Review of “The Billion Dollar Spy” by David Hoffman

“The Billion Dollar Spy”  by David E. Hoffman, is a 2015 non-fiction account of what is known of Adolph Tolkachev, a highly productive spy for the United States. Tolkachev was an employee in the scientific community of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Until he was caught by the KGB, he delivered what was probably the most valuable information the CIA ever received about aviation and radar research and development activity in Moscow.  I enjoyed this well-written book immensely. It reads like a good thriller, and you cannot help becoming emotionally involved in the lives of the main characters. You are told early on that Tolkachev will not survive, but that knowledge did not spoil the book for me, but made it all the more tragic.

The book is non-fiction, based on archival research as well as interviews with some of the participants. It reads like a good thriller and was very difficult to put down. It captured the atmosphere of the Cold War, and portrayed the complexities and dangers of running a spy in Moscow during that time. It provides good background on what diplomats and CIA employees went through while being stationed in Moscow, and gives the reader a great appreciation of the difficulty and courage involved in this work. There is no glamour here. The stress involved in doing covert work in Moscow while under almost constant surveillance by the KGB is evident, as is the personal toll this work took on all concerned.

The largest personal toll was paid by the spy himself, Adolph Tolkachev, who wanted little more than to provide as much information as possible to the West that would do the maximum damage to the Soviet Union which he had grown to loathe. The bravery and obstinance of this complex man was evident throughout, and his willingness to continue providing the CIA information as the KGB’s net grew tighter around him is admirable, but difficult to comprehend. The life of a spy in Moscow in those times was certainly not a particularly good one. Tolkachev’s tragedy is made even more poignant knowing that he actually got little that was useful to him in return from the United States. He demanded large amounts of money, but was really not able to spend it. It seemed to be a form of scorekeeping to him, a measure of his personal worth. The value of the information he provided was far in excess of any benefits he may have received. The CIA was reluctant to provide him with even very simple rewards, like rock music for his son, since being found with such material not readily available in the Soviet Union would have opened him up to unwelcome scrutiny. The author hints, that many lives were saved in our conflicts in Iraq since the United States had vastly superior air power than Iraq. The Russian-provided technology used by Iraq was able to be defeated easily since the United States had extensive knowledge of weaknesses in Soviet aviation and radar largely due to information provided by Tolkachev.

I read this book to get a handle on realistic information on how the CIA operated in Moscow. Although much of the information is now outdated, the stresses, strains and personal tolls paid in the pursuit of actionable on-the-ground intelligence are well presented in this outstanding work. Real spying work involves long and tedious surveillance detection runs, and reading in closets to avoid the scrutiny of any planted video cameras. The presence of deep personal tragedy runs throughout. The wrenching ethical decisions of balancing the demands for more information against the personal risk taken by the provider of that information are clear here. These are tough decisions.

I purchased this book at the “Mysterious Bookstore” in New York during my visit there to attend Thrillerfest. It was well worth the purchase.

I also posted this in Goodreads.

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Review of “Spook Street” by Mick Herron

I found “Spook Street” to be a very innovative entry in the Spy novel genre. It blends a lot of humor into what is actually a pretty good spy story.

This 2017 book is squarely in the tradition of the British spy novel. It is set largely in England and concerns the residents of Slough House, a kind of turkey farm for British Spies with “issues”, or who have ruined their careers as the result of a screw-up, or some personal failing. These individuals arrive in Slough House, sometimes because they deserve it and sometimes due to more nefarious circumstances beyond their control. This universe allows Herron to populate his novel with an endless supply of interesting and quirky characters. “Spook Street” does just that. Herron’s  characters in this novel are wildly rich and highly entertaining. The leader of Slough House is Jackson Lamb, a particularly despicable individual, but quite intelligent. Other inhabitants of Slough House include those with “anger management” problems, alcohol problems, gambling problems, post traumatic stress syndrome, etc.

The plot starts with a terrorist attack in London, and then moves to strange goings-on in a cult-like house in France. One of the residents of Slough House is drawn into these events as the result of an attempt on the life of his grandfather, a former high-level spy himself, who is dealing with the possibility of dementia.

Herron throws in a lot of humor in this book, and I found that to be very refreshing. At the same time, there is a lot of action in this book, and Herron writes his action scenes as well as anyone. They are tightly drawn and held my attention throughout. Don’t let the comedy fool you. Herron can do action with the best of them, and then make you return to laughing on the next page. He is very good at what he does.

The strongest part of “Spook Street” is its innovative universe and characters. Slough House is a lot of fun, and offers the reader an endless possibility of twists and turns. Herron’s use of humor is innovative and kept me laughing while I was gradually drawn into the world of Slough House. The book is not all funny, however, and Spook Street offers a lot of action and drama as well.

The strength’s of “Spook Street” far outnumber its weaknesses. I found the plot a little far-fetched, with a few too many coincidences concerning family relationships, however. I also have to warn the American reader that this book is very British. It is written like a John LeCarré novel with a lot more humor thrown into the mix. I have to admit I missed a lot of the humor simply because I missed a few jokes that may have depended on more of a knowledge of Britain than I had. In Slough House, the interesting characters are introduced very quickly, and the changes in point of view were a little difficult for me to follow. I understand this is the fourth in a series about Slough House and I may have been more familiar with the characters had I read his previous books in the proper order. These weaknesses are minor, however. If a reader likes a good spy story with a heavy dose of humor, and can handle the British style, this book is a lot of fun.

I obtained this book from my local library. I was not familiar with Mick Herron’s work. I recently read “A Loyal Spy” by Simon Conway. This book won the “Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award”, so I checked the award and came up with the name Mick Herron. I am glad I did, and I will seek out his other works, particularly when I am in need of a good laugh combined with a good spy story. Slough House is the home of many really good characters, and the premise offers the possibility of meeting a whole lot more.

I have also published this review in Goodreads.

“The President is Missing” — Some Punctuation Lessons

At my tender age a lesson in punctuation is rare, but very humbling when it does occur. It is a reminder that I still do not yet know everything. While reading “The President is Missing” by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, I had one such lesson.

Granted, in my career I never had much reason for writing dialog, so I had a lot to learn about this part of the writing craft. One criticism of “The President is Missing” is that the president in this thriller is prone to giving long speeches. If I were co-writing a novel with an ex-president of the United States, I would give him the liberty of including long speeches. As I was reading “The President is Missing”, I noticed that some paragraphs of dialog had only a double quotation (“) at the beginning of the paragraph, and none at the end of the paragraph. The next paragraph, part of the same speech by the same speaker, began with a beginning double quotation mark. There was only an ending double quotation mark at the paragraph that ended the entire speech. I had neither seen nor noticed a double quotation mark at the beginning of the paragraph and none at the end of the paragraph.

I was a little befuddled by what I thought was a grammar error in a book written by an ex-president of the United States and one of the leading novelists in the United States. It was published by a leading publisher as well. I couldn’t believe these talented authors and respected publisher had made a grammar error.

It turns out, of course, that they did not make any grammar error. I did discover that if a speaker being quoted has a speech of more than one paragraph, the first line of the quotation is marked by a double quotation mark (“). If the quotation by the same speaker extends to more than one paragraph, there is no quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph, but there is a double quotation mark (“) at the beginning of the next paragraph. There is only a final double quotation mark (“) at the end of the final sentence of the final paragraph of the speech. I always assumed that the number of beginning and ending quotation marks had to be the same. I was incorrect in the case of a quotation that contained several paragraphs.

Perhaps I never read any quoted multi-paragraph speeches before, but more likely I just never noticed this particular punctuation issue in my prior reading. Perhaps I am just reading differently now that I am trying my hand at writing.  Old dogs can learn new tricks, and the lesson I learned here is that reading widely is a good thing. Much is to be learned from successful authors, and punctuation needs to follow certain surprisingly complex rules.