The Double Agent
The problem with being a double agent is that if you put a foot wrong, there is always someone ready—even eager—to kill you. In the case of Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnoff, the situationally heroic hero of William Christie’s The Double Agent, there are not two but three agencies poised to be either his savior or his executioner, depending on their mood and the day of the week: the Brits, the Germans and the Russians. It’s 1943, and the slippery spy has been captured in Iran by the British, who promptly recruit him to infiltrate the German forces in Italy. His exploits amid the Vatican and members of the Italian aristocracy are particularly dicey and well rendered, and as Alexsi makes his way across the European theater of the war, he becomes entangled in and surreptitiously shapes real-life events, such as the assassination attempt on Winston Churchill. Alexsi is an engaging character despite being self-serving to the max; in his defense, if he wasn’t so consistently out for number one, he would have been summarily executed ages ago. Although it is not strictly necessary to read Christie’s first novel starring Alexsi (2017’s A Single Spy), after reading The Double Agent, you will surely want to. I would suggest tackling them in chronological order for optimal reading enjoyment.
How to Survive Everything
The first line of Ewan Morrison’s How to Survive Everything grabs readers by the throat: “I’m still alive, and if you’re reading this then that means you’re still alive, too. That’s something.” The Scottish writer’s thriller is set in the not-too-distant future, where rumors abound of a new disease that far outstrips COVID-19. Narrator Haley Cooper Crowe is an outspoken and plucky 16-year-old girl. (“Hold on . . . If you’re reading this, it’s also possible I’m dead. . . . If you found me lying there dead, I hope I wasn’t too gross.”) Haley’s family is a microcosm of modern-day political discord vis-a-vis pandemics. Her father, Ed, is a survivalist, a gun-toting libertarian determined to protect his family; her mother is a pandemic denier who accuses Ed of being an alarmist who’s ready to jump on any bandwagon that promises impending apocalypse. Long story short, Ed, convinced another pandemic is about to begin, kidnaps Haley and her younger brother, Ben—and then the troubles really begin. Morrison seamlessly channels the voice and attitude of a teenage girl: Haley is by turns insightful, hilarious, cynical and, like many teens, wise beyond the perceptions of those who surround her. How to Survive Everything is a spot-on fable for the pandemic era. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to regard it as a textbook.
★ A World of Curiosities
Reviewing Louise Penny gets more difficult with each new installment of her Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries, because each of her books improves upon the body of work that precedes it. One can advance that opinion a limited number of ways before it becomes severely repetitive. Nonetheless, the latest case of Armand Gamache, A World of Curiosities, is another superb achievement. The title refers to “The Paston Treasure,” a real-life painting by an anonymous Flemish artist that shows off the eclectic collecting habits of the Paston family in 17th-century England. The painting is housed in Norfolk, England, so it is something of a surprise when a full-scale replica of it turns up in a walled-in room in Gamache’s quiet Three Pines village in Quebec. And it’s even more of a surprise when the replica appears slightly different from the original, featuring collectibles that had not even been conceived of at the time the artwork was created. And then the murders begin, with the key question being what connection they could possibly have to the recently discovered painting. The reappearance in town of a young man and woman whose mother was brutally murdered a decade before complicates matters further. Penny weaves together all these narratives—the series of modern-day killings, the decade-old bludgeoning murder and the haunting artwork that has remained shrouded in mystery across the centuries—with a master’s deft hand.
★ Secrets Typed in Blood
Some of the giddiest delights experienced by mid-20th-century suspense aficionados were summoned forth by author Rex Stout in his mysteries starring grumpy armchair detective Nero Wolfe and his smart-alecky assistant/biographer, Archie Goodwin. Stout died in 1975, and with the exception of tributes in print and on screen, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin passed away with their creator—until 2020, when Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors the Dead introduced readers to brilliant sleuth Lillian Pentecost and her stalwart assistant, Willowjean “Will” Parker. While not an intentional homage to the Nero Wolfe mysteries, the Pentecost & Parker series will thrill fans of Stout’s iconic characters. They share a 1940s New York City setting, and the dynamic between the central characters is very similar; the biggest change is simply that Spotswood’s duo is composed of two women, with one of them, Will, being gay. In the latest installment, Secrets Typed in Blood, the canny pair takes the case of Holly Quick, a pulp magazine writer who thinks that someone is committing real-life murders that mimic her stories, down to the smallest detail. The tension ratchets up dramatically when the latest killing mirrors a story that Holly has not even published yet, thus shrinking the suspect pool considerably. I was a huge fan of the Nero Wolfe series and am on my way to becoming as big an admirer of the Pentecost & Parker mysteries.