Monday, December 12, 2016

Mount TBR #62

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Antagonists – William Haggard

At only 127 pages, this cold war spy thriller is short but packs in a lot of action and intrigue. Haggard excels at getting the reader on the edge of her seat, expecting any twist or turn. He builds tension as skillfully as Ruth Rendall or M.R. James.

But what’s realistic is that the hotshot scientist at the center of events is a real caution. He is a communist epicurean. He has an eye for the ladies. His fork is ever-ready for the West’s best viands. His palate will condescend to sample wines. He’s a brilliant eccentric that brings to mind Richard Feynman.

Also, Haggard features his series hero Col. Charles Russell, star of The Unquiet Sleep, The Arena, and The High Wire. As Perry Mason is our ideal lawyer and John Putnam Thatcher our ideal banker, Russell is our ideal spy master. Though he detests communists as a gang of tyrants and murderers, he doesn’t allow his personal feelings to cloud his reason.

One downside is that Haggard is a conservative of the old school. So the stereotypes about women and minorities may strike the reader as tedious and second-rate. The implicit woe over empire lost calls to mind an early Sixties feeling. On the other hand, that old-timey radicalism is good because his theme is that authority must keep the spears sharpened against malevolence and wrong-doing. Another theme is that decent people had better not let anger overcome their reason. As a teacher, how can I not applaud these themes?

The book ends with our series hero urging his political appointee boss, “We mustn’t cheat,” to which the boss replies, “We mustn’t be caught cheating.” Knowing the levels down to which government is willing to stoop, we readers are reminded we have to watch the bad guys but we had better watch the watchers too.

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