No, not that Robert B. Parker. This isn’t a Spenser novel. This Robert B. Parker—no relation—was a foreign correspondent who was on the ground in countries such as Germany, Hungary, Turkey and Spain for many of the early 20th century’s key events. He found time to write a number of suspenseful spy novels full of the insider knowledge acquired through his journalistic travels.
This 1951 thriller starts on the Orient Express between Vienna and Budapest. In order to get into Russian-occupied Hungary, John Stodder had bought a false passport in Vienna. He couldn’t travel under his own name; the Russians had refused him access because of uncomplimentary articles he’d written. He wasn’t after a story, at least not one for the paper. He wanted to find out what had happened to his brother during the war.
The only problem is that his passport belongs to a dead man, Marcel Blaye, who had been murdered only the previous day. He discovers this when Blaye’s beautiful and terrified assistant enters his compartment where she had been booked to travel with her employer. The man Blaye told her wanted to kill him lurked in the corridor outside.
The non-stop action begins, as Stodder realises that his passport won’t work at the border where they will be looking for Blaye’s murderer. The chase is on, as Stodder and Maria try to elude, not just the man in the corridor, but Russian soldiers and a mysterious Polish countess. They also have to decide what to do about Blaye’s mission and find the truth about Stodder’s brother.
What makes this story stand out are the details about places and politics. It’s an exciting story, with all kinds of twists and turns. Like an Alfred Hitchcock film, we have an ordinary man finding himself suddenly in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances. I never tire of the courage and resourcefulness the most ordinary person can display when neeeded.
Some fellow writers and I were discussing whether books could have too much suspense. Most of us agreed that the pacing had to vary, as it does here with moments of regrouping and recuperation. They don’t last long, but they help maintain the interest. We also liked some comic relief, here provided by the most unlikely pair of U.S. spies you can imagine. Plus there’s a nightclub where the dance floor rotates and booths drop to the basement and rise again at the touch of a button.
If you miss the spy novels of the 1950s, pick up this one, newly reissued by Hard Case Crime. It won’t disappoint. Then if you want, you can pick up a Spenser novel and leave the bitterly cold world of spies for the mysteries of Boston.
What spy novels have you enjoyed?