Tag Archives: thriller

Red Notice, Bill Browder

Naïve American-born (but later a British citizen) investment banker stumbles upon vast opportunities in post-Soviet Russia, makes a fortune for himself and his hedge-fund clients, then runs afoul of Putin’s thuggish cronies, with tragic consequences, especially for one of his Russian attorneys, who is imprisoned, tortured and beaten to death.

Coming from a background of self-importance, Browder’s brief youthful rebellion is followed by a dive into the hyper-establishment world of investment banking.  It is from that platform he learns the post-Soviet Russian government has given every citizen a voucher to invest in their newly-privatizing economy – a laudable goal, on its surface. Realizing that most citizens have no idea how to benefit from this historic opportunity, Browder organizes the means necessary for himself and other non-Russian investors to buy up those vouchers and benefits, instead.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are Russians who resent this.  Not, the ordinary citizens, who have made at least a tiny gain by selling him vouchers they believe to be worthless, but rather the local sharks, who resent not being able to gobble up this bonanza themselves.  When they, with the help of corrupt police and courts, begin stealing from Browder’s organization and, even more tellingly, from their own government (and thus its citizens) Browder, being a good child of American idealism, tries to use the rule of law to stop them.  The majority of the text, and its drama, concern this white-hat intrigue, and the death of Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky, whose only sin was believing to the end in the myth of his nation’s legal system.

This is a compelling tale, worthy of LeCarre or Green, and Browder tells it pretty well for a first-timer (no other pen is credited…).  While one can almost hear the author swearing not to aggrandize his own role, though, he does come off as…well…a crusader for justice.  A jet-setting lifestyle, financed by taking advantage of the same lax government which cultivated Russia’s oligarchs and oligarchy, is hardly a stable perch from which to condemn others, but the degree of corruption and cruelty he uncovers makes such criticism seem rather a quibble. 

The real hero here, as Browder frequently and forcefully reminds us, is Sergei Magnitsky, attorney, husband and father, who risks all for the truth, and pays the ultimate price, his last weeks recounted here with justified horror and sympathy.  It is to Browder’s credit that he then pursued the only form of justice available; the Magnitsky act by which the USA (and later several other nations) put Russa on the public stage and on record as a criminal conspiracy dressed up in nation’s clothing.  (Browder appears also to have taken financial care of Magnitsky’s family after his death, another stand-up move.)

The events of this book took place in the aughts, the first decade or so of Vladimir Putin’s presidency.   As the autocrat now wreaks his havoc on Ukraine, Red Notice (not to be confused with the movie or another novel of the same title, btw) is more valuable than ever for its glimpse behind the curtain, confirming that his tyranny is no recent development, but the true measure of the man, evil rooted and growing for many years.   All the way back to his KGB days in the old Soviet Union, in fact.  Clearly, there is no hope Putin will ever change his ways, and no wisdom in ever believing anything he spouts about agreements, cooperation, the rule of law or any alternative to simple brute force and self-service.  Fair warning to the next president who believes he has seen the Russian’s soul in his eye (43), or finds in him a friendly bro’ with whom to shoot the breeze – with no witnesses and no notes taken (45).

Pass this one around; people deserve to know.

The Spy Who Loved, Clare Mulley

The paperback of this historical biography looks just about as substantial as a copy of Ulysses sitting on the shelf, but at 350 pages it is roughly half as long; is it printed on heavier-than-typical stock perhaps?   Or just buttressed by two Appendices, over thirty pages of attributive notes, a dozen of bibliography, and other supporting material.  Not that the story isn’t substantial, as we follow Christine Granville (nee: Krystyna Janina Skarbek) through the twists, turns, detours and (literal) dead-ends of WWII espionage in a depth of detail which is quite astounding, given that the crucial years of her life were lived in wartime, in secret and under varying names and legends.

Daughter of a dying aristocracy and a nation about to enter the two-stage coma of Nazism and Communism, Christine found purpose and a home of sorts among the secret service and, even more, the partisans, guerillas and Maquis of occupied Europe. For years she dared and dodged, evaded and enabled in ways that clearly contributed to the war effort. That she survived it all is little short of astonishing. When the war ended, however, and the British establishment decided it no longer required her services, she found herself adrift in many ways.  Despite the assistance and loyalty of many comrades, especially those also of Polish origin, she was still struggling to find a place in peacetime when a bit player – a merchant seaman with whom she had struck up a friendship of uncertain intimacy, then left – murdered her in an act of jealous impotence. 

Mulley does a fine job documenting all of this, and has clearly done an enormous effort in the research collating and checking departments.  More than that though, she has depicted the impact of the war from an original viewpoint, with special attention Britain’s taking advantage of Polish patriotism before abruptly abandoning their cause in order to appease Stalin – so he would assist the allies in correcting the damage caused by their earlier appeasement of Hitler…

Nor does the author ignore feminist elements of this story – the unusual degree to which Christine’s father treated her as equal or superior to her older brother, the many ways in which men in authority used her skills and then plied her for her favors, the independent and forward-looking manner in which she withheld or dispensed those favors for her own ends. And her own enjoyment. The tragic way in which what worked in wartime with principled and selfless patriots may have contributed to her death in a peacetime setting peopled by men with far fewer values or scruples. 

A bit slow to start, this slippery-slide through WWII gathers speed, tension and impact right up to its end, the final evening of Skarbec’s life, and more than retains interest through a brief but critical epilogue, where we see how several of the same men who competed for her love and endured disappointment when their efforts were not requited, formed an alliance to protect her memory from the worst tabloid exploitation and prudish disparagement.  That she engendered such loyalty is one more testament to the unique qualities of an extraordinary woman.  Brava.

The Spymaster of Baghdad – A true story of bravery, family and patriotism in the battle against ISIS, Margaret Coker

Coker, a reporter with a long resume in the Middle East and elsewhere, shines a light on how Iraqis (like the citizens of most nations colonized and fought over by the so-called great powers) have borne more of the burdens and demonstrated a greater share of the virtues in our wars than our day-to-day political discourses admit.  Necessary to that, she also provides a cram-course on the sectarianism which fuels every development in Iraq, unfortunately dooming many of them to failure despite all the good intentions in the world.

(Coker is wise enough also, to provide an early digression on how names are commonly-formed and casually-used in the region; not by the given- and sur-names to which Euro-Americans are so used, but suffixes for place of origin  and prefixes that illustrate relationship, with fatherhood and first sons predictably given the same assumption of primacy they occupy in so many traditional cultures.)

The spymaster of the title is one Abu Ali al-Basri.   After opposing Saddam and choosing exile over death, he returns after the US-led invasion, hopeful he can be part of creating a better Iraq, but despite talent, skill and dedication, ends up heading one tiny branch of a Hydra-headed intelligence apparatus that serves more to protect the power bases of its various legislative benefactors than to secure the nation.  When ISIS forms though, the need for real success becomes undeniable and Ali is finally allowed to assemble a small force of serious spies, nicknamed The Falcons.

The al-Sudani family has suffered in its own ways, living in the Shiite near-ghetto of Sadr City, a Saddam-created slum lorded over by Muqtada al-Sadr and his descendants and militias.  Two Sudani sons, Harith and Munaf, join Ali’s Falcons, for very different reasons, but with equal dedication and commitment.

Meanwhile the young Sunni student Abrar al-Kubaisi has lived a privileged life yet still succumbs to the lure of fundamentalism, as so many college-age women and men have succumbed to whatever political trend is ripe at the moment their own desire for a cause is flowering.  She then ends up on the opposite side of the ISIS fight.

It is these players whom Coker follows as their stories converge, diverge and end in various forms of tragedy, as lives are lost, broken or destroyed with alacrity by a culture evolved and divided over centuries.  There are good people here, and good intentions, but no magic wands.   For every bit of progress, it seems, people like Harith sacrifice their lives at alters created by people like Abrar whose twisted morality makes them see horrendous evil for anything but what it is. 

Not a screed for any particular military or political policy, The Spymaster of Baghdad is a dash of ice-water in the face of the notion that outside forces can readily fix any of this (and, incidentally, that keeping US troops forever in Iraq is the way to attempt it).  Nothing new there, of course, but a message which deserves broadcasting, illuminated here from an unfamiliar aspect, and so vitally worth repeating and sharing.

Sometime the real James Bond speaks Arabic.

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

McEwan still has the power to surprise; to anticipate what his reader will be thinking and make hay of it.

All through this I wondered at the reason behind his writing in Serena’s first person and what sort of personal whimsy or predilection might be behind it. That he (she ) wonders if there might be a hint of gender issues in Tom Haley’s writing (and persona) led me to wonder (not for the first time) just the same about McEwan. Then here she comes in the final epistle to toy again with the theme, but now from Tom’s point of view,and at the same time, reveal the he (McEwan) has, all the time, been writing in Tom’s persona as he (Tom) attempts to write from Serena’s point of view! Almost more fun in the diagram than in the execution, still, McEwan’s Serena is mostly credible ( and where not, one can grant that it is just Tom’s failure, not McEwan’s). Interesting and just kinky enough to add spice.

No masterpiece, but a fun spy story with more human insight and value then any but the best of its genre.