Journalists are not spies, but they share a similar skill set. Emotional intelligence and the ability to read body language are vital. So is a sharp eye for detail and potential sources. In Spy Game (Burning Chair, £8.99), John Fullerton draws on his experience of both worlds. The author worked as a contracted agent for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier during the early 1980s before leaving to become a foreign correspondent with Reuters. Over the years Fullerton has skilfully mined his journalistic experience to produce several fine thrillers including Give Me Death, set in Lebanon, and The Monkey House — a dark detective story set during the siege of Sarajevo.
Spy Game is loosely based on Fullerton’s time in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Richard Brodick is a contract agent for Britain’s SIS, charged with reporting on the ongoing war with the Soviets and the kaleidoscope of warlords and their militias. Brodick is a naïf, hoping to serve his country and enjoy an adventure on the way, but he soon finds himself pulled into a whirlpool of competing loyalties — especially when he is ordered to kill his best source. This is an informed thriller, authentic and vividly written, set in a now almost forgotten conflict that helped to shape our modern world. The battle scenes are first-rate, and Afghanistan and its people are drawn with sharp detail, from the fighters who line their eyes with kohl to the women glimpsed through the lattice of their burkas.
In The Mercenary (No Exit press, £9.99) Paul Vidich tells a similarly taut story, set in 1985. The Soviet Union has begun its terminal decline, but with no let-up in its brutality to its enemies. When a KGB officer codenamed GAMBIT informs the CIA’s Moscow station that he wants to defect, he demands that his handler in Russia is Aleksander Garin, himself a former KGB officer, now living in New York. Garin’s wife has just walked out on him so when the CIA calls with a generous offer he agrees to return to Moscow under false American diplomatic cover. The claustrophobia, tension and fear of Soviet-era embassy life is well portrayed. This is the fourth in a consistently excellent series of cold war spy novels from an author in control of both his story and its arena. Vidich’s style is sparse but atmospheric. Carefully deployed tradecraft and technical knowledge only add to the air of verisimilitude. But who is Natalya, a striking Russian ballerina who makes a beeline for Garin — and can she be trusted?
The question of trust also runs through Alma Katsu’s Red Widow, (Putnam, $27) — this time between two female CIA officers. Katsu is a rarity among spy authors, a female veteran of both the CIA and National Security Agency. Red Widow is layered with inside knowledge of how CIA bureaucracy works; it is often a bleak workplace, it seems, where loyalty is in short supply and careers can be ended on a whim.
Lyndsey Duncan is a CIA officer sent back to headquarters at Langley from Beirut after starting an affair there with an MI6 operative. At first she thinks her career might be over, but Lyndsey is an ex-Russia hand, known in the CIA’s Moscow station as the “human lie detector”. When three of the agency’s Russian assets are exposed, including one of hers, Lyndsey has a chance of redemption. But she has become friends with Theresa Warner — dubbed the Red Widow after her husband disappeared in Russia — and the Red Widow, many believe, is best avoided. Fewer office scenes would have sped up the narrative, but the wary alliance between the two outsiders brings an extra psychological dimension to a spy story that is rich in revenge and betrayal.
Finally, a brief mention for Philip Prowse’s Hellyer’s Coup (Kernel Books, £7.99), the second volume featuring Nick Hellyer, a Cambridge student turned British spy. The latest novel unfolds in Portugal and Mozambique during the early 1970s and Mozambique’s war of independence. When Hellyer is forced to witness a gruesome chemical warfare experiment on rebel POWs his loyalty — and humanity — are tested to the limit. Prowse has worked in both countries and knows them well; the storyline is thoroughly researched and the scene setting vibrant. Hellyer is an engaging protagonist, courageous and conflicted, but also a libertine and bon viveur. Too many of the book’s characters speak in the same middle-class English voice, but this is a series with promise.
Adam LeBor is the author of ‘Kossuth Square’, a Budapest noir crime thriller
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