we see the old spy's protege Peter Guillam demanding an explanation of the dodgy operation they were involved in.  Smiley tells him some of the story and then asks:

"Do you now have all the information you require?"
"No."
"I envy you."
 
Classic Smiley.

Moving on to Rankin's book about deception in the wars.  I was fascinated to learn that certain important and familiar words came from World War I. (Rankin notes that they did not appear in the famous eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, which appeared in 1911, but received major attention in the twelfth, after the war.)

Among the new words are propaganda and camouflage.   Also, in the British empire the best shooters were those who could kill small, fast-moving marsh birds called snipes. And, of course, those shooters were called snipers. 

I knew that tank, the word for heavily armored fighting vehicle, came from a bit of World War I deception - they're just spare petrol tanks! - but I had not realized that Ernest Swinton is credited with both the concept and the name.  Swinton was also a writer; his much-imitated Defence of Duffer's Drift turns what could be a pedestrtian lesson in military strategy into a fascinating story. 

And speaking of writers, the Director of Information for Britain during part of the war was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps.  Oh, and one more?  During World War II, the assistant to the Head of Naval Intelligence had to be a real extrovert, a glad-hander who could play talent-spotter, make nice between competing agencies, and represent the office to the outside world.  The job went to a fellow named Ian Fleming.  Wonder whatever happened to him?

06 September 2017

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Empath


I scribbled down notes for this piece years ago when I saw an ad in Mystery Scene Magazine  for The Complete George Smiley Radio Dramas.  The BBC had created radio dramas based on the eight John le Carré novels featuring super spy George Smiley.  He is the protagonist of only four or five of the eight (depending on whether you think The Honourable Schoolboy is about him or about, uh, the honourable schoolboy).  

I have not heard the recordings but my first reaction was: Not possible.  Not possible turn my favorite of the books, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, into a radio drama and make it work.

I know people who read that book cover to cover and couldn't follow the plot.  I know people who have watched the whole six hour TV mini-series with Alec Guinness and were baffled by it.

For an earlier blog I wrote up the endings of twenty great mysteries (not identifying which books they came from, fiend that I am).  I spend twice as much space explaining TTSS as any of the others and still received a complaint that I had it wrong.



The novel's story is so twisty, so reverse-logic, that the idea of trying making it clear in a radio performance strikes me as insane.  If anyone has listened to the recording, please let me know what you think.

Here is one of the reasons the plot is hard to grasp.  Characters A and B are in effect asking: "Given that the situation is X why are Characters C and D doing what they do?"  The answer is: Characters C and D think the situation is Y.

(And by the way, the pretty-good movie version starring Gary Oldman, blew this part of the plot entirely, apparently just to put in one shocking scene.) 

My point is that to follow this part of the plot  requires  a leap of empathy, which no one in the book but Smiley is able to make, and a lot of readers have trouble with it, too.

I don’t mean sympathy, the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.   I mean the scientific sense of empathy: the ability to see things from the other person's point of view.

Decades ago a scientist named Daniel Povinelli taught chimpanzees to do a task for a reward.  Then the chimps saw a human doing a second related task.  Finally the chimps had to copy what the humans did.  In other words, the beasties' thinking process had to go something like this: "The human did a certain thing at the table and we both got fig bars.  Now the tables are turned (literally) and I have to do that same thing to earn us bars."

Which turned out to be no problem for most of the chimps to figure out.  But when the same experiment was tried with monkeys, well, it was like trying to teach them differential calculus on a roller coaster.  In spite of the old adage "monkey see, monkey do," those primates could not make the empathic leap.

It is easy to assume empathy is a good thing, but that's an oversimplification.  For example, it is an essential tool for con artists.  They have to see what the mark is seeing and know what the mark wants.  Science fiction writer Harry Turtledove wrote a story called "Bluff" in which an alien world's civilization is overturned when one character learns poker and discovers the concept of lying.

Other fields rely on empathy as well. I just read a terrific book by Nicholas Rankin called A Genius For Deception, about British trickery during the two World Wars.  One example is camouflage which, of course, depends in knowing how the object you are trying to disguise will look to an enemy soldier, sailor, or pilot.

But it is just as true in intelligence battles.  One of the frustrations of the British spies during WWII was that the Japanese intelligence units were so incompetent they would miss the false information that had been cunningly prepared for them.  In other words, you can't get someone into your trap if they don't notice the bait.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to the cunning of George Smiley.  If you haven't encountered Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I recommend it.  There are plenty of versions to choose from.

Addendum: After I wrote this I received an advance reader copy of John le Carré's new novel, officially published yesterday.  A Legacy of Spies is being plugged as a new Smiley novel, but it appears that once again the cunning old fox manages to stay on the side lines. The main character is Peter Guillam, Smiley's protege, who is called out of retirement to explain some of the master's cases to a post-Cold War generation of spies. I'm reading it now, and so far, it's good.


10 May 2017

Rattling the Cupboards


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the twelfth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Edgerley Gates

All happy families are alike, Tolstoy famously says, and each unhappy family unhappy in their own way. Tolstoy certainly knew from personal experience. John le Carré is another writer whose unsettling family history gave him not only a template, but a theme. He tells us the habits of concealment have served him a lifetime - not always with the desired result. Skeletons in closets.

Buried secrets are an old literary device. The buried past particularly. I'm always a sucker for it, and it's one I've used myself fairly often. I have to wonder too, like le Carré, how much of my personal history conspires to make the secret so attractive.

Well, first off, there's the official record - not all of it on the record, naturally. Most people know I was a Russian linguist and intercept analyst when I was in the Air Force, and probably as many people know from reading my posts here that my uncle Charlie Haskins was at Bletchley Park during WWII. He also served on Eisenhower's national security staff during Eisenhower's presidency. I suspect there's more to his life in the secret world, but I'll never know. Going back another generation, his own dad, the historian Charles Homer Haskins, was at Versailles with Wilson, in 1919. Specifically, he served on the commission to administer the Saar. You wouldn't think this was a political hot potato, because everybody pretty much conceded the French would control the coalfields, but it may have been one of Wilson's bargaining chips with Clemenceau. Wilson himself was impatient with the machinations at the conference, but his main advisor (and intelligence chief) Col. House didn't mind getting his hands dirty, and my grandfather reported to House. I can only guess, but given my fanciful nature, I imagine there's probably more to this than meets the eye.

Then, we got the unofficial. My mom's family, the same lineage as above, had one of those episodes everybody was deeply embarrassed about, and it was rarely spoken of. The problem being, for a kid, is that the hints and silent glances only made you want more, and more was never forthcoming, which of course made the whole thing out to be worse than it was. This dark blot on the escutcheon was the fact that my great-grandparents had divorced, a scandal that apparently shook late 19th-century St. Louis society, not least because he divorced her, which to all intents and purposes branded her a Scarlet Woman. A veil is drawn across what actually happened, but the point isn't what in fact actually happened - with a lot of spadework, my sister Bea has dug out the details - but that everybody felt it was too shameful, it had to stay hidden, it couldn't be talked of. Like the madwoman in the attic, Mrs. Rochester. There's more than a little of the Gothic, here.

It turns out there really is somebody in the attic, too, now you mention it. My grandfather, my mom's dad, the aforementioned Charles Homer Haskins, came down with Parkinson's. He had to give up teaching, and the slow degenerative process wore him down. It killed him at 66. For the last years of his life, he lived on the third floor of the house in Cambridge he and his wife had built early in their marriage. As a boy, I'd always found my grandmother's house spooky and dark, haunted not too strong a word. And it was only years later, when the house was being sold, that I ever ventured up to the third floor. To my enormous surprise, it was filled with light. Made me feel a lot better, truth be told, to know he wasn't left in darkness.

There's another legacy of shadow, the troubled relationship between their children, my mom and her two brothers. My uncle Charlie was the middle one, and from all the evidence a mediating influence. My uncle George was the oldest. Seen at this remove, a bully, emotionally abusive, a predator. Nothing to be done about it now. Not that I'd have a problem pissing on his grave. My real revenge would be to write a book about it, and cast him as the heavy.

It's odd to realize you get material out of this. If not the actual, the impulse. All that compacted sadness. It's not right, somehow. Or maybe we're making amends. That sorrow isn't of our making. It's gone, it's done, it's well beyond our control, it was never ours to begin with. Perhaps this is how we claim ownership, the way we bear witness. Survivors' guilt. We owe them. This is the coin we carry for the ferryman, to pay for our own crossing.