“The Accomplice” is a Terrific Spy Thriller

His publisher says that Joseph Kanon writes for adults,  and that’s not hyperbole. Kanon’s intense and thrilling spy novels are subtle, sophisticated, and beautifully written.  His mastery is evident on every page and reading one of his thrillers you can feel like you’re on one of those luxury river cruises with a master chef, an expert guide, and a stateroom fit for an Egyptian pharaoh.

I’ve re-read some of his books as well as used excerpts in creative writing workshops, and every contact I have with his work makes me admire him more (and inspires me in my own fiction).

In The Accomplice, danger looms and crackles on every page.  The plot is simple, the execution satisfyingly complex.  CIA desk analyst Aaron Wiley lost some of his family at Auschwitz and lives in the shadow of their murder.  But it’s not until his Nazi hunter uncle recruits him to track down a major war criminal that he becomes an agent in the field.  Against his better judgment–at first, anyway–Aaron is soon hunting for one of the insanely sadistic doctors who performed horrific medical experiments on Jewish prisoners.  This doctor was personally responsible for the death of his mother and his cousin.

Wiley is understandably haunted by the specter of that demonic figure his uncle aches to find and hand over to the appropriate authorities.  And all seems to be proceeding to plan until life throws Andrew a  gigantic curve: He meets the killer’s daughter and becomes enthralled by her.  Kanon has made her a perfect femme fatale.

Kannon handles the tangled relationship that develops between them with absolute believability.  It’s so twisted, so fraught, so inseparable from the hunt for the woman’s father–and the prose seems to echo those dark emotional realities. Kanon’s writing in this book is replete with sentence fragments and jagged shards of dialogue and memory as the story drives inexorably forward.

The narrative also raises important questions.

What do the Holocaust war criminals deserve?  Can any punishment possibly be commensurate with their hideous crimes?  How did they co-opt prisoners to help them commit their atrocities?  What is the burden of being a son or daughter of one of these beasts?

The form of the book is classic, almost Hitchcockian: an ordinary man is swept up into events he could never have imagined taking over his life, and he struggles to survive and make sense of it all.  Wiley is a hero, but he’s no superman.  As Kanon notes about him, “Everyone at the agency had been trained to handle a gun, but he’d never shot anyone, had never hunted anything.”

The action, both dramatic and emotional, is non-stop, the denouement is shocking, and there are two fabulous scenes set in cemeteries that might take your breath away. The second one reminded me of the ending chase in North by Northwest.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres, most recently State University of Murder.  He currently teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

John le Carré’s Cunning New Spy Novel Will Keep You Guessing

Is there any writer who knows the workings of intelligence agencies better than John le Carré?  The famed novelist served in MI5 and MI6 and every book of his opens up those worlds with stunning authenticity.

His latest is set in contemporary London, a city over-heated by Russian and Ukrainian billions snatching up real estate. Nat is a middle-aged, slightly stuffy, introspective handler of agents who is finally back from missions abroad and expecting a much quieter life. Ed is a young, gangling, motormouth  “researcher” who is bursting with scathing opinions about Brexit, the United Kingdom, and Donald Trump.  He rants and Nat listens with only occasional comments.

What’s brought this odd couple together? Badminton. That’s right. Nat, who’s the novel’s narrator, is a champion player at a ritzy club where Ed seeks him out in order to challenge him.

Since this is a spy novel, you wonder immediately if either of them is telling the truth about themselves and what their motives are in this relationship–though how they feel about the sport seems real enough.  And the game itself, as Nat describes it, sounds a bit like spying: “Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush.”

Ed’s brashness may just be due to his youth, but the witty, cultivated, silky smooth way Nat tells their story raises alarm bells for any fan of spy novels–and of course for the countless readers of one of our most admired authors of the genre.  What is he up to?  What has he done?  Why is he recounting this tale and who is his audience?

The story unreels.  The two men play, they grab a drink after their games, they talk. Well, Ed talks. Ed overflows with opinions about how Brexit is a colossal disaster, ditto the Trump presidency, and even though he agrees, you have to wonder why Nat bothers listening.  In part, it’s boredom with his new assignment: being in charge of a small Russia-focused London intelligence outpost that feels like Cinderella left behind while her stepsisters flounce off to the Prince’s ball.

But life at that sleepy little substation suddenly turns dramatic with a surprising resignation, hard work for a mission that’s aborted, Nat’s unexpected trip to meet a cynical old agent of his in the Czech Republic, and the search for a highly-placed traitor.  As the story heats up amidst inter-service rivalry and bureaucratic sniping, Ed seems to fade from view until he and Nat watch the notorious TV appearance of Trump and Putin at Helsinki.

That bizarre encounter with the press is matched by one delicious twist after another in Agent Running in the Field.  The book triumphs in multiple ways.  First there’s the author’s enthralling exploration of spycraft and intelligence tools that makes you feel you’re being taken through a secret museum with an excellent tour guide in Nat.

Then there’s the voice of that guide: elegant, seductive, amusing, with a touch of world-weariness.  Or as he might put it–because Nat loves tossing out  the odd bit of French–a soupçon d’ennui.  And finally, Nat and his wife, a successful human rights lawyer, make some surprising decisions that blow up everything you thought was going to happen.

Fast-paced, wildly topical, and worthy of another prestige mini-series like The Night Manager, John le Carré’s latest novel is as thought-provoking as any he’s written in over fifty justly celebrated years.  It’s a fast read, and it’s a devastating look at power, loyalty, and the current chaos of international relations.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He’s reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and many other media outlets.  His intro online creative writing workshop “Mystery Writing 1.0” runs December 1-31.

Are Your Jeans Poisoning the Planet?

That’s right.  Your role in contributing to climate chaos isn’t just based on the SUV you drive that gets crappy gas mileage, or the plastic bottles you keep buying, or the ways you waste energy at home.  A key component is the jeans you just can’t stop purchasing.

You’re probably wearing jeans as you read this–half the planet does on most days.  That’s according to the eye-opening new book Fashionopolis which explores the global clothing industry–an industry that employs one out of six people around the world–and how it’s contributing to environmental catastrophe.

Jeans are made of cotton, a crop that requires vast amounts of water and pesticides.  Making jeans and stone washing them to create various levels of chic also involves far more water than you can imagine, with the attendant waste and pollution from the chemicals needed to dye them added to the toxic mix.  And it’s not just drinking water that this overpopulated planet is running low on–it’s water used in manufacturing “fast fashion,” throwaway clothes.

But you love your jeans, right?  They’re popular, comfortable, fashionable, and many brands are cheap.  That relatively low average cost contributes to environmental degradation and fosters inhumanity.  Just like five-dollar t-shirts, jeans are often made by grossly underpaid, maltreated workers in Third World countries. Many of them are locked into factories behind guarded, barbed wire fences and work in conditions as deplorable and unsafe as early 19th century sweatshops were in New York.  Maybe even worse.  Fatal fires, illnesses, building collapses are endemic in that garment gulag.

Journalist Dana Thomas is an expert, knowledgeable, riveting guide taking us from Bangladesh to Belgravia to Brooklyn as she explores the role of jeans, the garment industry, and the global clothing supply chain and how it’s all strangling our planet.  In colorful scenes, portraits of key figures in the world of fashion, and insightful interviews, she brings to light how “fast fashion” like the clothes sold by Zara is choking our air, dirtying our water, and filling our garbage dumps.

Yes.  The number one item in dumps around the world is clothing that people have worn maybe just once and then tossed because they wanted something new right away.  Think about that the next time you buy something just to photo yourself wearing it for Instagram and pitch it the next day.

During her travels around the world, we learn how the ever-expanding use of cotton has revolutionized and poisoned the world, how the indigo plant lost out to dyes because they’re cheaper, how NAFTA has made the situation worse, and how workers have suffered illness, injury, and even death.

Is there hope?  Hell, yes.  Sustainability is a concept slowly taking hold in Fashionopolis, as is slow fashion, “a growing movement of makers, designers, merchants, and manufacturers who, in response to fast fashion and globalization, have significantly dialed back their pace and financial ambition, freeing themselves to focus more on creating items with inherent value, curating the customer experience, and reducing environmental impact.”

Thought-provoking, thorough, revelatory and darkly entertaining, this is a must-read book for anyone concerned about climate change.  It might make you consider joining an environmental action group like Extinction Rebellion.  At the very least, it’s bound to make you think harder about what you wear and why you might be making choices that have global consequences.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He’s reviewed books for Huffington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications as well as on public radio stations in Michigan.

Are You An Introvert? An Extrovert? An Ambivert?

A recent Suzie Speaks blog discussed being an “extroverted introvert” and how that plays out in her life.  The question of those polarities is something I think about all the time.

Picking an identity

I’d describe myself as the opposite of Suzie: an introverted extrovert.   Though most people I know would say I’m extroverted because I do so much public speaking as an author (26 books and counting).  I’ve done readings in more than one language and spoken about my work hundreds of times on three different continents, from Oxford University to The Library of Congress in D.C. to the Jewish Museum in Berlin.  Interacting with an audience is exciting and fun for me, and so is teaching in a classroom, which I’ve done on and off for many years.  That’s like writing, directing, and acting in a play.

Looking for an oasis

But I also crave my privacy and need down time after “performing.”  After a few hours of teaching, all I want is quiet, a glass of wine, and some calming music or streaming a no-brains movie.  It’s even more crucial for me to chill out alone when I’m on a book tour.  It’s way too easy for me to feel drained after spending so much time interacting with people because I have to be 100% present.  A book tour or any kind of invited speaking gig involves  constant talking with whoever picks you up at the train station or airport, with cab drivers, with your dinner companion, with fans.  Especially with fans since it’s important for me to do Q&A at my appearances.  Conferences where I do workshops are the same: I love what I do but I need to wind down afterwards ASAP.

Being an artist

The zigzag between introversion and extroversion has a deeper layer for me.  Years ago I read psychologist Otto Rank’s Art and Artist and he wisely noted that artists of all kinds need experience and stimulation to create, so they have to go out into the world.  But as Wordsworth wrote, the world can be “too much with us,” and so in Rank’s view, creation requires retreating from the world for us to have the necessary time and energy for contemplation and reflection.  Rank saw the artist as in a perpetual battle act between public life and private life, and it sometimes does seem that way.  I’ll be happy to go to concert, but wish I were home–or I’ll be working on a book and want to go somewhere, anywhere out in the world.

Marriage changed me

Years ago, I was the kind of person who people were glad to have at a party.  I enjoyed dancing, mingling, meeting new people.  As an extrovert, I could chat with anyone.  More than that, I loved throwing parties myself, organizing it all, inviting a cool mix of friends and acquaintances and keeping the whole thing going by just being on the entire evening.  Then I married an introvert who spoke only when it seemed necessary, and our long years together have definitely made me more introverted.  I prefer lunching with only person now, not a group, and would rather have just one couple over for brunch than do a dinner party–or any kind of party.

Living more quietly

I grew up in crowded, noisy New York City where it seemed like I was always surrounded by people and endless commotion.  But for several decades now I’ve been living in a suburb where the noise you hear is dogs barking, the chatter of birds waking up in the morning, kids laughing and biking, and the hoot of a distant train at night.  It’s something of an idyll for me, which is why I don’t apply to go to writers’ retreats: I have one.  Even though there are three main roads nearby, my house is at the center of the subdivision and we can’t hear any of that traffic.  It takes a lot to convince me to leave my retreat now, and I sometimes have to brace myself and get focused beforehand.  As much as I enjoy being with friends or traveling abroad, home is often my favorite place to be.  I guess when it comes down to it, I’m probably more of an ambivert–and yes, that’s a thing.  🙂

So how about you?  Are you an introvert, an extrovert, an ambivert?  What’s it like navigating your world?

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online in on-on-one workshops at writewithoutborders.com.  His books range across genres from memoir to mystery.  You can check them out at  levraphael.com.