Scandi-noir demolished the myth of the Swedish social-democratic paradise, where everyone lived in large open-plan apartments overlooking sun-dappled harbours. The truth about Swedish society was far darker and more complex. Geiger (Zaffre £12.99), a fast-paced thriller by screenwriter Gustaf Skordeman, sheds light on a little-known era: the political left’s decades-long love affair with the former East Germany until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.
“Geiger” is a code-word — one that Agneta Broman has been waiting many years to hear. When the call comes Agneta, now a bourgeois grandmother, retrieves a Makarov pistol, shoots her husband in the head, then goes on the run. But with the intelligence services on her trail, together with Sara Nowak, a policewoman in the vice-squad who grew up with Agneta’s children, how long has she got?
Skordeman’s plot sweeps up international terrorists, deep penetration Soviet agents and the HVA, the East German foreign intelligence service. The narrative is choppy at times, with too much moralising about the sex trade, but the web of connections between Sweden’s naïve, idealistic elite and their cynical allies in East Germany adds an extra layer to an impressive debut, deftly translated by Ian Giles.
August Drummond is also a former spy who gets suddenly activated. When Drummond witnesses a passenger who travelled on the same plane getting arrested at Istanbul airport he searches a nearby dustbin on a whim. There he finds instructions for a meeting in a cemetery. He is soon back in a deadly game, posing as a recruit for Isis while manoeuvring between British and Turkish intelligence.
How to Betray Your Country (Bitter Lemon) is the second novel by James Wolff, a pseudonym for a British government employee — one who clearly knows this world first hand. Drummond is an engaging protagonist, a recent widower thrown out of the Secret Intelligence Service for insubordination, fighting and security breaches.
There is rather too much drinking as Drummond drowns his grief in a lake of booze, but the story is skilfully, and credibly told. Wolff has a fine eye for detail, both of people and places, and his portrayal of Istanbul as a spy capital is evocative and convincing. When Drummond smokes a rooftop cigarette with Youssef, a Syrian refugee, “Cranes jostled around them like the frames of half-built minarets, and red-tiled roofs fell sharply down to the water’s edge.”
Paul Samson, the protagonist of Henry Porter’s The Old Enemy (Quercus, £16.99) is also a former SIS officer, now working in the private sector. The book features several characters from Porter’s previous two works, Firefly and White Hot Silence, including Naji Touma, a Syrian refugee, Denis Hisami, a billionaire Kurdish philanthropist and Anastasia Christakos, a Greek aid worker married Denis Hisami, a billionaire Kurdish philanthropist.
The story clips along at a fair pace, the tradecraft is plausible and the locations are well drawn, from the windswept Estonian coastline to the trains that crisscross Europe as Samson tries to outwit his pursuers. The book is enjoyable enough for those who have read its predecessors but The Old Enemy somehow lacks their verve.
Finally, a trip back to wartime Berlin. Blackout by Simon Scarrow (Headline, £20) is the first volume of a promising new series, featuring Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke. Scarrow is best known for his acclaimed historical novels set in the Roman empire and Napoleonic era. His skills are well deployed here. The Nazi capital is chillingly portrayed, from the freezing slums, where residents die of hypothermia, to high-society parties where shrill laughter echoes across grand apartments.
There are obvious echoes of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, another Nazi-era police officer, and Chris Petit’s August Schlegel, a reluctant Gestapo employee, in his characterisations. But Scarrow has sensibly chosen his own voice and Schenke is a complex protagonist, who refuses to join the Nazi party. Unusually for the genre, he even has a love life: a girlfriend called Karin — the niece of Admiral Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, the Nazi foreign intelligence service.
The inciting crime is — yet again — the murder of a beautiful young woman. Thriller writers really need to try harder. Nonetheless, Blackout is an engrossing read as Schenke tries to navigate between the competing factions of the Nazi leadership. When Schenke meets Heinrich Müller, the Gestapo chief, he warns: “You see, Schenke, you are implicated in politics whether you choose to be or not. You may believe that you are standing above the stink of it, pinching your nose. But it only seems that way.” And not for long, as Schenke soon discovers.
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