• Damascus Station by David McCloskey *** (of 4)

    Soon after the Arab Spring reached Syria, Hafez Assad reacted to public uprisings with vicious government sponsored violence. Protestors were arrested, tortured, and slaughtered with poison gas. It was the beginning of a decade-long civil war whose outcome and direction were at the time wholly unpredictable. The United States still had an embassy in Damascus, and as is true with all embassies, a portion of its employees were spies.

    In this recounting, an American spy is running a Syrian operative inside the Syrian government. First, there is the suspenseful cloak and dagger necessities of ferreting and transferring information from the Syrian Palace to the American embassy to CIA offices in Langley. Next comes the analysis of whether the gleaned information is reliable or an intentional trail of breadcrumbs laid by suspicious Syrian officers. There is an additional problem of Russian spies gathering information leaked by American spies and feeding it on to Damascus. At the level of governments, someone has to make policy based on all the intelligence gathered by humans on the ground and satellites and drones in the air.

    At the human level is the daily grind of validating observations with corroborating evidence all while concurrently being tracked and monitored by opposition spies. One false step and the Syrian government, if they caught you, wouldn’t hesitate to make you disappear forever, but not before removing some of your favorite body parts while you were still breathing. Especially well done is McCloskey’s description of how a dictator ensures allegiance amongst his underlings by playing one off another.

    Spying is a job for patriots, madmen, and madwomen, a couple of whom find one another as soulmates in the midst of Syria’s chaos.

  • Razorblade Tears by S.A. Crosby **** (of 4)

    Ike and Buddy Lee couldn’t be more different or more the same. Ike is Black and barely the survivor of deeply embedded southern racism. Buddy Lee, self identifies as a beer-drinking, redneck piece of trailer-trash. Their only sons are married to one another and murdered in cold blood just before the book opens. Now the two ex-cons have to face one another, their long-held homophobia, and a police force unable or indifferent about finding their sons’ killers.

    Ike and Buddy Lee take it upon themselves to search for the unrepentant killers and as we tag along the two old man, tired, but still tough and wily, get to know one another. They also get to know themselves. Violence bubbles up around the pair like a slashed artery but is diluted with insightful compassion for two men coming to terms with their failures as fathers. Together, they prove that you are never too old to try again, to make amends, to apologize to those who have been wronged, and to accede to the power of love. Even as bodies drop like flies caught behind glass, Ike and Buddy Lee discover who killed their sons, but more importantly grasp that judging a human takes more than a glance at skin color, class, sexual orientation, or gender. Goodness, like evil, can be found in surprising places.

  • Medicus by Ruth Downie *** (of 4)

    Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Roman physician working for Rome’s army in a remote outpost of the empire: dreary, rainy, savage countryside north of London (Londonium). Soldiers arrive in his clinic after fistfights with barmaids, staggering hangovers, heart attacks, food poisoning, being kicked by horses, and cataracts. His roommate, another doctor, is a slob, and mostly interested in self-promotion. The hours are long and the food is, well, British, not Roman. No olives, no lemons, nothing worth salivating over.

    Across the street from the Roman fort is a brothel (legal in the Roman empire) with enslaved prostitutes (also legal.) One of the prostitutes, actually, maybe two, have disappeared without explanation, and in a fit of blinded humanity Ruso purchases a young, attractive female slave in the street. Then, as if dealing the mystery of missing people, one of whom has washed up in the local river and was brought in for examination, Ruso finds himself with a rather independent slave, a busy waiting room, and a long wait until payday. Then the fort’s chief administrator arrives on site and presents himself as a bureaucrat of such maddening preciseness that a modern day IRS employee would look like Mother Teresa in comparison. Ruso has a lot to sort out.

  • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara *** (of 4)

    One big difference between true crime and mystery novels is that when true crimes are committed, it’s not unusual for the perpetrator to get away. By contrast, in a TV mystery, or a book, the bad guy, by convention, is revealed. Which is why Michelle McNamara essentially joins the “club” of true crime mystery solvers. She has a chance to work on a puzzle whose outcome is so elusive, it might not be solvable; like a super-hard crossword puzzle, only the outcome, if she helps catch a criminal, might really matter.

    McNamara’s focus is one horrific rapist and murderer who through much of the 1970s and 1980s committed dozens of heinous acts. He committed so many it is virtually unimaginable that he could have escaped recognition well into the 2010s despite the dozens of searchers, professional and amateur, combing through thousands of items of evidence. And yet, The Golden State Killer was not.

    What makes “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” so compelling is McNamara’s exquisite attention to detail and writer’s panache for knowing when to use it. She lets us know, for example, the weather on the night of an attack, and the placement of the street lamps and hedgerows, but gives us only enough description for us to know the magnitude of the attack. The violence is inhumane, obsessive on the part of the killer, but not presented gratuitously.

    Complicating the narrative was the untimely death of the author who left behind enough of the manuscript and accompanying articles that ghost writers could ably finish the book. Leaving us to ponder the nature of obsession: in one case a man who preyed on California suburbanites and in the other case, a wife, mother, and author who sat up at night chasing minutiae in hopes of catching him.

  • The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith *** (of 4)

    veniceIn the closing days of WWII, as the Allies are conquering northward up the Italian peninsula, the Germans are beginning to retreat, and their Italian allies are bumbling.  Venice, though under German occupation still, is spared American bombing runs.  In the lagoons beyond the city, Cenzo, an insightful, witty fisherman, finds an 18-year-old Jewish girl, Giula Silber, floating face down, but still alive.  Giula and Cenzo must outwit Nazis hunting for her, black marketeers willing to trade in everything from human cargo to peace initiatives, Italian Fascists, anti-Fascist partisans, Cenzo’s dubious older brother, and his indomitable mother. The writing is spare, occasionally too lean, so that some characters and a few of their actions are veiled in a Venetian mist, and yet, in sum, the disorder imposed of a World War on the daily lives of bartenders, fishermen, backwater diplomats, and indulgent Italian mothers emerges with the piquancy of fresh polenta.

  • Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews *** (of 4)

    palaceoftreasonThe second in the series involving a a love affair that really should never happen between an American CIA spy, Nathanial Nash and the mole he is running inside the KGB, Dominika Egorova.  Egorova has risen high enough inside the Russian spy network she has become a confidante of Putin.  The poor parts of the novel include flat portrayals of Russians — they are all venal, evil, and flatly portrayed destroyers of western values, equal and opposite descriptions of American spies whose patriotism is the only thing that might save the world, and love-making scenes between Nate and Dominika that sound like they were written by a spy who spent 33 years doing analysis for the CIA, which is what Matthews did before becoming a novelist.  All the women in the book have breasts and nipples.  Their love making skills are about as sexy as that last sentence.  But, get over those superficialities, and the spycraft described in this book is so realistic, intriguing, suspenseful and informative you will readily plow up its pages and find yourself waiting impatiently for the next installment.

  • One of Us by Asne Seierstad **** (of 4)

    one_of_us_0Even if you do not recall the Oslo terrorist attack in 2011, the opening pages of this book make certain there is no surprise.  Anders Breivik, a native of Norway exploded a homemade bomb in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and then drove a van to Utoya Island to murder socialist youth.  He killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, nearly all with gunshots to the back of the head.  Only a few pages after it opens, the story returns to the beginning of Anders Breivik’s life to uncover in page-turning detail his development as a right-wing terrorist bent upon preserving Norway’s ethnic purity from creeping left-wing government policy.  Breivik emerges as a psychotic, deranged killer.  Except his continued lucidity and consistent logic of self-defined clarity of purpose make him indistinguishable from any member of ISIS, the Taliban, fanatical Israeli settlers and their Hamas counterparts, the routine gun-wielding mass shooters that too routinely make our headlines, more than a few affiliate of the NRA, and several of my neighbors in northwest Pennsylvania.  One of us.  This book explains what runs through their minds and then asks us to define the border between idealistic soldier of freedom and the psychologically impaired.

  • Vulture Peak by John Burdett *** (of 5)

    vultureThe fifth in the series for Royal Thai Police Detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep.  The crime this time takes place on the exclusively wealthy hilltop above Bangkok of the title’s name, Vulture Peak, where three bodies are discovered missing their salable organs.  While the crime is being unraveled we learn about the global trade in kidneys, livers, corneas, and so forth, some of it legal, and much of it less so apparently driven by the amount of money people with failing organs are willing to pay for replacement parts.  Unfortunately, the criminals in this book, a pair of psychopathic Hong Kong twins, a faceless (really, faceless) rapist, and a bipolar Hong Kong cop chasing them all are so over the top they strain credulity.  Burdett is also trying to say something about the difference between Thai prostitutes that sell their whole bodies, but do so fully aware of the business they are in, and the poor and beleaguered of the world who sell parts of their bodies for cash out of true desperation.

  • Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews *** (of 4)

    redsparrowAn American CIA agent, Nathaniel Nash, is sent to Russia to manage a key asset at the same time a Russian intelligence agent, Dominika Egerova, is tasked with spying on Nate.  While each attempts to seduce the other into becoming a double agent, without, of course, giving up their real identities, they also fight not to commit the cardinal error of falling truly in love.  The author, Jason Matthews, is a former CIA operative himself so the tradecraft described in great detail rings uncannily true.  Likewise, his description of CIA personalities and Vladimir Putin’s Soviet style directives of Russian secret services feels like a peek into world that must be going on all the time without our ever knowing.  Matthews won an Edgar award for best first novel and his second book starring the same two spies, Palace of Treason, has just been published.

  • All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer *** (of 4)

    knivesHenry and Celia were working for the CIA in Vienna when a hijacked plane landed and failure of international spy agencies to respond appropriately led to the death of everyone on board.  Six years later the CIA is still trying to figure out what went wrong and Henry tracks down Celia before closing the books on the case.  At the time of the hijacking Henry and Celia were lovers, spies, intelligence gatherers, in the midst of a frantic race to outsmart terrorists, and professional liars.  Now, we watch as the two meet for dinner, both in search of a truth that has eluded them, and both playing all their spycraft skills at the table.