Philip Kaplan Picks the Five Best Spy Novels

From a Wall Street Journal books column by Philip Kaplan headed “Five Best: Novels of Espionage”:

The Tears of Autumn
By Charles McCarry

1. Written by a former CIA operative, “The Tears of Autumn” takes us into the morass of the American war in Vietnam. Americans see the bloodshed nightly on their television sets and read of the corruption of the ruling South Vietnamese Diem family. Paul Christopher, an intelligence officer and the novel’s protagonist, advises the Kennedy State Department not to get in deeper but is rebuffed.

Christopher’s station chief tells him: “They got into the White House and opened the safe, and the power they discovered took their breath away . . . They think they can do anything they like, to anyone in the world, and there’ll be no consequences. But there always are.” Diem is ousted in a coup d’état and killed trying to escape. Three weeks later President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, and some say it is Saigon’s revenge.

Christopher, on the ground in Vietnam, must deal with the series of coups and flawed successors to Diem—which will ultimately lead, after the events of the novel, to the humiliating escape of U.S. officials from the roof of the American embassy. Paul Christopher’s dilemma is that of the man who speaks truth to power and is confronted, repeatedly, by those who will not hear.

The Statement
By Brian Moore

2. Pierre Brossard, an aging Nazi collaborator sentenced to death in absentia, is on the run in southern France. He is given money and refuge, as he has been for 44 years since the end of World War II, by the Catholic Church, the police, even the Élysée Palace. But he’s become expendable: His protectors fear they may be identified should he be captured and brought to public trial.

He is the quarry of rival hunters—the gendarmerie, Jewish victim groups and a crusading cardinal of Lyon. Brossard feels cornered, never doubting his service to the Vichy regime, bearing no remorse for the massacre of Jews or the murders of his antagonists. He moves like a fox though the underground maze of monasteries and safe houses. Yet fearing for his soul, he goes to confession, not quite aware that his protectors in the Church are preparing to set him up as a sacrifice.

Grounded in France’s wartime realities, the novel captures in Brossard—a fictional counterpart to the real-life figures Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon—the deep-seated moral quandaries of what historian Raymond Aron termed “the century of total war.”

Agents of Innocence
By David Ignatius

3. This gripping novel draws us into the world of shifting political alliances, subterfuge and oil that has for decades shaped America’s role in the Middle East. CIA officer Tom Rogers, in Beirut, recruits a high-level Fatah operative close to Yasser Arafat and we see how secret intelligence is acquired amid the escalating conflict between Palestinians and Israelis and Lebanon’s Christian and Shiite sectarian factions. “How can I not feel ashamed?” the Fatah operative asks Rogers. “Meeting with an American spy in secret in the desert. It is shameful. But do not worry. We Arabs have grown used to shame. It is like our mother’s milk. We live on it.”

Here is the Middle East we have lived with for generations—corrupt rulers and their cronies calling the shots, manipulating the so-called Arab Street, calling on the poor to sacrifice their sons as foot soldiers in the web of intrigue and terror, to pursue the promise of 72 virgins greeting them in the beyond—all to keep cynical rulers in power. Tom Rogers is seduced by the perfumed gardens and dens of the rich. He learns the heavy price of innocence in a place that has no use for it. In the Foreign Service, they would call it “clientitis.”

By Ward Just

4. Florette DuFour dies on a walk in the Pyrenees overlooking her French village, her throat cut by Islamist terrorists. Her American husband’s meditation over what led to the atrocity draws us in, absorbs us in his grief and search for meaning in this random event that changed everything. Yet Thomas is somehow convinced this was no random event. Tempted by vengeance, he concludes that “not one death or a hundred deaths, silent or noisy deaths, public or private deaths, could bring him consolation.”

He settles into the stunned silence of remembrance—the classic story of the survivor, an Everyman cheated of a quiet familiar life with the woman he loved. Then, unexpectedly, he is invited to witness the interrogation of four Moroccan terrorists—a test of his stoicism. The interrogation scene is propelled by a palpable sense of dread: The fate of four men hangs in the balance, as does the conscience of a decent man. Ward Just leaves us with a reflective coda on the challenges of an era of global terror, making us consider the price of reprisal—and inaction—in the face of global terrorism. How to live with it, what to do about it.

Dark Star
By Alan Furst

5. In “Dark Star,” Alan Furst paints a literary tableau of 1937 Europe through the eyes of André Szara, a Soviet survivor of pogroms and Russian civil war who has been co-opted by the NKVD while serving as a correspondent for Pravda and a spymaster in Paris. Szara is haunted by the fear that he may be the next Soviet spy to end up in Stalin’s grim gulag, or worse. The novel provides a startling portrait of the back alleys of Europe—a place, in Mr. Furst’s vivid words, of “perpetual night,” where “a thousand signals flickered in the darkness.”

We’re enveloped in an atmosphere of intrigues, and of the dangers of clandestine life that are the essence of what Soviet operatives called “special work.” The characters are compelling, personally flawed but, in the face of Hitler’s onslaught, courageous. In addition to Szara himself, there is a woman he loves, and a cast of frightened people fleeing the war. There are also the sights and the cities, from Ostend and Prague to a deserted beach in Denmark and—dearest to Szara’s heart, and to Mr. Furst’s—eternal Paris.


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