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Talking to Strange Men by Ruth Rendell

Talking to Strange Men is a strange book, illuminating the strange but insightful mind of acclaimed mystery writer Ruth Rendell. If ever Thoreau’s famous observation were embedded in a novel, this story of a lonely garden center sales clerk who pursues his runaway wife while becoming caught up in a game of espionage is that novel.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” ~Henry David Thoreau

The cast of characters, teens and adults, in Talking to Strange Men are not wise. The plot is convoluted, but believable. The setting is very British, and my only complaint, besides the depressing, almost despairing tone of the novel, was that some of the details and language and slang that are peculiar to the British setting were somewhat obscure to me, a lowly American.

There is some talk of sexual matters in the novel; it’s definitely an adult novel despite the many teenaged characters. But the sex talk is much more discreet than would be the case with a novel written and published nowadays. (I just read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and I thought the book could have been a couple of hundred pages shorter and much better without all the detailed sexual information that added very little if anything to the story.) Talking to Strange Men is a 1987, cold war sort of novel, and its age shows in the details of the spying and the crime investigation that go on throughout the story. Not that the age of the novel makes it any less satisfying as a psychological page turner, but it is definitely set back in the days before cell phones, computers, and the world wide web became ubiquitous.

Read Talking to Strange Men if you’re a fan of psychological and British quirkiness, like Tana French, maybe, or P.D. James.

The Hill of the Red Fox by Allan Campbell McLean

Spies. Lies. Danger.

That’s the subtitle teaser on the cover of my copy of The Hill of the Red Fox, a Scottish book, first published in 1955, but now available (2015) in a new paperback edition from Floris Books, in the series Kelpies Classics.

“The Kelpies are a highly-respected and much-loved range of children’s novels set in Scotland and suitable for 8 to 12 year olds. The Kelpies range includes classic children’s novels by Kathleen Fidler and award-winning contemporary children’s fiction by Lari Don.” from the website for Kelpies.

I think these books are available in the U.S. from:

Steiner Books Inc
c/o Books International
22883 Quicksilver Drive
Dulles, VA 20166
Telephone: 1-800-856 8664
service@steinerbooks.org

Maybe The Hill of the Red Fox is available from other sources, too. (Yes, click on the book cover picture for a link to Amazon.) I got my copy as an ARC for possible review.

And I did like the novel. It’s a Cold War spy novel. Thirteen year old Alisdair is of Scottish descent, but he’s grown up in London. He knows very little about actual life in rural Scotland, but he is unexpectedly allowed by his mother (father is dead) to go to visit an old friend of his father on the Isle of Skye. On his way to the Isle, a stranger gives Alisdair a mysterious message. Soon Alisdair is caught up in an old family feud and in a web of danger and espionage that may claim his very life.

The 1950’s setting is key to my enjoyment of this book. Alistair is given the privilege of traveling to the Islae of Skye alone on a train from London, and although his mother is somewhat concerned about him, she gives him lots of instructions and lets him go. Then, the events of the story conspire to mature Alisdair even more, and although he is a typical thirteen year old who makes some horrifically dangerous but well-meaning decisions, the author doesn’t tidy thing up for Alisdair. Events play out just as one would expect them to with the impetus of such risky and immature decisions, and Alisdair learns what it means to be a real man in a dangerous and risky world.

The spy/espionage part of the plot is a little hokey, but it’s not too bad. And I can’t believe that Alisdair doesn’t feel a wee bit of guilt for his part in how things turn out in the end. The descriptions of Scotland and of Scottish customs and characters such as the “ceilidh” (house party) and the “cailleach” (old woman with second sight) are fascinating and fit right into the story. The descriptions of the landscape and the sprinkling of Gaelic words and phrases through the book are fun, too.

If you want to read a book set in nearly modern day Scotland, and you like spy stories, I would recommend this one. It’s somewhat heart-rending, but really good.

Some other Kelpies I’d like to read someday:

The Blitz Next Door by Cathy Forde. “Pete’s new house in Clydebank near Glasgow would be fine if it wasn’t for the girl next door crying all the time. Except, there is no house next door. A vivid adventure story based on the Clydebank Blitz of 1941.”
The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie. “When the mysterious Nowhere Emporium arrives in Glasgow, orphan Daniel gets drawn into its magical world.”
Pyrate’s Boy by E.B. Colin. “Silas, pyrate’s boy on the pirate ship Tenacity, has adventures from the West Indies to the west coast of Scotland.”
The Sign of the Black Dagger by Joan Lingard. “Four children, two hundred years apart, must uncover the secret of the Black Dagger in this fast-paced mystery by award-winning author Joan Lingard. Set in and around Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.”
The Accidental Time Traveller by Janis Mackay. “Saul has to work out time travel to return Agatha Black to 1812.”

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

“Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced.”

I like spy stories, especially true spy stories. Author Ben MacIntyre’s story of Eddie Chapman and his activities as the consummate double agent for Britain during World War II is particularly fascinating because it’s well-researched and full of details that were gleaned from recently declassified MI5 files.

So, first, I had to get straight the difference between MI5 and MI6:

“The Security Service (MI5) is the UK’s security intelligence agency. It is responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, against the major threats to national security. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) operates world-wide and is responsible for gathering secret intelligence outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence and foreign and economic policies.”

Well, that’s clear, but I can see how during a war like WW II when the outside threats (of German infiltration and even invasion) were quickly becoming inside threats, the lines would get a little blurred. Anyway, Eddie Chapman worked for MI5 because he came to England as a Nazi spy and saboteur. When he reached Britain, parachuted in by his German employers, he immediately reported to MI5 about what the Germans had taught him and what they wanted him to do while he was “in the field.” (The Nazi wanted him to sabotage and blow up a factory where British warplanes called Mosquitos were being manufactured.)

Mr. Chapman is an interesting character, a very flawed hero. He was “a man who kept every option open, who seemed congenitally incapable of taking a bet without hedging it.” Terence young, the filmmaker, who had known Chapman before the war, wrote to MI5 officials about Chapman,”One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable that he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out. . . . He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.” Chapman had a girl in every port, or country, and he seduced each of them into thinking that she was the only one. But when none of his long-term partners was available, he found it necessary to visit prostitutes or find a new paramour. He performed some incredibly valuable missions of misinformation and spying for the British, but he was paid mostly by the Germans who believed that he had done great things for their side.

If you’re interested in World War II, British intelligence services, James Bond and the like, espionage, or just morally ambivalent characters, Agent Zigzag is a good read. MacIntyre does tell what happened to the major players in this episode of double and even triple cross after the war was over, and the index is useful for finding specific incidents and information if you’re studying the era and the subject.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. ~Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17.

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

Set in the 1960’s, this novel of lies and spies and deception within deception is spell-binding, especially toward the end as the author begins to tie up all the loose ends into a choose-your-own ending sort of denouement. As it begins, Serena Frome tells us how she became a spy, a very low-level spy with a fairly innocuous duty to perform. She simply has to recruit an up-and-coming novelist and lie to him about the source of her funding. No big deal. However, as Sir Walter so aptly observed, small deceptions grow over time into large, knotty messes.

Serena, who is anything but serene throughout most of the novel, and her spy-target, Tom, become lovers. They actually fall in love with each other, and the secrets between them become more and more heavy and complicated and unsustainable. In one scene Serena and Tom make love to one another on the beach and declare their love in words for the first time:

“I knew that before this love began to take its course, I would have to tell him about myself. And then the love would end. So I couldn’t tell him. But I had to.
Afterward, we lay with our arms linked, giggling like children in the the dark at our secret, at the mischief we had got away with. We laughed at the enormity of the words we had spoken. Everyone else was bound by the rules, and we were free. We’d make love all over the world, our love would be everywhere. We sat up and shared a cigarette. Then we both began to shiver from the cold, and so we headed for home.”

So ridiculous. We all do this: fool ourselves into thinking that the rules don’t apply to us, that we can lie and steal and cheat and still give and receive love that is lasting and stable. But love that’s built on deceit is just like that Biblical house built on beach sand, headed for a fall.

However, just when the reader thinks that he knows the end of this story, after all we’ve all heard it and experienced it before, love lost, betrayal uncovered, and tragedy, Mr. McEwan and Tom the novelist and Serena herself all have a few more tricks and twists of plot to reveal or live through. I’m not sure the ending is really, truly possible or likely (can the Gordian knot really be dispatched with a single sword stroke?), but I want it to be so.

I’ve read McEwan’s most famous novel, Atonement, and it, too, had a twist at the end. The surprising or ambiguous ending seems to be a trademark in most of Mr. McEwan’s novels, as is a “predeliction for more graphic sexual description than I am comfortable reading” (what I wrote about Atonement and what is also true of Sweet Tooth). I thought the sexual details were unfortunate and unnecessary, but I usually do think that about modern novels. These lascivious particulars were skim-able, and the rest of the story somewhat redeemed the few vulgar parts.

So I give the novel, which also deals with the value of fiction and the intricacies of the Cold War, a qualified recommendation.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

About a month after I read the ARC of this chick lit/spy novel, I heard an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered with author Chris Pavone. (According to the interviewer, it’s pronounced “pavoney”).

It seems that Mr. Pavone moved to Luxembourg where he became a “house-husband” and started writing a book that bored him just as much as housekeeping did. So, he decided to make the homemaker protagonist into a retired CIA spy, and the rest, as they say—well, if not history, at least it got more interesting.

So, the protagonist of this spy thriller was a CIA agent, but she’s hung up her spurs (and guns and spy stuff) and moved to Luxembourg to become a homemaker while her banker/computer security expert husband makes a mint helping secretive banks with their security systems. Kate sees little of her husband who works long hours, and she becomes bored with her life with little children. She begins to wonder if her past has come back to haunt her in the person of a couple in the “expat” community who seem to know more about her than they should.

The book has lots of twist and turns, as a thriller should. But something about it just didn’t draw me in the same way a Helen MacInnes novel always does (my gold standard for spy novels). Maybe it was the bored mommy angle that I didn’t like. The book was just good, not great.

Other blogger reviews:
Sam at Book Chase: “Seldom have I changed my mind about a book so many times before finishing it, than I did with Chris Pavone’s debut novel, The Expats.”

Read Around the World: “Well, you may take the girl out of the CIA but there’s no way you can take the CIA out of the girl. Pavone has created a spunky, devious, brave new heroine in Kate Moore and I don’t believe for a second that we’ve seen the last of her.”