East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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Triple treat: At the Table of Wolves

If you are reading my blog you know there are a number of things that interest me: pulp fiction old and new, adventure, science fiction and fantasy, history, occasionally comics, caper movies, espionage…
“The kid has too many interests,” as the teachers used to write in their final evaluation … indeed, I was in the third year of university when a teacher levelled at me the old “too many interests” mark of infamy.

But it has worked out fine so far, and sometimes a number of interests of mine collide, and it’s a lot of fun. Case in point, Kay Kenyon’s 2017 novel At the table of wolves, that I have kept on my nightstand for a few months now, and finally started reading seriously at the start of the week, going through it at a fair clip.

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The Rhythm Section: I’m reading the book, I saw the movie

In the long, too-long list of my interests, I usually put, somewhere halfway through, espionage and spycraft. I grew up in a time when the movie franchise was James Bond, not Star Wars, and the idea that one day the epitome of awesome would be movies based on comic books was laughable. And while I never became a compulsive spy story reader, I have enjoyed the genre a lot, in a very scattershot manner – I read Bond and Modesty Blaise, sure, I tried and ditched SAS, I went through the whole Len Deighton catalog between the end of high school and the start of university, I read my Graham Greene and my Le Carré. I read Trevanian, I know Three Days of the Condor by heart.

A few weeks back I caught the online lynching of Le Carré – dismissed as a lame author without a personal voice, slow, boring and overrated.
I always feel irritated by this sort of thing. Like his work or not, you can’t deny the man’s place and influence in the field. People are getting “I don’t like it” mixed with “It’s rubbish,” in the mistaken belief their personal tastes are the ultimate, objective and definitive Truth. Throw this attitude on the social media, and you’ll get a crowd with torches and pitchforks in no time.

The main bone of contention in that discussion was The Little Drummer Girl – and I had seen the movie of that, the one with Diane Keaton, and liked it. As a reaction – and in consideration that I cannot call myself a Le Carré fan – I went and re-read The Little Drummer Girl, and watched the BBC’s masterful adaptation. And then, as I was on a spy story roll, I got myself a copy of Mark Burnell’s The Rhythm Section. A classical case of fuzzy serendipity, as Burnell’s story, while not Le Carré, does have a hint of the Drummer Girl…
Then, talking with my friend Lucy, I found out the movie based on the book was available online, and I checked it out.
What’s better, for Easter, than a nice serving of moral ambiguity and state-sponsored violence?

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The Mask of Dimitrios

I was rather surprised, a few hours ago, finding out that Eric Ambler is almost forgotten in my country.
What a strange fate for one of the fathers of espionage fiction, author of novels from which popular movies were made, and he himself an Academy-nominated screenwriter.


Finding out about this strange state of affairs made me go back to the The Mask of Dimitrios, a novel I read in my first year in university, in a well-thumbed used copy I bought somewhere.
I was familiar with the 1944 movie adaptation featuring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, but the novel was quite a discovery. Continue reading

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Comedy & Espionage: Q Planes (1939)

In the BBC radio program about The Avengers that I linked the other day, Brian Clemens1 mentioned the 1939 movie Q Planes as a film in which the prototype of John Steed first appeared.
So I went and watched the movie.
Because, John Steed.

That, in this specific case, is called Major Hammond, and is played as a suave upper class twit by Ralph Richardson.
Only he’s no twit at all, of course, being a tough and smart operative in the British intelligence.

The plot in a nutshell: German2 agents are using a sort of “death ray” to capture experimental aircraft and appropriate the top-secret technology. An ace pilot is caught up in the plot, and joins forces with a spy and a plucky journalist.

Here’s the first eight minutes – and a perfect introduction to the Richardson character…


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A little hype: Shanmei’s “The Waiting Game”

I just delivered the translation of my friend Shanmei’s short story The Waiting Game, and I guess the ebook will be available as soon as the cover is ready.

Meanwhile, why not start with a little publicity?
Here is the blurb…

Peking, 1902

In the cosmopolitan China of the early 20th century, following the violence and horror of the Boxer Rebellion, lieutenant Luigi Bianchi, serving in Huang Tsun, is involved in the investigation of the death of a wealthy French merchant, poisoned while dining at the Golden Phoenix restaurant.
A Chinese waiter has been arrested for the murder, but is he really the killer?
And why the Japanese embassy seems to hide some details?

A short colonial mystery, with a dash of spy story, the first in a series set between 1900 and 1905, featuring an Italian soldier with a knack for investigations.

Would you buy it?
(I would, but being the translator, I get my copy for free)

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Peter Fleming

“São Paulo is like Reading, only much farther away.”

imageI admit a long-standing fascination for espionage at its most basic – not james Bond ultratech but Deighton spycraft, in other words.
Espionage as people, not gadgets.
From the Elizabethan Secrert Service to the black ops of recent years, I’ve collected books, handbooks, stuff.

And in terms of espionage, one has to wonder at the personnel of the WW2 British secret outfits.
David Niven and Christopher Lee working with commandos and Information Services…
Occult bestseller author Dennis Wheatley churning out plans and fake papers to be leaked to the Germans (including a complete plan for the invasion of Europe, written on a single weekend, fueled only by champagne and turkish cigarettes)…
Rosita Forbes travelling the world and taking notes, Elizabeth David (the food writer) wandering through the Mediterranean and Southern France…
John Blofeld, sure, and of course the Fleming Brothers, Ian and Peter.

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