Showing posts with label Gregory Hiller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gregory Hiller. Show all posts

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Gregory Hiller #03 - The Spy Who Didn't

Journeyman author Jack Laflin wrote four books in the Gregory Hiller spy series - plus a prequel explaining how a Soviet spy named Piotr Grigorivich Ilyushin eventually became the American CIA’s greatest asset. I had trouble getting into Book #2 (“The Spy in the White Gloves”), but I didn’t want to give up on this unique character so I’m continuing into Book #3: “The Spy Who Didn’t” from 1966.

The opening page brings the reader up to speed on Hiller’s background as a Soviet defector who is now living as a freelance writer between CIA special assignments. However, this time the assignment stumbles into a vacationing Hiller in the form of a battered old man on a road who collapses in Hiller’s arms outside a mysterious Long Island, New York sanitarium. Before losing consciousness, the old man tells Hiller that the nation of Israel needs to be notified, and “Von Eckhardt has to be stopped!”

Hiller is quickly confronted by the escapee’s pursuers and we get to meet our pulpy cast of cartoonish villains lead by Doctor Rolf Von Eckhardt, who we immediately know is a real villain because he wears a monocle. He’s also the operator of the private sanitarium, Shady Knoll, from which the old man escaped. By page 17, Hiller is captured by the bad guys, including a human giant named Man Mountain McGill, and taken to the sanitarium. The context clues for Hiller and the reader are enough to make everyone come to the logical conclusion that Von Eckhardt is an escaped Nazi officer doing very bad things inside the sanitarium walls.

Laflin writes “The Spy Who Didn’t” in the over-the-top pulp fiction style of The Shadow, The Spider, or Doc Savage. It’s a lot of fun as long as you aren’t expecting a John LeCarre or Robert Ludlum spy story (in fairness, the paperback’s cover should have been a clue.) The torture scenes inside Shady Knoll were particularly brutal, and the secrets of what else is happening inside the creepy place are revealed mostly through monologues from the villain oversharing with our restrained hero.

Eventually, the action moves from beyond the sanitarium walls and into Mexico. Heller’s mission is one that’s been done in dozens of times in other, better novels, but that’s not the point. “The Spy Who Didn’t” is a violent and propulsive bit of pulp fiction that exists for the joy of the ride. Laflin is a good storyteller even when he is trading in genre tropes for his CIA hero. Mostly, this is a book I can recommend without reservations because it was a hell of a lot of fun. I probably won’t remember the plot details in a year, but I’ll certainly recall the good time I had in this vicarious adventure.

The Gregory Hiller Series:

0: The Spy Who Loved America (1964)
1: A Silent Kind of War (1965)
2: The Spy with the White Gloves (1965)
3: The Spy Who Didn’t (1966)
4: The Reluctant Spy (1966)

Buy a copy of this book HERE

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.