The Spy Who Came In From the Cold–John Le Carre


I read this one before, several years ago, but apparently I blanked on it because I had minimal recollection of it when I was reading it this time around.

What prompted me to read this again was that I tried and failed to watch “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” on Netflix. Then I also heard an episode of Intelligence Squared, which is a podcast that is actual Oxford-style debates, about who was the better spy novelist, John Le Carre or Ian Fleming. (John Le Carre, c’mon.)

This is such a great book. And SO SAD.

Alec Leamas is a the head of the British spy organization in Berlin during the height of the Cold War. The book starts with him waiting for a spy of his to make it across the border into West Germany. He doesn’t make it and that basically collapses the entire British spy operation in Berlin.

He goes home and is farmed out to office duty, turns into a total drunk, gets fired from the agency and works a bunch of crappy jobs, and finally beats up a local grocer, doing three months in jail.

When he gets out, he’s recruited by the Communists to betray his people for cash and potential resettlement, but while he’s in Holland giving them information, his own government catches on and starts looking for him, so they move him behind the curtain to East Germany.

While there he runs across a fearsome interrogator and also the head German spy, the man ultimately responsible for the destruction of his entire spy operation.

Or actually, maybe none of that is what happened.

Because it’s John Le Carre and there’s always another level. You think you got to the bottom? NOPE.

Maybe he was recruited by his own intelligence service to go deep undercover and feed bad information to the communists to take down the German spy.

Or maybe he was recruited by his own intelligence service to give accurate information to the communists to take down the German spy.

Or maybe he was giving information that was partially true and partially false, designed to save the German spy, who is actually working for the British after all.

It’s always so much fun to read Le Carre because it’s so clever, and so subtle. Will Leamas live to tell the tale? What was really happening?

IMDB tells me there was a movie of this in 1965 starring Richard Burton, and that there’s a miniseries coming this year starring Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones!) so that will be well worth watching.


The Devil in the White City–Erik Larson


More true crime! Sort of! I’m on a bit of ¬†true crime kick.

This book–which is being made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as we speak–is about America’s first serial killer (or at least, the guy that is often cited as the first, I have doubts about his status as such) and also about the Chicago’s World Fair.

It’s not that weird of a combo. They happened at the same time and the same place and the World’s Fair played a part in the killer’s crime spree. The book alternates chapters, one about the World’s Fair and one about the killer.

In fact, in true crime reading groups a lot of people don’t like this book because of the history aspect. You have to like both general history and true crime to really get into this book. But I do like both those things and so I loved this book.

Here’s the story. The World’s Fair in Paris had happened and people in America were like, WE CAN DO THAT. There was an impassioned fight over which city would host it and Chicago won by the skin of their teeth. And they built this gorgeous park with a man made lagoon and wooded island, silent electric boats (an achievement in the late 1890s) and magnificent beautiful neoclassical buildings, all painted white, which gave the exhibition the nickname “the White City.”

The story of them trying to build it is so interesting. They had something like 2 years from when the architects got the blueprints in for the main buildings to when it had to be ready and that’s not long enough, at all. The landscape guy was freaking out because he couldn’t start planting until the buildings were done and painted and obviously, plants take time. And Chicago’s weather was not super conducive to year round building.

Meanwhile, H. H. Holmes was doing his messed up thing. His real name was Herman Mudgett, so…we know why he chose Henry Holmes. Anyway. He’s a terrible human being. He married a woman and then abandoned her, went to medical school, and was involved in several shady disappearances before he took up residence in Chicago, a few years ahead of the World’s Fair. He befriended an old lady whose ill husband owned a pharmacy. The husband dies, and the woman sells him the pharmacy and then disappears.

He leverages the success of the pharmacy into the ability to buy an entire block across from his pharmacy and built a massive building, which had a pharmacy on the ground floor, as well as other businesses, and hotel rooms on the second and the third floors, which was convenient since he was close to the site of the World’s Fair.

He did this super creepy thing where he would hire people to build the hotel and then fire them without paying them which served the dual purpose of being cost-efficient and also no one group of people had any idea what weird crap he was building into that place.

I can hear you asking yourself, what weird crap? ALL THE WEIRD CRAP. He had a crematorium built to his own specifications in the basement, a corpse shute, a “hanging room” where there were no windows, at least one room that was airtight and had a gas fitting that was not attached to a lamp or anything, weird passageways, hidden rooms, alarms set so he knew whenever anyone left their room….all the weird crap.

How many people did he murder in that creepy hotel? No one knows, because 1) crematorium 2) he would sell the bodies to medical schools because PROFIT and 3) a LOT of people were vanishing without a trace in that area at that time and it’s a bit of a push to hold him accountable for all of them, although who knows, right?

He was eventually convicted of 3 murders, and they managed to prove 9 murders. He gave interviews to newspapers and admitted to 27 but some of the people who he admitted killing were still alive, so…? Some people estimate 200 which a lot of people think is high.

Regardless, there’s not a lot of gory details although there are some, so if you are super squeamish this is probably not for you, but if you have a reasonable tolerance for descriptions of dead bodies and an interest in history, this is a good choice for you.


The Truth–Terry Pratchett


I know, I know, more Discworld. I’m on a bit of a Terry Pratchett kick at the moment.

This one is a parody of what happens when journalism starts. It makes me wonder a bit about how it actually did go down when they first started doing newspapers. Regardless, a proto-journalist gets involved with some dwarves with a printing press and starts a newspaper.

The leader of the city is accused of stabbing his clerk and running away but that doesn’t sound like him and so they are out to find the truth.

Of course, everyone in the city almost immediately decides that the junk news in the Inquirer is more interesting, so it’s not as gratifying as he initially thought it would be.

There are a pair of foreign henchmen hired by the people framing the Patrician that are clear parodies of Travolta and Jackson in Pulp Fiction, which is SO FUNNY. Every time they come onto the page it’s hysterical. Their interactions with Death are also comedy gold.

Regardless, he tracks down the truth with the help of his only reporter, an informant that happens to be a talking dog, his homeless paper boys, and his vampire photographer. It’s a complicated and messy situation, and he finds that he’s part of the story and not just the reporter.

The City Watch gets a solid supporting role in this book, which is nice because the watch is always fun to see in action, but the bulk of this book is centered on William de Worde and his fledgling newspaper operation.

I always recommend the Disc World books because they are so funny and so clever.


Ruby Ridge–Jess Walter


I thought this would be an interesting read because I wasn’t really watching news at the time that this happened and I never really understood it.

It IS an interesting book and I recommend it. But also, it’s very sad. This entire thing is sad. And at the end, no one looks good. It’s not like there’s ever any good guy to root for.

Basically, this family started as normal Iowa farm folk (I have relatives that are normal Iowa farm folk and let me tell you, that breed of people is AGGRESSIVELY normal) and then slowly started becoming religious extremists. This is pre-Westboro Baptist Church but they would have fit in there. They might, by the end, have been a little bit out there even for WBC. Keep that in mind.

They were pretty sure that the apocalypse would start in 3.5 years, starting from the time the wife received divine revelation that it was going to happen, which, ok, sure. I can’t fathom the level of narcissism it would take to assume passages in the Bible were written around your own personal revelation, but that’s how they rolled.

They moved to the middle of nowhere Idaho and built a cabin on a very inaccessible mountaintop. And started hanging out with white supremacists. As one does, when they’re in the middle of what is apparently a collective mental breakdown.

Then the dad makes some illegal sawed off shotguns and sells them to an undercover ATF agent. The question of the day is, did the agent entrap him into so doing, or did he offer? Since the ATF guy didn’t record the encounter, we’ll never know for sure, but I got the impression that the ATF was not above entrapment at that time.

They offer to make the gun charge go away if he gave them intel on white supremacists he knows but he’s no snitch! He and his family would rather die on that mountaintop than snitch!

They finally arrest him for the gun charge and the magistrate gives him inaccurate information about what the process would be from there, apparently accidentally but the question is, does anyone think that any level of information would have convinced him to show for his court date? They were already calling the government the “Zionist Occupation Government” which they did not intend as a compliment because as white supremacists, they were not fans of the Jewish people.

My point is, despite their later defense argument that they believed that the false information was a deliberate attempt to trap them and prevent them from getting a fair trial, I’m pretty sure that they would have felt that regardless of what went down at the bail hearing.

Then they refused to come down off the mountain. They had years worth of canned food. It was the parents, three children from the ages of 10-14, a baby of less than a year, and a family friend. They knew that the government would eventually want them to come in so they had the children–heavily armed–go out in front of the adults any time they left the cabin, to thwart snipers.

Let me repeat that, in case you missed it. THEY USED THEIR CHILDREN AS HUMAN SHIELDS.

Even if you can overlook the religious madness and the racism, it’s hard to overlook using children as human shields.

Then the news caught wind of the standoff with the US Marshals and it became a media circus. The FBI was done with this nonsense and sent in EVERYONE to get them off the mountain.

The morning the unpleasantness started, the family guard dog catches smell or sound of the hidden marshals and chases them down. The 13 year old son and the family friend take the lower trail with the dog while the dad stays on the upper trail, out of line of shot. These people!

The government claims that they identified themselves because the dog was coming straight at them and the family friend shot and killed a marshal for no reason, and then the son was shooting and running and it was chaos.

The family friend says that they stepped out of the trees and killed the dog and the son was yelling, you killed my dog! and shooting at the marshals and they shot and got the boy in the arm, and the boy ran back towards his dad and the family friend shot the marshal in self-defense. And the marshals started shooting and it was a mess.

The forensic evidence and common sense really points to the family friend being the truthful one. It also strongly implies that they were ALWAYS planning to kill the dog at the beginning of the siege because he was cramping their ability to get up to the house.

The marshal’s shot as the boy was running away got him in his back, killing him instantly. Dead children are not good.

Then they started the siege of the house. At one point the dad and the friend and one of the girls as cover came out and a sniper aimed for the dad but the dad moved and he got the dad in the shoulder instead of the head. They started running for the house and the sniper took another shot, which did not hit the dad, but did hit the family friend in the chest and the mom in the face. She died instantly, while holding the baby.

UNBELIEVABLY, the government is holding to the story that they had no idea they’d killed the boy or the mom for several more days.

Eventually, they get a dialogue going and the siege ends, and they put the dad and the friend on trial for murder, conspiracy, the gun charges, failure to appear, the entire enchilada.

They get off for everything but failing to appear and possessing weapons while on bail, and the government does an investigation into what went wrong there. The answer is basically EVERYTHING. It was all wrong. All terrible.

You can’t be on the side of the government because they decided before they got up there that it would be ok to shoot any armed adult, knowing that the adults never even went to the outhouse without guns, and without provocation. I refuse to believe that can be constitutional. We’re citizens. We have rights. You can’t really support the killing of children, either.

At the same time, there is no question that the family’s insane beliefs and refusal to come down from the mountain was the root cause of all that nonsense, and how can you be on the side of racist people who use their children as human shields?

Team no one. Ruby Ridge was a tragedy all around.