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review 2018-08-13 19:28
Liar's Candle - August Thomas

Penny Kessler makes this work. She’s the main character, and if she’s gonna be a lowly intern working at the US Embassy in Turkey who is suddenly thrown, via a bomb blast, into a deadly adventure where your friends may be trying harder to kill you than your enemies, where the action never stops and Bond-like resourcefulness and instincts are required to make it to Chapter 5 (and that’s the easy part, compared to later)...then Penny Kessler needs to be smart. Penny needs to be special, and her dialogue at the Embassy shindig, before the big boom, and then throughout the craziness, needs to show she thinks sharp and fast. So, she’s a quick wit and a wily verbal fencer, and although that doesn’t mean she knows how to defuse a nuclear warhead or hack NASA, it does mean I know exactly how intelligent and quick-witted she is before everything goes to hell in her world, and I can believe that she has what it takes to wend her way through a potentially lethal Spy maze that would test Bourne.


With shadowy assassins in Turkey and also someone, or some people, in the CIA seemingly trying to kill her, this story seems early on to be a case of “what does she know, that everyone wants her dead? does she even know what she knows? was she passed something that makes her a target? did she hear something she shouldn’t have? what makes everyone in Turkey suddenly want to question and then kill, or just kill, Penny Kessler? or is that all a trick, and there is more to Penny than she seems? what about Connor of the CIA, will he get wise and help her run, or is he just gonna follow orders and be a pawn in the ‘let’s shut down Penny’ tournament? did she get an email or a text that marked her for death? don’t know yet...RUN, Penny!”. 


Run, but think too, Ms. Kessler. And she does. This leads me to mention that I agree with the reviews that say, basically, “okay, ignore the le Carre comparisons you’ve been bumping into, this is more of an action-fest, more in the line of a Ludlum or even a Lee Child effort than some kind of slow-burn, quiet, “let’s examine the psychology of a traitor” affair. this is intelligent in its plotting, but it’s built to be fun, to be continually in motion, and suspenseful. Lots of twists, lots of “oh, you’re walking towards someone you really shouldn’t trust, but don’t feel bad, Penny, I bought the act, too..oop, bullets coming! Legs, save brain again!”.


Yeah, okay, so like all these action-fests, these heroes seem to magically mess up the villains’ targeting skills, but in this case, like I said, the author has worked so hard to make our heroine smart enough to believably navigate this hall of evil, spy-slicing, exploding mirrors, I’ll allow her a few dodged bullets.


Spy movies this resembles would be Enemy of the State, Three Days of the Condor, and maybe even the celluloid king of “If I’m not a Spy, why am I suddenly having a Spy adventure that started with people wanting to torture me over something I don’t have a clue about, got worse from there!”, North by Northwest. As far as Spy novels go, it’s easy to recommend Liar’s Candle to anyone wanting thrills plus intricate plot (but it all makes sense), and lots of wicked surprises (“Penny, we keep getting tricked. You’re clever, I’m, well, I’m borderline cleverish, so the issue here is not brains, but more along the lines of Stop Trusting These Bastards!”). 


My fave Espionage novels by women authors are Agent In Place by Helen MacInnes, Flashback by Jenny Siler (apparently sometimes Siller), and what’s that other one, forget my own name next, oh yes, Liar’s Candle by August Thomas...so go to town, Spy fans. Better yet, go to Turkey!

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review 2018-07-11 03:10
The Eiger Sanction (Jonathan Hemlock #1) - Trevanian

About 24 hours before writing this review, I watched the 1975 film version of The Eiger Sanction...and actually, just before that, I had watched Atomic Blonde, which means that it was really a Spy movie double-bill, and a highly enjoyable one at that.


But this is meant to be a book review, so I’ll mention two things: (a) gosh, I would love to do an Eiger Sanction, Atomic Blonde comparison right now (the films are actually quite similar in a number of ways...especially in the not-so-subtle hint that Spy Games can have an element of numbing pointlessness to them, even if that can only be realized with hindsight, and when murders and betrayals factor in, it says something brutal about the human capacity for violence rationalized, violence ultimately for nothing); and (b) I did of course read the novel The Eiger Sanction very recently, for the first time (my movie double-bill featured two re-watches), so I’m not faking it - it’s just that I had meant to see the film again right after finishing the novel, and I ended up leaving about a week’s lag-time before revisiting the film.


But now I’m caught up - have got the Eiger film and book fairly fresh in that brain of mine - and...I have to say, I don’t quite know what Trevanian had against the film version. Offhand, I can’t think of a book where the film version is so strikingly similar. I would swear that Clint Eastwood only got permission to film this thing by promising to film 98% of the novel as lifted right from the novel’s pages. What this means is, I thought all the polItically incorrect stuff - the real cringe-worthy, offensive trappings of the film - got added by Clint Eastwood and his screenwriters, producers. Here is what I thought could not possibly be in the novel: the African-American woman named Jemima; the characterization of Miles Mellough; the name of Miles Mellough’s dog; the scene at the beginning with the student who would do anything to get a good grade on her exam; let’s say between five and ten out-of-date jokes or comments, including one, or two, relating to rape, which just don’t count as funny any more - not they really ever did; gosh, some horrible shit got passed off as funny, back in the day - and leave a sour taste.


So, with my theory being that Eastwood added all kinds of dubious (certainly today) crass crap - Eastwood touches that just seemed sooo Eastwood, at least from that era, the 1970s, where very similar dialogue and attitudes are on display in Dirty Harry movies - and that all that stuff was the reason Trevananian despised the film version...imagine my utter friggin’ astonishment when I finally read the book and saw that all those unlikable facets are right there in the book! I was shocked. “I can’t blame Eastwood any more”...and what the hell was Trevanian all pissed off about?! They basically filmed his book. The only differences I can see are: the movie opened in Zurich, not Montreal (not exciting enough, I guess?); vomit is a clue to something, in the novel, but that is out, when it comes to the movie; Hemlock’s motivation for hating Miles Mellough is re-tooled a bit for the film, in terms of when something happened; a revelation that comes quite late in the movie, meant to shock the audience, is actually revealed quite early in the novel, both to the reader, but also to a character...perhaps because Trevanian saw such a “surprise” as really not that surprising if you understand why certain things are done in the world of Espionage (this all relates to that pointlessness, that “mission first, no matter who has to be sacrificed” aspect of the Great Game) BUT the average film-goer, less of a Spy story fanatic, can get ambushed with one extra shocking revelation if she or he hasn’t come to expect certain brutal “twists” amongst all the betrayals. 


So, if it’s not clear from my remarks yet, this 1972 Spy novel has a healthy spattering of the kind of stuff that gets, I would guess, a fair amount of Did Not Finish, or Stopped at 18% (or whatever), or Hated It, or How Can Anyone Like This?! comments and reviews.


Okay, I’m offended by some shit in this book, make no mistake, but I’ll be honest, I see a 4 Star spy plot, here. This novel is loaded with tricky twists, unpredictable turnabouts, delicious “with friends like these does he really need enemies!” firecrackers going off practically every chapter, and of course all the harrowing climbs - not just on the Eiger. I’m aware of the fact that appreciation for the film version - merits somewhat obscured by the weird-crap bits - has slowly grown since its initial reception, and looking at it in comparison to what has come later, and what is good about what comes later, in Spy fiction, Spy Action Thrillers...this can be run beside, well, Atomic Blonde, or The Bourne Identity, or Mission: Impossible, or even OHMSS (okay, that came earlier, but hey, that’s the king of Spy movies that have gone from being shunned to cherished; Eiger hasn’t quite experienced that level of positive reevaluation - more like Osterman Weekend, with its surveillence/media-as-manipulator prescience)...and still register as pretty damn impressive. A great plot that serves its genre well, is undeniable. If Trevanian felt the whole thing worked as more of a spoof...well, he wrote it so he gets to say what he wants.


I don’t think some of today’s readers - maybe a good many -would be too thrilled with some aspects of this book (remember, blame the book, not the movie - hunh, who knew?!). But I want to thank Themis for sending it to me, because I enjoyed finally getting to the original material, I think it’s a classic Spy Thriller with, say what you want, a very distinct personality (a little stuck in the 70s, but that’s the way it is...), and surprises galore, action galore, but no...you know what, I was gonna do a certain Goldfinger reference here, but y’know, I don’t think I will.

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