Wednesday, July 17, 2019

JFK, 007, and Favorite Books

Last week, I posted a piece about Ian Fleming’s 1957 James Bond novel, From Russia With Love. Reading it brought something to mind – something I heard as a kid:

President John F. Kennedy was a Fleming fan.

It is the kind of thing you hear and remember, but don’t know if it was really true.

It was true.

Kennedy not only liked From Russia With Love, he included it on a short list of favorite books.

On Sunday, April 14, 1963, newspapers around the country ran a story from the Associated Press with headlines like, “Spy Thriller On Kennedy Reading List.”

A Long Island woman, the head of her local public library’s board, wrote to the president, “asking him to name two books he considered to have played a part in shaping his life.”

She received a reply from Mr. Kennedy through a presidential aid that included a list of books JFK called, “his particular favorites.” This was the list:

The Emergence of Lincoln by Allen Nevins;

The Price of Union by Herbert Agar;

John C. Calhoun, American Portrait by Margaret L. Coit;

Byron In Italy by Peter Quennell;

Talleyrand by Duff Cooper;

Marlborough by Sir Winston Churchill;

Lord Melbourne by Lord David Cecil;

Montrose by John Buchan;

The Red and the Black by Stendhal; and

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming.

Some publications featured 11 books, and others made it an even dozen by including:

John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy by Samuel Flagg Bemis; and

Pilgrim's Way by John Buchan

Editors must have found it intriguing that the president placed Ian Fleming’s novel among the histories and biographies and they usually listed the James Bond book last, almost as a punch line.

JFK was a voracious reader. “He was always reading,” Jackie Kennedy once said.

Asked in a July 1963 interview, how it felt to have written one of President Kennedy’s favorite books, Ian Fleming said, “It’s quite flattering.”

Fleming said he had met the president and Mrs. Kennedy and had sent JFK autographed copies of his James Bond novels. He said, “It’s the least I can do.”

(Also, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, July 12, 2019

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

A lot of years have gone by since I last read anything by Ian Fleming. The last was Thrilling Cities, a non-fiction collection of travel essays. I found a paperback copy in a used-book store in the 1990s. But I could not tell you the last time or title of one of Fleming’s James Bond stories.

Something on-line triggered an urge to dig out my paperback copy of From Russia With Love.

Fleming’s 1957 book featuring British agent “Double-O-Seven” was far better than I remembered the series. Of course, when I first read his novels I was interested only in the adventure and the hot parts.

From Russia With Love is still a damn good adventure, but by today’s standards, the hot parts are pretty tame.

Interestingly, in his fourth Bond story, Fleming does not bring his main character on stage until about one-third of the way into the book.

The opening chapters describe Red Grant, or Granitisky, as the Russians call him, the immensely strong, murderous psychopath who defected to the U.S.S.R. in the 1940s and whom the Soviets use as an assassin.

The scene then switches to the Kremlin where the heads of intelligence, the secret police and other agencies hatch a scheme to upset the British Secret Service and to throw a scare into their own people to keep them in line. Fleming obviously knew his stuff when laying out the functions of the agencies inside the walls of the Kremlin. Another reason for the plotted attack on the British was the Soviets' embarrassment over recent defections to the West. Fleming has the Russians fuming over the defections of Tokaev, a real-life rocket scientist, and Khokhlov, an actual KGB officer.

The Soviets' plan is to lure a top British agent into a trap and kill him. This agent must be a top man, one with a double-O rating. The one they choose is 007, James Bond. The two lures they use are a portable decoding device and a beautiful young Russian woman working as a government clerk.

When Fleming brings Bond into the story, the agent is between assignments and bored. His days are a dull routine of going to the office, doing paperwork and attending meetings. He is itching for action.

Bond gets his wish when his boss, M, tells him about a Russian woman assigned to a Soviet office in Istanbul who wishes to defect to the West and will bring with her one of the decoding machines. Bond and M know it is a trap, but they want the device, so Bond goes to Turkey.

In Istanbul, he meets Darko Kerim, head of the British secret service branch in Istanbul, and a lovable, middle-age, bon-vivant and ladies man.

A local organization working with the Russians has targeted Karim for assassination and tried to blow up his office. Luckily, Karim was not sitting at his desk at the time, but was over on the couch engaged in a nooner and the blast only heightened the climax.

Some of the absurdities Fleming put into the book, like the submarine periscope installed to peek into the Soviet headquarters in Istanbul, are fun without knocking the story off track. Fleming tempered the joke of the periscope with Bond’s and Karim’s journey too it through a rat-infested tunnel.

Quite a bit of the book found Bond in grubby environs and eating unappetizing foods. When Bond arrives in Istanbul, he checks into a once grand hotel with a great view but which fell into decline and now is a dump. After his first night there, Bond wakes with bed-bug bites. The book is not nearly as glossy as the movie made from it.

A bit of Bond trivia: From my reading, Bond is older than might be assumed. Fleming says Bond came to work for the secret service in 1938. Others speculate Bond was born around 1920. That would make him 18 when he joined. Fleming also notes that he went to college in Switzerland. Bond may have been recruited into the service as a student, but I saw him as older. From Russia With Love takes place in 1955. I pictured Bond in his late 30s or even 40, which made his encounter with Red Grant all the more dangerous.

Revisiting the Bond books today, made the Cold War seem like ancient history. It has been 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union started coming apart. Fleming wrote his series of spy novels about 30 years prior to that. So, it is pretty old stuff. But the writing is still crisp and the From Russia With Love is still a page-turner.

(And, if you enjoy fast-paced stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, July 4, 2019

3 Questions for the 4th

Here is a short quiz for this Fourth of July :

How many words are in the Declaration of Independence?

How many words are in the U.S. Constitution?

How long would it take to read both documents?

Exact numbers are not necessary. Close estimates will count.

Arriving at the exact number of words can be a little tricky. Some count only the body of the texts. Others include the signatures on the documents. With the Constitution, some count all the original passages, including those later amended. Others do not.

So, instead of exact numbers, I will give you some easy to remember estimates:

There are about 1,450 words in the Declaration of Independence, including the signatures.

There are about 8,500 words in the Constitution, including the amendments.

Together, they would take an hour or so to read.

To see a 2009 video of celebrities reading the Declaration, click here.

Happy Fourth everyone!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

At age 80, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios is still a spry and effective thriller, if a puzzling one. More on that later.

The novel is the story of Charles Latimer, an English writer of detective stories, who while visiting Istanbul, meets Colonel Haki of the secret police. Haki tells Latimer about a murdered criminal called Dimitrios found floating in the sea. This man, who went by many names, was himself a murderer with a sketchy, shadowy past that intrigues Latimer.

Curious about the missing parts of Dimitrios’ life, and wanting a taste of actual detective work, Latimer sets off to trace the movements of the dead criminal.

The trail begins in Smyrna (the old name of the Turkish city of Izmir), then on to Athens, Sofia, Geneva, and Paris, revealing Dimitrios’ involvement in international espionage, attempted assassinations, the slave trade and drug trafficking. It also puts Latimer in contact with, and in the crosshairs of, some unsavory characters.

About four-fifths of the way through the book, after digging up a lot dirt on Dimitrios, Latimer worries he may have put his own life in danger. On that score, readers will be way ahead of Latimer.

Earlier, I said The Mask of Dimitrios is a puzzling thriller. While it is a fascinating page turner, most of those pages have other people telling Latimer stories about the many misdeeds of Dimitrios. Little action actually happens in the present, but the stories are fascinating. By the final pages, there is plenty of action, and the ending is gripping.

The Mask of Dimitrios (which was published as A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S.) is a fine book and Ambler (1909-1998), through Latimer’s investigation and internal musings, provides a good deal of history and insight into Europe during the years between the world wars.

(If you enjoy crime stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Friday, June 7, 2019

Zero Day by David Baldacci

May was a month of driving. It wasn’t 24-7, but it sure felt like it. The monotony of some of the trips was alleviated by audio books. Usually, I listen to non-fiction on long hauls, but for two long days behind the wheel, David Baldacci kept me amused with the first book in his John Puller series, Zero Day.

The book starts out with a sucker punch as a bored letter carrier delivering mail to homes in a quiet village in West Virginia’s coal country, gets the shock of his life when he discovers a family – father, mother, and two teenagers – brutally murdered.

The father was an Army colonel attached to the Pentagon and privy to top secret information.

Warrant officer, John Puller, an Army criminal investigator is ordered to West Virginia to find out what this officer and his family were doing there and who killed them.

Puller, a large, highly trained, highly decorated combat veteran and an astute detective, puzzles the assignment and why he is being sent out alone. Surely the case deserves a full team of investigators. But, a good soldier, Puller heads out with his kit and his Sig Sauer M-11 in a holster at the small of his back.

Baldacci piles up the questions, the suspects, and the danger as Puller with the help of a female officer from the small local police department delve into the mystery.

David Baldacci is a master at building tension and then releasing all that pent up energy in the final chapters. His action sequences can go over the top, and his ending after all that suspense was a bit of a let down, but the journey to the final showdown was entertaining.

Too often, in books like this, the personal story of the hero can be a drag, but David Baldacci gives Puller some interesting problems. John Puller is the son of an Army general in the mold of George Patton. The old man, while still demanding and exasperating, is now in a Veteran’s Administration hospital with dementia. Most of the time he believes he is still a commanding officer in the field firing off orders at Puller who he thinks is one of his subordinates. Puller also has a brilliant older brother in a federal penitentiary, falsely convicted of treason.

While Baldacci’s Puller has been unfavorably compared to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, I found Zero Day to be exciting and fun. Contributing to the fun were the readers of the audio book, actors Ron McLarty and Orla Cassidy who take on the male and female dialog respectively, with McLarty also reading the descriptions. They are two of the best talents in audio books, and that counts for a lot.

(If you enjoy crime stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Monday, May 27, 2019

James Cagney in "The Gallant Hours"

Cagney as Halsey
Here's a film for Memorial Day: "The Gallant Hours," starring James Cagney.

In it, Cagney plays World War II Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who was put in charge of operations in the South Pacific when U.S. troops were fighting to hold off the Japanese sweep through the region.

For a war story, this 1960 movie has almost no action in it. All the action, drama and tension takes place in the admiral’s office on board his flagship. And, like the films “Command Decision," and “Twelve O’clock High,” the drama is the burden of command – the responsibility of one person to send others into confrontations where he knows they will be out numbered.

Cagney gives a great, highly restrained performance as Halsey. He even looks like Halsey. Cagney co-produced the picture with actor Robert Montgomery, who directed.

Admiral Halsey
“The Gallant Hours” is a strange movie and it takes a while to get used to its style. The picture moves at a deliberate pace, and it has a good deal of narration in it, delivered by Montgomery. At times, it feels like a documentary as he fills in the background of various characters and incidents. It also has just about the strangest musical track of any film, provided by a men’s chorus singing a cappella.

But it is one of the best depictions of command, of how to take on an impossible assignment, assess it, weigh the risks, and take action.

Cagney is in nearly every scene and he is supported by an excellent cast that includes Dennis Weaver.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

R.I.P. Doris Day

Film, TV, and recording star Doris Day died Monday at age 97.

She was a big-band singer in the 1940s, starred in movies beginning in 1948, and was a top box office draw in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1960, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the comedy, “Pillow Talk” (1959). She also should have been nominated for the 1955 drama “Love Me Or Leave Me,” and for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Doris Day starred in her own television series for five seasons (1968-1973), then retired from show business and devoted her time to her animal welfare foundation.

Of the many, many songs she recorded, this version of “Again” is my favorite:

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Thirty-Nine Steps vs. The 39 Steps

John Buchan’s 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, is one of the grand old spy adventures of yesteryear and is still a pretty great read.

Most people will know the plot thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie version, “The 39 Steps.”

A spy with information vital to the British government is killed in Richard Hannay’s apartment. The police think Hannay did it and hunt him down. The real culprits - enemy spies – think Hannay knows their secret plans, and set out to kill him.

Richard Hannay, with only a partial idea of their plans and a couple of clues, takes off for the Scottish Highlands to track down a man and get to the bottom of this mystery. He cleverly eludes both the cops and the killers while putting the story together. When he figures out enough of it, he makes his way back to London to inform the British military chiefs.

The novel, written and published during World War I, is set in the pre-war years but features German agents as the bad guys. The spies’ secret mission is to assassinate a foreign diplomat visiting England and stir up a lot of trouble for the British and to steal Naval secrets. John Buchan devotes a lot of ink to explaining the convoluted plans.

Hitchcock wisely collapsed the spy plot into a brief description, believing the audience did not need to know too much about it, other than that it is the thing Hannay needs to find out and the spies need to conceal.



While condensing the spy plot, Alfred Hitchcock expanded the cat and mouse game between Hannay (played by Robert Donat) and the spies by adding an attractive young woman to the plot, Pamela (played by Madeleine Carroll), who does not appear in the book. John Buchan’s Hannay travels alone. Alfred Hitchcock’s Hannay has a lovely, if reluctant companion who, for a while, is literally handcuffed to him. Hitch has a lot of fun with this situation.

Alfred Hitchcock also gave the head spy a better physical trait for Hannay to discover and unmask the villain. But while eliminating some of the far-fetched aspects of the book, Hitchcock also added a bizarre element in the person of “Mister Memory,” a music hall entertainer with a photographic memory who the spies use to convey secret military plans. Mister Memory is not in the book.

The book keeps the action going with Hannay bursting in on a meeting of British military chiefs to tell them of the spies’ plans. That Hannay could arrive where the brass is meeting, be allowed in, and have those men listen to him, seems absurd now, a century later. Maybe it was absurd then, too. Perhaps the book’s Richard Hannay could do it because he is a wealthy, educated man who by his mid-30s had made a fortune in Rhodesia and settled in London to live a life of leisure – and boredom – until this all happened.

Informing the officials of what he has learned is not the end of the book. Hannay has to catch the spies before they slip out of the country.

The Thirty-Nine Steps creaks a bit, but it remains an entertaining, fast-paced read.

(And, if you enjoy fast-paced stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Bogart, Lupino, and a dog in High Sierra

Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino.
The 1941 Warner Bros. movie, “High Sierra,” is a film I have seen many times and never get tired of watching.

The movie of "High Sierra" was based on W.R. Burnett’s 1940 novel of the same name. (A post about the book is here.)

It is the story of paroled gangster Roy Earle who travels west to lead some young wannabe bad guys in the robbery of an upscale California resort.

The movie, which closely follows the plot of the book, was written by Burnett and John Huston. Raoul Walsh, an expert with action pictures, directed.

Humphrey Bogart got the role of Roy Earle and it was perfect casting. The rest of the players are likable, but not too convincing in their parts, with two exceptions.

Ida Lupino, is nothing like the tough, dime-a-dance girl described in the book. But she is such a fine actress it doesn’t matter. Her scenes with Bogart are the best in the picture.
Bogart’s dog Zero does tricks 
on the set of “High Sierra.”

The other exception is the well trained actor who played Pard, a little dog who takes a liking to Roy Earle and follows him around.

The last time I watched the movie, I noticed how fond Bogart seemed to be of the dog. Then I learned it was Bogart’s own pet, a dog named Zero. Bogey could hardly stop smiling every time he had a scene with Zero.


The dog was quite a performer, too, and could do any number of tricks on command, including escaping from a locked room through a partially open window.

“High Sierra” delivers on many levels and is well worth watching, and watching again.

Friday, April 12, 2019

High Sierra by W.R. Burnett

Those who have seen the 1941 movie, “High Sierra,” might skip the 1940 novel of the same name. The film follows the plot of the book exactly with a few edits and an extended finale. But those who skip the book will miss out on the pleasure of W.R. Burnett’s lean, hard prose, and some of the larger ideas overshadowing the characters.

Roy Earle, a career criminal and one-time member of John Dillinger’s gang, is released from an Illinois prison thanks to bribes paid by mob boss, Big Mac M’Gann. The boss wanted Roy free so he can lead a daring robbery of a Southern California resort. Big Mac planned the heist and recruited two young “jitterbugs” for the job, but needs a reliable old timer like Roy to run the show.

The young guys, Big Mac, and Roy himself think of Roy as old. He  lived a hard life that put miles on him, but Roy is only 37. Big Mac is feeling old, too, and wants this big score to be his last so he can go off somewhere and live out his days in grand style.

In debt to Big Mac for getting him out, Roy drives west to meet his two wild accomplices at a rustic hideout high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. During the journey, two things are on Roy’s mind: nostalgic memories of his boyhood on an Indiana farm; and Velma, the sweet 20-year-old granddaughter of an old couple who lost their Ohio farm and are making their way to California. This family is the living reminder of a life Roy longs for. He even has ideas of marrying Velma and living the simple good life he once knew.

But reality catches up with Roy when he meets the irresponsible men he is supposed to lead and the young woman, Marie, they have brought with them. Roy wants them to dump Marie, but he finds her smarter and tougher then the two hoods, and she soon winds up in Roy’s bed. It becomes a threesome in the bed when a scrappy little stray dog takes a liking to Roy and follows him everywhere.

This strange set up has nowhere to go but to hell.

The heist goes badly, the getaway away goes worse, Big Mac was terminally ill and dies, Roy has no choice but to turn the stolen jewelry over to a fence he does not know, and the authorities have a line on him, Marie, and Pard, the little dog they have taken with them.

When he was in prison, Roy’s cellmate, a convicted conman, jailhouse intellectual and self-educated philosopher shared books and ideas with Roy, including his theory of “the indifference of nature.”


Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Roy comes to understand this when he drives into the western deserts where the sun beats down, the wind blows the sand, and the land does not care if you are out of gas or water. The idea is further driven home when Roy is in the Sierra Nevadas, where the mountains do not care what happens to cars on roads with sheer drops into gorges or boulders or snow blocking the route. In those places, Roy gets a sense of his place in the universe. In the end, he is pursued high up into the mountains where he knows there is no escape.

High Sierra is another fine crime novel from a master of the form. If I have one criticism of the book, it is with the opening pages. The book starts with a surprisingly dull chapter of Roy Earle’s boyhood. Surprising since Burnett wrote some of the toughest, fastest paced crime novels of his era.

William Riley Burnett (1899-1982) was the author of The Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar and many other novels and short stories, and quite a few movies. For a review of one of his lesser known books, Dark Hazard, click here.

(And if crime novels are your thing, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)