I've probably overdone my enthusiasm for Red Sparrow (see below for the final book in the trilogy), but among its virtues is the sense that the author knows what he's talking about. And here, in The Spy and the Traitor, Ben Macintyre tells the real-life story of Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian secret agent who may well have served as the inspiration for the Sparrow. He served first in Berlin as an officer in the KGB security police, then in Copenhagen as KGB rezident, charged with recruiting and "running" Danish spies. He loved the life, with its sexual and ideological freedom, but began to have doubts about the cause he was serving. When Moscow deployed tanks to crush the 1968 "Prague Spring," he signaled his disenchantment to his opposite number in the British embassy, who of course was delighted to run the Russian spymaster as a source of intelligence for MI6, the British secret service. Real life is seldom as swift-paced as fiction, and there are dull patches where Gordievsky is called back to Moscow, but eventually he's transferred to London and (with nudges from MI6) well on the road to becoming rezident there. Two can play that game, of course, and the Russian double agent is betrayed by the American double agent, Aldrich Ames. He's called back to Moscow and probable torture and death in the Lubyanka cellar -- but is saved by two couples and a baby from the British Embassy, who spirit him into Finland and to safety in Norway and eventually England. He lives there anonymously today, still apt to be murdered by the successors of the KGB.
Every month I check out the Amazon Prime ebooks, which are mostly rubbish but which have the great merit of being free. They represent a ploy by Jeff Bezos, who defines every download as a "sale," causing his own books promptly rise to the Top 100 of Amazon's best-seller lists. But each month I look for a book from the "Amazon Crossing" imprint, which often are great foreign-language stories that don't sell well enough to be picked up by a Big Five publisher. Thus for August I acquired The First Stone by Carsten Jensen. It's better than most books about the West's misadventures in Afghanistan, in this case a "squad" (presumably a battalion) of Danes in Helmand Province near the Pakistan border. The book's first half is fairly straightforward, focusing on a dozen or so members of Third Platoon, including Lieutenant Schrøder and Hannah, a tough enlisted woman who becomes his bedmate. Meanwhile the platoon goes about the business of patrolling, fighting, and growing up. Midway, there's a weird switch in which Schrøder is revealed as a digital wizard who turns the war into a species of video game. He first betrays the soldiers under his command, then the murderous contractors employed by Western forces, and finally and fatally the Taliban. The result is an interesting book, though one that left me a bit unpersuaded. Mr Jensen is certainly familiar with Afghanistan, but I don't think he knows much about military life.
I raved about Red Sparrow, so I suppose it was inevitable that I be disappointed in the followup adventures of CIA operative Nanthaniel Nash and his Russian agent, the eponymous and gorgeous Sparrow, Dominika Egorova. And indeed I was, at least by this third novel in the series. (I've yet to read the intervening yarn, Palace of Treason.) From any other author, I would have rated The Kremlin's Candidate as a first-class thriller, but of course it was a bit of a let-down after that earlier and more splendid bit of counterspy fiction, if only because it necessarily lacks the shock of the new. It's not quite as funny, not quite as ingenious. That won't stop me from reading the second book, however, the moment I top the queue at the state e-brary. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
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