|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on April 3, 2019 at 11:15 PM|
Another entry in the increasingly trite category of spy novels that also make points about the corruption of the spy game, where there are no good guys, only sides. Ben Leary works for Immigration and becomes involved in the case of a Soviet poet kidnapped off the streets of New York, ostensibly by the KGB. While Leary tries to figure out why, his chapters alternate with ones featuring Charlie Brewer, a retired CIA agent living in a place akin to a YMCA and reduced to hustling pool with drunks as his only friends. Someone wanting Leary off the case hires Brewer to get the poet back, an impossible task that needs to start with the equally impossible task of determining where he is.
They are both interesting characters and the alternating viewpoints is done well. The whole alternating viewpoints tactic does turn into a bit of a cliché as spy novels progress through the 70s and 80s – among Edgar winners, it works successfully in The Eye of the Needle and less so in The Rheingold Route, a couple more in the genre that are coming our way. Though the investigation on Leary’s part and the plotting on Brewer’s part progress at a slow pace, there are some hints that this will be a tighter tale than it might seem. For example, one of my least favorite clichés is the troubled hero with a dark secret in his past that the author then proceeds to explain away so strenuously as to make it pointless. Charlie, for his part, has killed in the line of duty with uncertain authorization. But Hallahan resists the temptation to justify it or even revisit it in a flashback.
The other thing that sustains the interest is that the mystery element, though at first seeming to be a technicality, builds to real suspense. The kidnapped defector is not a protestor or agitator; his poems do not insult the Politburo or encourage overthrow of the Soviet Union. There appears to be no sensible reason why the KGB would be determined to get him back. It seems like a simple loose end but the more Leary investigates, the stranger it comes to seem, and it becomes very clear that some elements seemingly on the same side don’t want it clarified.
Then suddenly, after the protracted setup, it becomes a page-turner. There is a very funny comedy relief scene with a fence who really likes his Italian food, and on the other side of this scene Brewer and Leary have breakthroughs in their respective pursuits and we suddenly see that they can’t both succeed – for the one to accomplish his task will (it appears) ruin the other. Hallahan has so successfully made both characters likeable that I was caught up in how this dilemma will resolve.
William H. Hallahan was relatively obscure for an Edgar winner –he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry (as of this writing). A little more research reveals that we just lost him a few months ago – he joins Jane Langton and Brian Garfield as mystery greats lost in 2018. Turns out Hallahan was his real name – he was a WWII veteran and ad executive who got all of his degrees from Temple University in Philadelphia (even his high school diploma, seemingly after dropping out of High School to join the Navy.) He published his first novel at 45 and crafted nine novels altogether as well as some well-received nonfiction.
Categories: Edgar Winner Reviews (No Spoilers)