Friday, June 17, 2005

Book Number 20


The Great Game : The Myth and Reality of Espionage (2004) - Frederick P. Hitz

Modern spy novels have hit a wall. The Cold War provided a tangible enemy who was skilled in the Great Game. Now, in a world where the US intelligence agencies are in disarray, the popular espionage novel seems to be fading out of existence.

The latest book of my 50 is Frederick P. Hitz's take on spy fiction. His thesis in this book is to look at the genre of espionage novels and compare and contrast them with real stories of spies with the goal of showing how reality is often more intriguing than fiction. To that end, he breaks up the chapters into different aspects of the Game: e.g. recruitment, tradecraft, assassination, etc.

It is a fairly cool concept for a non-fiction book but unfortunately the author falls flat in his execution. There are 15 chapters of topics as outlined above and throughout he essentially uses the only most famous real life spies (Pyotor Popov, Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen). They were all caught and he suggests that they were all fundamentally inept and lucky to have not been caught earlier. As for his examples from fiction, well, he has stuck to a small canon. Le Carre, of course, gets mentioned over and over. Ashenden, Kim, Greene and Clancy(?!) round out his fictional library. What about Westlake, Ludlum, Forsyth, Ambler, McLean, Deighton, Follett, Gilbert, Donald Hamilton, or even Daniel Silva if you want a modern author.

I think it is important to mention the provenance of the author as well. He is a major product of the US intelligence community; DC born, Harvard/Princeton educated, career in the CIA and now teaching a course on this very subject at Princeton. What this has done is made his book inheretly biased. For example, the Soviets were inept and evil while the Americans and British were upstanding and resourceful. Or, after a paragraph detailing Seymour Hersch's 1975 expose on the infringement of US citizens civil liberties by the CIA and FBI, he writes:
While overdrawn, these accusations, as investigated and publicized by the congressional committees, gave rise to a very different optic being applied thenceforth to U.S. intelligence.

I did, however, come avay from this book with some great new nuggets of knowledge even though they were underdrawn. That in the early 80's the US attempted to tunnel under the Soviet embassy in DC or some of the Soviet 'honey pot' techniques used to entrap with sexy agent. These are the sorts of things that kept me interested in the book (that and being stuck on a grounded plane for 4 hours with nothing else to read).

Take a pass on this one and go read some of the great authors mentiond above.

The Great Game

1 comment:

Olman Feelyus said...

Great review. Such a promising premise, too. Too bad the book didn't live up to its potential.