on September 4, 2011
I notice that a lot of the reviewers here cite "Eye of the Needle" as a book that this author seems to have imitated. I don't recall that I ever read Follett's book, and I only saw the movie once, when it came out back in the 1980s. According to my memory, it is indeed true that Silva's book has a lot of similarities to Follett.
However, I quickly noticed something that, to my surprise, has not been commented on: It also bears a striking resemblance to Jack Higgins' "The Eagle has Landed", as well as "A Game for Heroes", the latter written by Higgins (or whatever his real name is) under another name.
Irish rebel (or patriot, according to ones perspective) working as a German spy in rural England? Check. Disgraced yet charming Fallschirmjaeger officer with a grudge? Check. English country girl who falls in love with one of the bad guys? Check. Is the German officer half English, with a well-to-do German stepfather? Check. Stuffy English Academic who gets into intelligence work and excels at it? Check. Signs along the coast warning of non-existent minefields? Check.
While it might be nitpicking, on a couple occasions I noticed that people sometimes even got shot in a very familiar way- bullets smashing into shoulders, spinning them around so that the second round catches them in the spine.
So it did seem pretty familiar, and of course cliff-hanger ending takes us back to the Follett side of the fence. I suppose it wasn't similar enough for either of the other authors to make an issue of it, and it certainly hasn't derailed Silva's writing career. But for those who have read the other books mentioned, parts of it will seem a bit old hat.
It just seems a bit too complex of a story (the true story of the events portrayed is actually explained to us at the end, since we would never have figured it out otherwise). Call me crazy, but if you read a massive book like this one, and at the end the action has to be explained to you the reader (the character has figured it all out, but he asks someone to explain it to him, thus allowing us to catch up) perhaps the author's approach is off.
All that being said, it is a pretty good book. I didn't give it 5 stars, because it wasn't a "can't put this down" read. But it was a decent one.
In future, I think I'll stick with Silva's Gabriel Allon books. They're far more enjoyable, and far less familiar to me.
On the verge of the Allied Invasion of Europe in 1944, the Allies were engaged in a massive deception program in which could have been ruined--changing the subsequent course of history--by a single credible report from a German spy. With overwhelming military power, the Germans had neglected espionage, and by 1944, virtually all German agents in England had been executed, imprisoned, or turned. Plans for the invasion included Operation Mulberry, a project to build temporary artificial harbors on the French coast. That was the actual historical situation.
The story begins with the premise that the Germans have learned that bridge engineer Peter Jordan was playing a key, but unknown, role, and therefore they activate a "sleeper" agent (Catherine Blake, aka Anna Steiner), who had been in place since 1938, to discover Peter's role. Although the British had allegedly made the infiltration of new German spies virtually impossible, the Germans successfully and implausibly parachute in a new a new agent, Horst Neuman (aka James Porter), to act as a courier. Among a large cast of German intelligent agents, Kurt Vogel is the chief handler for the operation. Among a similarly large cast of British counterintelligence agents, former history professor Alfred Vicery leads the attempt to uncover the agents.
If you take the premise that Ken Follet's "Eye of the Needle" is such a good story (it is) that it could benefit from being retold at five times the original length, by adding a dozen subplots and the necessary several dozen new characters as filler (a questionable proposition), the result would be something very much like "The Unlikely Spy". Naturally, you'd change the sex of the principal spy from male to female and make her bisexual to spice things up. Scenes in which an English detective tries to get help from idiotic village constables by phone are almost identical to corresponding scenes in "Eye of the Needle". The personal history, psychology, and modus operandi of "the Needle", appears to have been divided between "Catherine" and Horst, with minimal additional elaboration. Just as the "Needle" used a stiletto (i.e., a "needle")--as his weapon of choice, so did Catherine. Ultimately (as in "Eye of the Needle"), the spies even attempt an escape by fishing boat, in a storm, while surrounded by English submarines and warships. There is nothing wrong with homages--although perhaps Silva should acknowledge his.
The huge cast of characters in "Unlikely Spy" can be confusing to the reader. Most of the subplots and characters could be edited out in an abridged edition, with no effect what-so-ever on the story. READERS BEWARE--keeping a "dramatis personae" handy is required for most readers to keep track of the characters and thus the associated subplots. Despite the large cast of characters, or perhaps because of the large cast of characters, none are adequately fleshed out. I felt no particular empathy for any of them--something which is particularly needed when the plot drags, as it does for the last third of the novel.
Of course, the spy has to make crucial mistakes, but the mistakes Catherine makes are implausible. Catherine is a stereotyped cold-blooded killer whose only solution to any problem is murder. For example, although born in England, and therefore presumably a British citizen, Catherine disguised her return to England in 1938, during peacetime, by murdering an English woman. For this and several subsequent unnecessary murders, Catherine used her signature stiletto-under-the-rib-cage-into-the-heart technique, essentially identifying herself as German spy, and tying all the murders together. As others have noted, the final twist greatly strains credulity.
With these caveats, "The Unlikely Spy" is a very rich and entertaining novel.
Alfred Vivers works in "A rather dull office of the war ministry" at least that is what he has to tell everyone.
In fact it is his job to safeguard one of the most vital secrets of the second world war just exactly where the troops are going to land. Not to mention the artificial harbors that are being constructed. A sleeper agent that has been in England since the 30's seeks to jeopardize all that. Now he must race against the clock to find the agent before she escapes England and reaches safety in Germany.
The suspense level makes this a thoroughly enjoyable book.
I was surprised to find that this book was better than Daniel Silva's series featuring Israeli Mossad agent Gabriel Allon. This tale revolves around German efforts to learn where the Allies plan to invade and Allied attempts to disguise the Normandy target. Silva weaves a complex web of spying and counterspying. His writing here is cooler and more solid than in the Mossad tales. The task of writing about Israel, Jews, Palestinians and the Holocaust is surely wrenching, but I don't think Silva quite mastered that. He seems compelled to somehow "balance" those novels politically by depicting the Israelis, embodied by Allon's boss, as blood-drenched, cynical killers, to "make up" for also showing the terrible toll Jews have paid in the last half century or so just for being Jews. And Allon's inner torture got old.
"The Unlikely Spy", however is more refreshing. Protagonist Alfred Vicary is a lonely university don to whom wartime gives one last chance to redeem himself from a costly error in the previous war and to somehow shake off the ghost of a long-unrequited love. Middle-aged, unglamorous, cerebral, he finds a new lease on life running a double-cross operation against the Germans, sleeping on an Army cot in his office and drinking bad coffee. He finds himself drafted into an urgent attempt to locate a German sleeper agent now believed to be targeting the Normandy invasion plans. He finds himself often stymied by his aristocratic boss Basil Boothby, a perfect ass who wants credit for Vicary's successes, to hang Vicary out to dry otherwise, and who sometimes seems to be working at cross purposes to him.
Vicary's target is the lovely, dangerous Catherine Blake, who has blended into British society for six years before being asked by Abwehr spymaster Kurt Vogel to accomplish this one task. Her target in turn is bridge-building engineer Peter Jordan, a lonely widower (of course) working on a top-secret aspect of the Normandy invasion. It isn't difficult to guess the general direction the plot goes in. Silva's intricate weaving of the whole thing, and his spycraft details, are enjoyable, with multiple German and English circles developed. Things develop and build steadily without flagging. The surprising denouement, as I suppose is inevitable with espionage books, is a bit confusing. Still, this is a fine book.
on July 15, 1999
Silva has endeared himself to the crowd that seek more than just 007 spy action. He has created human characters that struggle with the reality of their actions. He lifts the veil on the German machine showing the grays that are usually depicted as pure black in other creations. The Unlikely Spy is a book that I had an unusual amount of fun reading. And the ending was very enjoyable. Too many times you reach the end of a book like this and it just doesn't live up to the action and intrigue of the body. Unlikely delivers from front to back. If you have any interest in espionage or WWII fiction, you can't miss this.
on August 9, 2002
This seemed like a great novel till I got to the end. I don't want to give away anything about the conclusion, but I felt like I had been had, by the way this story wrapped up in the last few pages. I wondered a quite a bit about the sense (or senselessness?) of the whole plot for quite a few hours after I was done reading this novel. Mr. Silva has certainly written far better works than this...
on June 9, 2009
"The Unlikely Spy" is a very good WWII espionage spy thriller. It's long - 725 pages, but rarely does it drag, and most of the time the story is interesting, intriguing, well-crafted, and often compelling. There are only a few instances of a solution to a dilemma faced by one of the characters that is too pat or too contrived (a problem often found in novels such as this). The characters, for the most part, remain true to their personality, training and mission.
Only the two main German spies (Horst and Anna) fall out of their roles glaringly one or two times: one such moment is the unfortunate "street" fight with a local Brit that Horst gets himself into; the other is when Anna begins to doubt herself, her mission, herself, and begins to gain a conscience. These two German spies are clever, well-trained and effective in what they do, and even when they are humanly inconsistent, they are convincing and exceptional. One does not root for them, but one does rather admire them. Anna, in particular, is complex and complicated, a beautiful woman with a somewhat tortured past. But she has been trained to kill and kill she does.
The one American (Peter) is true to his character almost unfailingly, as are the British main characters, especially the very well-drawn likeable Vicary and the more mysterious cad Boothby.
The real-life historical figures, Eisenhower, Churchill and all the usual German demons (like Canaris, Himmler, and Hitler) play big to small roles, as is appropriate for the story, except for the main German background player, Major Vogel who runs Anna, whom he placed in Britain in 1938, 6 years before she was needed by the 3rd Reich to unravel allied plans for D-Day in early 1944.
It's all about D-Day, and this story proved a timely read here in June 2009 during the days leading up to and after the recent 65th anniversary ceremony celebrating the costly but successful Allied invasion of France in 1944. This story revolves around German and Allied hand-wringing over where and when the Allied invasion would occur. Would the Germans discover that it would occur at Normandy --- or as the Allies wanted them to believe - at Calais? That is the entire nexus of the story.
In the end, I liked this book better than (though it is greatly different from) Michael Dobbs' books about Churchill in the same time period (see "Never Surrender"). Silva apparently doesn't have the pressure to try to teach history, except as it is incidentally important to his story. Then he gets it right. But make no mistake: this is fiction - as are all of Dobbs' works.
The plot is complicated (but not too complex), and it is filled with engaging, distinctive characters. I was amazed to find myself on page 500-something, absorbed and engaged in the story. Silva does a reasonably good job writing women, though his forte is men.
I was struck with how this story is an excellent mix of plain old police detective work and subtle ruthless intelligence work. Silva mixes the two very, very well.
I think it is probably about 150 pages too long. What makes it long is Silva's penchant for a great amount of background detail - all interesting, mind you, but nonetheless perhaps not so much is needed to move the story forward. It is also surprisingly "neutral" as to which side holds the cards, brains and skill - with plenty of blunders on both sides.
In the last ½ of the book there is a plenitude of bloody, appalling and mindless killings and murders, as the 2 German spies fight to escape MI-5 and the entire Allied intelligence apparatus bearing down on them after their cover is blown. Once you get over Silva's occasional invented and too-pat circumstantial events that actually help the Brits run down these spies, the story picks up momentum and becomes a page turner. Both sides make countless errors and missteps. Just because you want the Brits to win out, does not imbue them with infallibility.
The book's major flaw, I think, is the somewhat pedestrian and not-very-creative finale or ultimate resolution. I would have hoped that the last 125 pages would live up to the first 600 pages in creativity and cleverness, but they did not. While not exactly disappointing, the conclusion left me wanting something a little better. It is for this reason that I do not give this book a 5 rating.
All-in-all, if you like WWII espionage historical fiction, this book is a great read. It's brutal, realistic, and a fun romp in 1944 England and Germany, great for vicarious re-living (or first-living) of that marvelous time in our history. This is a great book to read on a holiday, on an airplane, or when you are free to indulge 2 or 3 days to escape into the greatest era of old-fashioned espionage -- World War II. This is not the economical, terse beauty that Alan Furst might write (see his "Spies of Warsaw"), but nonetheless it is very, very good. I give it a 4+.
on June 19, 2010
In "The Unlikely Spy", Daniel Silva, creates a realistic journey through wartime London prior to the Normandy invasion. Known for his series of novels featuring art restorer and Mossad agent Gabriel Allon, this novel is his first, I believe and is extremely well crafted.
He has successfully penetrated the British consciousness and his protagonist, a historian and professor drafted by Churchill to become a spy hunter and empowered to root out and arrest German agents. His opponent, a German spy named Catherine Blake, has lived under deep cover in Britain for several years and is assigned to ferret out the secrets of the pending Allied invasion of Normandy.
Blake is the perfect spy. She is beautiful, blackmailed by her Nazi controllers, and a sociopath . . . all rolled into one. This is a battle of wits and cross/double-cross and you are never really sure until the last page just what is really going on.
The descriptions of wartime London are portrayed so vividly that you feel the author lived through the years himself.
This is an edge of-your seat spy novel that you are not able to put down until the very end.
I was so engrossed in the story that I gladly read it again after a two year lapse.
on February 19, 1998
This is a well-written spy novel concerning the Allied turning of Axis agents in England, and the deception about where the D-Day forces would land. It does well at portraying daily life in wartime London, and some of the characters have depth and complexity.
Yet all this effort at realism and character development falls short. Many people who read this book KNOW the true story of how the Allies turned the German agents in England, and the various complex and ingenious methods which deceived Germany about the planned landing point of D-Day.
And such readers KNOW that the British would not be so dumb and reckless with thousands of lives, as to give the Germans information pointing to Normandy, merely because that information MIGHT cause dissension among German intelligence analysts which MIGHT benefit the Allies.
Nor would the type of risky and pointless manipulation WITHIN the British MI5, which is part of the book's plot, be engineered by MI5, just because it MIGHT make fake information received by the Germans look more authentic -- just as it might allow the Germans to get the true information and cause D-Day to fail.
There are so many plot lines, with equal drama and tension, that could have been developed within the framework of known facts, that it seems silly for an author to go so far outside the known facts.
on November 25, 2000
I picked up a copy of this to read on a recent plane trip. It didn't last long enough for the trip home! I stayed up late - very late - several nights finishing it! The character development was wonderful; this was no superficial book.
Another reviewer commented that a female spy is not unlikely. I know it's a matter of opinion, but I do not believe Anna is the 'Unlikely Spy' of the title. I believe it refers to the humble professor turned spy catcher. While he didn't actually go undercover and 'spy', he was most certainly in the spy business.