Book Review: An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy
Robert Harris
Alfred A. Knopf, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-385-34958-1
Hardcover

You could say that this is the story of Alfred Dreyfus who was convicted for treason in Paris in 1895. But, oh, this historical thriller is also much more than that.

The story is told from the point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart, head of counterespionage, who finds himself re-investigating the case after Dreyfus’ imprisonment. I found Picquart to be a very interesting guy. He’s been in the military most of his life, doesn’t have much of a personal life, is an ambitious man out of sync with those around him. He doesn’t buy their “If I’m told to shoot someone, I shoot” mentality. Picquart questions things. He investigates. He puts his career and even himself in great jeopardy.

You won’t need to know anything about the Dreyfus affair or 19th century France to enjoy this book. I waited to read more about the actual case until after I had finished the book so I wouldn’t know what was going to happen. Even if you tend not to like historical fiction, you may very well like this book. It could be classified in several genres: a mystery, a thriller, espionage, conspiracy. What I found most fascinating about it is that it makes sense of how a situation can evolve into a conspiracy without anyone ever planning one in the first place.

There are many characters involved here but it’s never a problem remembering them all. There’s a list of characters at the beginning of the book. And the author is very good about reminding the reader who each character is each time he brings them back into the story.

My favorite quote: “If I pull back now… I’d be obliged to spend the rest of my life with the knowledge that when the moment came, I couldn’t rise to it. It would destroy me – I’d never be able to look at a painting or read a novel or listen to music again without a creeping sense of shame.”

It’s a compelling read, written in a very engaging style with a lot of intensity and passion. It certainly made me think. My favorite kind of book.

Reviewed by Constance Reader, February 2014.

Book Reviews: Scared to Death by Wendy Corsi Staub, The Nomination by William G. Tapply and Agent X by Noah Boyd

Scared to Death
Wendy Corsi Staub
Avon, January 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-18950-7-4
Mass Market Paperback

The first murder in Wendy Corsi Staub’s newest thriller occurs on page 7, and the suspense hardly lets up from that point on.

Marin Quinn gave up her newborn son at the insistence of her husband, Garvey Quinn.  Elsa Cavalon adopted that same child, and is now on the brink of finalizing the adoption of a seven-year-old girl, Renny.  The horror that binds these two women is that Jeremy, the biological son of one and adoptive son of the other, was kidnapped while playing outside of his home fifteen years earlier; less than a year ago, Mike Fantoni, the detective the Cavalons hired after Jeremy was first kidnapped and who vowed not to rest until the boy had been found, tells them that Jeremy had been taken overseas to Mumbai, India, and murdered shortly afterwards.  Garvey Quinn, a man who had hoped to become the Governor of the State of New York, is now serving a prison term for having engineered that crime [among others].

But the nightmare of that loss seems to be repeating itself, as the new family of each of these women is threatened, and no part of their present lives seems to be outside the reach of a determined and very deranged mind.

The book alternates p.o.v. between the two women at its heart [as well as that of the killer, from time to time], as they variously run to the suburbs of Boston and an Upper West Side aerie in Manhattan.  But try as they might, they each find that there seems to be no safe haven.

A tale of vengeance with a stunning twist as the conclusion nears, Scared to Death is great escapist fare, one you’ll want to read with all the lights on.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2011.

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The Nomination
William G. Tapply
Skyhorse Publishing, February 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60239-990-7
Hardcover

The Nomination is a posthumously released novel by William Tapply, and a terrific one it is.

Thomas Larrigan is about to be nominated by the American President to fill the seat on the U. S. Supreme Court of an associate justice on the verge of retirement.  He, of course, needs to be vetted before the inevitable Senate confirmation hearings, and even before his nomination is publicly announced.  At first blush his bona fides appear to be impeccable:  A youthful-looking 59 years old, handsome despite his black eye patch, he was a Marine lieutenant, decorated Vietman vet, who had been awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart; he has a reputation as an “intrepid prosecutor, tough on criminals, elected twice as crime-busting District Attorney, once as state Attorney General, self-respected Federal District Court judge, loving family man.”  [It doesn’t hurt that he occasionally plays golf with the President.]

As the president is told, “Larrigan’s perfect.  Almost too good to be true.”  Of course, as the author points out, “if you looked close enough, you’d find a skeleton in every closet in America.  If you looked close enough, you wouldn’t find anybody who’d qualify for the Supreme Court.  Old dusty skeletons, long dead.  Skeletons can’t tell stories.”  Some of those skeletons are not quite dead, it soon appears.  In the process, several lives are linked in disparate ways, some characters confronting their past, others running from theirs, including events from the Vietnam era that had/have life-changing effects.  The author skillfully weaves these threads together, and when this reader thought she knew what was coming, unexpected plot developments proved me wrong.

Others caught in the web of the vetting process include Jessie Church, who had worked for 18 months as an undercover cop in Baltimore, now working as a private investigator; Simone Bonet, cult film goddess who has dropped out of sight; Mac Cassidy, celebrity ghostwriter recovering from the death a year earlier of his wife and now trying to raise their teenage daughter by himself; among others.  Each of these is a fully fleshed-out character brought to wonderful life in the hands of Mr. Tapply.  This is a beautifully written tale of love and loss, full of suspense but still managing to tug at the heart. Nearing the end of the book, I did something I had never done before: I had gripped the bottom corner of the page so tightly in my fingers that a small piece was ripped out.

I felt it might be appropriate to include here the following, contained in an epilogue to this novel, in part wrapping up the tale and spoken by Mac Cassidy, but which I suspect were also Mr. Tapply’s thoughts about his own writing process:  “Eight hundred words a day, through sleet and snow and flu-like symptoms.  That’s how books got written.  Not in great bursts of inspiration.  You wrote a book one painful sentence at a time.  Eight hundred words a day, which was a lot of sentences, whether it took an hour or ten hours.”  It is our loss that this is the last book from this author we will have the pleasure of reading.  It is, obviously, highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2011.

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Agent X
Noah Boyd
William Morrow, February 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-182698-6
Hardcover

Kate Bannon, the Assistant Director of the FBI who readers, and ex-FBI Agent Steve Vail first met in this author’s The Bricklayer, returns, in fact, in the first sentence on the first page of this, the second in the series.  And a most welcome return it is, of those protags and the series itself.  I am delighted to report that all the taut writing, suspense and wonderful characters of the initial book in the series are abundantly present in Agent X as well.

Vail, a maverick who can’t/won’t confirm to rules, was fired by the FBI five years previously.  He has since then been working at least nominally as a bricklayer [thus the title of the first book] and had met Kate in LA when they worked together on a case which had a successful conclusion, mostly due to his efforts.  [He was an ‘independent contractor’ of sorts in that instance for the FBI.]  They had dated for a while, until Kate broke it off.  Beyond the delightful banter, the two make for a terrific team as the FBI persuades Vail to head up their investigation into finding a number of agents to whom vital US secrets are just a commodity to be bartered.  As if that weren’t enough, Steve is asked by an agent who had been Vail’s partner several years back to assist with a case involving the disappearance of a female intelligence analyst.  As the tale unfolds, one thing becomes clear:  Very little is as it seems.

The Vail/Bannon relationship is an ambivalent one.  As is the Vail/FBI deal.  Bannon tells Vail:  “You have advanced degrees.  The director has offered you complete autonomy if you’ll come back to the Bureau, but instead you choose physical labor just so you won’t have to take orders. . . Not everyone who takes orders for a living is a mortal enemy of Steven Vail.”  The cleverly constructed sleuthing [which was a challenge at times for this reader, I must admit], and the occasional philosophical ruminations, make for a fascinating read.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2011.