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The Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert.

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The Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert

This complex novel is set in two centuries, with two casts of characters, and two plots. The unifying thread is a collection of intelligence reports in cypher supposed to be from the files of Frances Walsingham, spymaster for Elizabeth I, which disappeared in the sixteenth century. This book has them reappear in modern times in the possession of Cidro Medina, a young, handsome, British financier whose London home is burgled by a mysterious criminal, seeking the manuscript, who commits suicide by poison as he is apprehended. Medina hires the Slade Group to investigate whereupon we meet operative Kate Morgan, erstwhile graduate student in Renaissance literature, who begins to decipher the manuscripts while conducting other operations for the part of the Slade Group which accepts CIA assignments. Kate’s off-the-books, CIA assignment involves meeting, getting fingerprints and a voice recording to establish a real identity for Luca de Tolomei a mysterious, obviously very wealthy, Italian art dealer. Described as the bad boy of the Sotheby’s set, he has just paid eleven million dollars to a highly placed figure in the Iranian security service, but does not seem to have existed prior to 1991. Spy satellites watch as a box is mysteriously transferred at night from one of the ships formerly involved in evading the oil embargo to de Tolomei’s yacht in the Mediterranean.
In the sixteenth century, we follow the adventures of several real people, among them Christopher Marlowe, playwright and intelligence agent for one faction in the highly competitive and understandably paranoid world of Elizabethan espionage. The notion that (British) “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail” was a product of the restrained and peaceful nineteenth century. In the police state that was Elizabethan England, spying, torture and guilt by mere suspicion were customary. By 1593, three years after Walsingham’s death, the competing factions, led by Sir Robert Cecil, and Robert Devereux, Lord Essex were circling each other, egged on by Elizabeth, herself, who was quite happy with both Cecil’s information and Essex as her bed partner. Replete with Elizabethan arms smuggling, commercial fraud, and political and religious intrigue, the concerns of the 16th century begin to sound rather like our own, some of the solutions they found both real and imagined begin to sound familiar also.
Leslie Silbert has written a novel of multi- level intrigue, where even the things that we know happened the sixteenth century can be brought into question. Laced with the details of espionage tradecraft of both the sixteenth and twentieth century, the book slips easily between the creators of the 16th century documents, and their decoders and investigators in the modern era. The motivations of the characters of both centuries are as complicated as the hidden paths of the human heart, and even the best spy satellites can only record activities, not explain why they happen. There is a second novel promised soon entitled Killing Caravaggio which will involve Kate Morgan and many of the same twentieth century characters, with a historic adventure based on the life and death of the artist Caravaggio.

Mary K. Spore-Alhadef

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The title of this amusing but ultimately serious book is a  reference to the London neighborhood most Americans will remember from the Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts film which is referred to locally as “That Film” (just as Macbeth is always called “The Scottish Play”  by those connected to the theatre).  One of the characters in the book notes that the last scene of the film, with the pregnant Julia and Hugh on a bench, obviously now homeowners, in  the communal  garden whose wall they had scaled earlier,  was, for her, the obvious beginning of narrative tension not the happy ever after.

The story is told in alternating chapters by two of the women whose tiny back gardens open (via a locked gate to which each household has one key) onto the five acre common garden.  Clare (a childless and worrying-about-it garden designer, whose husband Gideon is a successful eco-architect) represents the new moneyed people who have made house values in the neighborhood escalate 3000% in twelve years and   Mimi (the mother of three, a dilatory work-at-home freelance journalist whose husband Ralph writes a subscription-only monthly on the oil and gas industry) who feels completely embedded in the neighborhood.  They inherited their house from Ralph’s father who bought it when the neighborhood was down-at-heels and by Notting Hill standards they are poor as they never go skiing, lack a second house in the country and struggle to pay the school fees.   The other neighbors fall into two groups, the haves. . . and the have yachts,  the superstars of the financial corporate and entrepreneurial worlds whose wives are kept busy being  Notting Hill uber-mummies,  superintending their children’s diet and activities, relentless shopping and decorating consultation with the Donna the guru of feng shui  who does everything from  window boxes to  life advice.

The arrival on the garden of the newly divorced transatlantic billionaire Si Kasparian  sets off the “marriage-wrecking-ball crash of lust…” in Mimi, but the neighborhood really goes into action when one couple demolishes their garage and begins an elaborate rebuilding which raises dark suspicions in Clare.  The story is hilariously filled with insights into life among the “Yummy Mummies” of modern London where “Circle Time”  at Ponsonby Prep can lead to the details of Celebrity Mummy’s  changing relationship innocently  revealed to the world and all the consequences of intra neighborhood adultery fold into one-upping the neighbors with new home perks like retractable roofs  and children who are either “gifted “  or “special needs”.  The author is  a  well known London journalist and resident of the neighborhood whose far more famous brother is Boris Johnson,  the Tory MP and ex-editor of The Spectator who has just shocked the political world by  being elected Lord Mayor of London.   The book is complete with “Notting Hill for Beginners” a guide to the shops, spas and service purveyors who support the lifestyle of London’s most famous postcode. — Molly Spore-Alhadef

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Here’s another great short story collection. If you aren’t going to read it all, then at least read “Bullet in the Brain.” It’s the story a man who is shot in the head during a bank heist – and what goes through his mind as he is dying. “Wolff’s characterizations are impeccable, his ear pitch-perfect and his eye unblinking yet compassionate.” – Publisher’s Weekly

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