A plan gone awry

Not a new book, this one has held up well over time.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

A BRIDGE TOO FAR. By Cornelius Ryan. Blackstone Audio. 18 hours, 11 minutes. Read by Clyde Chafer. $22.02 through Audible.com. Also available in paperback from Simon & Schuster. 672 pages. $19.99.

In September 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was looking for a path over the Rhine and into Germany; he hoped to end World War II in Europe by Christmas.

His two most prominent commanders, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery and Gen. George S. Patton, each had a plan, but neither was realistic. Each wanted Eisenhower to divert the vast majority of Allied war materiel to his army for a mad dash toward Berlin.

After being rejected by Eisenhower, Montgomery improvised first. He suggested sending his 21st Army Group north from Belgium along a single road in Holland to grab a series of bridges, the last of which spanned the Rhine at Arnhem.

For the ever cautious and meticulous Montgomery, the plan was a bold deviation. With armored divisions and infantry at the Dutch border, the largest airborne operation in history would simultaneously assault three cities: from south to north, Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. These paratroopers and glider troops would seize key bridges and hold them open as armored divisions made a 64-mile, 48-hour, mad dash.

Once over the bridges at Arnhem, the Allies could drive right into the German heartland.

At least that was the plan.

Journalist and historian Cornelius Ryan published this book in 1974, just two months before he died. (In 1977, it was the basis for a blockbuster movie.) It was the third segment of his WWII trilogy, following The Longest Day in 1959 and The Last Battle in 1966.

In A Bridge Too Far, Ryan again employed his trademark reporting, mixing stories of the strategic and tactical moves made by generals with the individual experiences of soldiers of all ranks and civilians. And, as in both the other books, he tells the story magnificently.

The plan didn’t work. Nine days after the initial assaults, British airborne troops caught in a pocket outside Arnhem slipped away from their German pursuers, crossed to the south side of the Rhine and joined the main thrust of the ground attack, only a mile away. All hopes of crossing the Rhine in force were dead.

That the Allies came as close as they did is testimony to the courage and competence of the troops involved, because Montgomery and his subordinates did about everything they could to ensure defeat.

One must wonder what Eisenhower was thinking when he approved Montgomery as the plan’s leader. The field marshal had already proved himself incapable of moving quickly and boldly when he allowed his armies to get bottled up for weeks in Caen, France, after the Normandy landings. When German generals captured top-secret Allied plans for the operation, they suspected a ruse. They considered Montgomery far too cautious to try such an aggressive attack.

British caution and arrogance doomed the attack almost from the start. British intelligence refused to believe the Dutch resistance and their own aerial reports, both of which showed growing German strength in the area. Once underway, they proceeded slowly and methodically on the ground and exercised inept caution from the air.

One anecdote illustrates how the wrong people were in charge of this effort.

After American paratroopers executed a spectacular daylight river crossing to seize a highway bridge over the Waal River, and thus open the road to relieve the nearly surrounded British airborne in Arnhem, British armor stopped.

American forces were appalled. Only 11 miles away, their own men were being strangled by the Germans, but the Brits were too cautious to race to their relief. More ground forces were needed, they said.

U.S. Gen. Maxwell Taylor later told Ryan his thoughts at the time: Had Patton been in charge, Allied armor would have charged straight ahead no matter what the odds.

Ryan is kind enough to Montgomery not to mention that four months later, when the 101st Airborne was surrounded in Bastogne, Patton did just that. He charged his Third Army through the snow to break the encirclement and begin the turning of the tide in the Battle of the Bulge.

Clyde Chafer does a fine job of reading this audiobook, but as with all Ryan histories, it is the author who was the star.

▪   Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.




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The language of family

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

WE NEVER ASKED FOR WINGS. By Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Read by Emma Bering and Robbie Daymond. Random House Audio. 11 ½ hours; 10 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

Letty Espinoza had a lot more advantages than many children of Mexican immigrants. She had two supportive, loving parents. She was smart and had the opportunity to attend a top-notch public high school in San Francisco. But Letty was also a teenage girl with all that entails, and she made some mistakes – mistakes that sent her on a downward spiral.

For 14 years, Letty has worked multiple jobs, earning money to support her own family as well as relatives in Mexico. She’s lived with her family in the apartment where she grew up, on a nearly abandoned strip of wetland near the San Francisco airport, but she’s hardly been a mother to her son, Alex, or the little sister, Luna, who was born nine years later. Letty lets her mother take care of the children while she works multiple jobs to support the family and send money to relatives back in Mexico. She also drinks too much, a problem that exacerbates her lack of parental responsibility.

But Letty’s father has long wanted to return to the family home in Mexico, and when he goes there for a family emergency, he stays. Letty’s mother abruptly follows him, leaving Letty to become a mother at last. But Letty is woefully not ready for the challenge. Nor are her children ready to trust and rely on her.

We Never Asked for Wings has much in common with Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s 2011 debut novel, The Language of Flowers. Once again, Diffenbaugh creates characters whose experiences are unfamiliar to many of her readers. In Flowers, it was a child in foster care who became a street person. This time, it is Mexican immigrants, including two who are undocumented. Both books offer compelling stories that make readers care about the characters.

There are also important differences. Wings works in fascinating information about the feathers of migratory birds, which Letty’s father uses to create art and her son studies for scientific purposes, but the overall effect is more realistic, not as magical as Victoria’s work with the language of flowers in the earlier novel. Similarly, while the new book has its romantic storylines, the overall tone is heavier.

While Letty is trying to figure out how to be a mother, her son is falling in love with a fragile girl who has been in the United States illegally since she was an infant. Then Alex’s father comes into their lives for the first time since before the boy was born. Letty’s efforts to do right by her children lead her to a daring scheme to get them out of their dangerous schools and crumbling neighborhood. And the new bartender at work whom Letty at first resents takes on unexpected roles in her life.

Letty is trying to make up for having squandered some of her opportunities and to help her children succeed. Alex and his girlfriend, Yesenia, are the next generation, both painfully aware of the problems their mothers faced because of teenage mistakes, both determined to do better. The audio version of the book makes the most of this parallel structure, alternating a female and a male narrator with the shifting points of view, thus enhancing an already compelling story.

There are serious themes here, of motherhood, family, responsibility, the consequences of poor choices and the terrible plight of immigrant children who are illegal through no fault of their own. But there is also the possibility of redemption and second chances. Working her own magic through beautiful prose, Diffenbaugh gives us another moving and thought-provoking novel.


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Faster, higher, freer

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

CIRCLING THE SUN. By Paula McLain. Read by Katharine McEwan. Random House Audio. 12 ½ hours; nine CDs. $46. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

As she did so ably in The Paris Wife, the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Paula McLain once again tackles in fiction a real-life subject who has been written about by others. And once again, she creates a compelling novel that combines historical facts and characters with an imaginative journey into a character’s mind and heart.

This time, McLain gives us the story of Beryl Markham, famed aviator, horse trainer and all-around adventurer in early 20th century Kenya. Other books about Markham include West With the Night, her autobiography (although there is some dispute over whether she really wrote it herself).

A great deal is known and much more is rumored about Markham. She was the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. She was a highly successful trainer of thoroughbred racehorses in Kenya. She pioneered the tactic of scouting for elephants by airplane. She was married three times and had one son whom she gave up to his father and grandmother. She was friends with Karen Blixen, the Danish woman who wrote Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen, and had an affair of her own with Blixen’s lover, the big game hunter and pilot Denys Finch Hatton. She had other love affairs, including, many believe, a scandalous one with the British Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester. She spent time with the dissolute set of British expatriates in Kenya. And on and on…

McLain weaves in much of this material, which certainly makes for an interesting story. The colonists in Kenya in the years after World War I were unconventional and nonconformist by British standards. Someone reading or listening to this book almost needs a scorecard to keep track of who was having an affair with whom, and there was a great deal of divorcing, philandering and remarrying. But the colonists and expatriates also had their own sets of rules, and they could be tough on those who, like Markham, paid them little heed.

Writing from Markham’s point of view, McLain gives us insight into why she acted as she did, even though Markham herself often did not completely understand. McLain writes about the historic trans-Atlantic flight only briefly, at the book’s beginning and end. Instead, she focuses on what led to Beryl’s tangled relationships and eventual desire to become a pilot.

Beryl’s parents (the Clutterbucks; Markham was the name of her second husband and the father of her child) moved to Kenya when she was very young, but her mother quickly returned to England, taking Beryl’s older brother and leaving the girl. Beryl grew up half wild, raised as much by the natives who lived near the farm as by her father. From the native children, especially a boy her age, she learned to hunt and to act and think like a warrior. From her father, she learned how to train horses.

Eventually, Beryl’s father attempted to rein in his wild child, but it was too late. She drove governesses away and refused to stay when sent away to school.  Her father and the “housekeeper” who had come to live with them arranged a coming-out party for her, but Beryl resisted most attempts to turn her into a proper British young lady.

So she was ill equipped to deal with the abrupt change in her life when her father’s financial woes brought an end to life as she had known it on their beloved farm. Rather than move away with her father, she married a neighboring farmer when she was only 16. When that marriage proved disastrous, she left her husband and began her quest to become a professional horse trainer, something no woman in Kenya had done.

McLain follows Markham through the next 15 or so tempestuous years, through her financial, professional and romantic ups and downs – and more than a few scandals.

Over the years, some have held Beryl Markham up as a feminist crusader, as a woman who lived her life on her own terms. McLain shows us that she was courageous, daring and sometimes foolhardy, to be sure, but also vulnerable. Markham never really accepted society’s rules and conventions, but, as she came to realize, her efforts to live as she wished sometimes led to trouble, even disaster. She was a remarkable woman, but still a woman, who had to work harder than men whenever she tried to succeed in “their” world – and who sometimes had to depend upon men for financial and other types of support. She loved the wildness, and she loved her freedom, but more than once, she paid dearly for following her dreams and impulses.

Although Markham, as depicted by McLain, is exasperating at times, she’s largely a sympathetic character, with impressive spirit and determination. Katharine McEwan’s reading in the audio version is always captivating and often touching. In Paula McLain’s masterful portrayal, Beryl Markham is not always admirable, but she is certainly intriguing.

  •  Linda C. Brinson is available for writing and editing projects. You can reach her at lindacbrinson@gmail.com
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Behind the lines

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

MADELEINE’S WAR. By Peter Watson. Nan A. Talese Doubleday. 366 pages. $26.95.

World War II is grinding toward an end in Europe, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous to be a spy in occupied France. If anything, the Nazis, knowing an Allied invasion is imminent, have grown more desperate and ruthless.

So when SC2 must choose agents for a particularly dangerous mission, Matthew Hammond has conflicted feelings. He knows that Madeleine Dirac is a very good agent, smart and capable, and that he has made sure she is well trained. He knows that the mission will put her into great danger of being captured, tortured and executed. And he also knows that he loves her.

Matthew is a British Army officer who has been assigned to train men and women for the special unit Prime Minister Winston Churchill has set up to parachute agents into occupied Europe for sabotage, espionage and resistance. He served in France himself earlier in the war, but a serious injury has sidelined him.

Madeleine is a beautiful, feisty French Canadian who is determined to do her part for the Allied effort.  Even though such relationships are frowned on, Matthew and Madeleine fall in love during the intensive training and preparation.

After D Day, as Europe becomes even more chaotic, Matthew is sent to France on a top-secret mission, with the secondary task of tracking down missing agents, especially female ones.  Some are dead; some are slowly making their way to safety; some are missing.  Madeleine’s fate is unknown, and Matthew fears the worst.

Peter Watson is a respected historian and the author of many nonfiction works, as well as two previous novels under the pen name Mackenzie Ford. In Madeleine’s War, Watson gives us a well-written blend of real history and a fictional romance. The history – women spies, Resistance fighters, the deep divisions within France as the war wound down, the growing worries among the other Allies about Russia’s post-war role – is fascinating. The romance and the suspense about what has happened to Madeline make for a compelling story as well. Watson does a good job with dialogue, description and suspense.

Although Madeleine gets title billing, Watson does not try to tell the story from her point of view. Instead, we learn the story through Matthew’s eyes, seeing his emotions and fears. Because he learns what has happened to Madeleine slowly and after the fact, the story is more an unfolding mystery than a tale of action and high drama. This highly readable novel also offers thoughtful insights into the moral ambiguities of war.


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A delicious tale

Crime fiction, the lovely French countryside, a sense of history AND lavish meals – there’s a lot to like in the Bruno books, and Bob Moyer relishes the opportunity to review another book in the series.

THE CHILDREN RETURN. By Martin Walker. Knopf. 320 pages. $24.95

‘To Protect and To Serve.”

Police forces around the world have taken that phrase as their commitment. Not in the provincial French village of St. Denis, however. Bruno, Chief of Police (and the only policeman) in this Dordogne village, has a slightly different take — To Protect and Preserve is his credo. Enthralled with the culture and traditions of his adopted home, he keeps a mindful eye on the past, a watchful eye on his present charges and a judicious eye on the path forward as he guides them into the future.

Every book in this acclaimed series illustrates how the past is never past but is always present, and this latest installment is no exception. Out of the past comes a large bequest to the village from a Jewish philanthropist who claims he and his sister were sheltered as children in the village during the Holocaust. Bruno co-ordinates the arrangements for the conditions of the gift as well as security for the sister’s return.

Out of the present comes Sami, an autistic Arab boy dragooned out of a nearby mosque into making bombs in Afghanistan. His escape from his captors coincides with the gory death of an undercover agent tracking the jihadist group that enslaved the St. Denis resident. Great danger and dozens of agents from national and international agencies accompany Sami’s return to the village. Bruno has to deal with it all.

Engaging though they may be, these events simply set the table for the main dish here — food porn. Martin Walker pours his best writing into the many meals in the series (three in this book), lovingly prepared by Bruno and his friends. The author lards his narrative with succulent ingredients, then ladles on a heavy sauce of culinary adjectives. It’s all guaranteed to set your taste buds atingle.

Walker usually lavishes more spice in Bruno’s cooking than he does in the chief’s love life. This time, however, he plops a hot babe into the plot, an American diplomat who can hold both a press conference and a gun with aplomb. She’s a dish that seems to please Bruno’s palate. Don’t be surprised if a bunch of little Brunos soon roam the streets of St. Denis.

The paths of the two “children” collide in a violent if slightly contrived conclusion. Once again, Bruno survives the conflagration (this is, after all, a series) and comes off as the hero. Bruno’s fans can sit back, satiated, while anticipating the next serving of Bruno’s adventures, as well as the publication this fall of The Bruno Cookbook. Bon appetit.

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Extraordinary courage

Paul O’Connor has been reading and thinking about spies this summer, and he’s developed high standards.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

A TRUE STORY OF TERROR, ESPIONAGE, AND ONE AMERICAN FAMILY’S HEROIC RESISTANCE IN NAZI-OCCUPIED PARIS. By Alex Kershaw. Random House Audio. Read by Mark Deakins. Seven hours. $35. Also available in hardback from Crown/Archetype. 304 pages. $28.

When Germany declared war on the U.S. in December 1941, Dr. Sumner Jackson had every reason to believe that he’d be arrested. The Maine native and World War I American Army veteran ran the American Hospital in Paris and, therefore, was an enemy national so far as the German occupying forces were concerned.

Additionally, he lived at 11 Avenue de Foch, an address just a few doors down from residences requisitioned by the Gestapo and Vichy France collaborators. In short, Jackson was living and working right under the noses of what were supposed to be some of the world’s most efficient secret police.

Could there have been a better location from which to operate a spy network, including a drop site for agents and a safe house for downed Allied fliers being smuggled back to England, than this doctor’s home and office?

Alex Kershaw’s Avenue of Spies is the story of Jackson, his wife and teenage son as they helped the Allied cause. The author sets this story in the context of the wider Gestapo and SS operations in the city, catching Allied spies, rolling up the French resistance and deporting Jews to the death camps.

Given all that material, it is remarkable that this book is not more exciting and suspenseful, that at few times does it make us want to read just one more chapter before turning the lights out. It’s not that it’s dull; it’s just that it is rarely compelling. On only one occasion, for example, do we really get a good sense of the American flier being smuggled back to England. On only a few occasions do we sense the danger involved in any one information drop at Jackson’s office.

(A caveat here: I listened to this book immediately after reading the spectacular Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman. So, my expectations may have been too high.)

The story is most valuable in its detailed account of Nazi operations in Paris, and the efficiency with which SS leader Theodor Dannecker and SS officer Helmut Knochen rounded up French Jews and infiltrated the resistance. While a great deal has been written recently about Allied intelligence victories during the European occupation, this book provides the other side, that in which the Germans have their victories and frustrate Allied spy and resistance networks.

But the very efficiency and skill the Germans demonstrated in other pursuits only makes their ignorance of what was happening in the home of the Jacksons, just a few doors away, that much more incomprehensible. And, I should say, makes the courage demonstrated by the family ever more noteworthy.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.


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X is for ….

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

X. By Sue Grafton. Read by Judy Kaye. Random House Audio. 11 CDS, 13 ½ hours. $45. Also available in print from Putnam.

So much for speculation about what Sue Grafton would make “X” stand for in her long-running series of alphabet-named detective stories, dating back to A Is for Alibi. X stands on its own. And X does a fine job of it.

Kinsey Millhone, the tough but vulnerable, smart and endearing private eye, is between jobs when this, the 24th book in the series, opens. So when she gets a call from a woman who wants her to look into a personal matter for her, she’s willing to see what’s involved. As it turns out, the obviously wealthy woman hires Kinsey to find out where the son she gave up for adoption as an infant has gone now that he’s been released from prison. Her son, it seems, grew up to be a bank robber.

This job at first appears to be reasonably routine and easy – but then complications – including the theft of a valuable work of art – arise.

Meanwhile, Kinsey is busy with some nonpaying work. The widow of a recently murdered private investigator, a man who was a former associate if not exactly a friend, of Kinsey’s, has asked for help. The IRS wants to look into her late husband’s back taxes. When looking through a box of his papers, Kinsey finds an envelope under a false bottom. The contents of the envelope send her on a quest to find out more about the death of a young woman 28 years earlier – and about several other women who seem to have had less than pleasant dealings with that woman’s husband, Ned Lowe.

Closer to home, Kinsey is dealing with her landlord and friend Henry’s distress about the drought that’s hit their region of California – and their soaring water bills. It doesn’t help that the new next-door neighbors, an elderly couple, are increasingly annoying.

In her usual hardworking style, Kinsey juggles all these challenges. She’s determined to find out the truth about Ned Lowe, even if doing so puts her in harm’s way. She’s equally determined to right the wrongs she inadvertently contributed to when she took that little job for the wealthy woman. And if she must, she’ll deal with those pesky neighbors.

As usual, Kinsey wraps everything up and survives to investigate another day. In the process, she reflects with considerable insight on questions of law and justice, right and wrong.

Over the years, Sue Grafton has done a marvelous job of moving Kinsey along through life since she started the series in 1982. Some characters are constant; others come and go. Things change but slowly, so that Kinsey is still in the 1980s, operating in a world without cell phones, one where computers are still relatively rare and a detective who visits the local library will be looking for old city directories and telephone books, not Wi-Fi.

Happily, Judy Kaye, who has recorded the entire Alphabet Mystery series, is back for X. We must hope she’ll also read “Y” and “Z,” because after all these years and books, Kaye’s voice is unmistakably Kinsey’s.




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Mystery and history

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

TAIL GATE. By Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown. Bantam. 307 pages. $26.

Mystery fans probably already know whether they like Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series. The books, set in a small town on the edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and close to the university town of Charlottesville, fall into the broad category of cozies. The many animals – pets and wild creatures – present in this rural setting talk to one another, and we readers are privy to what they are saying, although the human characters in the stories are not.  Reading what animals think, especially about their humans, is often amusing. If you don’t, however, like the conceit of talking animals, you probably won’t care for these mysteries.

The stories have some predictability beyond the clever and articulate animals. The same people appear in book after book, although some undergo life changes as time passes. Our heroine, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, always gets into trouble by investigating whatever murder or murders are disrupting the bucolic bliss. Some animals, usually Harry’s two cats and/or her corgi, usually save her from whatever danger she’s stirred up.

But Rita Mae Brown manages to keep the stories fresh, not only by killing off people with ties to different sectors of the community, but also by working interesting information into her plots. This time, our initial victim (watch out for more) is a beloved elderly University of Virginia history professor, gunned down on the golf course, of all places.

Unable to figure out why anyone would murder the popular professor, Harry looks into his research. Along with her, we learn fascinating information about a Revolutionary War camp near Charlottesville for British and Hessian military prisoners. Through some chapters set during the Revolution, Brown helps us to learn more about the prison camp and its people, both the colonial soldiers stationed there and the prisoners. Of course, one of the British prisoners, an officer, had a corgi as a companion.

Brown ties everything – past and present, murders – together in a satisfying way. This is a good mystery with enough danger and action to keep things interesting.  It’s enhanced by a slice of history that may be unfamiliar to most readers.


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A spy tale, stranger than fiction

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE BILLION DOLLAR SPY: A TRUE STORY OF COLD WAR ESPIONAGE AND BETRAYAL. By David E. Hoffman. Penguin Random House Audio. Read by Dan Woren. 11 hours and 54 minutes. $20. Also in hardcover from Doubleday. 262 pages. $28.95

Adolf Tolkachev despised his government, and for 35 years the American military has been a beneficiary of that hatred. When American planes ruled the skies over the Balkans in the late 1990s, or Iraq in the early 1990s and after 2003, our pilots could thank Tolkachev for their technological advantages.

Beginning in 1980, Tolkachev leaked reams of documents to the Central Intelligence Agency that showed the progress of Soviet Union military technology, its capabilities, deficiencies and vulnerabilities. Those leaks allowed U.S. aircraft designers to build U.S. jets that controlled the skies in every conflict involving Soviet technology.

Tolkachev’s story is brilliantly told in Pulitzer Prize-winning author David E. Hoffman’s latest, The Billion Dollar Spy. And Dan Woren does a fine job of reading, providing an appropriate Russian inflection when necessary, his voice adding to the tension that Hoffman masterfully creates in his text.

This story borders on the not believable. For years, Tolkachev spirited top-secret documents out of his office, carried them home where he photographed them during lunch hour, and then returned them to the files where they belonged.

No one ever stopped him. No one ever questioned why he needed documents that had little or nothing to do with his own assignments. No one noticed how many documents he had signed out or that he confounded internal security measures, at times, with forged documents. No one spotted him meeting with U.S. agents in public parks.

In short, no one in the Soviet military or security apparatus had any idea that the country was losing what amounted to its most important military secrets.

If this had been presented as a work of fiction, I would have dismissed it, been unwilling to suspend belief. Everyone knows that 1980s Soviet internal security was omniscient and omnipresent.

And that’s the big surprise in this book. That system, run by the KGB, was not as good as our spy movies make it out to be. The CIA had found numerous cracks in the system, and it exploited them expertly.

Maybe the most fascinating aspect of the book is Hoffman’s reporting of the spycraft employed by American agents, the systems of dead drops, deep agents, communications and disguise that allowed the relationship with Tolkachev to go undetected.

At the same time, however, this is a story of the CIA’s incompetence, of its failures and numbskull mistakes, most notably that involving Tolkachev’s repeated attempts to provide information to the U.S. CIA and embassy officials who considered him either a crank or a KGB plant repeatedly dismissed him. Fortunately, someone finally took him seriously and looked at the material he was giving away.

That’s when the lights went on in Langley, and someone realized that Tolkachev was giving away secrets worth billions.

▪    Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.



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Look around you

Paul O’Connor’s summer reading is not for the faint of heart. Here he moves from military history and politics to drug cartels.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

ZERO, ZERO, ZERO. By Roberto Saviano; Translated by Virginia Jewiss. Penguin Audio. Read by Paul Michael. 16 hours, $45. Also available in hardcover from Penguin Press. 416 pages. $29.95.

Roberto Saviano wants you looking over your shoulders, and to your right and left, looking also straight ahead, everywhere for that matter. Look into the faces of everyone you know – family, friends, business associates, clients, doctors, lawyers, bankers.

For, while you might want to deny it, Saviano contends, by looking into all these faces you will be looking into the world of cocaine. People you wouldn’t otherwise suspect are involved with it.

Cocaine is ubiquitous, and it influences everything, Saviano says in his 2014 book Zero, Zero, Zero, only recently translated from his native Italian into English by Virginia Jewiss. Cocaine is available in every town and city of the First World and in most places in the Third World. African villages might lack running water but have a cocaine dealer and be involved in the transport of cocaine across borders.

Cocaine was instrumental in the collapse and recovery of the world’s largest banks in 2007, and it supports politicians, judges and police throughout the world. It is a commodity so lucrative that earnings from an investment in cocaine make early purchases of Apple, Amazon or Microsoft stock look disappointing.

Cocaine is a vast international industry, one with sophisticated means of production, transportation, distribution and financing. That snort your lawyer might be taking after court tonight, or that your children take after school, originated on a farm in Colombia and travelled a remarkable journey through untold channels to reach their noses.

Saviano has written an amazing book, possibly the capstone of a career of reporting on the organized crime that has him living under police guard. He traces the modern cartels back to the 1960s and 1970s, retelling the story of cocaine in the lives of notable individuals and through national and international statistics. It is a book of personal anecdotes and business trends.

It is also a book full of violence, of blood baths as cartels battle one another, civil forces and their own.

Saviano takes us across the globe, starting in Mexico, the current home of the world’s most powerful cartels, and carries us through Colombia, Italy, the rest of Europe, Russia and Africa. The U.S. is always part of the narrative.

There are times I wanted to put this book aside, the times when one story after another ran into each other, confusingly so. The stories of this or that cartel, and how they rose and eventually, fell; of all the people killed and convicted.

It can be a depressing book, especially when Saviano enters as a character, philosophizing on how he is addicted to cocaine, not the drug but the story, how his pursuit of that story has ruled his life.

I continued, however, and am glad I did. This is a masterpiece of reporting, and it did what I would hope it would do for me: Prepare me to read Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, a thriller on the Sinaloa cartel.

Paul Michael reads this audio book with all the gravitas it deserves.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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