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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Hot Zones and Cold Wars

It was hard to get spies off my mind as 2014 wound down. Hacking scandals and terrorist threats kept the spy comedy The Interview squarely in the public eye this holiday season. Difficult as it is to imagine a movie starring Seth Rogan and James Franco at the center of a serious international squabble, it is clear that diplomatic discord is good for business. Despite not being released in mainstream cinemas, The Interview brought in $1 million dollars in revenue and was downloaded 750,000 times on Christmas Day alone. The controversy reminded me that 2014 was a very good year for literary spy stories as well. While the library offers many popular spy thrillers and stories, these three books should appeal even to those who don’t normally read this genre.

At first glance, the buddy farce The Interview doesn’t seem to have much in common with the Nobel-prize winning Soviet classic Dr. Zhivago. The leaders of the Soviet Union, however, also went to great lengths to suppress Boris Pasternak’s 1957 portrayal of life and love in the Soviet Union. Peter Finn tells the story of how the novel was smuggled abroad for publication in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book. While Pasternak’s story alone is fascinating, the efforts of the CIA to smuggle copies back into the USSR is just as intriguing. It’s thought-provoking to consider both nations gave so much credence to the power of literature to challenge the Soviet system.

There are very few ideals to be found in the pair of agents featured in Denis Johnson’s literary spy novel The Laughing Monsters. Roland Nair and Michael Adriko, two post-9/11 intelligence agents with a history of illicit enterprise, plan to peddle phony enriched uranium in West Africa. Adriko, an orphan, brings along his naïve American fiancé hoping to find the remnants of his extended family. Like many spy novels, secrets and subterfuge abound. What makes Johnson’s effort stand out is his caustic yet perfectly descriptive voice - you’ll want to savor each sentence as you journey alongside his seedy allies in intrigue.

Ben MacIntyre is known for his riveting true accounts of spy operations with unlikely agents and improbable plots. His latest work, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, takes on the Soviet spy group known as the Cambridge Five. There have been many notable biographies of Britain’s infamous double agents. Macintyre’s work gives a fresh perspective. He examines how class and friendship, within MI6 and with the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence, shielded Philby from discovery. It’s an extremely readable account of Philby’s motivation for his deceit and betrayal.

-- Rebecca Wolff, Centreville Regional Library

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