AGENTS OF TREACHERY edited by Otto Penzler

Book Quote:

“What troubled him most was that he was afraid to die. Paul believed, though he had no evidence of it, that other spies did not suffer from this. But evidence holds little sway over belief, and so it was for him….”

– from “You Know What’s Going On” by Olen Steinhauer.

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (JUN 5, 2010)

Needless to say, other spies in Agents of Treachery aren’t the concrete pillars Paul deceives himself they are. One who for decades feared being assassinated notes, “How awful suspense is! Worse than any actual catastrophe.” Another, in his most dire moments, thinks his body is no longer his and he wonders if this is already the “nature of purgatorial fire.” One twenty-four-year-old downed in a behind-the-lines mission curses himself “for throwing out the strychnine tablet he’d been issued” because he doesn’t want to face an enemy firing squad. These espionage agents of various countries and causes each deal with the mortal dangers of their work with varying degrees of trepidation, regret, miscalculation, and fatedness.

Death, or at least the threat of it, motivates some crucial aspect of each of the original stories contributed by various prominent mystery and thriller writers. But many other themes give this collection dimension: love, loyalty, intrigue, politics, betrayal, redemption, subterfuge, war, sacrifice, and futility. Otto Penzler edited this anthology which includes spy tales by Olen Steinhauer, Andrew Klavan, Joseph Finder, Lee Child, David Morrell and Dan Fesperman.

Lee Child‘s “Section 7(A) (Operational)” describes how “the team first came together late one Tuesday evening in my apartment.” Child adds, “I had none of them, and then I had all of them.” He proceeds to describe the men and women who would “be going into action” — including the traitor, who “like all traitors…would be motivated by either ideology, or money, or blackmail. ” This gathering of operatives is really a prelude of sorts. It isn’t a story so much as a clever compilation of characters, and  it shifts from one reality into another in the conclusion. It is a writer’s preparation, a writer’s gathering of a cast for possible future use, a writer’s staging…

And that brings me to a reader’s observation about anthologies like this and this one in particular. Sometimes, especially when contributing authors are well known, one can feel that they wrote their portions with a sense of obligation but not necessarily ringing inspiration. Put another way, some writers focus more on their next novel than they do on a short story for a paperback. Or, they use the short story as groundwork for longer fiction. Although I got a whiff of that from Child’s contribution, I hasten to add that I enjoyed reading “Section 7 (A) (Operational)” and admired the smooth twist at the end. A few of the other stories struck me as ideas that the authors didn’t want to use elsewhere but felt comfortable exploring for this collection. Some of the plots appear to be stews of stray ideas. For instance, one can make that case for “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road,” by John Lawton. This is a an entertaining story about a seemingly unexceptional army man named George Horsfield who manages to have his identity confused with a more notable Horsfield and gets himself involved with Russky blackmailers as a result. Yet despite its charms, Lawton’s story suggests itself to be a concatenation of various unused items from his ideas file cabinet.

Let’s move on to some of my favorite selections: “Sleeping with My Assassin,” by Andrew Klavan has a Russian-born narrator who has been a sleeper in the U.S. for most of his life. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, his fate has been uncertain. Add to that his desire for an America that reflects the little town in the Ukraine where he trained to be a sleeper. He wants an “old and innocent America” that actually never existed. Enter the woman who could be both the answer to his dreams…and his nemesis.

Then there are two “lighter” submissions about spy games in the suburbs: “Neighbors,” by Joseph Finder, and “Hedged In,” by Stella Rimington. Although many readers may catch on early to what Finder has up his sleeve, his is a fun romp. Rimington, in a riff about a self-judged failure of a man who’s had it with his presumptuous neighbors, smartly shields her true authorial aims and thus provides a snapping surprise.

Among the most uncompromisingly grim, but unfortunately believable, stories is “Father’s Day,” by John Weisman. He makes no bones about the utterly despicable depths to which he believes Islamic terrorists would sink, and “Charlie Becker, retired Army Ranger and current spy” irrevocably discovers these depths for himself on the day fatherhood is supposedly honored most especially.

Agents of Treachery contains fourteen pieces with differing opponents, types of spy challenges, and times and places. World War II Europe, the Cold War, the ongoing wars in the Middle East, and middle America all provide grist for the plot mills. Robert Wilson‘s “The Hamburg Redemption,” deal with recently ripped-from-the-headlines material — in this case, extraordinary rendition and torture under the Bush Administration. “Casey at the Bat,” by Stephen Hunter, propels us backward sixty years: here, an attempt to blow a Nazi bridge comes with the ultimate realization that destroying the objective and escaping clean after are two distinctly different things. The stories skip geographically, but the bookend selections, “The End of the String,” by Charles McCarry and “You Know What’s Going On,” by Olen Steinhauer, bring the reader full circle from and to intrigue and violence in Africa.

This anthology provides plenty of bang for the buck. Its variations of voice and subject matter, and its four hundred plus pages provide one with many hours of suspenseful and often insightful reading. Although these are not all espionage tales that seem likely to have come from real spy experiences, they each deliver their own unique impact. I would not have wanted to miss Agents of Treachery.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (June 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Otto Penzler
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories

Dangerous Women


June 5, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Short Stories, Thriller/Spy/Caper, y Award Winning Author

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