The List – Mick Herron

This is another standalone (short) spy novel by Mick Herron, set in the same backdrop as the terrific Jackson Lamb series, but telling a separate story, though with some passing references to the characters in that series.

John Bachelor works for MI5 and is the handler of Dieter Hess, an old foreign spy. When Hess dies, Bachelor finds out that the old spy had set up a secret bank account. In the world of espionage, that’s a big red warning sign, suggesting the spy was a double agent. So, Bachelor – who is in serious trouble for failing to spot the secret bank account when Hess was alive – has to dig around and find out what the truth is. Of course, this being a spy story, all is not what it seems, and the investigation has to make its way through some murky passages.

This is a short, simply told and effective cracker of a tale, well worthy of your reading time. Herron lights the fuse and it slowly burns away, drawing the reader in.

The characters are beautifully described, and the plot exquisitely told. The world of espionage seems all too real.

In short, if you are a fan of spy fiction, this is a must. If you are not a fan of spy fiction, this may change your mind.

Operation Focus

Operation Focus (Mivtsa Moked מבצע מוקד) was the name given to the Israeli Air Force (IAF) plan of attack for the opening of what became the Six Day War. It began as a surprise attack of a first wave of bombing runs against the Egyptian air force bases and planes. It was a stunning success. By the end of the first day, the IAF had destroyed over 450 enemy aircraft, and had total air superiority on all fronts. From then on, they were able to concentrate on supporting the equally impressive campaign on the ground.

This topic is covered by the first scenario in Elusive Victory. The original scenario is a two player game, but post publication a solitaire version was produced and, after getting to grips with the rules, that is what I used to test out the game.

You have six flights to bomb the target airport runway, planes, and its defenses.

The Egyptians are caught unawares, so their forces cannot do anything until the first bomb attack. In the scenario, that attack is probably the most important one in the game. If you put the airfield out of action, the two flights of ready MiGs will never be able to take off, and so you can concentrate on the ground assets – a nasty collection of light and medium anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), backed up by one Fire Can, a deadlier, directed AAA.

The first flight is about to hit the target…

I played the scenario a few times. Once my dice were so hot, there was nothing left of the runway, and plenty of burning Egyptian aircraft and AAA batteries. On one other playing, the initial bombing run wasn’t too good, but the lead flight managed to shoot down all the MiGs that took off, though not without cost. You play this game and you have a renewed and strengthened sense of how brave these IAF pilots had to have been. All the technology in the world is not much help when the air around you is filled with hot flying lead from AAA batteries.

After playing the solitaire scenario, I came to the conclusion that this was one game that I wasn’t going to enjoy playing solitaire. (Apart from anything else, there are no more solitaire scenarios.) There’s just too much of the game atmosphere and enjoyment caught up in arranging hidden defenses, dummy flights, and so on. On the plus side, I had a look at Downtown, a game on the air campaign over Hanoi in the Vietnam War. It uses the same core system, and the changes are so modest I now feel confident of being able to play that game too, if I ever find a live opponent.

The system itself is an impressive feat because it packs a lot of detail in without being overly complex. Once you have run through the game turn sequence a few times, you can play just using the player aid cards. However, there is a lot of paperwork compared to most games. (You need to set up details of each flight, its payload, and so on as well as plot the flight path for the attacking aircraft, and more. You also keep track of damage and losses using written records, in the main.) That doesn’t bother me greatly, but I can see why it may be one reason these games – fine combinations of playability and historicity – do not seem to be as popular as others.

So, off the table it comes for now.

Yom Haatzmaut

Susan bought us a present for Independence Day (which starts tonight).

The Simpson Family Flagpole!

This is another of those strange occasions in Israel, when the mood moves – without pausing – from somber reflection (Yom HaZikaron) to joyous celebration (Yom Haatzmaut). Although I am still uncomfortable with the switch, I recognize the advantages of the sequence. And, by the time tomorrow we join most of the country, gathered round the traditional mangal (barbecue) the discomfort will have passed. Life goes on. Otherwise, the sacrifices made were in vain. And for sure, they weren’t.

This Yom Haatzmaut, we’ll have our Israeli flag flying high.

Sam Berger Series – Arne Dahl

Watching You is the first book in the series.

Some crime is slow burn. Some crime is relentless. This falls into the latter category, taking hold of the reader from almost the first page, and putting on a fireworks display of a novel that fizzes and bangs as the tale unfolds.

Sam Berger thinks that there is a serial kidnapper/murderer at large. His bosses think otherwise. But as he looks for a young girl, the most recent kidnapping victim, he not only has to keep his theories to himself – because the hierarchy have told him there is insufficient evidence for his wild conspiracy idea – he has to work out why the kidnapper has left a clue behind at the scene – one that is very personal to Sam.

Sam’s main police sidekick is his assistant Deer, and she sometimes keeps him onside when he might otherwise go too far in his bid to find the girl. But, generally, Sam follows the natural trend of defective detectives and has abysmal relationships (work wise) with his colleagues and fellow officers of the law. This will come back to haunt him.

In the course of the investigation, Berger finds a common thread that links all the disappearances. When Berger tracks down and confronts this potential voyeur, witness, or killer, the reader’s perspective is drastically altered. To say more would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, it’s a big twist among many.

The characters are well drawn, believable, and interesting. The Scandinavian backdrop will have you turning up your heating. The plot will have you scratching your head.

While at times I wondered if the writer was trying to be too clever, I came to the conclusion that was an unfair criticism. The author has put in a ton of work to furnish a complex but polished tale, full of great characters, interesting twists, and pacy adventure. The ending is a stunner.

Which leads on to…

Hunted is the second book in the series.

Mentioning the plot here would give too many spoilers, so I will restrict myself to saying that it continues the Sam Berger story. Whereas the first book was smart, sassy, and sharp, this one tries to be the same but doesn’t quite reach the same (high) standard. There are some more of the great twists and turns before the reader gets to the final showdown.

The characterization is still good, with plenty for the reader to mull over. And there’s plenty of action.

Overall, well worth reading. But the first book is better, and if that doesn’t engage you, don’t bother with the second.

At the going down of the sun

In a few minutes, the sirens will pierce the evening skies across Israel as Yom HaZikaron begins, the day on which we remember those who have given their lives for Israel, whether as soldiers in combat, or as victims of terrorism.

The hope of us all is that from this day until next year’s Yom HaZikaron, there will be no names added to the list of the deceased; no more bloodshed, and no more dying. That’s our prayer. That’s our wish for the future.

Meantime, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

Nobody Walks – Mick Herron

This is a sort of spook novel, with some of the characters of the author’s wonderful Jackson Lamb series, but it is intended to stand on its own with no prior reading experience required to enjoy it.

Bettany used to be a spook. He’s dropped out, doing a crappy job in France, when he is told of his son’s death in London. Bettany goes back to investigate and thus flows the action.

Inevitably with this author, there are twists and turns. Things are often not what they seem. Bettany comes into contact with drug dealers and the security services, the relationship between them being somewhat murky. Bettany is not without resources from his past, and he endeavors to leverage them as much as possible in the quest to get to the truth.

The atmosphere around Bettany is dark and oppressive. You get the impression he would shy away from a day sunbathing at the beach, preferring to lurk in a dark alley. But his spirit – certainly in his quest for his son – burns bright and keeps him going where lesser mortals would have backed down.

This is a grim tale of separation, love, betrayal, and secrets. The background is all too believable, and Bettany an intriguing character. The plot is a bit wobbly, but manages to be just about credible. As always, I knew that the disappointment felt on reaching the end meant I had enjoyed it a great deal. Recommended.

Our Little Secret – Roz Nay

This is a short novel about Angela, under interrogation as a suspect in the disappearance of her ex’s wife. Detective Novak would like a straight answer, but Angela is more interested in telling the story of her life, and how – from her viewpoint – she ended up in police custody, accused of murder.

Definitely falling into the psychological thriller category, the story is told with an ever increasing tension as we wonder whether Angela is a vicious killer or an innocent caught in a bungled investigation. Through it all, Angela and Novak play a bit of cat and mouse, the conversation often taking on a surreal quality as answers are spun into stores within stories that may or may not bring clarity to the situation.

In this type of book, the twist at the end has got to be worthy of the effort. While there is a lot of tension, there’s not much action, and you may feel like screaming ‘Hurry up and get on with it!’ When I got to the end I was underwhelmed. The writing had kept me (mostly) engaged, but the ending was weaker than I would have liked. So, for me, this one is to be filed under interesting failure.

Currently playing – Elusive Victory

About ten years after it came out, I finally have Terry Simo’s game Elusive Victory on the table. It’s a GMT game focusing on air warfare over the Suez Canal, with scenarios on the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War.

Let’s see how this goes…

(PS: For the avoidance of doubt, the fact this game is on the table now and things have gone hot in Gaza at the same time is a coincidence. I started reading the rules over a week ago. Honest!)
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The Blood Road – Stuart MacBride

Number eleven of the novels in the series featuring the one and only Logan McRae, this is a good addition which continues the high standards set before.

This time around, McRae is hit by a strange blast from the past. Detective Inspector Bell died two years ago. So why has his body turned up now in a car accident? Why did he fake his death? Where has he been, and what has he been up to?

McRae digs into the mystery, and in true defective detective fashion, doesn’t always get things right, but always kicks up a fuss and a trail of chaotic events.

The plot is solid, the writing fast, furious, and stiffened with some exceedingly sharply observed humor – despite the serious and troubling themes the book deals with.

Let’s cut to the chase: it’s a must read, though you should really do yourself a favor and go back to the first so you can enjoy them all.