It’s still hot out there, and if you’re looking for some chilly reads to cool off, try some titles about the Cold War world. Espionage, intrigue, and drama set in Cuba, Moscow, East Berlin, and yes, Riptide, Oregon. Or try The Zhivago Affair, the true story of a book and the dramatic part it played in world political affairs. Happy Reading!
The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich
It’s 1958, and George Mueller (last seen in An Honorable Man, 2016) has left the CIA to teach literature. But CIA director Allen Dulles asks him to take on a special assignment: go to Cuba and check out agent Toby Graham, a friend of Mueller’s at Yale and a former CIA colleague in post-WWII Vienna. Dulles fears that Graham might be supporting Castro’s revolt against Cuba’s corrupt and brutal dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Vidich spins a tale of moral and psychological complexity, recalling Graham Greene. His portrait of often-boisterous Havana, with Mob-controlled casinos filled with nervous U.S. revelers, is tilted early on by a bomb blast just outside La Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite bar, that stuns Mueller. Most everyone knows that Batista will be toppled, but his secret police and random bombings menace everyone, and Vidich builds on the tension that afflicts the entire country. Toby is a fascinating cipher, even for the insightful Mueller, who can’t ignore the affection and respect he holds for his friend. But Mueller’s thinking is complicated by Toby’s love for the long-suffering wife of another Yale classmate. Vidich offers a rich, rewarding stew of uncertainty.
Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Boston publisher Simon Weeks has come to Moscow in the spring of 1961 to edit his brother Frank’s memoirs. Twelve years earlier, Frank, a CIA agent facing exposure as a Communist spy, defected to the Soviet Union. His memoirs, however, are not a mea culpa but what the KGB calls an “active measure”—a book that will cast them in a positive light. Frank, in fact, is an officer in the KGB and has long been considered a hero for his service training Russian spies in the ways of the West. To Simon’s surprise, Frank claims he wants to return to the United States, saying his wife, Joanna, who had a fling with Simon before she fell for Frank, can no longer take their diminished life in Moscow. Under the watchful eye of his KGB handler and surrounded by other defectors, Simon gets drawn into his brother’s intrigues. Does Frank really plan on taking Joanna with him in a daring escape, or does he have other schemes in mind? Kanon’s eighth novel (after Leaving Berlin) is a finely paced Cold War thriller with his usual flair for atmospheric detail, intriguing characters, and suspenseful action.
The Mercy of the Tide by Keith Rosson
Blending horror and alternate history, this striking first novel takes its time familiarizing readers with the small seacoast town of Riptide, Ore. It’s late 1983, and the U.S. and Russia seem to be sliding toward nuclear Armageddon. At least that’s what nine-year-old Trina Finster believes, focusing on politics partly to distract herself from sorrow over her mother’s death. Her brother, Sam, and her father are also struggling with personal grief, as are town sheriff Dave Dobbs and excruciatingly haunted deputy Nick Hayslip. When they start finding the mutilated corpses of animals, they fear that a vicious shape-shifting monster out of local Native American legend, the tah-kee-na-the, has reappeared to feed on sorrow and serve as a harbinger of more awful events to come. Considering the international situation described in the novel, readers are left uncertain whether any of the characters will survive in the long run. What is clear, though, is that Rosson has a real gift for vivid description and for creating anguished characters who deserve a faint glimmer of hope.
The Americans (Season 1) [DVD] / FX Productions
Secrets can be deadly in this suspenseful thriller about undercover Russian spies in 1980s Washington, D.C.. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) seem to be a typical suburban couple, but they’re actually lethal KGB agents plotting to bring down America. As the Cold War escalates, Philip and Elizabeth must take extreme measures to continue their mission and keep their true identities hidden. But when an FBI agent moves in across the street, they become ensnared in a pulse-pounding game of cat and mouse. (Currently, series DVDs available through Season 4)
Stasi Child by David Young
Set in East Berlin in 1975, British author Young’s outstanding first novel and series launch dramatizes the inherent difficulty of policing honestly in a police state. Karin Müller, of the People’s Police, is roused in the middle of the night after the body of an unidentified teenage girl is found in a cemetery near the Berlin Wall, known in East Germany as the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier/Rampart. When Müller arrives at the scene, she’s taken aback by the presence of Klaus Jäger of the Ministry of State Security, or Stasi, who informs her only that she’s been ordered to assist him. Müller is further discomfited by the official Stasi explanation for the death—that the girl was “apparently shot from the West—possibly by western guards—while escaping into the East.” Quickly discovering evidence contesting that unlikely scenario, she finds herself in a dilemma when Jäger directs her to focus on identifying the corpse rather than the killer. Fans of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko will welcome Müller.
Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others [DVD] a film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
In East Berlin in 1984, the secret police, known as the Stasi, are gaining more and more control, spying on German citizens and recruiting thousands of them to spy on each other. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Mühe) has been ordered to find something on playwright Georg Dreyman (Koch), so he sets up a surveillance room and listens closely as Dreyman, his actress girlfriend, Christa-Marie Sieland (Gedeck), and various suspected radical friends gather in their apartment. But when Wiesler discovers that culture minister Bruno Hempf (Thieme) cast suspicion on Dreyman only so he can have his way with Sieland, the master interrogator and torture teacher starts taking a long look at just what it all is about. (In German with optional English, French or Spanish subtitles)
The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée
In brisk and thrilling fashion, Washington Post national security editor Finn and Saint Petersburg State University instructor Couvée take readers into the world of Soviet intelligentsia and shadowy Cold War politics to study how Boris Pasternak came to write and publish Doctor Zhivago (which first appeared in Italy in 1957). The authors use rich archival research, including previously classified CIA files, to depict the oppressive political conditions that gave rise to Pasternak’s masterpiece, and the international firestorm that occurred when the novel was banned in the Soviet Union. The book offers nuanced depictions of the people in Pasternak’s life, including his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, who championed his work and shared his torment at the hands of the KGB. The torturous ideological policing by the Soviets is discussed to great effect; for indeed, the tale of Doctor Zhivago itself is very much about the long psychic scar left by Russian Revolution. It’s a story expertly told by Finn and Couvée, who unsparingly present the role played by the Kremlin in persecuting Pasternak and his loved ones, as well as the role of the CIA in using his masterpiece in a game of ideological warfare—overall, a triumphant reminder that truth is sometimes gloriously stranger than fiction.
Disposable Asset by John Altman
This can’t-put-it-down spy thriller from Altman (The Art of the Devil) introduces the most deadly and proficient young woman warrior since the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. Spymaster Julian Quinn has saved homeless Cassie Bradbury from a life on the mean streets of New York City and transformed her into a relentless assassin. Quinn, whom Cassie views as her savior, is only the first of her friends whose loyalty she will later question. After a spectacular assassination in Moscow, Cassie learns that she’s been lied to about her target and marked as disposable by her own country; every policeman and security agent in Russia is after her. Her one hope is the disgraced former CIA agent Sean Ravensdale, who needs to find Cassie to resuscitate his career. She leads them all on an incredible chase, leaving behind a trail of dead men who have underestimated her lethal abilities. Enthralled readers will welcome the open ending, which suggests that Cassie and the world-weary Ravensdale will be back in a sequel.