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Devil May Care
by Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming
Doubleday Canada
278 pages, $29.95

The Spies of Warsaw
by Alan Furst
Random House
266 pages, $28

The Last Train to Kazan
by Stephen E. Miller
Penguin Canada
432 pages, $24

 


Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted August 1, 2008

Summer reading is all about escapism, and there is nothing more escapist than an engrossing spy novel. What would it be like to be that person, alone behind enemy lines, risking life and limb with nowhere to turn to for help? Considering these factors, it's not surprising that many literary spies are reluctant heroes, people with a history they'd like to forget, or even anti-heroes who couldn't live a normal life if they tried.

Here are three very different options for readers looking to escape into a spy story this summer. They all involve a historical story, but apart from that common element they are radically different books. Each in their own way is a worthy read, but depending on your tastes one or another will probably jump out and end up at the top of your summer reading list.

Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks

To commemorate the centennial of Ian Fleming's birth in 1908, his estate asked Sebastian Faulks, the bestselling author of seven previous novels, including Birdsong (1993), Charlotte Gray (2000) and most recently Engleby (2007), to pen a new James Bond novel.

Although Faulks had not read any of the original Bond books since his teenage years, he said, "On re-reading, I was surprised by how well the books stood up." He decided to emulate Fleming's style as much as he could, and described Devil May Care as "about 80% Fleming."

Devil May Care is set in the late 1960s with Bond on a forced sabbatical, licking his wounds following the events of The Man With A Golden Gun , Fleming's last novel. He is not sure if he still has what it takes to be an agent with a license to kill, but before too long, of course, he is drawn back into the fray when M orders him to return to London for a briefing and an assignment.

Any James Bond book or movie has certain formulaic components. The megalomaniacal bad guy in this one is Dr. Julius Gorner, a psychopathic genius with a deformed hand who is trying to flood the U.K. with cheap heroin in order to turn its youth into drug-addled zombies. His evil henchman is a North Vietnamese hulk named Chagrin who received experimental brain surgery in the USSR which resulted in an inability to feel pain, making him a formidable opponent in a fight.

Of course, there is also a sexy damsel-in-distress, in this case one Scarlett Papava, a half-French, half-Russian bombshell who needs Bond's help to save her twin sister from Gorner's clutches. This description, from 007's first encounter with her, is a perfect example of Faulks-as-Fleming's style:

"[She] raised an eyebrow and crossed her legs. It was a way of bringing them to his attention, Bond knew, and he couldn't blame her. They were long, with a supple shapeliness and elegance: not the result of exercise or dieting, Bond thought, but of breeding, youth and expensive hosiery."

Overall, Devil May Care is an insouciant homage to Fleming that borders on parody but never quite crosses the line. Bond fans will enjoy the crisp, matter-of-fact prose, although the plot occasionally flags. Faulks has admitted that he wrote this novel in just six weeks, claiming that Fleming did the same thing in his prime, but that rush job shows in the irregular pacing and rather unspectacular climax in which things happen rather too conveniently for our hero, who doesn't have to do much other than be in the right place at the wrong time.

Still, Devil May Care is an entertaining read, and a story that a James Bond fan will certainly enjoy. Just make sure your martini is shaken, not stirred.

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

After discovering Alan Furst a few years ago I have been slowly working my way through his collection of 10-and-counting novels. I have purposefully taken my time, spacing them out so I can savour each one, even though my inclination would be to devour them all in a sprint.

All of Furst's historical espionage novels are set in Europe during the build-up to World War Two, usually focusing on reluctant spies--men and women who end up in the espionage world almost by accident. Although the author is an American, his characters and stories are decidedly European, often set in lesser-known countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria or Poland. These nations are not regarded as being very important in the popular history of the war, but in reality they were in the middle of the action. Of course, the major locales such as Berlin, Moscow, and especially Paris, where Furst lives, also play a part in his stories.

What makes Furst's books stand out is his attention to detail. The author ties his impeccably researched plotlines directly into real events from the historical record, and paints such an accurate portrait of life during that era that it feels like you are looking at a sepia-stained photograph while you are reading.

The Spies of Warsaw begins in 1937, when its protagonist, French Colonel Jean-François Mercier, is reassigned from the field to be the Military Attaché in Warsaw. A decorated soldier of the Great War and a colleague of Charles de Gaulle's, Mercier does not consider this to be the plum promotion most others would call it. He is mourning the early death of his wife and missing his adult daughters, who are both too busy to see him very often. Most of all, he is done with war, and dreads the inevitable conflict he sees coming over the horizon.

Part of his job in Warsaw is to do a little spying, reporting things he learns at diplomatic parties back to Paris, and even running a small network of agents, mainly private citizens with connections who are willing to part with crucial information for the right price. And when a clandestine reconnaissance of the German border gives him proof that Germany is planning an invasion, he finds himself recharged and ready to fight this new war in whatever way he can.

Although Mercier is not looking for love, it finds him in the form of Anna Szarbek, a Parisian woman of Polish descent who is a lawyer for the fledgling League of Nations. But even as their love affair blossoms, the threat of war grows and Mercier's web of informants threatens to entangle him in a deadly end game.

The Spies of Warsaw , though not necessarily Furst's best book, is a good entry into his world of historical intrigue and espionage. As with most of his books, its ending is cynical and downbeat--in other words, accurate, given what Europe went through in those terrible years from 1939 to 1945.

The Last Train to Kazan by Stephen E. Miller

Vancouver's own Stephen E. Miller's first spy novel, 2005's Field of Mars, was a riveting account of a Russian secret policeman, Pyotr Ryzhkov, trying to unravel a conspiracy that led to the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, the event which triggered World War One. It memorably recreated the sordid underbelly of St.Petersburg society in the last days of Imperial Russia, including well-known historical characters such as Rasputin, the Mad Monk himself.

Ryzhkov returns in the sequel, The Last Train to Kazan, although when this book opens in the summer of 1918, he is now working for French Intelligence in Moscow. Ryzhkov barely survived the horrors of the Great War's western front, and when the Bolshevik secret police arrest him, he expects to be executed. In exchange for his life, however, he is given the task of finding and reporting on the whereabouts of the Romanovs, the Russian Imperial Family, who were exiled to Yekaterinburg. That city is now in danger of falling to the combined forces of the loyalist White Army and former Czechoslovak prisoners of war who have taken control of the Trans-Siberian railroad. It's a suicide mission, but what does Ryzhkov have to lose?  

As he did so well in Field of Mars, Miller weaves together a high level of historical verisimilitude with an entertaining and suspenseful story, led by a deeply complex protagonist, along with a strong supporting cast. Miller is also an actor (he has appeared in more than 100 television shows and movies filmed in Vancouver, including regular stints on Millennium and Da Vinci's Inquest ) and he seems to be able to use his experience from stage and screen to create unique and memorable characters.

And the backdrops against which he places these characters include some of the twentieth century's most significant historical events, namely the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing maelstrom of civil war that engulfed Russia for several years.  

Best of all, this book is a page-turner, especially for history buffs, who will want to read Miller's version of what actually happened to Russia's last Czar and his family.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who likes to think he was a spy in a previous life.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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