A Note on David Downing’s Spy Novels

David Downing writes pretty good historical spy thrillers. The Dark Clouds Shining concludes the Jack McColl series, set at the edges of WWI and in its aftermath, particularly Russia in the years after the Revolution. Downing takes readers to some unusual places—the Western Front is barely mentioned. Instead, his hero McColl finds himself in the Kiautschou Bay concession (home of the Tsingtao brewery), the Dublin of the Easter Uprising, the border between Finland and Russia, and Tashkent and Samrkand in the early 1920s, where Soviet and Uzbeki cultures abut uneasily. Downing is great at subordinating his historical material to his story. We learn a lot, and quite effortlessly, too.

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Unlike a lot of books set during WWI, especially those involving Britain, the emphasis here isn’t on the betrayal of innocent lives by those who want to cling to power, but rather the new ways of life that arise from the war: a world that begins to imagine decolonization, gender equality, and the liberation and equality promised by socialism and communism. Of course the books also emphasize the failures of these promises, in part by the excesses of the liberatory movements themselves and in part by reactionary forces in the not-quite-former Great Powers.

McColl finds himself working for a country and, especially, an ideology he no longer believes in; his on-again off-again girlfriend, an Irish American journalist—finds herself caught up in the exhilaration of the Russian revolution and then quickly in the disappointing, even murderous reality of what the revolution quickly becomes.

Unable to resolve its socio-political conundrums, The Dark Clouds Shining saves its tidying-up for the relationship between the two leads: a satisfying but also much less ambitious ending. But then again I’m not sure thrillers are ever able to tackle the big questions they circle around, constrained as they are to emphasize individual character rather than societal, structural, or communal concerns.

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If you haven’t read Downing before, I recommend starting with his six-book John Russell series, set before, during, and after WWII and named after the train stations of Berlin (and Prague). Downing feels more in command of that material than he does in the new series, and Russell is more fully realized than McColl (although there’s not really that much to choose between them: they are good guys who sometimes have to make hard decisions and who treat women well—a fact the novels are a little too self-satisfied about). One of the best parts of the earlier series is that Russell’s one-time girlfriend and eventual wife, Effie, grows from a bit part to a central character. In the McColl series, Caitlin is even more important—the last few books are split equally between her and Jack, and she is at the center of their most interesting scenes.

Recently I wrote about two masters of the spy genre. Downing isn’t at their level. But he’s pretty good: absolutely reliable light reading, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Two Superior Spy Thrillers

Does anyone remember the movie Crank from 2006? Jason Stratham plays a hit man injected with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops. What follows is 90 minutes of preposterous enjoyment, and a master class in narrative efficiency. There is no goal; there is only go. The movie barely has a beginning, and who knows what the end is (it’s telling that I can’t remember, because even more than most narratives this ending must undo all that’s come before). Instead it’s all middle, just one set piece after another of ingenious contrivances designed to keep the character’s—and the viewer’s—heart pounding.

I thought of Crank when reading Lionel Davidson’s terrific thriller Kolymsky Heights (1994). Davidson’s novel is more sophisticated, but like the now mostly forgotten movie it reducing narrative to its essentials. What’s really amazing is that Kolymsky does so over almost 500 pages, not a single one of which is wasted. The book gets its hooks into you from the beginning and doesn’t let go. That’s true even when it does something unorthodox, like taking until page 60 to introduce us to the hero.

And what an interesting hero he is. Jean-Baptiste Porteur is known as Johnny Porter. He is a Gitskan Indian from the Skeena River area of Northern British Columbia. (How timely and exciting to have an Indigenous protagonist., one whose indigeneity is central to his success—and not because he’s “in tune with the land” or some such nonsense but because he can speak so many languages.) Porter is a linguistic genius, having as a child already mastered several Native languages from the region, including Tsimshean, “a language so unique that linguists had been unable to relate it to any other on earth.” Later he is sent to a mission school (the horrors of which are glossed over—I’d like to think a book written today wouldn’t do so), where he learns English and French. Porter begins studying at two prestigious Canadian universities—studies interrupted by a sojourn in Russia—before completing his degree and winning a Rhodes scholarship.

Porter is back in Canada pursuing legal claims against the Canadian government when he is approached by an Englishman named Lazenby, who has received a coded message from a research station in Siberia that no one in the West knows the purpose of. Lazenby, who is the character we follow for the first 60 pages, reaches out to a former student now working for British secret services and the CIA; agents from these institutions are the ones who tap Porter as the only person able to get into Siberia, penetrate the defenses of the research station, and return. Lazenby flies to Northern British Columbia, makes his case to Porter, and exits the novel. Porter, phlegmatic, bemused, and interested despite himself, meets with the CIA and takes the case.

What follows is a gloriously ingenious journey via Japan and a Korean ship through the Northwest Passage into the heart of Siberia. Porter disguises himself as a member of the Chukchee people (he speaks the language, as well as related ones such as Evenk), going by the name of Kolya Khodyan. He gets a job at a transport company in the Green Cape along the Kolyma River (where earlier in the century many of the Gulags had been located) and patiently waits for his chance to sneak into the top-secret research facility. (This involves befriending the local Medical Officer, with whom he enters a relationship much more touching, plausible, and non-exploitative than the ones you usually find in spy novels.) The best parts of the novel detail the winter transportation routes across Siberia, mostly along frozen rivers in jeep-like vehicles called bobiks. (Kolymsky Heights has good maps and if you’re anything like me you will refer to them over and over.)

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I pretty much loved everything about Kolymsky Heights. Particularly intriguing is the absence of any references that would allow us to date the events. The events of 1991 are never mentioned, though I suppose they are indirectly alluded to in the increasing national/ethnic self-consciousness of the indigenous peoples of the north (though this is always accompanied by contempt/casual racism by whites, a fact Porter uses to his benefit, in that people are always underestimating him because they think he is “just” a Chukchee or an Evenk). I take the book to be set around the time of its writing, that is, in an interim period in which the Cold War is taken by many to be over but Russia remains an enemy, though of what kind it isn’t quite clear.

That uncertainty might explain why the mystery at the ostensible heart of the book—what is the going on at that underground research station?—isn’t the usual Cold War fare. The Russians don’t have a terrible new weapon that threatens humanity, for example. This mystery is much more intellectual, even ontological, concerning what it means to be a human being. (A question which, frankly, was answered in a more profound manner in the labour camps strewn across the whole area in which this book is set and which were just being closed at the time of its publication.) All mysteries have an easier time building up suspense than resolving it, and if there is any weakness to this novel it’s with the scenario Porter uncovers at the research station. I had a hard time really caring about the Big Reveal. But I cared a lot about how Porter was going to break into that place and then get out again. Porter’s escape through the blizzards of the Siberian winter is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever read.

A vivid evocation of a particular time and place is one of the things that links Kolymsky Heights to a thriller I read a few weeks later: Joseph Hone’s The Private Sector (1971). But that’s about the only thing these books have in common. If Kolymsky Heights reminded me of Crank, The Private Sector is, oh, I don’t know, Antonioni maybe. The Private Sector is not particularly suspenseful (though the last thirty pages or so really pick up the pace; it turns out this is the first in a four-book series and you can tell Hone is playing the long game). Nor is its presentation of events always clear. Hone is fond of shifts in perspective and time that are at times so oblique that I had read a few pages before I noticed what had happened. And the story itself is much more complicated than in Kolymsky Heights. In Davidson’s book, we know what the hero is trying to do; the suspense lies in seeing whether he will be able to, and how, exactly he will accomplish it. In Hone’s, not even the protagonist (no heroes here) is sure what he’s meant to do. This is the world of triple agents and double crossings familiar to me from the little amount of John le Carré I’ve read.

But whereas most spy fiction takes the transience of its characters for granted—having nothing to say about it beyond fetishizing the freedom of its invariably male protagonists from the clutter of bourgeois life—Hone makes this situation into an existential dilemma for his characters, all of whom have hybrid identities that complicate their work for British intelligence. Marlow, the central figure, is born in Ireland but grows up in England. He meets Henry Edwards—who first recruits him into intelligence work and whom he is now, many years later, assigned to track down—at a private school in post-Suez Cairo, where both are teachers. Edwards has grown up in Egypt, as has Bridget, the woman whom by the time of the narrative present he has become involved with and who happens to be Marlow’s ex-wife. It’s all very complicated and it doesn’t make it easier that all the male characters have first-name surnames. (Their control back in London is named Williams.)

What Kolymsky Heights does for the cold, The Private Sector does for heat and humidity in pre-air conditioning Cairo. Hone vividly describes how the heat sends everyone underground, holing up by day and timidly venturing forth at night. I was reminded of Olivia Manning’s descriptions of Egypt in the first volume of the Levant Trilogy, which I read a few years back and unaccountably didn’t finish. (If you haven’t read The Balkan Trilogy yet, stop reading this post and do so immediately. These two books are fantastic, but they’re no Balkan Trilogy.)

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All of which is to say that Nassar’s Egypt in May 1967, rushing into a war with Israel that, in Hone’s telling at least, it has no real interest in, is more than just an exotic locale. It is home to most of the characters even though almost none of them think of it that way. They think of themselves as from England, a place most of them have spent very little time in. Though less overtly uninterested in the locals than many novels set in expatriate or colonial/Pieds-Noir communities—an Egyptian colonel, in particular, is an important and appealing character—The Private Sector is still almost entirely about Westerners. That’s certainly a limitation, but I found its depiction of colonials living on in the wake of decolonization fascinating.

Here, for example, is Marlow describing Henry Edwards’s particular tribe, those Englishmen who had grown up in Egypt, would never be Egyptian, yet are highly attuned to it:

[T]hey were natural seismographs alive to its [Cairo’s] smallest tremors. They had not always been happy there; so much the more were they bound to it: they had lived a real life in the city, had given nothing false to it, in every minute passed there. Their dreams of elsewhere, of rain, of ploughed fields, sloes in the hedgerow or London Transport, were as unreal as mine would have been for sun and coral, and clear blue water. The known years spent in a landscape never tie us to it, the marked calendar from which we can stand back and reflect or think of change; we are bound to a place by the unconscious minutes and seconds lost there, which is not measurable time or experience, and from which there is no release.

You can see what I mean when I say Hone isn’t exactly easy going. His narrator is always stepping back from the action to offer these sorts of reflections. With its sophisticated syntax and complex ideas, this passage is typical. Our dreams, Hone suggests, are always of elsewhere. For him dreams are conscious things, meditations that fill our days even as we ignore our surroundings. But it turns out we’re not really ignoring them. We might think we know where we’re from—after all, we do live “real” lives, we do give ourselves over to the place where we live, it’s not that we are living in bad faith all the time—but we’re tied to the place of our history by something deeper than what we can know. We can’t even measure these experiences, but nor can we get rid of them. Most of time, this passage tells us, we live in clichés (sloes in the hedgerow or coral in a clear sea) when what really matters is happening to us unannounced.

I don’t cite this passage in order to say that Hone transcends the thriller genre, because I don’t think genres need to be transcended. They exert a hold on us for a reason. (If we’re going to wish them away we should do so in the spirit of true freedom and gleeful destruction, as Tom does, rather than as a covert way to uphold literary fiction as the standard for all writing.) Better to say that Hone’s book is both a very good spy story—though for pure excitement it’s got nothing on Davidson’s—and a thoughtful meditation on belonging. Although Marlow is thinking in this passage about belonging to nations or cities—about England and Egypt, London and Cairo—in the end the book pursues the idea most intensely in terms of the intelligence community. What allegiances do we owe to institutions that pursue their work by breaking allegiances—that is, by spying? Given its—to me, completely unexpected—ending, it’s clear Hone will have more to say about this question in the rest of the series.

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Maybe the best thing about these wonderful books is the serendipitous way I came across them. I found Kolymsky Heights the old-fashioned way: browsing in a good bookstore, in this case Bridge Street Books in Washington, D.C. I’d never heard of Davidson, but I knew I was on to a good thing when, a day or two later, I had the good fortune to finally meet face to face with Eric Passaglia at an evening with several bloggers and book lovers organized by the inimitable Frances. (Eric has no blog, sadly, but you should follow him on Twitter.) Eric sang Davidson’s in a way that made me wonder yet again how it was I had never run across him before. The book Eric had with him that night was by Joseph Hone (I can’t remember if it was The Private Sector or one of the later ones) and he described him so appealingly that I tracked the book down at the library as soon as I returned home. Serendipity, then, and the reassurance that comes from a trusted source’s recommendation (which is what independent bookstores at their best can do): that’s how I came across these two books. I’m here to pass on the love. If you have even the least interest in spy thrillers, you should read Davidson and Hone without delay.