This week, a forgotten masterpiece, a real-life James Bond, and an early Geoff Dyer novel.
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird (Crown) - More exciting than le Carré’s George Smiley or Fleming’s James Bond, Bird (Crossing Mandelbaum Gate) recreates the life of C.I.A. superspy Robert Ames, an operative with a skill for appreciating the turns and twists of Mideast politics. Ames, a detail-oriented, Philadelphia-bred scholar, was offered a job by the Agency as a junior officer in 1960, rising quickly through the ranks. Later, one colleague said Ames “would have stood tall in his All American shoes [cowboy boots] as a Louis L’Amour hero.” Whatever the assignment—Beirut, Aden, Asmara, Kuwait—Ames cultivated key Arab sources, befriending such unlikely personalities as Mustafa Zein, a strategic advisor to the ruling sheik of Abu Dhabi, and Ali Hassan Salameh, a favorite of Yasir Arafat, through such flashpoints as the Jordanian civil war, the Munich massacre, and the Iran hostage crisis.
Fear by Gabriel Chevallier, trans. from the French by Malcolm Imrie (NYRB) - Chevallier’s (best known for Clochemerle) book, published for the first time in the U.S. with an award-winning translation by Malcolm Imrie on the centennial of World War I, represents that rarest of war narratives—one that is indispensable, nearly unprecedented, and painfully relevant. Based on Chevalier’s experiences on WWI’s front lines, the novel was met with controversy upon its original publication in France in 1930. The plot unfurls in linear war-story fashion: our “malcontent hero,” Dartemont, is unceremoniously dispatched to the trenches, “where rotting corpses serve as bait.” What makes Chevallier’s book a masterpiece is the lucidity of the author’s eyewitness account; its prose moves from practical concerns like picking lice to poetic reverie in the space of a paragraph, capturing the chaos of war and the stillness of the battlefield, revealing a terrible beauty.
The Search by Geoff Dyer (Graywolf) - Dyer’s second novel, first published abroad in 1993 but unavailable in the U.S. until now, is a take on the detective/noir genre in the vein of Auster, Calvino, and Borges. When Walker, a brooding, heavy-drinking loner and experienced “tracker” with something of a criminal reputation, meets the seductive Rachel, he agrees—against his better judgment—to heed to her request to look for her “secretive” missing ex-husband Malory. With few clues to go on (Malory avoids being photographed), Walker sets off on a journey through absurd fictional cities that make his quest harder and logically muddy—in one city he loses his motivation to leave; in another, people seem to be in constant danger—but also add a layer of intrigue. Those familiar with Dyer’s later works may be at first surprised that he is capable of writing in this plotted and cerebral mode, though his considerable talents, including the ability to write in other veins, are on display here.
China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa by Howard W. French (Knopf) - Since Jiang Zemin’s state visit to Africa in 1996 and his subsequent call to Chinese businesses to “go out” in search of opportunities abroad, China’s trade with Africa has grown dramatically, today surpassing its trade with either Europe or the U.S. But China’s investments, including massive building projects, are less significant for this rapidly evolving relationship, according to this 15-country survey by veteran African correspondent French, than the significant flow of new Chinese immigrants—often pushed out by the pressure and oppression back home as much as lured by opportunity. In vivid first-person reportage, French explores this momentous phenomenon, while challenging assumptions about China and Chinese immigrants.
Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn (HMH) - Gwyn’s story is a gripping tale of men at war in the desolate snow-capped mountains of eastern Afghanistan, and captures the essence of close combat—the terror, excitement, chaos, tension, and cruelty, as well as the harsh decisions men make under stress. Corporal Elijah Russell, an Army Ranger, is assigned to a Special Forces team in Afghanistan to train Green Berets to ride horses for a clandestine mission. The team commander is Captain Wynne, a charismatic, fearless, and ruthless officer whose men worship him. Russell and his battle buddy, Wheels, are part of Wynne’s 13-man SF team, but Russell smells a rat, as the captain’s reputation, mission description, and secrecy spook him.
The Hidden Child by Camilla Läckberg, trans. from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy (Pegasus Crime) - Läckberg’s excellent fifth novel set in the Swedish coastal village of Fjällbacka (after 2013’s The Stranger) finds Det. Patrik Hedström on paternity leave, looking after his toddler daughter, Maja, though that doesn’t stop him from taking her to a crime scene, much to the chagrin of Patrik’s wife, Erica Falck. Someone struck elderly Erik Frankel, an expert on Nazis, a fatal blow to the head in the house he shared with his brother, Axel, who tracks Nazi war criminals. Is the historian’s murder related to the uptick in neo-Nazi activity?
V Is for Villain by Peter Moore (Hyperion) - In this provocative adventure, Moore explores the dichotomies of good versus evil and nature versus nurture through the story of a teenage scion of a heroic family who’s forced into a life of rebellion. Because he’s “unpowered,” Brad Baron can never live up to the standards set by his legendary father and brother, but he strives on—until rampant prejudice and casual neglect lead him to make friends with a band of malcontents bent on changing the system through supervillainy. Discovering his latent, illegal power of telepathy, Brad adopts their mission as his own and discovers dark secrets underlying everything he’s ever believed.
My Real Children by Jo Walton (Tor) - Jo Walton’s latest is a bit like a novel written from the point of view of Schrödinger’s cat, except that instead of a cat we have a smart, sympathetic Englishwoman named Patricia, and she’s not alive and dead, she’s alive twice—she lives two parallel lives, in two distinct worlds, both of which are apparently equally real. While the premise is science fictional, its tone is that of literary realism. Patricia is born in 1926, but when we first meet her she’s almost 90 and in a nursing home, where her confused memories of two different pasts are taken as a symptom of senile dementia. Patricia isn’t so sure.