Best of 2018, One: Nail biting, pulse pounding suspense….

December 14, 2018 at 9:31 pm (Best of 2018)

That’s what the blurb writers promise. And yet sometimes I find myself in a yawn induced torpor, instead.

But that was definitely not the case with these two novels…

These two nonfiction titles were likewise compelling:

The White Darkness I’ve written about. It haunts me still, especially now that winter has come.

The Spy and the Traitor was a riveting read. In it, Ben Macintyre tells the story of Oleg Gordievsky, who became a KGB officer in 1963. His extraordinary abilities quickly propelled him to the top ranks of the organization. Yet as he skillfully performed in his capacity as an operative, he became increasingly revolted by the cruelty and hypocrisy of the agency in which he was serving.

To anyone who cared to look closely (and few Russians did), the contrast between the myth and reality of the KGB was self-evident. The Center [headquarters] was a spotlessly clean, brightly lit, amoral bureaucracy, a place at once ruthless, prissy, and puritanical, where international crimes were conceived with punctilious attention to detail. From its earliest days, Soviet intelligence operated without ethical restraint. In addition to collecting and analyzing intelligence, the KGB organized political warfare, media manipulation, disinformation, forgery, intimidation, kidnapping, and murder. The Thirteenth Department, or “The Directorate for Special Tasks,” specialized in sabotage and assassination.

And so he decides to offer his services to Britain’s MI6. And the story of what happens after that is truly heart stopping.

The latter part of the book consists of the story of Gordievsky’s exfiltration from the Soviet Union. A team of MI6 agents and workers at the British Embassy are assigned to manage this feat. Getting an exposed KGB double agent out of Russia had never before been successfully attempted. And this one was a known by his pay masters to be a traitor. How had he become known? Through the treacherous offices of one of America’s most notorious informers: Aldrich Ames.

The exfiltration team journeyed north to Finland in a desperate attempt to free Gordievsky once and for all from the clutches of the KGB and thus save his life. I did not know if they would ultimately succeed or not. All manner of subterfuge was employed. KGB operatives were in hot pursuit. My heart was literally pounding as I read.

And then suddenly, in the midst of this well nigh unendurable suspense, Viscount Roy Ascot, one of the team members, was driving toward the dawning day when he came upon a sight of startling beauty. He describes it thus:

“A thick mist had risen from the lakes and rivers, extending into long belts besides the  hills and through the trees and villages. The land slowly coalesced into substantial forms out of these foaming banks of violet and rose. Three very bright planets shone out in perfect symmetry, one to the left, one to the right, and one straight ahead. We passed solitary figures already scything hay, picking herbs, or taking cows to pasture along the slopes and gullies of common land. It was a stunning sight, an idyllic moment. It was difficult to believe that any harm could come out of a day of such beginnings.”

How very British, to respond to unexpected beauty with such a lyrical passage of prose, even in the midst of terrible tension and danger.

This is the second book I’ve read by Ben Macintyre. The first was A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.  He is my kind of writer, for sure – one terrific storyteller.


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