Note: This was one of three Hard Case thriller reviews I wrote years ago, but never got around to publishing it on Logic. I found the Word .doc a few weeks ago, so I’ll be putting them up here. But expanded a little: originally I had the idiotic idea to do three three-paragraph reviews per post, something I wanted to rectify with this blog.
First things first, there’s a lot of people bitching on Amazon and elsewhere about how this is not Robert Brown Parker, that being the Parker who wrote the Spenser books, but a lesser-known Parker back from during the Cold War era. It astounds me how many people can’t bother to, say, read the back of the book or the Amazon description blurb which states it’s a different author. Is it really a “bait-and-switch” when the book hints, on both front and back covers, that it’s another person? Inclined to say no. I’m of the opinion that you deserve to be saddled with paying seven bucks for the wrong book if you don’t bother reading about it first, but whatever.
Again, Robert Brown Parker is the guy who wrote the Spenser novels; Robert Bogardus Parker was an Ian Fleming-style World War II spy turned novelist; unlike Fleming, his deeds weren’t built on self-hype. As a foreign correspondent, Parker covered the Spanish and Chinese Civil Wars, the invasion of Poland, rode with the Hungarians invading Russia, traveled with the Red Army, helped Eastern European Jews escape (including his assistant), and was an all-around badass. Like other war correspondents, Parker was recruited into the OSS—the precursor to the CIA—to provide information and disperse Allied propaganda from his station in Budapest, Hungary. Post-war, he wrote three books—Headquarters Budapest, a nonfiction account of his wartime experiences, and the thrillers Ticket to Oblivion and Passport to Peril—before dying of a heart attack in 1955, shortly before his fiftieth birthday.
The Gregory Manchess cover is a major attention-getter: fur-coated woman fleeing from one of those big, ’40s-style European cars in the midst of winter. The grey-blue background gives it a haunting feel, a moonlight panic as she’s being run down by a fedora-wearing bad guy. It’s a simple piece, but evocative, and as always I really like Manchess’ style.
This is a fine thriller of post-war intrigue, reputed to be one of the first Cold War thrillers. The story itself is well constructed, involving American John Stodder finding that the passport and Orient Express ticket he purchased under-the-table was from a murdered man, as revealed to him by the dead man’s secretary, a woman named Maria Torres. Stuck with the rotten identity, Stodder has to uncover the secret of why the man was murdered before the same fate befalls him. On the run behind the Iron Curtain, the duo are chased by Soviets and their Hungarian allies, ex-Gestapo thugs still revering Hitler, and ends up aided by some OSS agents at the right place and the right time.
The plot is complex and aided by the great description and the pacing. Even the characters feel very realistic; Stodder frequently makes dumb mistakes, like leaving the dead man’s manila folder of secret info behind on a train, not realizing just how important the cryptic data is. This one is a real page-turner, and is an amazing thriller overall. I can’t believe the amount of people giving it shitty reviews because they bought the wrong book. I’m really hoping Hard Case picks up Parker’s other thriller novels, all long-unpublished since the 1950’s, based on this novel alone.
There’s a number of small problems that would have been easily fixed by an editor, which is annoying but doesn’t subtract too much from the story. The OSS agents reek of deus ex machina, arriving always at the proper dramatic time (and not a moment before). Worse, Stodder has the urge to repeat information, sometimes within pages of explaining it, while at other points re-capping the events of the last chapter or so. The most damning error I noted was when Stodder flipped backstories, changing between being an Air Force officer and a spy during the war.
Considering Parker himself was an OSS agent during World War II spying behind Axis lines, I have a hard time fault him for confusing fact and fiction. It’s annoying, like he’s confusing his own life story with the protagonist’s, but it seems to confuse the author more than the reader. In any event, while there are annoying, niggling details, they remain mere annoyances in the scale of the work. And considering the prose and pacing, Parker’s good qualities outweigh any small flaws. I’m still hoping his other book, Ticket to Oblivion, will be reprinted as well.
Maybe it’s my fascination with Cold War-era spy thrillers, but I really enjoyed this book: I’d put it in my top-ten favorite Hard Cases overall. It’s a good old-fashioned thriller with a complex plot; the early Cold War world is a great setting, with Soviet and ex-Nazi adversaries, back before the Russians had atom bombs. Parker writes with a competent hand, and his knowledge of this part of Europe comes across in his descriptions. A very fun, very adventurous thriller, though not as much of a standout as it could be.