• Dom

The Reading List of the Adlerverse (Part I - The Thrillers)

Updated: Mar 28, 2018

Every writer has books that make up their inspirational source-code, helping shape the stories they want to tell. These books kicked me up the arse and dumped me in front of the keyboard. If you find something new to read in these pages, my work here is done. First up... the thrillers.

The Eagle Has Landed (Jack Higgins)

My Desert Island Book, and possibly the best WW2 action thriller ever written. Published in 1975, I must've read it around 1981 or thereabouts (am a fully paid-up member of the Airfix Generation). What gripped me was the book's good guy - Germans. 'Good Germans', of course, sent on a suicide mission to assassinate Winston Churchill in a remote Norfolk village. Led by dashing paratrooper Kurt Steiner, his team of gnarly veterans accept the ultimate one-way mission. An even bigger head-spinner for a 70's audience was Liam Devlin, an IRA man with whom we're meant to be sympathetic (deeply edgy back then). 'Eagle' is a brilliant ensemble piece, a slow-burn heist caper with Sten Guns. Almost inevitably turned into a movie (which is okay), if you haven't read it you really should.

SS-GB (Len Deighton)

Nazis-win-the-War counterfactuals... a well-trodden path, but few are as solid as Deighton's tale of conflicted coppers, occupation and internecine Nazi skulduggery. The TV show was middling, but the novel is sublime. Superintendent Archer of the Yard faces the classic dilemma of any policeman living under Occupation - where do duty and collaboration collide? The book makes uncomfortable reading for a British audience, suggesting many of us would have collaborated (as they did in the Channel Islands). Archer watches the Nazis build concentration camps and imprison dissidents, while their Soviet allies arrive to genuflect at Marx's Highgate grave. Northern England is an insurgent hotspot, while London is run by the Gestapo. Then, after a strange murder and a chance meeting an American journalist, Archer finds himself drawn into a plot to deny the Third Reich nuclear weapons.

The Little Drummer Girl ( John le Carré )

It's the 1970's. A veteran Mossad intelligence officer, Kurtz, recruits a naive, leftish, actress to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell. The objective? Assassination. I'm not actually an avid Le John le Carré fan (although 'A Perfect Spy' is incredible), finding his late-career forays into polemic slightly dull. However, 'The Little Drummer Girl' remains one of the best (and underrated) pieces of literary espionage ever written - beautifully plotted, with masterfully observed characters. Charlie, actress-turned-infiltrator is manipulated by handlers and target alike, finally finding meaning in this, her ultimate role... but perhaps not the meaning she'd like. There was a 1980's movie based on the book (which is okay), but the BBC are filming a version at the time of writing (2018), wisely retaining the 1970's setting. Let's see if they dial down the politics, and dial up the drama, shall we?

Harry's Game (Gerald Seymour)

Belfast, the late 1970's (era of the classic thriller, if my list is anything to go by). British army officer Harry Brown (a captain in the unglamorous Royal Corps of Transport) is asked to go on a secret mission in Belfast - he's an Ulsterman who once performed impromptu undercover work in Oman. A government minister has been assassinated by the IRA, and Harry's job is to hunt down the killer. So far, so unremarkable. However, what makes 'Harry's Game' special is Seymour's focus on why people choose to live a life less ordinary, becoming terrorists or soldiers, cops or spies. Harry needs the work, which plugs the almost nihilistic void in his life to be something more. This is why Seymour belongs in this list, as he's very accomplished (like Le Carré) at getting deep beneath his characters' skins... not easy while writing popular genre fiction this good. The 1985 TV series is worth a look-in too.

The Company (Robert Littell)

I read this doorstep of a novel during a long holiday in Maine, seduced by the 'Hall of Mirrors' Littell describes in his epic novel of the CIA. Covering the 1950's to 1990's, it's a tale of spies and counter-spies, of adventurers and idealists. Littell takes us from Berlin to the Bay of Pigs, from the Hungarian uprising to the collapse of the USSR, the slow penetration of the Agency by the KGB something like rising damp. The CIA itself becomes a de facto character, a simulacrum of the post-war Pax Americana - audacious and selfish, ruthless in its national interest. Star of the piece is James Angleton, the CIA's (real-life) witch-finder general. Arrogant, paranoid and brilliant, through him we witness Cold War paradoxes sending its soldiers insane. If you like proudly complex sagas that demand your attention, I dare-say you'll like this.

The Berlin Noir trilogy (Philip Kerr)

My favourite detective series, bar none. Bernie Gunther, Great War veteran, is variously a Private Eye, Alexanderplatz police detective, hotel sleuth (at the Adlon, Berlin's classiest), black-uniformed SA investigator and (finally) on-the-run war criminal (rubbing shoulders with Eichmann and Skorzeny in Argentina). Kerr's novels chart the rise and fall of the Third Reich, and the moral cesspit it became for those who served it. Bernie's unfortunate fate is to become the senior Nazis' investigator-of-choice, trying to solve crimes the least morally-compromised way possible. Why is this my favourite detective series of all time? Kerr's Berlin is so well-realised you can smell it. Bernie is a likeable anti-hero, a good man cursed to live in bad times. He sometimes gets the girl, the dialogue cracks like a Walther P-38 and the larger-than-life cast of Nazis are even more evil than you imagined. Highly, highly recommended. Kerr died in 2018 aged only 62, robbing us of one of our best thriller writers.

Gun Street Girl (Mark Timlin)

I pretty much chose 'The Turnaround' at random, because all Mark Timlin's thrillers are great, if not formulaic. But when the formula is this much fun, who cares? Our hero is disgraced ex-cop Nick Sharman, his manor south London (the proper south London - places like Tulse Hill and Woolwich), where he gets into scrapes with gangsters, hot chicks-in-peril and former Met colleagues (including the seedy DI Robber, who I'm sure I've met in real-life). All the while, Sharman cuts about wearing Paul Smith suits, drinks like Oliver Reed at a wake, eats lots of bang-bang chicken, has car chases in his E-Type Jag, enjoys threesomes with strippers and indulges in a heavy-duty firearms fetish. If this doesn't make you want to read these coke-dusted, booze-laced slices of London pulp, then I'm afraid I can't help you.

Fatherland (Robert Harris)

Another Nazis-win-the-war counterfactual, but Robert Harris is a particularly cerebral thriller writer and deserves your attention. 1964: SS detective Xavier March serves the victorious German Empire. The Beatles are mobbed in Hamburg and Joe Kennedy Snr. is President of the USA. He stumbles upon a conspiracy to keep the (now politically embarrassing) Holocaust secret. The book is a chase thriller, albeit one with a serious message about truth, guilt and the past. You see, you could call this 'Motherland' and set it in modern-day Russia - a totalitarian state that sanctioned mass murder, but was on the winning side. 'Fatherland' is about how governments try to cleanse themselves of sin by burying the truth. The ending is poignant yet sinister, police helicopters hovering over Auschwitz's hidden ruins, leaving you wondering what you would do in Xavier March's shoes.

Red Sparrow (Jason Matthews)

At the risk of sounding like a Hipster, I read this long before the Jennifer Lawrence movie was announced (haven't seen it yet). I was intrigued that a former career CIA agent like Matthews had written a novel, half-expecting a dry espionage procedural. Wow, was I wrong. Being the adventures of a headstrong young woman thrown in the deep end of the Russian Federation's SVR (foreign intelligence service), Red Sparrow is sexy, gritty, hawkish and fun. Part homage to the CIA's field agents, part dagger to Putin's heart, Matthews happily strides across the tricky fault-line between trope and cliché. The result is a classy, compelling thriller - the surveillance sequences are especially gripping, and will resonate with anyone who's ever set foot on a plot. Check out the old and bold surveillance team in Washington DC, they're a hoot.

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