Book Review: The Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery

Hi!

To most of the world, James Bond is the iconic British spy for nearly 60 years. Through the Cold War, the Drug War, and even into a post-9/11 world, he’s been reinvented multiple ways and times in books and movies and played by actors from George Lazenby to Daniel Craig. Ian Fleming‘s creation with a license to kill has dominated the popular impression of British Intelligence. But spies don’t really exist in popular media as they do in the real world.

I’m sure the British Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI-6) have had a few James Bond-like moments in their long and colorful history, but until now they’ve been hidden from public view. Keith Jeffery was granted unparalleled access to the MI-6 archives to piece together events from the agency’s beginnings to the start of the Cold War. Reading The Secret History of MI6, it was amazing just how much happened in those first 40 years starting in 1909. The real men and women who put their lives on the line to protect Britain from her enemies put James Bond’s antics to shame.

From the beginning, there was a conflict between the need for military intelligence, upon which wartime strategies could be formed, and foreign intelligence, upon which political and international policy decisions could be based. These interests were not always at odds, but the groups collecting the intelligence often sought to protect their sources at all costs, even from other agencies working on the same side. This reluctance to share actionable intelligence in a timely manner often hampered good decisions to be made by those in power. But Commander Mansfield Cumming hoped to change that culture of mistrust and offer a better solution.

Throughout the build up to the First World War, it was a matter of gaining the trust of the agencies depending on intelligence reports while building a network of field agents and informants that could reliably get a more complete picture of what was going on. Many of the same challenges of mistrust and information sharing existed for the next forty years as well. And always it was a balancing act between the need for information, the need for secrecy, and the safety of all assets involved.

The book provides a detailed accounting of many of the trials associated with developing the tools and techniques of spycraft – from learning how to record and transmit or transport reports from the field back to headquarters to finding cover identities and companies with which to hide assets in plain sight. Even the Import/Export business used by James Bond’s MI-6 was first used by the real MI-6 long before World War I!

Though the text does get dense and mired in detail at times, I honestly think Jefferey’s book should be required reading for any student of history or individual seeking to learn more about how MI-6 began. As events unfold through the years, I gained a new perspective on key events leading to World War I and II and the aftermath of each. The Secret History of MI6 is an incredible read. Perhaps in another fifty years or so we can read more about MI-6 history from 1950 to 9/11 and beyond!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great history books below!

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Music Review: Human Target Soundtrack

Hi all…

Human Target is coming back for a second season on November 17th, which has given me some time to appreciate what came before. :)

Bear McCreary at a Signing Event at House of B...
Image via Wikipedia

When Human Target debuted on Fox in January 2010, I was hooked from the beginning. Loosely based on the DC Comics title of the same name, the TV series follows the adventures of Christopher Chance (Mark Valley, Fringe), Winston (Chi McBrideBoston PublicI, Robot), and freelancer Guerrero [Jackie Earle Haley, WatchmenNightmare on Elm Street (2010)] as they struggle against the odds to help people find and eliminate the threats trying to end their lives.

The combination of humor, action, and a complex backstory that was revealed bit by bit throughout the season made it an easy choice for watching week to week. But there were two things that really sold the series for me beyond the content… the opening titles and the music.

The opening titles used a combination of water colors and a James Bond-movie type sequence flowing characters and background together that provided a fluid representation of all the major elements of the show. All the characters, the main backdrop of San Francisco, and the hazardous nature of the work the trio does together were presented in an artful way I’d not seen done on television before.

And then there’s Bear McCreary‘s score for the series. The opening titles had me from the first few notes – as soon as the flutes pipe the main theme, the orchestra fills in behind, and the horns take over, I was sold. As the season continued episode to episode, I felt like McCreary’s music gave this television show the feel of a movie each week – truly capturing the pulse of the action on screen. Somehow McCreary manages to combine some of the flair of Danny Elfman’s soundtracks for Tim Burton movies with the power over the orchestra I feel in each John Williams soundtrack.

McCreary’s music for Human Target is being released in a couple of ways. You can get a limited edition 3-CD set from La-La Land Records or a 2-CD digital distribution from WaterTower Music (on iTunes). I was fortunate enough to listen to the digital release and was blown away. While watching the series on television (or the recent release of the series on DVD & Blu-ray), I would get caught up in the action on screen and only faintly aware of the music in the background. So listening to the music without the episodes in which they appear gave me a whole new appreciation for these compositions.

Tracks go from less than a minute to more than ten and cover more than two and a half hours of music from throughout the first season. Styles vary from quick, dark, and percussive to moody and romantic to light and almost circus-like. According to a recent article in Variety, each episode featured as much as 30 minutes of music played by an average of 60 musicians – making it the “largest group of musicians to play on a live-action TV series in years”. The season finale “Christopher Chance” alone featured an amazing 94 musicians.

And the quality of McCreary’s work has not gone unnoticed – he earned his first Emmy Award nomination for “Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music” for Human Target.

Whether you are a fan of the show, of Bear McCreary, or simply want to hear some amazing music, I can highly recommend picking up the Human Target soundtrack from WaterTower Music (digital release on iTunes) or La-La Land Records (3-CD deluxe version).

While researching this article, I did some reading on Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Blog and was disappointed to find out that he won’t be doing the soundtrack for season 2 of Human Target. He was not asked to return to the series, since it’s now under new creative leadership (see this post). Somehow I doubt the music will be as good for the second season. But obviously I wish all the best to McCreary for whatever projects are lucky enough to have him on board.

For more information about Bear and his music, I highly recommend reading his blog and check out his website at BearMcCreary.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up Human Target merchandise at Barnes & Noble below!

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Book Review: The Thyssen Affair by Mozelle Richardson

Hi all…

In the mid-80s, I started reading quite a bit of spy novels set during the Cold War. The detente between Russia and the United States echoed in much of the literature of the time, from the stories of Ian Fleming‘s James Bond to the novels of Robert Ludlum, Ira Levin, Frederick Forsyth, and Ken Follett. Depending on where you turned, the Nazi legacy lived on around the world.

So when I saw the description of The Thyssen Affair by Mozelle Richardson, I was excited. Here was a story that brought together remnants of the WWII OSS, its successor agency the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, the Russian KGB, and echoes of Nazi Germany. Plus, it stars Canyon Elliot, a Colorado rancher and retired intelligence officer as the main character. How could I pass it up?

The story begins with Elliot being brought in on a CIA operation by a friend of his – Peter Landis. Peter, currently working at the CIA, was a good friend of his son before he was killed in Vietnam. Peter’s request is simple – take a skull to Munich, Germany, and figure out why the KGB went to the trouble to dig it up from a graveyard on the site of an old POW camp in Fort Reno, Oklahoma. Simple enough, right?

Unfortunately, as with most things, his trip is anything by simple. By the time he gets to New York to head across the Atlantic, he has to lose someone tailing him. But by the time he gets to Munich, he realizes there has to be more to the skull of this German officer, Major Von Stober…

The Thyssen Affair starts quickly and doesn’t let up to the end. And if you like your spy fiction with explosions, gunfire, and knife fights you shouldn’t be disappointed. It’s a chess game between Elliot and the people trying to keep him from the truth but when the lovely KGB agent Anya comes into the picture, she does more than ruffle his feathers as the two leapfrog around Europe.

Richardson’s style reminded me quite a bit of the Ludlum novels I read as a teenager. It’s a quick read with intricate twists and turns, but like with Ludlum, the conspiracies and intrigue are nothing without great characters. Ultimately it’s those characters and the way their backgrounds bubble up to explain their motivations that really made this story work. Sure there’s a great deal of spy vs. spy action as well, but the character details are the glue that holds everything together.

The other aspect of her style I absolutely loved is that this is set in 1980. There are no computers, no cellular phones, no James Bond Q-Branch gadgetry… Elliot and the rest of the gang have to rely on tried and true spy methods. Codebook stuffed in a hollowed out heel of a shoe? Check. Microdot copy of a map to Nazi treasure? Check. Standard hand to hand, knives, and guns? Check. And in most cases, Elliot is forced to use is brains to think his way out of problems more often than not.

As I read along, I couldn’t help but think the book would make a great movie in the style of the James Bond films of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m not sure who they’d get to play Elliot, but perhaps someone like Tommy Lee Jones could pull it off.

The Thyssen Affair was a fast, enjoyable read. If you’re looking for a good spy novel from the Cold War, be sure to check it out!

This review first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this book and other Cold War spy novels from Barnes & Noble below!

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