A clever (perhaps too clever for its own good), twisty (ditto) post-Cold War thriller by the late, great John Ford. I think this is his only non-sff novel, though it is arguably alternate history and possibly sf of the techno-thriller variety.

It juggles a lot of complex puzzle pieces, action set-pieces, and short, sharp character sketches into a whirlwind of a story concerning double agents, a newly discovered play which may be by Christopher Marlowe or may be a clever hoax, secret codes, war games, theatre, academia, the complications of love, spies in Elizabethan times, spies in Cold War times, and spies in the 1980s.

I had read this before, and recalled enjoying it but not having a clue what was going on, and I forgot the plot immediately upon finishing it. I finished my re-read fifteen minutes ago; I enjoyed it, but I still don't understand much of what happened or why. I can follow the general outlines of people running around, shooting at and betraying each other, and unraveling complex codes and schemes, but neither the details of how they're doing it or the overall reasons why, let alone who's really on which side.

Ford was undoubtedly much smarter than me (I am pretty sure he was much smarter than nearly everyone) and I don't expect to understand all the details and allusions and subtext, or even a lot of the plot, the first time I read any of his books. He tends to leave out a lot of stuff that other writers would put in, necessitating that the readers infer from the signposts he left, in lieu of an actual trail.

But this book depends more on plot than most of his; the characters exist to serve the plot rather than the other way around. It's set up as a mystery, but I didn't understand about two-thirds of the solution.

It's well-written but too subtle to quite work as a mystery/thriller. On the other hand, without Ford's usual depth of character and allusion, it feels a bit lightweight. It's definitely worth reading if you're a Ford completist, and is way more easily obtainable than it used to be, with cheap used paperback copies on Amazon. But it's a distinctly minor work.

Just a few of the many things I didn't understand:

What did the Russians have to do with it all? Was Berenson a Russian agent?

What was the relevance of the body found in the jeep at the beginning?

Was Berenson and Maxwell's plan actually to prove that the communication system wouldn't prevent a nuclear strike... by launching a nuke? And then what? Or was it a fake nuke? And since their unauthorized missile wouldn't be using a government communication system either, what in the world would launching it prove? Or was their plan something else?

I don't understand why the plan fell through. Was it really just that Maxwell didn't expect Hansard to tell anyone she had been (supposedly) kidnapped? Why did she tell Hansard where she worked?

Why was a duplicate copy of the Skene manuscript left with amusing alterations at Berenson's apartment? Was it just an incredibly elaborate red herring?

Why was it important (in terms of the spy plot) that Hansard authenticate the manuscript at all? If the presumably coded alterations made in modern times, to the copy left in Berenson's apartment, were the clues, then why did it matter whether or not the original manuscript was written by Christopher Marlowe?

Why would the mastermind professor, Ellen's father, go through all that rigamarole to get his hands on the Skene manuscript, when he clearly must have already had a copy in order to leave an altered copy at Berenson's apartment. Did he specifically want the original?

The Scholars of Night

From: [identity profile] marzipan-pig.livejournal.com


Your commentary/questions makes me both want to read the book and not at the same time; good job! :)

From: [identity profile] mrissa.livejournal.com


Have you read Anthony Price? Because that's a lot of what he's referring to with this one. Also Anthony Price books are awesome.

From: [identity profile] mrissa.livejournal.com


They are a whole series of British spy novels. The first one is The Labyrinth Makers, and it's usually pretty widely available used. I found them to be basically what I wanted LeCarre to be that LeCarre wasn't (and not just because there are women in Price's spy network).
ext_6428: (Default)

From: [identity profile] coffeeandink.livejournal.com


Price has a series of books loosely centered on a spy named David Audley, which can be read in almost any order. (There are a few later books which work better if you've read specific earlier books first.) They are not written in chronological order, they take place in any time period from WWII to the 80s, and most of them combine some kind of historical investigation with an espionage plot. I tend to like the ones not so focused on Audley better. There are things that are tragic only if you've read other books, and unnoticeable if you haven't. It's a lot easier to follow than Ford.

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


Unfortunately it has been too long since I last read this to answer any of these questions except possibly the one about the body in the jeep. The body is the American officer we see in a flashback scene who was working with or stealing something from (or both?) General Gehlen. I can't remember what they found in the jeep with the body, but whatever it was had something to do with Gehlen (and presumably his post-WWII anti-Soviet spy organization).
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