Adrenaline Arc: Thriller–Spies

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Peabody Institute (15 Sylvan Street, Danvers; Telephone: (978) 774-0554)

Handouts: Gannon, Michael B. Blood, Bedlam, Bullets, and Bad Guys: A Reader’s Guide to Genre Fiction. LU. 2004.” Introduction.” pp. x-xiii.   (Original assignment 11/15) & “Licensed to Kill” Spies and Secret Agents, p.1-2.

Saricks, Joyce, G. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. “Thrillers.” 2nd ed. ALA. 2009. pp.71-90.

Assignment for March 22, 2016: Adrenaline Suspense: Spies Benchmark:                           

Everyone reads Daniel Silva’s The Kill Artist and a second title in this genre.

Appeal to be read for March 2016 meeting: Focus on all the appeal factors, but really think about pace, character, and tone.

Please post your 2nd title in this genre on on the blog.                                                                                        

Please post Adrenaline Suspense: Lone   Wolves  second title choices on the RA RT Blog 

NOTES FROM 3/22/16 MEETING  Thank you, Jessica F.


1.)  PACE– page-turning pace is necessary for the success of any titles in this genre.
2.)  TONE – Suspenseful, in some cases, menacing atmosphere
3.)  STORY LINE is character-driven for the Lone Wolf; Both character-driven or plot-driven for the spy and character-driven for Psychological Suspense.
4.) PLACE or FRAME often plays a role and is a pivotal appeal for some reading spy fiction especially.

Thank you to Jan, Diane, and Michelle for contributing to this summary.  Leane

ARENDALINE: SUSPENSE: SPIES SUGGESTIONS (Titles are First in series unless otherwise noted.)

Allbeury, Ted. Hostage (2004) (aka No Place to Hide 1984)

 Cumming, Charles. A Spy By Nature. (2007) Alec Millius series.

 Deighton, Len. Berlin Game. (1983) Bernard Samson series.

 Downing, David. Jack of Spies. (2014) Jack McColl series. Pre-WWI British

 Dunn, Matthew. Spycatcher. (2011) Will Cochrane Spycatcher series.

 Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. (1953) Bond, James Bond series.

 Follett, Ken. The Eye of the Needle. (1978)

 Forsyth, Frederick. Day of the Jackal. (1972)

 Brian Freemantle. Charlie M. (1977) Charlie Muffin series.

 le Carre, John. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (1963) George Smiley#3

 Ludlum, Robert. The Bourne Identity. (1980) Jason Bourne series.

 Matthews, Jason. Red Sparrow. (2013) Red Sparrow series.

 McCarry, Charles. Tears of Autumn. (1974) Paul Christopher series #2.

 Steinhauer, Olen. The Tourist. (2009) Milo Weaver series.

 Stock, Jon. Dead Spy Running. (2009) Daniel Marchant series.

 Zander, Joachim. The Swimmer. (2015)

Elective Titles

Leane Ellis

The Swimmer – Joakim Zander
Appeal Factors: CH/PACE/TONE

“Every time I hold you is the last time I hold you. I’ve known that since the very first time…” p.3   Our unnamed narrator tells us this in the beginning of this hypnotic novel; and from that one line, I was hooked even before the story takes off.

Two things many of you probably already know about me—my fondness for spy fiction and my obsession with unreliable narrators—that 1st person point of view that sucks you in and somehow plays with your perceptions of what is happening in the story.  Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer contains both appeal factors for me.

First novelist Zander has written a truly polished and compelling thriller about a former spy whose career forced him to give up his infant daughter, and then must come to her rescue years later when she is targeted by powerful international adversaries who will kill her for discovering volatile intelligence secrets.

The unnamed retired CIA agent is telling this tale to his dead wife in his mind. It begins in Damascus in 1980 when a car bomb kills a CIA agent’s wife, and it moves through three decades and locales in Syria, Brussels, D.C., Paris, Stockholm, and a remote Swedish countryside during a fierce winter storm as characters variously intersect, reconnect or collide. Tension and action abound, but it is the depth of Zander’s characters and the high quality of the writing that makes this book a winner. It was first a best-seller in Europe and the author’s native Sweden, this entertaining novel will remind you of Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum thrillers more than a Stieg Larson or Henning Mankell Swedish crime novel but The Swimmer contains shimmers of all of them.

Olen Steinhauer (The Tourist –1st Milo Weaver trilogy), who writes superb espionage stories, was asked “What makes a good spy novel?” by The New York Times. His answer was “For me, it’s the moral muddiness of the ends/means equation that comes up more often in spy fiction than in, say, murder mysteries. The best espionage stories not only ask questions about how spying is performed, but they also question the value of the job itself. And when the profession becomes a metaphor for living, the spy novel can delve into the very questions of existence, while thrilling the reader with a convoluted plot. Do all that well, and you’ve got a potential classic on your hands.”

At one point in this story, our narrator tells us: “I remember that when I turned to go back to the Volvo the snow had already erased my footsteps, as if I’d been placed on that dock from above, as if my presence had no continuity, no context…” P.165

This is the kind of evocative writing that captured me, and even though some aspects of the ending will not surprise some of you, you forgive Zander for this because of how well he tells the story:  For Daniel Silva fans and espionage readers who cannot wait for his next, and those also waiting for Jason Matthews’ follow-up to Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason.

Jessica Atherton

Appeal Factors: plot twists, chilling engrossing

In the 50th anniversary edition of this title, a foreword by John le Carre claims that his book bears no connection to reality. It is not possible that a British spy agent would be shelved in an attempt to frame a Cold War spy with secrets of his own. The chilling sense of foreboding was certainly invented. The detailed descriptions of the subtle terrors of bureaucracy could not possibly relate to anything genuine. And the tragic plot twists at the end? Pure fiction! The more le Carre insists on the fabrication, the more he cements the suspicion that his engrossing tale reveals terrible truths about ourselves and our world.
If one trip down a dark alley of history was not enough, continue with Olen Steinhauer, Graham Greene, and Adam Brookes.

Jan Resnick

The General’s Daughter – Nelson DeMille
Appeal Factors: Pace: Fast; Characters: complex; Story: Intricately plotted, Character-driven; Language: 1st person, witty, richly detailed; Tone: irreverent, strong sense of place – Army; Frame: Fort Hadley GA, contemporary to pub. date – early 1990’s

I read this novel based on a NoveList readalike recommendation and because it was on my ‘to read’ list. There are appropriate comparisons even though this is a military mystery rather than a traditional spy story; see below.

Warrant Officer (Army CID) Paul Brenner is working undercover at Fort Hadley GA to apprehend those involved in an illegal deal for some of the Army’s weapons. When the base’s commanding officer’s daughter is found dead, naked, and staked out on the firing range, Paul is pulled in to head the investigation – a public relations nightmare, no win case. Also called in, because of her expertise in sexual assault as this case implied, is Warrant Officer Cynthia Sunhill who was working a rape case.

Paul and Cynthia have their own backstory involved in their assignments in Brussels the year before.

The General’s Daughter, Captain Ann Campbell, is a recruiting poster dream – beautiful, accomplished, West Point graduate, and a member of the Psy-Ops’ (Psychological Operations) staff. What originally looks like assault and rape doesn’t follow the forensic evidence and the secret room Paul and Cynthia find in the Captain’s home. The list of suspects spirals larger and larger involving most of the General’s staff and exposing corruption throughout the base. Captain Campbell had been waging a psychological war of her own going back to events at West Point.

There are distinct similarities to The Kill Artist. The spies and the army have their own cultures of honor and loyalty that set them apart from the rest of us. They have skill sets, resources and politics that define them as different. In both books the sense of place within those culture is very strong. Interpersonal relationships are convoluted. As in many thrillers, the plot resolution carries right up to the very end and is slightly ambiguous. The stories unfold in layers. Readers who enjoy complex characters, a fast pace, tension, and intricate plots should find The General’s Daughter a rewarding read.

Paul Brenner novels #1

Similar authors/titles: Stuart Woods – Holly Barker novels; Daniel Silva – Gabriel Allon novels; Brian Haig – Sean Drummond novels; J.A. Jance – Clawback; John Lescroart – The Fall

Jim Riordan

Trinity Six – Charles Cumming
Appeal Factors: Well drawn characters, detailed settings, interplay between fact and fiction.

Trinity Six is a modern spy novel that hangs on the search for the fabled Sixth Man. In the 1930s the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) recruited five spies at Trinity College, Cambridge. Now known as the Cambridge Five, these individuals–Kim Philby, Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross–went on to have successful careers in English foreign office: MI6 and MI5. Anthony Blunt even had close familial ties to the British royal family. All the while they passed classified information to their Soviet handlers until they were gradually exposed over the course of the latter half of the 20th century. Ever since their exposure there has been a theory that there was a sixth spy that was never exposed.

This is where Cumming’s novel takes up. Sam Gaddis is a professor of Russian history at University College London. He learns from a journalist friend that she has stumbled on a source that is going to give her the sixth man. Almost immediately after, though, she is murdered. Gaddis, in desperate need of money, takes up the challenge of locating the sixth man. However in so doing, he brings on the full fury of both British MI6 and the Russian FSB (successor to the KGB).

This is a story that combines action and research. Gaddis spends much of the book combing through libraries and archives trying, at first, to determine the identity of the sixth man, but eventually to try and determine why this research is so dangerous. All along the way the reader is putting the pieces together along with him. As Gaddis gets closer, and more people start dying, he is forced to dodge FSB hitmen and in some cases MI6 agents.

Gaddis is a great character who combines just the right amounts of nobility and debasement. He is divorced from his wife, he drinks too much and is deeply in debt. On the other hand he is very loyal to friends, devoted to his daughter, and determined to see justice in a Russia led by a character that is a thinly disguised Putin. He is also extremely intelligent and gradually takes to the life of espionage that his work drives him into.

At the same time the setting is drawn with great attention to detail. As Gaddis moves across England, Europe and Russia, Cummings gives you enough detail of the places that you feel like you are there with Sam on his search. From the specific shops in Winchester High Street that Gaddis walks by to a particular gastropub that is serving as a meeting place in Vienna or a rundown tenement in Moscow all the detail heightens the sense of tension in the story.

Cummings also draws on actual modern day events in very subtle ways. There is the obvious ones, like repeated references to the Cambridge 5 and the stand in for Putin, but there are less obvious ones too. There is a brief mention of the FSB assassinating someone by putting Polonium-210 in their California Roll. This is a veiled reference to the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, an FSB defector, living in London in 2006. The only reason I caught it was from reading Ben Mezrich’s Once Upon a Time in Russia. These little “blink and you’ll miss them” details make this book a joy for spy fiction buffs.

This book would appeal to lovers of Le Carre and non-fiction espionage because of its ties to Cold War history and the detail. It would also appeal to individuals who like Silva’s novels, if not for the action then for the country-hopping settings.

Beth Safford

Jack of Spies – David Downing
Appeal Factors: Atmospheric, Dramatic, Well-Written, Romance

This is well-written spy/romance/historical fiction novel. The author clearly spent a great deal of time on research and expertly conveys the events and lifestyle of this period before WWI. The characters are likable and the romance is believable. The ending clearly suggests a sequel.

Michelle Deschene

The Travelers – Chris Pavone
Appeal Factors – Tone/Pace

Journalist Will Rhodes is dissatisfied with his almost-but-not-quite perfect life, which leaves him conveniently primed for making a costly mistake. On assignment in France, that mistake introduces herself as Elle, and for several candlelit hours the wicked arch of her eyebrow speaks volumes, mostly about Will’s wife and how she’s only a small problem, easily ignored. Blissfully unaware of the show he’s putting on for a camera, Will panics when eventually confronted with pictures of his indiscretion. Under pressure, he agrees to carry out tasks that commonly fall within the purview of the CIA. Or the KGB. Or James Bond. Anyone but his food-and-wine-critiquing self, he realizes, as he’s quickly drawn deeper into a familiar world turned inside out.

Pavone used third person present tense to tell this story, presumably for the sake of immediacy, perhaps to convey real-time urgency. Within the scope of my spy-fiction reading experience, using that tense was a unique choice, and for me, throughout, it was nothing but awkward. Could be that awkward was also the point: Will Rhodes was blackmailed into committing spy craft; he had no clue what he was doing, who he was doing it for, or precisely why. It’s effectiveness–whether or not that present tense is a pleasure or an annoyance–is ultimately up to the individual reader.

The Travelers goes in for hardcore country-jumping, frequently shifting between numerous locations for brief interludes within each chapter. It was very slightly reminiscent of the “meanwhile, in Bavaria” shtick in The Pink Panther Strikes Again. That last part might just be me, although come to think of it, Will had a whiff of Clouseau about him: Inept and out of his depth and still, somehow, muddling through to come out on top of the situation.

Additional potential appeals include: the hairpin plot; the tough-as-nails ladies, both “good” and “bad”; and how Pavone used Truman’s dissolution of the OSS to create the world of The Travelers.

One doesn’t have to look hard at this book to see aspects of it that readers might enjoy, but I actually didn’t care for the run-on writing style, and waded out to the end simply because I wanted to know if the story’s conceit was a long con: Had Will been a spy-slash-really good actor from the start?

Eileen Barrett

The Expats – Chris Pavone
Appeal Factors: female spy, no graphic violence, suspense, tidy but unrealistic ending – everyone gets off scot-free

Expatriate Kate is sure the American couple that recently moved into her Luxembourg neighborhood is not whom they say they are. Then again she’s not who she says she is either, and as an ex-CIA spy it seems there is no getting away from her past. Kate is not the only one with secrets though, her husband Dexter has a few off his own – like the $1 million he stole and then there is that $50 million Euro he diverted into an untraceable bank account. Everyone is acting a bit oddly, which arouses Kate’s spy antennae. This sets her into motion to uncover the truth, it is after all so much more exciting than shopping at IKEA or chatting with the other moms over coffee. Fingers are frequently on the trigger, and there are quite a few twists and turns; this story winds like an alpine road taking you from Luxembourg to Paris, and other European cities. If only it was well-written.