Review: The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (first published in 1943).

Summary: Just released from a psychiatric hospital for the mercy killing of his wife, Arthur Rowe inadvertently gets caught up in a twisty espionage plot.

It is 1943, the middle of World War 2 in London, with nightly bombing raids and no one knowing if they will live to the next morning. Arthur Rowe lives quietly in a flat, reading and re-reading The Old Curiosity Shop. He’s been exempted from the war effort because he was recently released from a psychiatric facility where he had served a sentence of the mercy killing of his wife.

Inadvertently, he is caught up in an espionage affair, surviving poisoning, escaping another murder charge only to survive a bomb blast when a case, supposedly of books that he is carrying to a hotel rendezvous explodes. He loses his memory, narrowly escapes a sinister psychiatrist, and joins the effort to hunt down the espionage mastermind, the brother of a woman he has fallen in love with, Anna Hilfe. I’ve seen plenty of plot movement and narrow escapes in other Greene novels, but nothing like the madcap adventures of this novel, reminiscent more of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday than anything else I’ve read by Greene.

It begins at a charity fete where Rowe visits a fortune teller who mistakes him for one of the conspirators, that enables him to win a cake in which a role of microfilm has been hidden. He is poisoned, but survives, when he will not give up the cake. After working with a detective, he visits the fortune teller again, and when the lights go out, a man is murdered with a knife carried by Rowe. Knowing he could be charged with murder, he flees, ends up carrying a case of what he thinks are books to a hotel for a man he met at a book seller.

The case explodes, he survives but with the loss of his memory, recovering in a bucolic country psychiatric facility (again!) headed by a soothing but sinister doctor up to no good. He’s visited by Anna Hilfe, who works at the charity that ran the fete, who he’d met earlier and encountered just before the suitcase bomb exploded. He comes to love her, even though he does not remember the prior connection, nor the ways her brother Willi is involved in the espionage plot, ways that become clearer as memory returns and he joins the effort to uncover the ring and retrieve a crucial microfilm.

“The Ministry of Fear” formally is an espionage ring, but becomes more in Greene’s plot. It is the dull reality of the nightly existence of Londeners. For Rowe, it is the fear of being found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit while struggling to justify the one he did. Fear and distrust taints love as both Rowe and Anna know things of the other and of themselves that they dare not reveal. With the catastrophic losses of war and the gray world of espionage, one senses people anxiously clinging to illusions of normalcy in a world gone wrong, and living off balance as a result. It may well be Greene’s snapshot of his times–and a parable for our own.

Review: Dragon’s Teeth

Dragon’s Teeth (The Lanny Budd Novels #3), Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published 1942).

Summary: As Irma’s fortune wanes, Lanny uses his art dealings both for income and to secure release of the Robins, who are swept up in the anti-Semitism of pre-war Nazi Germany.]

This is the third of eleven books Upton Sinclair wrote around young, well-connected Lanny Budd, set in the years between the two wars and World War 2. In my review of book #2, I noted a Matthew Arnold quote about “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born.” and hoping the wandering would end with this book. If anything, Lanny and Irma’s wanderings around Europe seem more pronounced with yacht trips and migrations from Bienvenu on the Riviera to Paris, Berlin, and Munich.

If there is a plot line, it revolves around the Robin family, a Jewish financier and his sons, Hansi and Freddi and their spouses. Hansi and Freddi were swept up into Lanny’s “pink” socialism, while Johannes had cultivated a business relationship with Lanny’s father, a gun manufacturer. Johannes thinks his affluence protects him and his family. It turned out otherwise. Lanny negotiates the family’s freedom with Hermann Goring, at the cost of the Robin fortune. But Freddi is left behind, and eventually reported in Dachau. Much of the story revolves Lanny’s efforts to get him out of Germany.

Under his trade as an art dealer, he goes in and out of Germany, holding shows of his step father, Marcel Detaze’s paintings. He mutes his socialism and cultivates ties with Goebbels, Goring, and even Hitler, who he meets twice. Throughout, the question is really who is using who, but a significant part of the narrative is an expose’ of the growing persecution of the Jews, the “disappearings,” and the ambitions of the Fuhrer.

Lanny and Irma make a glamour couple with her fortune and his looks, though that fortune is “declining” due to the crash of the market. In this book, one senses increasing tension between the daughter of capitalists and the socialist Lanny. Each indulge to a point the wishes of others, but Lanny’s efforts to rescue his Jewish, socialist friends at the risk of his life clearly strains the relationship as Irma sees more clearly who she married, and Lanny wrestles with the circuits around Europe, seeing and being seen. Irma wants to host a salon. Lanny wants to find some greater purpose, preferably resisting the rising Nazi threat, whose measure he has accurately taken.

This book won a Pulitzer in 1943. I personally wonder what this says about other published works of that year. Most of the action and excitement happens in the last 100 pages of a 600 page book. The rest is hundreds of pages of wanderings around Europe whose main purpose is to show Western society’s last flurry’s as Nazism arose–the dissolution of the French government against the backdrop of a German society buying order and prosperity at the cost of the suppression of the Jews and the rise of tyranny. I do think Sinclair could have cut at least 200 pages out of this book without harm either to the plot or Sinclair’s polemic purposes.

Reviews of previous books in the series:

World’s End

Between Two Worlds

Review: Stained Glass

Stained Glass (Blackford Oakes #2), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: Road Media, 2015 (first published in 1978).

Summary: When a charismatic German who fought against the Nazis in the resistance in Norway campaigns to become Chancellor on a platform to reunite Germany, Soviets and Americans come together to block this, with Blackford Oakes at the center, restoring a family chapel of the candidate.

Count Axel Wintergren participated in the Nazi invasion of Poland, disappearing and turning over Nazi invasion plans to the Poles. For the remainder of the war, he fought with the resistance in Norway, returning to his village and family enclosure after the war. Elections for the Chancellorship in West Germany are coming with Konrad Adenauer the leading candidate. That is until Wintergren. Over the months, he has slowly built a following throughout the country, then announced his candidacy. The country is electrified with this youthful face with a radical idea that captures their hearts: reunite Germany. Outside of Germany no one likes this idea. Not the Soviets whose sphere of influence includes East Germany. Not the Americans who recognize the possibility that World War III could break out with NATO dangerously unprepared and the only deterrent being America’s nuclear arsenal.

Enter Blackford Oakes, whose engineering skills qualify him to restore the St. Anselm chapel on Wintergren’s estate, allowing him to get close to Wintergren, to pass along intelligence, to dissuade…and more? There are two surprises for the Americans. One is that Oakes cover is blown. Chief KBG agent for Europe Boris Bolgin know who he’s working on. The other is that the Soviets have their own agent, Erika Chadinoff, working as Wintergren’s translator. The bug in Oakes’ room at the chateau traces back to her room.

All of this brings the Americans and Soviets into a most unlikely alliance. Wintergren must be stopped. When attempts to torpedo his standings in the polls through apparently compromising personal information fail and backfire, they conclude there is only one option left, to eliminate Wintergren. Both Bolgin and his CIA counterpart look to Oakes to do the deed.

There is just one problem. Oakes has come to respect and admire Wintergren as one of a kind in his generation. Meanwhile, Wintergren’s security man has growing suspicions of Oakes, as does Wintergren’s mother. All this with global thermonuclear conflict hanging in the balance.

Actually, it doesn’t fall to Oakes alone. Erika Chadinoff is in on the alliance. Actually, they had already formed an intimate alliance of sorts, the typical spies in bed trope, despite Blackford’s relationship with Sally back home. It almost felt to me a bit obligatory and predictable. Far better, and more consonant with Buckley’s values would have been an unconsummated relationship, albeit with some sexual tension thrown in. That would have been more interesting.

The shame of this is that it wasn’t needed. The build up to the election, the moral dilemma and the international ramifications are plenty to make this an interesting story. The bromance between Wintergren and Oakes is far more riveting than the romance.

Review: Our Man in Havana

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real.

James Wormold is a struggling proprietor of a vacuum cleaner business in 1950’s Cuba. His wife has left him and their teenage daughter Milly. He struggles to sell vacuum cleaners named “the Atomic Pile,” a real loser, and come up with enough money to support his daughter’s expensive interests while guarding her against the romantic interests of police Captain Segura, known for his ruthless investigative techniques. At first, this appears to be another one of Graham Greene’s middle-aged men struggling to make some sense of their existence in a far-off foreign land. And it is, with a difference. Comedy. Dark comedy.

Then Hawthorne, an MI6 agent walks into his life and tries to recruit him as an agent. Cuba is a hotbed of competing interests under the Batista regime of the mid-1950’s. Wormold finally realizes that the money he will be paid is the answer to his financial woes. Except he has to become an agent, recruit sub-agents, and send “reports” via code. He confides in his one friend, Dr Hasselbacher, his dilemma and Hasselbacher suggest that he could invent them. He does, a mix of fictional and actual figures who don’t really work for him. He creates reports from newspapers, and sends drawings of an “installation” based on blown up drawings of vacuum parts.

Everyone back at MI6 believes they’ve found a “natural” and his reports create quite a stir. Hawthorne has his doubts, but as the lone doubter in a company of believers, he keeps silent. The do arrange a secretary, Beatrice, to keep an eye on him and his agents. The game appears to be up when a man who has the name of one of his fictional agents turns up dead, and another is shot at. It appears that someone close to him has discovered his “reports” and that the English aren’t the only ones who believe Wormold’s reports. He faces an assassination threat of his own, and has to figure out how to extract himself from Cuba. But first he wants to get a list of agents Segura has, and avenge a murder, leading to a most unusual game of checkers.

Even if he can escape danger from Segura and foreign operatives he (and Beatrice) have to face the music with MI6. All I will say is that the ending is Greene’s “last laugh” at MI6, and all the government experts who are too clever for their own good.

Review: Who’s On First

Who's on First

Who’s On First (A Blackford Oakes Mystery), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1980).

Summary: Oakes becomes involved in a plot to abduct a Soviet scientist couple involved in the research to launch Sputnik.

CIA agent Blackford Oakes leaves Hungary with the memory of the execution of Theophilus Molnar during the quenched Hungarian uprising of 1956. Having provided access to a “safe” house, somehow his safety is betrayed, Molnar is arrested, and executed on the spot.

Vadim and Viktor sustained each other through eight years in the Gulag. Both were scientist arrested for “anti-Soviet” agitation. Viktor believes Vadim saved his life by giving him hope. Later Vadim defects, and becomes involved with the CIA as “Serge.”

The Soviet Union and the United States are in a mad race for space, to put the first satellite in orbit. Each has technical problems, which if solved would clear the way to launch. Each has the answers the other needs.

All these factors come together in Paris when Viktor and his wife Tamara are in Paris for a scientific conference. It is decided to abduct the couple, who are working on the critical research, using the friendship with Vadim to elicit their co-operation. Oakes is enlisted as a taxi driver to abduct them during a staged bus breakdown, with a cover plot of an Algerian radical group seeking an exchange of weapons for hostages.

Unbeknownst to Oakes, KGB agent Bolgin knows Oakes is in Paris. A mole in the French resistance develops a plot to seize and execute Oakes. Oakes, recognized in photos at the abduction scene, unknowingly betrays the kidnapping as a CIA operation. The attempt to obtain Russian secrets jeopardizes the lives of Oakes, and Viktor and Tamara. Along with the death of Theo, all of this raises questions for Oakes, questions that if he survives could end his career. Meanwhile, questions of a different sort at a higher level raise the question of whether winning the space race is worth it, even as a critical operation to sink a Russian freighter carrying a critical piece of technology is counting down to zero hour.

Buckley weaves a compact, fast paced espionage novel around these elements. He recalls the mood that existed in the Cold War era leading up to the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, an event that actuated a military and scientific effort in the United States anticipated in this novel. He exposes the moral dilemmas of what Cold War maneuvering meant for the individuals whose futures and even lives might be sacrificed in covert efforts to attain a benchmark of supremacy. Having missed this series when it first came out, I’m glad for the second chance afforded by the folks at Open Road Media.


Review: The Story of Henri Tod

The Story of Henri Tod

The Story of Henri Tod (Blackford Oakes #5), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1983).

Summary: As East Germany takes steps to stem the emigration of its people to the west through East Berlin in 1961, Blackford Oakes is tasked to find out what their intentions are and how they and Moscow will respond if NATO and the US intervenes.

After appearing weak and inexperienced in an initial meeting with Nikita Khrushchev President Kennedy learns that East Germany is taking steps to partition East and West Berlin to stem the tide of people emigrating from East to West Berlin and West Germany. This would violate agreements made at the end of World War II, and could trigger a new war, perhaps even a nuclear conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. CIA agent Blackford Oakes is tasked with getting critical intelligence to determine whether Berlin will be completely isolated from the West, and what the East will do if NATO responds.

Oakes key contact with East Berlin and the East Germans is Henri Tod. Tod leads a resistance organization from West Berlin against the Communists. They call themselves The Bruderschaft and are not above violent efforts to subvert the Communists. He has become enemy Number One but has eluded capture. But the Communists have discovered an Achilles heel. Tod, whose real name was Toddweiss, was a German Jew, who along with his beloved sister Clementa, was shielded by the Wurmbrand family, when Jews were being sent to the death camps. They spirit him out of the country when he becomes draft-eligible. They pay with their lives and Clementa is sent to a camp to die. But she is liberated by Soviet troops, only to become their captive. Thought dead, she lives, and becomes the means to lure Tod and capture him, with Oakes being involved as an intermediary.

Meanwhile, East German leader Walter Ulbricht also has his own Achilles, a nephew Caspar, who he has taken under his wing as a personal assistant, perhaps to atone for killing his father. Caspar has discovered the rail car used by Hitler, abandoned in a rail yard, and turns it into a love nest for him and his girlfriend Claudia. Their paths cross with Tod when Tod is wounded after an assassination of an East German official and the rescue him from his pursuers, nursing him back to health in the rail car, and becoming converts to his cause and a source of critical information.

Blackford Oakes has all this to deal with, as he tries to get the needed intelligence to the President. How will he respond to the likely trap using Tod’s sister? How will he work with the independent Tod and his rogue organization? How will they react to the intelligence they are passing along to Oakes? And what will the U.S. government do?

The book is a page turner, moving quickly between Kennedy, Khruschev and Ulbricht, Oakes and Tod, Caspar and Claudia. Perhaps the most fascinating element is the challenge of divining an enemy’s intent and character, what action one should take, and how one’s adversary will respond. Anyone who has studied this era realizes how easily things could have turned out otherwise than they did, a salutary lesson for our own day.


Review: Saving the Queen

saving the queen

Saving the Queen, William F. Buckley, Jr. New York, Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2015 (first published in 1976).

Summary: The first of Buckley’s Blackford Oakes espionage novels, covering his recruitment to the CIA and first mission, to ferret out the person high up in British government betraying atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

Most people know William F. Buckley, Jr. as the founder of the National Review, for his witty and erudite conversations on Firing Line, and maybe for his God and Man at Yale. Inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, he decided to try his hand at the spy novel, creating Blackford Oakes, a Yale graduate, World WW II fighter pilot, breaker of rules and conventions who is recruited into the CIA. Saving the Queen is the first of eleven novels that Buckley wrote in this genre. Now, thanks to a collaborative arrangement between Mysterious Press and Open Road Media, the whole series is once again available.

The novel is framed by Oakes being subpoened to testify about the Agency during a congressional witch hunt. Will he tell he truth and possibly betray national secrets and personal friends? Will he “take the Fifth” and bring suspicion down upon himself? Here, as in his life growing up and first mission, Oakes finds a way to go outside the rules.

It began at Greyburn, a British boys school where he lasted only weeks, before a humorous and belittling drawing of a teacher, and a beating by the headmaster in front of his friend, Anthony Trust, results in his willing departure from the school. A brief but successful flight career, studies at Yale, along with time in France and family in London make him an ideal CIA candidate, recruited by his old friend trust.

After his initial training, he learns of his assignment, to insinuate himself into the top circles of British royal life, to discover who it is around young Queen Caroline, who is betraying atomic secrets to the Russians. His cover is as an engineer working for an American foundation. He succeeds beyond his handlers’ expectations, first getting invited to a reception where he meets the Queen, who is taken by his tongue in cheek repartee. An invitation to Windsor Castle follows, ostensibly to examine engineering drawings in Windsor’s archives. Just how far he succeeds in achieving intimacy with the Queen and her circle, I will leave to the reader, but he discovers the source of the leaks, a relative close to the Queen, who uses her to gain access to the secrets he is passing along to the Russians.

One of his handlers is “Rufus,” a legendary operative from the World War II era. As Rufus ponders Oakes intelligence, he recognizes the explosive potential of this revelation, which could bring down the Queen and the throne, unless a way could be found to eliminate the source. In the climax to the novel, Oakes, whose own cover may be compromised, is called upon to finish the job, possibly losing his own life in the process.

Bond, a Catholic and a conservative, is no prude. This is an adult novel, in the vein of Ian Fleming’s, Bond. Oakes seems a kind of American counterpart, with perhaps a greater shrewdness and less gadgetry. I suspect their are future Blackford Oakes books in my life. At very least, there are a couple more on my Kindle!