“The Talented Mr. Varg” by Alexander McCall Smith and “Three Hours in Paris” by Cara Black

The Talented Mr. VargIt’s possible that I just picked an inopportune time to read the second book in the Detective Varg series; I enjoyed the first one, but hoo boy, reading The Talented Mr. Varg was about as much fun as the time I got lost in a nondescript Stockholm suburb trying to find IKEA (true story).

A send-up of brutal Swedish noir, the Varg novels chronicle the Department of Sensitive Crimes, a division of the Malmö police which deals with the sort of minor mysteries Mma Ramotswe investigates at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. That’s obviously not a problem for me, as I’ve read all 20 of those books, but The Talented Mr. Varg spends too little time solving puzzles in favor of meandering digressions about Swedish-Russian relations, bridge construction, dog behavior, prostate problems, tattoos, electric razors…

“Those razors. I have one. It’s waterproof, you know. Well, you can’t put the whole thing in the water—you wouldn’t put the body bit—but you can certainly put the heads under the tap. They have a tap symbol on them, you see, and that’s how you tell whether your electric razor is waterproof or not.” This is said by a colleague of Varg’s known for “his strange world of rambling association,” but all too often, the whole book feels like a series of rambling associations.

Three Hours in ParisThe polar opposite of Varg is Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris, which provides pulse-pounding excitement from first page to last. Here I must insert a disclaimer stating that Cara is a friend of mine, someone I would regularly meet up with for espresso in the Before Times, but I’m confident I would have enjoyed this book even if I hadn’t known her to be a supremely kind, generous and thoughtful person.

In the book’s first 25 pages, American sniper Kate Rees loses her naval officer husband and baby daughter in a Luftwaffe attack (she met her husband, a Welshman, while she was studying in Paris, and moved with him to the Orkney Islands). Vowing revenge on the Germans, Kate’s incredible skill as a markswoman, thanks to a youth spent learning to hunt on a ranch in rural Oregon, cause her to be recruited by British intelligence. She is sent to Paris to assassinate Hitler. She fails, obviously—this book doesn’t take place in an alternate timeline where Hitler is bumped off in 1940—but there are still 325 pages to go, and there are thrills, spills and close calls aplenty. Fans of spy novels, World War II history, Paris, or strong and resourceful female heroines will all find something to like in this book.

“The Night Agent” by Matthew Quirk

The Night AgentPeter Sutherland is an FBI agent working in the White House, where he is tasked with doing an extremely dull job: waiting for the phone to ring. Peter is assigned to the night action desk in the Situation Room, where an emergency line “sat on his desk in silence as it had nearly all of his last 284 nights on the watch. In those endless hours between dusk and dawn, he would stare at it, willing it to ring.”

When the phone finally does ring, Peter may wish it had stayed silent, since a young woman’s desperate plea—“He’s here. He’s inside. He’s going to kill me.”—leads him on a chase through Washington, D.C. that nearly costs him his life, and exposes him to some of the country’s most dangerous and deadly secrets.

One of the reasons Peter found himself stuck on desk duty is because his father, who also worked for the FBI, was accused of leaking the names of Russian embassy staff who were secretly working for the U.S. The Russians were brought back to Moscow and executed; tainted by scandal, Peter’s father got drunk and drove his car into a highway divider. Was he really guilty of betraying his country? “The truth died with him,” but Peter “inherited the suspicions, the presumed guilt, along with his father’s name, as if it ran in the blood.” Because of his father’s legacy, Peter has always been a man who plays by the rules, never steps out of line, and unconditionally trusts his superiors. But when he begins to suspect that there’s a Russian mole in the White House, he learns that the only person he can rely on is himself:

“He’d been so careful for so many years, doing everything right, following every rule. He knew part of the reason why: he was afraid of what would happen if he strayed, afraid of finding out that he was his father’s son, an all-American face wrapped around something ruthless, dark, and lethal. And now he took that inheritance as a gift. He needed to survive.”

The idea of the Russians (led, of course, by a Putin-like figure) having kompromat on people at high levels of the U.S. government is certainly a timely one. When I picked up The Night Agent, it looked like a pretty hefty novel, coming in at about 420 pages, but once I started reading, the book grabbed me immediately, and I finished it in a couple of sittings. With its short, punchy, action-packed chapters, The Night Agent is a slick and satisfying thriller.

“The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn and “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

The Alice NetworkWhen last week’s book proved to be a little too much of-the-moment, I decided to retreat into the past and read a pair of historical novels. Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network offers kind of an “if you think things are bad now…” perspective, since it features two alternating storylines, one set during World War I and the other in the aftermath of World War II.

Charlie St. Clair is a young American from a wealthy family, pregnant and unmarried. Her mother is taking her to a clinic to Switzerland so Charlie can have a discreet abortion. Charlie has other plans, though; when their ocean liner stops in Southampton, she escapes her mother’s watchful eye in order to search for her beloved French cousin Rose, who disappeared during the war. All she has is a name and an address: Evelyn Gardiner, 10 Hampson Street, Pimlico, London. Eve worked in a bureau helping to locate refugees after the war, and Charlie has reason to believe she may know something about what happened to Rose.

The book’s second chapter goes back in time 32 years to May 1915. Eve is twenty-two but looks much younger; a stammer gives the mistaken impression that she’s simple. Her ability to speak fluent French and German gets her recruited to join the Alice Network, a ring of female spies. Her cover story: she’s a French country girl who neither speaks nor understands German. She gets a job as a waitress in German-occupied Lille, working at a posh restaurant owned by the profiteer René Bordelon, who is more than happy to serve the Kommandant and his officers. Her mission is to eavesdrop on the Germans, who have no idea she is absorbing every word they say in order to report it to the brave and resourceful Lili, leader of the network.

From there, we switch between the two stories as Charlie convinces Eve, still deeply scarred by her experiences during World War I, to join her hunt for Rose; and Eve’s adventures behind enemy lines. Both stories are exciting, though not surprisingly, there is a lot of loss, trauma and some descriptions of wartime atrocities that can be painful and difficult to read.

Still, The Alice Network is primarily a story of female bravery and the power of women’s friendship, and isn’t that something we should be celebrating right now? I heartily recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and spy sagas.

TranscriptionMuch of Transcription by Kate Atkinson is set during World War II, but protagonist Juliet Armstrong, a girl of just 18, is not involved in anything as exciting or dangerous as the Alice Network—she is hired by MI5 in 1940 to transcribe recordings of fascist sympathizers’ clandestine meetings. The “fifth column” has been infiltrated by British intelligence, and the London flat in which they meet has microphones hidden in the walls. The conversations, recorded to disc, are dull and often difficult to understand (“‘Oh, do speak clearly,’ Juliet thought crossly.”)

Eventually, Juliet does get to go undercover herself, and things get a bit more intense. It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed reading about Juliet’s relationships with her fellow MI5 agents, even though there are so many characters and code names to keep track of that I constantly found myself flipping back and forth in the book. Atkinson must expect her readers to have superhuman memories; for instance, one character begins a sentence on page 10 (“My father was—”), and that thread isn’t picked up again until page 185 (“What was your father, Lester?”).

That wasn’t an insurmountable problem for me, though, but I must admit that I was incredibly disappointed by the ending, which came out of left field and came close to throw-the-book-across-the-room territory. Unfortunately, for that reason alone, I find it hard to wholeheartedly recommend Transcription, despite the interesting characters and compelling subject matter.