Monday, March 12, 2018

Gregory Hiller #01 - A Silent Kind of War

Following the success of Ian Fleming’s novels, nearly every paperback publisher of the 1960s commissioned espionage series novels with varying results. Belmont Books took a whack at a spy series from 1964 to 1966 with five books starring CIA operative, Gregory Hiller. The literary arms race to crown the American James Bond had no clear winner (Matt Helm, perhaps), but this obscure series sure had some great moments.

Author Jack Laflin is a fine writer, but he didn’t leave Belmont Books with an easy task to market this series. In book one of the series, “The Spy Who Loved America”, we meet a Soviet KGB undercover spy, Pyotr Grigorivitch Ilyushin, who was training in Russia for a long-term undercover assignment in the USA. He receives plastic surgery to alter his Slavic appearance and attends a secret academy designed to teach undercover spies how to act credibly American, a fun concept later co-opted by Nelson Demille in his excellent novel, “The Charm School”. 

(A few spoilers from the inessential Book 1 of the series follow:)

Grigorivitch’s training worked too well, and he began to think and act like an American. Pretty quickly upon his arrival in the US, he is captured by the CIA and informed that he’s fooling no one. The CIA convinces this Russian Spy Who Loved America to change his name to Gregory Hiller and work as a CIA spy. The novel ends rather abruptly thereafter.

Do you see the marketing problem here?

Technically, Book 1 of the 'Gregory Hiller' series is “The Spy Who Loved America”, but the words “Gregory Hiller” don’t appear until the last page of the book. The knowledge that a Gregory Hiller series even exists kinda spoils the ending of Book 1. It’s probably more helpful to conceptualize “A Silent Kind of War” as 'Gregory Hiller' Book 1 and “The Spy Who Loved America” as a prequel/origin story.

In any case, A Silent Kind of War (aka: “Piotr Grigorivitch Ilyushin #2” or “Gregory Hiller #1”) is a spy novel representing Hiller’s first mission as a CIA operative. The job takes him to Hawaii with a mission to uncover a commie plot to sew unrest into the fabric of the 50th state’s newly-Americanized, yet very Oriental, culture. He poses as a writer and tourist with directions to liaison with two well-connected CIA operatives permanently stationed in Hawaii as points-of-contact. Hiller is specifically chosen for this assignment because he knows how the communist mind works.

The mystery of who is behind this plot against Hawaii is quickly given some clarity when Hiller runs into a freelance Hungarian spy he knew in his previous life. The last time that Hiller (as Piotr) saw Anton Korzenyi, it was 1958 in East Berlin when Korzenyi was using a mallet on the testicles of a would-be defector to extract information. Korzenyi’s presence in Honolulu lends a greater sense of urgency to Hiller’s mission since now both democracy and testicles are now at stake.

The stakes rise when happenstance brings Hiller into possession of an important object belonging to Korzenyi that the Hungarian desperately wants returned. This cat and mouse game drives the novel’s actions for the first hundred pages. Along the way, Hiller meets and falls for a tourist girl whose safety later becomes compromised by Hiller’s Cold War mission.

There are some very violent torture and fight scenes in this short novel, and the sense of urgency to Hiller’s mission is palpable. Another fun element is that this is Hiller’s first assignment for the CIA, and he screws it up quite a bit along the way. Good people die because of his inexperience and ineptitude. This isn’t a normal spy novel starring a perfect American superman. Hiller is vulnerable and very human.

Granted, the author deployed some lazy narrative devices along the way including the trope of a villain who takes the time to present a long monologue about his evil master plan before attempting to kill the hero. The dialogue was fairly clunky at times and could have benefited from a more critical editor. But at 159 pages, “A Silent Kind of War” is a quick and easy read - not a masterpiece of the genre but a fun diversion for espionage fiction fans.