A Foreign Country, by Charles Cumming

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An au pair in Tunisia, involved in an affair with her employer, disappears leaving him heartbroken. Many years later, an elderly French couple on the vacation of a lifetime in Cairo are horribly murdered. Shortly after that, a man given the code name Holst is kidnapped off a Paris street.

While the reader is wondering how these In a seemingly unrelated incidents fit together, we are introduced to Thomas Kell.

A disgraced MI6 undercover agent, he has been out of work for eight months, mostly drinking and feeling sorry for himself when he gets a call from a former colleague. Jimmy Marquand brings Kell in from the cold in secret to find the newly appointed head of MI6 who has gone missing. Kell’s initial reluctance disappears when he learns that the person missing is Amelia Levene, someone he was close to.

This book is a great example of creating and maintaining suspense. Cumming demonstrates how to ask questions, answer some while asking more, and repeat again and again. This technique gives the reader moments of satisfaction along with a large helping of uncertainty. We are never completely satisfied until the end, when it all comes together in a tense burst of action.

Another brilliant aspect of this absorbing tale is the cast of characters Cumming assembles to assist—or challenge—Kell’s quest. In France, he is first put in touch with Bill and Barbara Knight, retired agents. The portrait of their marriage adds a touch of humor and wry recognition as first one and then the other show strengths and weaknesses through their actions and interactions with each other.

The team Kell puts together are also shown as full individuals, with their own quirks and background. Amelia herself is deftly portrayed as a woman who holds her secrets close. Her careful self-control makes her moments of revelation stand out. Even the villains of the piece and their henchmen are given full-length portraits. Having all these supporting characters fully characterised makes the story feel authentic. Even more importantly, ensuring we understand why they matter to our protagonist makes us interested in them.

One of the things that fascinated me was the characters’ relationship with their agencies. You would think that being part of a government bureaucratic organisation would be a binary matter: you either are or are not an employee. Yet many of these characters operate in a liminal area, balancing personal and professional motivations.

All in all, a good read. No surprise, since I’ve enjoyed other stories by this author. The immensely satisfactory ending gave me a rest from the ongoing suspense of today’s political situation. I look forward to checking out the later books in the Thomas Kell series.

What suspense novels have you enjoyed?

The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

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Author of over 25 novels, Greene brought his complex view of human nature to whatever genre he chose as his starting place. While he famously separated his oeuvre into serious novels and “entertainments”, he nevertheless imbued even the lightest of stories with a dark undercurrent of moral ambiguity. While he is often called a Catholic writer since several of his novels feature protagonists and themes that are overtly Catholic, Greene took his exploration of moral issues well beyond Catholic doctrine.

This early novel, published in 1945, is a thriller which employs the now-common trope of an ordinary man stumbling into a morass of international intrigue. He has to figure out what is going on while trying to rescue himself (and usually another; oh, and possibly the world).

In wartime London, Arthur Rowe impulsively attends a church fête, drawn by memories of his innocent childhood. It’s a rather sad affair, with few booths, but some of his anxieties are eased as he tries the games. He makes a wild guess at the weight of cake, said to have been made with real eggs, before ducking into the fortune teller’s booth. He ends up walking away with the cake.

It is not an ordinary cake, though, and Arthur is not exactly an ordinary man. He’s been living a half-hearted life in a rooming house since his release from prison where he’d been sent for the mercy killing of his beloved but ill wife.

He is pursued by the people involved with the cake, though he only gradually begins to understand his danger. The kaleidoscope shifts constantly as he tries to determine who to trust and what their motivations are. Even identities shift constantly. The stakes are raised as he is dragged from his self-imposed isolation and begins to care about others.

Greene reflects Rowe’s dilemma in two opposing forces. The first is the Blitz. The nightly bombing raids not only ratchet up everyone’s anxiety level but also continually rearrange the fabric of their lives. Buildings disappear; streets are rerouted. If you turn a corner, the street may or may not be passable. If you call someone, the phone may or may not ring. If you go to their home, the house may or may not be there. People abandon their bedrooms to sleep in shelters.

The second is a children’s book, The Little Duke, by Charlotte M. Yonge, which Rowe also carries home from the fête. In the story young Richard of Normandy becomes the duke when his father is killed. He must learn whom to trust: those who flatter and cajole him or his father’s trusted lieutenants who tell him hard truths. He is betrayed and kidnapped, yet his trials teach him to do what is right; he learns how to be both brave and gentle. Although some of his people are puzzled when he forgives his enemies, they love the little duke for it and support him without fail.

While not didactic, the story is obviously meant to be instructive, with its themes of honor and glory: that maintaining your honor by doing good will bring you glory in war and in the hearts of your countrymen.

Such childish illusions were shattered in the trenches of the Great War, and shattered again for a new generation in the war against fascism that is the setting for Greene’s story. A more nuanced understanding of good and evil is required.

Like Rowe, we are asked to leave behind the comfortable certainties of childhood to navigate this adult world where everyone has secrets and reality is always shifting. As Yonge put it, we must find “the only safe way across the morass, and a very slippery, treacherous, quaking road it was.” The tension that is created between the broken and uncertain present and the sweet simplicity of the past amplifies Rowe’s predicament. And what could be more relevant to the situation we find ourselves in today?

Also relevant is the title, which refers to one way Germans are said to control the fifth columnists working against England in the war. They come up with something on them, forgive it, and then control them with the threat of blackmail. As one character explains, “‘They formed, you know, a kind of Ministry of Fear—with the most efficient under-secretaries. It isn’t only that they get a hold on certain people. It’s the general atmosphere they spread, so that you can’t depend on a soul.’”

These days it is hard not to look around and wonder who is being paid or blackmailed, if the people in power are taking orders from our enemies and selling out their country. Amid threats and firings and lies, we must stand up to the Ministry of Fear that threatens our fragile covenant.

Have you read anything by Graham Greene? He was one of the most popular novelists of the 20th century. Do you find his work relevant to today’s world?

Fear of the Dark, by Walter Mosely

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Mosely’s fans know that his many novels, including the Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones mysteries, are rousing adventures that navigate the liminal areas that lie in the shadow of good and evil, guilt and innocence. While we race along with the narrator, trying to avoid danger and death while figuring out just what is going on and what to do about it, we are testing our own moral code.

This addition to the Fearless Jones collection is narrated by Fearless’s friend Paris Minton, bookstore owner and ferocious reader. Most of Paris’s problems follow visits from his cousin Ulysses “Useless” Grant, a petty crook who spreads trouble in his wake. Although Paris turns Useless away at the door, refusing to help him, trouble comes in the door anyway. Luckily Paris can turn to his friend Fearless—a man Paris says is “outside the law” and “stronger of thew and character than any other man I had ever met.”

For me, the great joy and value of fiction—all fiction, highbrow or lowbrow, genre or literary, ebook or audio, text or graphic novel—is the chance to live someone else’s life. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains the biology behind our deep-rooted desire for virtual adventures: stories are how we learn about the world and test our abilities. Most of all, to my mind, they increase our empathy by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and by forcing us to fill in the gaps with our own emotions and experiences.

Walter Mosely’s novels let me encounter the world as a black man, an especially difficult and valuable stretch for me. This particular book is set in Los Angeles of the 1950s: not the easiest time to be a black man in this country. Without disrupting the flow of the story or preaching, Mosely gently reminds us of just how different life was and is for a black man than for someone, say, like me.

The most explicit moment comes when Paris comes upon a white man lying dead on the bookstore floor. He calls Fearless for help, and he brings a friend to help dispose of the body. Paris says:

There I was, in a truck with desperate men. I was a desperate man. It was hard to believe that a milquetoast coward like myself could be involved in such a clandestine and dangerous operation. But the reasons were as clear as the quarter moon shining through the windshield.

All three of us were living according to black people’s law. The minute I came upon that white boy’s body I knew that I would be seen as guilty in the eyes of American justice. Not even that—I was guilty. There was no jury that would exonerate me. There was no court of appeals that would hear my cries of innocence.

I wasn’t a brave man like Fearless or a born criminal like Van Cleave, but we all belonged in that truck together. We had been put there by a long and unremitting history. My guilt was my skin, and where that brought me had nothing to do with choice or justice or the whole library of books I had read.

This is not empty polemic. It is a necessary explanation of why Paris doesn’t just call the police when he finds a dead body on his property. It is why this quiet man gets drawn into the dangerous currents of the criminal underworld.

Being such a big reader explains Paris’s voice being a little more florid than today’s readers might be accustomed to. One area where I particularly noticed his voice was in the descriptions of every character, even the most minor walk-on extra. As David Corbett points out in a recent blog post, “the ability to describe the human face in fiction seems to be, if not a dying art, at least in a state of decline, even indifference.”

In this story Mosely mixes it up. He makes use of faces, posture, clothing and behavior to bring his characters memorably to life. Here are some examples:

Jessa was wearing an orange sundress that had little white buttons all the way down the front. The collar had a little dirt on it. Her red purse was scuffed.

Mona was a beautiful young woman. She was Negro and she was brown, but the brown mixed with gray everywhere in her appearance. Her skin was touched by it; her eyes sometimes shone with lunar possibilities. Even her hair seemed to be lightened by the midtone color.

Rinaldo had copper skin and slicked-back hair that did not seem straightened. He was missing one tooth and stood and walked in a hunched-over posture that he blamed on forty years leaning over pool tables.

Cleetus Rome, an elderly white man, . . . was old and toothless. He smelled something like dust or maybe even loam and he always bought magazines from me that had swimsuit models on the covers.

I was especially interested in the different ways Mosely describes skin color. He never falls back on the overused “coffee” or “mocha” but instead imagines the particular tone of a character’s skin.

As a writer and as a person I am learning a lot from this book. Even after providing an exciting read, it continues to reward further study.

Have you read a mystery or thriller that transported you to another world?

Salem’s Cipher, by Jess Lourey

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While the town of Salem, Massachusetts does make an appearance in this mystery/suspense novel, the title refers to Salem Wiley, a young woman whose deliberately uneventful existence in Minneapolis is torn apart by a phone call. She is a genius at cryptography and produced ground-breaking research for her PhD thesis, but her life is severely limited by a form of agoraphobia. The call from her best friend, Bel Odegaard, changes everything.

Police have informed Bel that her mother’s apartment has been broken into, a neighbor and her dog left in a pool of blood, and Grace–Bel’s mother–gone missing. When the two young women arrive, they discover that Salem’s mother was at the apartment as well, something we know from the prologue, and both Grace and Vida are missing, one of them probably dead.

Despite FBI Agent Stone’s warning that they too may be targets, Salem and Bel set out to follow the clue left for them by Vida, hoping to rescue their mothers. Or revenge them. As this tense, suspenseful novel tears along, the two women uncover a conspiracy going back hundreds of years. Each clue involves some kind of code, which Salem must decipher–and fast if they are to help their mothers. Factor in unforgettable characters they encounter, Emily Dickenson’s home and poetry, and an election about to produce the first female president of the U.S. and you have a story that works on several levels.

Lourey also works in references to scientific contributions by women, without slowing the breakneck speed of the story. She does an amazing job of capturing and conveying the emotions of the characters, especially the fraught mother-daughter relationships.

There are a few continuity problems that another editorial pass might have caught. There are also a couple of what Ray Rhamey calls “information questions” where information well known to the point-of-view character is teased yet deliberately withheld from the reader, presumably to create suspense. Mystery readers usually want to solve the puzzle along with the protagonist, so such tricks feel as though the author isn’t playing fair.

And it’s unnecessary, because Lourey is brilliant at ratcheting up the suspense. Every page has multiple instances of what Donald Maass calls “micro-tension” . A new and stunning bit of information or insight, a panicked physical reaction (“frantic movements”), even the use of especially active adjectives and verbs (“The . . . plane pitched and dropped, yanking Salem out of her light sleep.”) all keep the characters’ emotions in conflict and the reader turning the pages.

If you like to unravel a conspiracy or a good puzzle, if you long for a novel with engaging characters and a little history and literature thrown in, then hop on this rocket of a story.

Have you read a good mystery/suspense novel lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.