Tag Archives: Cold War

The Hapsburg Variation: A Cold War Thriller

  • By Bill Rapp. Coffeetown Press. 264 pges. Trade paperback $15.95.

A CIA agent’s mettle is tested in this tale of post-WWII intrigue.   

Vienna, indeed all of Central Europe, is a place of uncertainty in 1955. The major post-WWII forces are working hard to move beyond the uncertainties toward stability. In this powerful historical novel, that movement is centered on the State Treaty among the former Allied nations. This treaty will restore Austria’s independence and rid it of occupying forces.

As the time for the signing approaches, the nations invested in the outcome keep jockeying for position. It is not clear if all parties wish the treaty to succeed. Maintaining influence remains the goal of Great Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

The intelligence agencies are the key players, and CIA agent Karl Baier, stationed in Vienna, is part of the U.S. government team hoping to avoid an outcome that positions Austria as a neutral entity. Soviet motives and moves are suspect. Baier is a complex, well-developed professional who has been with the agency for eight years.

Baier finds himself involved in investigating the death of an Austrian aristocrat, a man who seems to have been trying to bring back the structure of the Hapsburg Empire. He has connections with the British and the Soviets, but the meaning of these connections is not clear.

Complicating Baier’s professional and personal life is the abduction and imprisonment of his wife.

Bill Rapp

Intrigue is everywhere, trust is hard to find, and needed information, let alone the interpretation of that information, seems hidden behind murky windows of indirection, suspicion, and fear.

Most of author Bill Rapp’s scenes are built on conversations between Baier and his colleagues or counterparts. The flavor of these exchanges is nightmarish. Representatives of supposedly cooperating agencies are busy trying to pry into each other’s heads, attempting to gain knowledge without giving away anything. It’s clear to Baier that even those in his CIA cadre hold things back. Therefore, the accumulation of information is a slow and unsteady process. All involved fear being compromised — or worse.

The conversations go around in circles and barely move Baier forward. Readers will share his frustration, and Rapp runs the huge risk of losing them even as his characters move on with their mind games.

When a narrative depends this much on dialogue, that dialogue ought to accomplish something beyond setting up smokescreens. While this technique captures a valuable verisimilitude, one is tempted to skip much of it and look for the next action sequence.

In scenes with greater action and less of the artfully phony chatter, Rapp more readily holds readers’ attention. When Baier checks to make sure he isn’t being followed, for instance, we feel his anxiety and appreciate his tradecraft. When Baier evaluates meeting places or notes the hide-and-seek of carefully orchestrated seating arrangements at clandestine gatherings, the author has his readers in thrall. . . .

For the full review, published in Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Hapsburg Variation

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Startling tales of America’s Cold War sailors revealed

Cold Water Canoe Club, by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 292 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

I can’t think of another short story collection that I’ve read in recent years that has given me such a jolt of vicarious experience and insight. Original, fraught with every kind of pain, clearsighted and despairing, Mr. Hess’s book takes us to external and internal places that most of us have been able to avoid. And that avoidance has distanced us from people, whole swaths of society, who we have unwittingly depended on to keep us safe – and even prosperous. 

Given today’s concerns about American’s conflicts and rivalries with Putin’s Russia, a group of 15 stories focused on the lives of Navy seamen during the Cold War has an added dimension of relevance. In addition, the stories are amazingly well-written, filled with an abundance of explosive imagery, and presented through unmistakably authentic first or third person voices. Well, perhaps there is a bit of literary overlay on and around these voices.

The lives of shipboard sailors on patrol in potentially dangerous parts of the world are lives of confinement and compression. Their tasks as communications experts or engineers or electricians are tedious and tense. They perform maintenance, make repairs when necessary, and prepare to meet emergencies. A ship is a dangerous place even when not under fire. So many things can go disastrously wrong. Such things happen in Jeffery Hess’s stories.

These sailors are confined spatially, socially, and often spiritually. They depend on one another and yet can learn to both love and hate their workmates. The compression demands release: port days with a bit of time off, prostitutes, and all the drugs and alcohol one can manage or mismanage.

Hess

Mr. Hess begins with an early marker of the background history, a story set in 1949 near the outset of the Cold War. He moves us forward through the following decades, beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis, and up to the Reagan presidency’s achievement. He takes us to Lebanon, Turkey, Manila, Naples, Guam, and other places where a U. S. fighting ship might go – or stop.

Through flashbacks and other devices, the author sets these mostly young men into their larger lives: the kind of towns and families they come from, the marriages they have entered and exited, their relationships with the officer class that they serve under, race relationships, the ambitions they’ve put on hold, the children they hardly know, the injuries and other physical hardships that have aged them, and the inertia – or is it momentum? – that keeps them going. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 9, 2017 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 10 issue of the Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Cold Water Canoe Club

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Cold War backstory energizes debut of relentless sleuth

The Second Letter, by Robert Lane. Mason Alley Publishing. 330 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

This is hefty, solid, tough guy mystery writing. A character named Jake Travis is screaming for comparison with Hemingway’s world-weary Jake Barnes, Paul Levine’s Jake Lassiter, and of course, John D. McDonald’s iconoclastic protagonist Travis McGee. Mr. Lane’s invention holds up well while carrying its own distinctiveness. Too smart and too mouthy for his own good, Jake Travis lives in a moral twilight that threatens to plunge him into total darkness.  Second_Letter_Cover

Mr. Lane blends a noir outlook with posh settings.

Jake, a retired Special Forces operative, performs contract work for his former boss. His partner on such missions is a man named Garrett. They are tasked with working out the terms of a possibly compromising letter being turned over to the U. S. Government. The man who has the letter, Raydel Escobar, would like to exchange it for his IRS debt of seven million dollars.

Escobar lives an elegant life from the proceeds of his (largely stolen) carpet and rug business and the three gentleman’s clubs (better known as “skin clubs”) he runs in Tampa. He has a gorgeous wife, a gorgeous home, and a position in the food chain of illegal enterprises that puts him under associates far more powerful and ruthlessly lethal than he is.

Mr. Lane has structured the novel to rock back and forth between Jake’s perspective and Escobar’s, a device that is highly serviceable in raising suspense and deepening reader interest.

Lane

Lane

The letter goes back to 1961 and is thought to be connected to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. It had been in the possession of Dorothy Harrison, who lived on Long Key off St. Petersburg, Florida. Her late husband’s friend and colleague, Ted Sullivan, delivered it to her several months after Jim Harrison’s death in a CIA plane crash. Dorothy chose not to read it and asked her Cuban gardener, Angelo, to hide it. After her own death decades later, her home became a museum. Now Escobar has somehow come across the letter and the government wants it. Why is it so valuable?

Well, let’s just say it’s from Allen Dulles (CIA director) to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. And it’s not the only letter in the envelope.

As Jake, Garrett, and Jake’s neighbor Morgan scout out Escobar’s estate and plan to make their move, readers get to enjoy Mr. Lane’s masterful handling of the Southwest Florida setting. They also get to feed their gluttony for descriptions of weaponry, elite boats, and special covert operations. Well, covert up to a point. In these various areas of thriller interest, Randy Wayne White now has a rival. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 9, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 10 Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Naples, and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Lane.

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