How many of you remember the 1980s Smith Barney ad with John Houseman? “We make money the old fashioned way, we earn it.” I thought about that slogan after mixing my media one weekend.
Several weeks ago I found myself in Squirrel Hill, so I satisfied my inner hedonist and went to Dunkin Donuts. They keep a collection of books around to help nurse the coffee, so I perused their pickings. I settled on Ken Follett’s Triple – with its ingredients of Uranium, the Mossad, the KGB, and Egyptian Intelligence – written in 1979. I read far enough into the story that I couldn’t just stop, so I took it home to finish (it has since gone back to DD.) During the course of the weekend I also happened to watch one of the Bourne movies with Matt Damon. Both my book and movie were immensely enjoyable and intriguing, keeping me entertained, drawing me in and making me think ahead 2-3 steps as the events and action unfolded.
After comparing them a little, I can’t decide who had it harder: Follett’s KGB and Mossad spies, or Ludlum’s (via Hollywood) amnesic regular Joe with a dark secret. Even though Ludlum wrote back in technologically Neolithic days, Hollywood’s Bourne is our contemporary; everything is on the Internet, he can hack CIA networks without breaking a sweat using his iPhone between lattes, conjure up multiple passports and find empty space on the 50th floor of a midtown Manhattan high-rise bereft of other tenants.
Follett’s people, in contrast, have to work harder to earn their pay. Day’s long stakeouts in Ford Cortinas, Plymouth Furys, or Trabants; surreptitious dead drops, and clandestine meetings with embittered nicotine sucking controllers in the cellars of Bulgarian or East German versions of PHI in the wee hours. If they have to make a call, they’ll need a dime, kopek or shilling and a pay-phone that’s always two blocks away in the cold rain and being used. These are blue-collar guys, no Q to outfit them with jet-paks and tricked out Aston Martin DB5s, though I’ll give Ian Fleming points because the literary 007 is more like the rest of us than the cinema Bond.
So who else earns their pay the old fashioned way and brings you along without logins and passwords? In no particular order, each of these writers and their works stand the tests of time and effort. The selections are mine, the annotations are Novelist’s.
- Guns of Navarone – Five selected men, experts in their particular fields, have been brought together to destroy the Germans’ heavy guns on the island of Navarone, accessible only after scaling a 400 foot sheer cliff. 1200 Tommies depend on them.
- Where Eagles Dare – Major Smith, leading seven agents, parachutes into Bavaria to rescue an American general who has fallen into the hands of the Gestapo. He is now held in the Schloss Adler, an inaccessible castle above a snow covered valley.
- Triple – With the KGB and Egyptian Intelligence on his trail, Nat Dickstein, former British soldier, camp survivor and Israeli intelligence agent, penetrates Euratom and is forced to put his faith in an attractive woman whom he last met as a child.
- Key to Rebecca – Alex Wolff is sent to Cairo to gather secrets from the British and broadcast them to Rommel in the desert, using pages of du Maurier’s Rebecca for a code. How is he to be caught?
- Eye of the Needle – A German agent – Die Nadel – finds out that D-Day will be at Normandy, not Calais as the Allies would like Hitler to believe. A chase and battle of wits follows between the German agent, fleeing across England, and a British Military Intelligence officer who has come out of retirement to catch him.
- The Eagle Has Landed – “The eagle has landed” was the message received by Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, on November 6, 1943, telling him that a small force of German paratroopers had landed in England and were poised to snatch Prime Minister Winston Churchill. For the first time, meet Liam Devlin, an IRA gunman, poet, scholar, and one of the most celebrated anti-heroes of fiction.
- Touch the Devil – Retired agent Liam Devlin is forced to undertake a deadly mission that involves British and Soviet intelligence, hired killer Martin Brosnan, and combat photographer Anne-Marie Audin. They need to find Ulster-born psychopath and super-terrorist Frank Barry, a KGB hireling who kills socialists as well as capitalists.
- The Bourne Identity – Amid a storm at sea, a man is shot in the head and washes overboard–but he grabs onto a piece of wood, and eventually is picked up by Greek fishermen. Suffering from amnesia, he finds himself with a Swiss bank account in the name of Jason Bourne, a professional assassin being manipulated by a top-secret American government organization to kill his arch rival, the dreaded Carlos.
- The Chancellor Manuscript – A secret group of Washington’s most powerful men – “Inver Brass,” – have FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover killed in order to reach his secret files only to discover there is someone else capable of using these personal dossiers for blackmail and extortion.
- The Holcroft Covenant – Noel Holcroft is shown a thirty-year-old document, drawn up by his Nazi father and other high Third Reich officials – a document which, upon Noel’s signature, will supposedly release eight hundred million dollars to Holocaust survivors and their descendants. It isn’t in everyone’s best interests for this to happen.
- Day of the Jackal – A detailed account of the meticulous plans to assassinate the French President, and the equally meticulous search for the assassin when the authorities are alerted. The President is DeGaulle; the time, shortly after the withdrawal of France from Algeria; the instigators, the dissident French OAS; the assassin, an Englishman, master marksman and master of disguise. The chief counteragent, an unassuming little police detective called in by the French security.
- The Odessa File – Peter Miller, a German freelance feature writer, acquires the diary of a Jewish survivor who has just killed himself. While reading the diary he comes across the name of the man who once was the Butcher of Riga, a concentration camp commandant, and now is the head of a prominent industrial concern. Miller decides to bring him in; to do so he must infiltrate the organization of former SS members.
- The Devil’s Alternative – The rescue of an unconscious man from the Black Sea, sometime in 1982, sets off a sequence of events that takes officials in Washington, Moscow, London, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and Rotterdam to the brink of global catastrophe.