Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

Olasky Books July 2023 Subscribe to Olasky Books

It’s July and we’re ten days away from publication of a new Daniel Silva novel, so I’ll skip my mention of new books and recommend five authors who in six series have produced 73 novels since 1981. I’ve read three-fourths of them during the past decade and can testify to their excellence for beach, deck, armchair, or Kindle-when-awake-in-the-middle-of-the-night bed reading, if you like books in the spy or detective genres.

Charmingly, they all embody novelist Raymond Chandler’s definition of heroism: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… [who is] a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”

Chandler also describes most of the protagonists: “the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world…. A lonely man… in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.” I should include a warning: The lonely men in many of the books listed below sometimes have a bit of sex with damsels in distress, and at times hear ugly four-letter words.

I’ll alternate American and British novelists, starting with Martin Cruz Smith, born in Pennsylvania in 1942. Smith’s ten novels in the Arkady Renko series have come out in 42 years (1981-2023) within the context of Soviet decline and Russian desire to remain a world power. In all of them Moscow Chief Investigator Renko fights the arrogant and oligarchic attitudes that have most recently led to Russia’s war on Chechnya and now Ukraine. Suggestion: Start with Smith’s first, Gorky Park, or any of the first six, rather than the later ones. His new novel, Independence Square, sadly suggests he may be running out of gas.

British author David Downing (born in 1946) has two good series totaling eleven books published from 2007 to 2021. One series is set in the World War I era, the other in World War II-era Berlin featuring British journalist John Russell. Spymasters in London, Berlin, and Moscow are aware that Russell has a half-German son and had a youthful romance with Marxism, so all want to lure or force him into their service. Russell can be tempted: When Russians put a beautiful woman in his Moscow hotel bed, “He stood there stupidly for what was probably only a couple of seconds, caught between bodily desire and every other conscious impulse.” But then the man of honor resolves: “No.”

American Alan Furst (born in 1941) wrote fifteen World War II-era novels in the “Night Soldiers” series from 1988 to 2019. Titles I’ve read include Mission to Paris, Dark Star, Blood of Victory, The Foreign Correspondent,The Spies of Warsaw, Spies of the Balkans, and Under Occupation. Furst has a variety of central characters in his books, some more interesting than others, but he is a superb creator of settings that make readers feel we’re standing in misty Casablanca by a club named Rick’s, waiting for exit visas to Portugal.

Almost as if they were competing, Britain’s Philip Kerr (1956-2018) wrote fourteen novels published from 1989 to 2019, all of which starred Hitler-era German detective Bernie Gunther. Ones I’ve enjoyed include Berlin Noir, The One from the Other, If the Dead Rise Not, Field Gray, Prague Fatale, and A Man Without Breath. Gunther makes compromises to survive and is not above prurient interests, but will still risk his life to save Jews and others threatened with imprisonment and death.

The youngest of these authors, Daniel Silva, was born in 1962. Like the four men above, his initial efforts received a mixed reception, but in 2000 Silva began a series starring as its main character Gabriel Allon, who is both a superb restorer of classic paintings and an agent/leader of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency often called the best in the world. Starting in 2002 Silva has come out with a new Allon thriller every year, and more precisely (since I started following him a few years back) every July.

Sadly, here’s another warning: The first nineteen novels in the series all have smooth writing, terrific characterization, and page-turning narrative. When I used treadmills I would look forward each July to getting one and then improving my record for most steps in one day: Reading Silva I made it past 40,000, close to twenty miles. But Silva in 2020 faltered and in The Order siphoned some from Dan Brown’s tank of religious conspiracies. The last two novels have seemed more formulaic, but maybe No. 23, The Collector, will be better: Its official publication date is July 18. Or maybe Gabriel Allon will retire.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.