Domestic Surveillance: The Internal Spy Novel

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Tales of espionage used to mean (to me, anyway) stories of international intrigue with more mileage accrued in the course of an adventure than the travel plans of an international jetsetter, and more locations than the TV show Sens8. To spy does not necessarily mean to travel – the FBI keeps tabs on plenty of Americans, just as the KGB kept a close watch on the doings of many a Soviet citizen. Here’s a few suggested reads for those curious about the intimate nature of spying on one’s own people, on one’s own soil.

9781496712356The Striver’s Row Spy by Jason Overstreet

After graduating from a prestigious university with an engineering degree and a hunger for justice and success, Sidney Temple finds himself recruited to be the FBI’s first African-American agent instead. Told to spy on Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement for the FBI, he decides to funnel useful information over to WEB Du Bois and the NAACP. Discussions of the disagreements between supporters of Du Bois and followers of Marcus Garvey immerses readers in the internal debates of Harlem Renaissance America. Temple’s apolitical artistic wife rounds out the portrayal of the time period’s Harlem intelligentsia, for a novel that excels as both spy fiction and historical fiction. The Striver’s Row Spy comes out in paperback on Tuesday, July 25th. Pre-order now! 

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MysteryPeople Spy Fiction Pick: THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMAN by John Lawton

John Lawton is internationally known for his masterful historical spy novels, and joins us this evening, September 20th, at 7 PM for our Noir at the Bar at Threadgill’s, an evening of readings from our favorite authors while drinking some favorite brews. John Lawton will be joined by fellow Brit Zoe Sharp and Americans Rick Ollerman, Mike McCrary and Jesse Sublett.

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

9780802123992Spy fiction, while excellent in the hands of those who’ve lived the secretive professions they explore in their tales of espionage, can benefit from the same hindsight (and declassified documents) that bring clarity to the history books. I appreciate the authenticity brought to spy fiction by those with personal espionage experience, yet I feel just as impressed with those who bring this shadow world to life through research and creating powerful characters.

Such is the case with John Lawton, whose gritty espionage thrillers perfectly evoke Cold War politics and carry on the legacy of the early spy fiction masters. First known for his Frederick Troy novels, a historical series set during WWII, Lawton has written several acclaimed stand-alones. He is now two books in to his new Joe Wilderness series, which unlike his previous series, features a working class character comfortable on both sides of the law (and both sides of the Berlin Wall).

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If you like John le Carré…

  • Recommendations from bookseller and mystery blogger Molly Odintz

I’ve always enjoyed tales of espionage, whether they be the glamorous exploits of international men of mystery, the paranoid ramblings of an everyman caught as a pawn between spies, or the delicate and devastating critiques of washed-up bureaucrats tired of destroying nations from their armchairs.

The latter two categories, in particular, drew me to the work of John le Carré. Along with Graham Greene, in such classic works as The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, le Carré’s clear analysis of the Cold War, bitter condemnation of corrupt and uncaring nations, and compassionate insight into its unwilling victims have hugely influenced portrayals of the Cold War since the early 1960s.

Le Carré’s work since the fall of the Berlin Wall has shifted to a critique of unregulated capitalism and its devastating environmental and health effects. Meanwhile,  declassified documents on both sides of the pond and access to Soviet sources have led to a flowering of historical scholarship covering topics which, at the start of le Carré’s time, found a home only fiction. Below, you’ll find recommendations (both fiction and non-fiction) for the fan of le Carré’s work. 
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MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month: THE FRENCH CONCESSION by Xiao Bai

french concession

– Post by Molly

Xiao Bai has been known for his diverse writing projects in his native China for some time – his work ranges from essays, to novellas, to literary fiction. His literary spy novel, French Concession, is his first to be translated into English. According to ShanghaiDaily.com, the novel “sold…moderately well in China, but it has…elements that appeal to Western readers,” and while, after finishing the novel, I can’t speak for Chinese readers’ lack of enthusiasm, I can certainly agree with the Shanghai Daily that French Concession seems tailor-made for Western readers of espionage fiction. French Concession is such an impeccable thriller, I’ve chosen it as our July MysteryPeople Pick of the Month.

The novel takes place in 1931, predominantly in the French Concession, a French-controlled section of Shanghai. Xiao Bai has created a dizzyingly epic spy thriller, with a vast cast incorporating revolutionaries, spies, gunrunners, informants, refugees, colonial police, assassins, crime lords, prostitutes, cameramen, Russian, French, Chinese, Japanese, and every combination of the above. Xiao Bai juggles his complex plot and array of characters deftly, and his writing has a cinematic touch. French Concession is reminiscent of Lust, Caution in its mind-bending portrayal of East Asian espionage and revolution. Although Bai’s setting is complex, and his characters multifaceted, Bai includes maps, historical notes, and a tight, explosive conclusion to wrap one of the best international espionage thrillers I have ever read.

The novel begins with the recruitment of a young, French-Chinese photographer by the French Concession police, who want him to spy on his arms-dealer White Russian girlfriend. Meanwhile, a revolutionary cell led by a ruthless Soviet-trained Chinese communist plans an assassination attempt. When the photographer begins a new romance with a beautiful member of the underground cell, he continues spying for the French Concession while also spying on the police for the revolutionary cell. The photographer’s divided loyalties, conflicting loves and multiple professions serve as metaphor for the impossible choices facing China immediately before the Japanese invasion. His playboy nature, amoral collaboration with any and all, and semi-redemption through romance all harken back to the greatest of revisionist World War II movies, Lacombe, Lucien.

“Each major character shifts loyalty at least once, and their romantic entanglements are no more set then their political allegiances.  Xiao Bai’s story has no heroes – only those flexible enough to survive, or dogmatic enough to seek death.”

In order to understand why Shanghai in 1931 is such a brilliant choice of setting for an espionage thriller, some historical context is necessary. Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world, a powerhouse of trade and politics for centuries. During the 19th century creation of “open” European-dominated trading centers in Chinese port cities, Shanghai became a hot-bed of revolution and a bewildering jurisdictional nightmare. After the end of the first Opium War, the British Empire established an International Settlement, composed of French, British and American zones, taking up large swathes of the city.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and the end of the Warlord Era of the teens and twenties, Shanghai came under the nominal control of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, but with a strong Marxist underground movement determined to challenge nationalists and imperialists alike for control of the city. To translate this into noir-speak, Shanghai, in 1931, had four official police departments, four official secret services, and many other spies representing the interests of countless nations and individual parties. In contrast, occupied Berlin has served as a setting for numerous spy novels, despite having only four zones of occupation and far less jurisdictional overlap.

The complex scenario of a single city controlled by several political authorities allows each character in Bai’s narrative to play enemies against one another. Each major character shifts loyalty at least once, and their romantic entanglements are no more set then their political allegiances.  Xiao Bai’s story has no heroes – only those flexible enough to survive, or dogmatic enough to seek death.

Xiao Bai lushly portrays Shanghai at the peak of colonialist development and right before decades of invasion, decolonization, revolution and civil war would change the city represented in his book almost unrecognizably. He brings the city’s geography to life, even including a few maps so the reader can be sure to understand the choreography of each thrilling sequence.

“Xiao Bai juggles his complex plot and array of characters deftly, and his writing has a cinematic touch. French Concession is reminiscent of Lust, Caution in its mind-bending portrayal of East Asian espionage and revolution.”

The longtangs, in particular, are a unique neighborhood design, usually consisting of a lane entered through a decorative archway with gated residences facing onto the lane on either side. Xiao uses the longtang to great effect in chase sequences and to represent the tight-knit communities of Shanghai and the divided nature of the “Sphere of Influence” model of imperialism. Longtangs also serve as a metaphor for the city’s mixture of Western and Eastern, traditional and new, and open and closed. The longtang is a self-contained neighborhood defined by its open entrance and narrow side alleys; at once conquered and unconquerable.

French Concession has an incredible amount of research put into it, as well as spatial awareness of the city at the time. Xiao includes notes at the end detailing both the depth and limits of his research, and the novel is an exercise in the power of historical fiction to bring history alive. From the barest outline of intrigue found in crumbling French Concession police files, Xiao fills in the blanks to create additional emotional power and bring history to life, in a perfect example of what great historical genre fiction can be.


You can find copies of French Concession on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The historical information included above has been gleaned from Wikipedia articles, and while a reader can enjoy French Concession with or without additional historical context, I strongly encourage readers of this novel to supplement the background information above with their own research, since the history behind this book is so incredibly entertaining.

International Spy Fiction Pick: HIS OWN MAN, by Edgard Telles Ribeiro

his own manPost by Molly

Most detective novelists are not former private detectives. Most thriller writers are not, in fact, computer hackers. And most spy novelists have never set foot anywhere near the CIA. Some, however, do have experiences with the world of subterfuge and the ambiguous political climate in which shadowy organizations work best, and whether they be Graham Greene, John le Carré, or in the case of His Own Man, Edgard Telles Ribeiro, they not only write good spy fiction – they write great spy fiction. Ribeiro began work in the Brazilian Foreign Service in 1967, three years after a CIA-backed military coup, and he has obeyed the old writing adage, write what you know, to great effect.

His Own Man, Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s 2011 novel of Brazilian intrigue and political compromise, was released in the US last year, beautifully translated by Kim Hastings. His Own Man is the latest addition to the growing body of literature struggling to process the lingering effects of South America’s long list of casualties to the Cold War.

Ribeiro tells the classic spy fiction narrative of a clandestine organization working to achieve a conservative military coup and then enacting a purge of all elements deemed “subversive” with the aid of CIA cold warriors. Although the story, in its grander elements, is familiar, Ribeiro manages to capture both an insider and outsider perspective on the Dirty Wars of South America through the unique part played by his homeland. Brazil, as the first to fall victim to dictatorship post-Cuban Revolution, acts as a staging ground in the novel for Brazilian agitators to go to other Latin American nations and work, covertly, to achieve the demise of other liberal democracies with the blessings of the American government.

His Own Man is not just the tale of Brazilian political conspiracy; it is also the story of a man. Marcílio Andrade Xavier, or Max, protagonist and symbolic source of all Latin America’s travails, uses his interloper position to great effect, playing off his superiors in the foreign ministry (first in the liberal government, then in the conservative, and then the liberal again), his handlers in the secret service, his wife, his friends, and his compatriots in the elaborate dance of the consummate insider. Max’s sole motivating factor is his own ambition, and as a political chameleon, he merely takes on whatever the most suitable appearance may be to achieve the next promotion. Max is, in short, the kind of man who always does well, and is the consummate gentleman spy who, through his amoral actions, strips all meaning from the ever-shifting ideologies of his superiors.

Max is a stand-in for the country itself, and for any other Eichman-like figures who supported the dictatorship without contemplating the moral cost. He is ever adaptable, able to weather any storm, yet trapped in his context and vulnerable to outside manipulation. Max’s outsider/insider status is underlined by Ribeiro’s choice of narrator, an old friend and disappointed colleague of Max, determined to construct a portrait of a man verging on mythical through hazy memories and disjointed interviews: a partial fingerprint of an amorphous individual, and the reader is left to fill in the blanks.

Ribeiro writes spies and diplomats who would not be out of place in the work of Graham Greene, Alan Furst, or any other articulate master of espionage. His pages are filled with cheerfully cultured personalities whose ability to quote Montaigne or Walter Benjamin in no way detracts from their ability to remove someone’s fingernails in a torture chamber, or at least play poker with the torturer on his lunch break. Culture and paranoia, romance and appearances, open boulevards and hushed conversations, and the slow spread of dictatorship across an entire continent, worst in those places that thought themselves immune – these are the contradictions that His Own Man inhabits, processes, and makes the writer’s own.


Copies of His Own Man are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com