Customer Review

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Formulaic procedural: Stripped down story suitable/intended for a screenplay?, January 30, 2012
This review is from: Spies of the Balkans: A Novel (Paperback)
Complexity and ambiguity are basics of the spy novel, but there is none of that here. This book is a mediocre procedural that only tangentially involves spies or espionage. Its covert activity -- an escape route -- is something "that just works" (largely) and there no fun of discovery of what it takes to run a complex operation of that type. Would that my vacation trips were so easy to arrange and ran so smoothly.

The story feels like it has been simplified -- plot and characters -- for easy conversion into a screenplay for a theatrical movie (but unlikely to be good enough for cable). Although many words are expended describing the characters, the result is only two-dimensional, uninvolving stereotypes. The story has the sort of linearity and choppy jumping from scene to scene that I associate with screen plays rather than (non-pulp) novels. The starkly condensed plot requires a level of omniscience of the part of multiple characters, in contrast to what I expect of the genre. Everything comes easy to the protagonist, similar to a Jason Bourne movie but without the "wow". Although the regional and ethnic animosities are mentioned, they are missing from the actual story. The characters have an astounding credulity, especially considering the escalating crisis, and they provide nearly immediate agreement to requests that put them at considerable danger but have miniscule reward.

Friends had suggested that I read the books in this series and unfortunately this was the first one. They (and professional reviewers) described these books as rich in sense-of-place and historical details. I found little of that here, other than a coarse timeline of how WW2 entered the Balkans. Plus, the author lost lots of credibility with me with his yammering about the Walther PPK pistol: He repeatedly highlighted it, but got much wrong. (The PPK is what James Bond famously carried in the movies)
DETAILS: He has the protagonist ask for "the detective version" of the PPK, which is redundant: PP = PolizeiPistole and the "K" indicates the detective variant. The PPK excelled at concealability, but many concessions/tradeoffs were made to achieve that. It lacked stopping power (.32 cal), tended to jam and was effective only at short ranges. This was acceptable when the pistol was expected to be primarily used as a threat or intimidation, particularly against the unarmed. For example, making an arrest. It could also be a deterrent, keeping an opposing gunman far enough away for long enough. However, when the protagonist is called up by the army, he makes the inconceivable, and very deliberate, choice to take a PPK. And when the protagonist uses his PPK on a covert mission, it does not "bite" his hand, as the PPK was wont to do. This is a very distinctive mark in a highly visible location that would likely have had him immediately detained by any police or border officials he encountered.

-- Douglas Moran
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 6, 2014 2:17:03 PM PDT
So why would you assume that his PPK was the .32 model and not the .380? It also came in a .22 model. Methinks you know less than you THINK you know, which is why you prattle on about such an insignificant point. A person who actually uses a pistol tends to go with one that he is comfortable and accurate with, no matter what any armchair expert would think.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 6, 2014 3:07:05 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Nov 22, 2014 1:16:50 PM PST
RE: Harnack: "which is why you prattle on about such an insignificant point"

It was not an insignificant point -- as my review said, the author made a big deal of it -- the pistol got more space and detail than the secondary characters.

Aside: according to my reference sources, the .380 ACP version of the PPK wasn't available until well after the period covered by the novel, and the .22 version was much later than that. The .380 ACP cartridge is classified in various references as falling just inside the margins for a personal defense weapon. The basic mechanism of a semi-automatic pistol model constrain what it can be rechambered for.

Familiarity does have its advantages, but the primary advantage of the PPK was concealability, which is not important to a uniformed military officer. An officer in the rear areas might choose a PPK for weight, but anyone likely to be where there was fighting would likely pick a pistol with better accuracy/range and stopping power. The PPK weighs about 600 grams (23 oz) vs 871 grams for the Luger vs 800 grams for the Walther P38 (which was in the process of replacing the Luger at the time of the story). If I thought I might wind up on scouting or observer missions (with negligible escort), I would have considered buying a Mauser C96 derivative (a heavy 1130 grams) for those missions.
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