Tuesday, 23 May 2017

TNC: Helen’s Month. Defectors…

 
The Tuesday Night Club is a group of Golden Age crime fiction fans, writing on a different theme each month. A frequent contributor, and one of our founder members, was the wonderful Helen Szamuely, who died in April. There’s an obituary for her here, and a personal memory from someone who obviously knew her well here. And there's more of an introduction to her in my previous posts.



We have decided to nominate May as a tribute month:


Helen's Month


Posts might feature an author or a character called Helen; or be involved with her great interests in life: Europe, History or Russia; or any other connection that works.


Bev Hankins has done the splendid Helen logo for us.

I am collecting the links this month, so check back here to catch up on the other posts.


Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is writing about a crime short story by Anton Chekhov


My first post for the month was on a book Helen Szamuely recommended to me - Murder a la Mode by Eleanore Kelly Sellars; then I looked at crime writer Helen McCloy’s Two Thirds of a Ghost. Last week I looked at John Le Carre’s classic Our Game -  about the aftermath of the Cold War, about what happened to the now redundant spies: a true subject for Helen.

This week I’m looking at a brand-new book (it will be published on 1st June), but one that is set in 1961, and looks at the fate of spies who defected to the Soviet Union. Again, right up Helen’s street.

 

Defectors by Joseph Kanon



published 2017



 
Defectors
 


[1961. Simon Weeks is visiting his brother Frank in Moscow: Frank was a Soviet spy who fled to the USSR when he was about to be uncovered]

Red Square. A place he’d seen in a thousand photographs, filled with tanks and military saluted and politburo members who disappeared from the pictures a year later, airbrushed from memory. He’d always imagined a gray ceremonial square, boxed in by Kremlin towers, but instead it was open and bright, flooded with light, the onion domes of St Basil’s at the far end swirls of colour, GUM department store frilly and ornate, something a child’s illustrator might have dreamed up. People hurrying across to work. Anywhere. He looked at the high fortress walls. Where Stalin had sat up at night putting check marks next to names on a list. Names he knew, names other people knew, names that struck his fancy. Terror had no logic. Check. Gone. Night after night.

 
Defectors Dacha


[Simon attends a lunch party at a dacha, attended by a number of defectors]

Joanna had sun for her party, a spring day warm enough for summer. A long wicker table and chairs had been set up on the lawn, something out of a tsarist era photograph, the family posed around an outdoor table… revolution just a thundercloud away. Now there were bottles of Georgian wine and Hanna Rubin in a dowdy sundress.


commentary: Often spy novels are quite sprawling, spanning a long period of time, perhaps a double timeframe, and travelling with the agents from one place to another. This book is the opposite: it almost resembles a Greek drama in its unities. It takes place over the course of a couple of days in 1961, and 90% of it is set in Moscow. There are tempting memories for the characters, but Kanon refuses to go in for the usual flashbacks.

It’s a great setup: Simon and Frank Weeks are brothers, sons of an important and highly respectable (and one guesses rich) American political family. They were born to rule. But 12 years earlier, Frank had been exposed as a Soviet spy, and only just managed to escape to Moscow, where he’s been living ever since. Simon’s own diplomatic career was ruined, but now he is a publisher. And he has been given the chance to publish his brother’s memoirs, and has flown in to go over the MS with him, to sort out the details. It turns out that Frank’s wife Joanna (who is in Moscow too) has some history with Simon. Of course both brothers are under constant surveillance.

It is a most winning assembly of circumstances: you know it’s not just going to be about copyright and the royalties – something is going to happen. And Kanon turns it all into a great, enthralling and very tense book: this is a fabulous read.

Frank is an amalgam of some US and British spies – but has a lot in common with Kim Philby: not so much the history (though anyone familiar with the story will be substituting ‘Albanian’ for ‘Latvian’ at certain points), as the attitudes and the positioning and the post-defection life. Frank’s book is to be called ‘My Secret Life’, Philby’s very similar book is called ‘My Silent War’.

Significantly, Philby is just about the only real-life spy of the era not mentioned in the book – several of them have walk-on roles. Then there is the lunch-party at the dacha (weekend house in the country) in the second extract above – other (fictional) defectors attend, and it is a particularly compelling scene, I wished it would go on forever.

But I also loved many of the other scenes as they travelled around Moscow, and later the then-Leningrad, and the occasional fascinating comments. Frank points to
‘Gorky Street… Everybody wanted to live here then. You know, Moscow’s still medieval that way – people want to be close to the castle, to the center.’
Perhaps even un-American rather than mediaeval?

There’s quite a dreamy atmosphere to the first half: to describe it as ‘slow’ would be quite wrong, but it skims along nicely as you try to work out what is going on. It explodes into action around half way through, and becomes almost unputdownable. It is extremely well-plotted, and full of unexpected events, right through to a strangely touching ending.

Throughout the book, the Americans are referred to as the Agency (CIA)  and the Russians as the Service (KGB). I (not being a spy) did occasionally have to think which was which. And a point was made in the book that I’ve often thought: ‘Defectors’ is the title of the book, and I have used the word in this post, but:
‘It’s a funny word, defector. Latin, defectus. To desert. Lack something. Makes it sound as if we had to leave something behind. To change sides. But we were already on this side. We didn’t leave anything.’
It’s not an overlong book, but it also fits in, alongside the tense and compelling plot, considerations of the life of a Western spy resettled in the USSR, the meaning of being an agent or a spy, the moral considerations, the philosophies involved.

Anyone who likes spy fiction will love this book… I have read and enjoyed several excellent books by Joseph Kanon, and this is the best so far.

The top picture shows the British spy Guy Burgess in Red Square Moscow, with Tom Driberg, a British politician who visited him there.

The painting is by Aleksandr Gerasimov showing a young woman at a dacha in 1912. I found it on Wikimedia Commons: it had been picked up from this site.





















45 comments:

  1. It sounds like this is a story of the family as well as the various intrigues, and that appeals to me. I think the best spy stories are really about characters, anyway, and not about the machinations of spycraft. And I like the writing style, too.

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    1. Yes, these people become real to us. And there are quite a few characters, but well-drawn enough to be clearly distinct. And convincing, even satisfying...

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  2. What a brilliant set-up! Yes, I am going to have to read this, too. As I have said b before, I don't know why I don't just outsource my choice of reading to you, Moira!

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    1. Thanks - and sorry! But I think you will enjoy...

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    2. I know! I feel like I could live in a room (with access to a terrace for when the weather's nice) and just have Moira bring me books to read...with an occasional snack and something to drink. :-)

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    3. Yes, wouldn't that be lovely!

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    4. Thank you, such nice comments!

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  3. I have not read spy stories. My father loved John Le Carre's books, the ones published in his lifetime. I'm sorry he missed some good ones.

    However, my father was also fascinated with stories of real British spies. And I wonder why were there so many? I seem to recall hearing of several when I was a teenager during the 960s? Any ideas?

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  4. I meant to say during the 1960s.

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    1. I've just been reading the real-life story on which the Bridge of Spies was based, and was surprised to find how many spies there had been in the USA in fact..
      I think in Britain there had been a strong leftward move in the 1930s: many smart young people sympathized with communism & allied themselves with the USSR. Then came the war, and an assumption that people moved to the centre - but there were quite a few who had not changed their views, but hid them. And there was no McCarthyism in the UK to root them out. But this is just guesswork. I find the whole subject fascinating - I am as intrigued by real-life spy books as by the thrillers...

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    2. Well, not that McCarthy actually found any spies. His "lists" were mostly fakes. He just harassed people who had joined the Communist Party in the 30s and hadn't been active in party politics since. Or people who just seemed suspect to him. He was a creep and a drunk.

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    3. Yes, I phrased that badly. I meant: there was no McCarthyism to create an atmosphere of fear and anti-Leftism. It was a terrible thing.

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    4. I figured that, Moira. :-)

      He was, mockingly, called Tailgunner Joe, because he'd wildly exaggerated his WWII service trying to make himself seem a hero. If he hadn't devastated so many lives, he'd almost be a tragic figure.

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    5. Isn't that the way so often? Not a happy story all round. But too sad about his victims.

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  5. The idea of the defector to the Soviet Union seems very much a thing of the mid-20th century, although there must have been others to different regimes in different eras. For all the terrible harm they did, they do come across as rather tragic figures nowadays, commiting treason for a cause that did not even last the 20th century.

    Philby was a fascinatingly odd figure. I understand that he had an account at a Cambridge book shop, where he was able to order books throughout his life, even after his flight to Russia. The store published a list of the books that he had ordered a few years back and it makes fascinating reading. There were lots of whodunnits and thrillers amongst the stuff about current affairs, but the oddest one was THE JANE FONDA WORKOUT BOOK. Philby claimed that it was for his wife, and the idea of the masterspy wearing a sweatband and figure hugging lycra and 'going for burn' does boggle the mind.

    ggary

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    1. I know there were lives at stake, but the whole thing reads like a laddish game now, on both sides. I am endlessly fascinated by it, and there are huge philosophical questions about patriotism, beliefs, identity and so on. How CAN someone live a double life for so long...? Philby is the most fascinating of them - and that aerobics image is hysterical...

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  6. I agree with Paula about McCarthy. He hounded and harassed people, some even to death, as actor John Garfield. People who were not spies but politically left-wing were victimized by McCarthy's campaign.

    People were driven to suicide even or went to jail. Many in Hollywood (and elsewhere) could not get employment. Some wrote under other writers' names. Some people had to leave the country. But this was a serious issue. Lives were affected, some for years. Children were impacted by the harassment and instability in their lives.

    Dashiell Hammett, the writer, went to jail because he would not name names under McCarthy's questioning. He developed emphysema there which eventually killed him.

    I was told a few years ago about a woman whose father was a leftist and was fired from the post office for his views. His case went to the Supreme Court which found in his favor eventually.

    This is s till a fraught issue here. When the director Kazan was given an award a few years ago, several notables in the audience did not stand or clap because he had named names during the McCarthy period, and that contributed to destroying people's livelihoods.

    There is a terrific movie out about Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, a screenwriter who was blacklisted. He wrote trashy screenplays under pseudonyms to feed his family. The film is called "Trumbo," played by the fantastic Bryan Cranston. It's really good.

    At the end of the film, Cranston as Trumbo gives a wonderful speech about the right to have ideas and principles and how necessary is freedom of the press and the need to exchange ideas and live by them. I highly recommend this movie.

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    1. Thanks for the information Kathy, it's important that people don't forget. I haven't seen that movie but must do so.

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    2. Thanks for all the supporting detail, Kathy, and for reminding me about "Trumbo." I missed it when it was in the theaters, but I really want to see it. And Bryan Cranston can do it all. I still remember him as the dentist on "Seinfeld" who converted to Judaism for the jokes.

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    3. The man has a range of roles, for sure! And yes, that film going on my list now.

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  7. Well, that period hit my family hard so it's something I know a bit about. My father was a union official and that witch hunt went after labor union leaders. There's a lot more to the story but I'll stop there. But I will say that families' lives were turned upside-down.

    I am thankful that my parents protected their children as much as they could and kept up normalcy, too.

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    1. Indeed - sometimes that was all parents could do. Your father must have been a brave and admirable man.

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  8. My father was brave, admirable, strong and principled throughout his life. He also loved to read everything, and introduced me to the Great Detective Holmes when I was 15, as well as to Nero Wolfe.

    Despite his being "blacklisted," and could be a union organizer any longer, he could not get employment and became an actuary and moved to another city. Relatives helped him get a job.

    Despite it all, he was stalwart, rarely showed his worries to his children -- and he had a great sense of Irish wit. He'd see humor in a lot of experience and let fly the funny comments. So, we grew up with that charismatic, charming and witty father who stuck to his principles.

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    1. What a fine man - thank you for sharing that Kathy with me and other readers. You were lucky to be brought up in such a great family.

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    2. Another thing in common with you, Kathy. The librarians thought I was too young to check out the collected Sherlock Holmes stories (thought I wouldn't understand them). Harrumph. I went home all bent out of shape, and my dad got out his copy of the book and gave it to me to read. I LOVED it. Both my parents were big readers. I'm almost shocked when I meet people who never read.

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    3. That's a lovely story Paula - that's why girls need Dads...

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    4. He died when he was only 59. A heavy smoker, he had lung cancer and emphysema. Much too young.

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    5. How sad. I'm sure you still miss him.

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  9. Oops, meant to say he could not be a union organizer any longer.

    I just wish he could have read all of Le Carre's books. He liked him. And often I read books, including by Fred Vargas, which I think he'd like or get a kick out of. Then there are all of the Irish mystery writers and I think he's like them, too.

    He and my uncle, his brother, liked John Dickson Carr's locked-room mysteries. I heard about those.

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    1. There must be some pleasure in reading books that you know your father (&uncle) would have liked...

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  10. Yes, there is. And I must read some of John Dickson Carr's locked-room mysteries.

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    1. Give em a try - if you like them there are so many more... and surely to be found in libraries.

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  11. Sounds good and I would probably enjoy it, but I'll pass - I've something else by him I've been neglecting so will see how that goes first.

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    1. Yes that sounds sensible Col. Which one do you have? I have enjoyed quite a few of his books.

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    2. Two apparently - Alibi and The Good German.

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    3. Oh yes - both very good I think. Good German was made into a film with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, so you could watch that too...

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  12. The BBC's production of The Night Manager, based on a book by Le Carre, is quite good. Just watched the six episodes. Tom Hiddleston is the quintessential cool, detached British agent. Hugh Laurie is a fantastic villain: charming, but menace behind every word. And a favorite of mine, Olivia Coleman, plays Hiddleson's boss, pregnant and quite so. She is so believable.

    The director had the part rewritten for a woman, as Le Carre had written it for a man. And then here was Olivia Coleman, pregnant. Chairs were brought into scenes for her. And she was told to stop the "pregnant walk" when she "waddled," as she put it.

    The whole program is a bit brutal, but it's very well-done. No one does stories about intelligence operations as well as the British.

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    1. I did think this was an excellent series, beautifully done. And the level of acting was wonderful. I haven't read the book: have you?

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  13. I have never read a book by Le Carre. If I do, it'll be The Constant Gardener. I can watch the British intelligence services in operation in movies or on TV episodes, but they aren't my cup of tea for relaxing reading. And the violence, although often off the page, is a bit over my limits.

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    1. Maybe you should try one - you might like him. You are right: Constant Gardener would be a good one to start with.

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  14. I have several books (5) by this author and have not read any of them, and they are the kind of books I like. I just read today an interview where Kanon talks about why he wrote this book, his thoughts on it, etc. Very interesting. I will read one of the books I already have first, though I am sure I would like this one.

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    1. You are so funny Tracy, you are quite like Col! (Compliment to both of you) Five books by an author you haven't read... but actually you should start, I think you will like them, and I also think he is getting better as he goes on. I think Los Alamos was the first?

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    2. I do consider it a compliment to be compared to Col. Los Alamos is the first. You are right, I need to start reading his books. He covers a variety of subjects but all of them are of interest to me.

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    3. Nah, I'm the ones who's flattered!

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    4. It's flattering/compliment draw! You are both hardcore book collectors...

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