Further reviews will be posted once they become available.
Adrian de Hoog, an author from the wide-open prairies and icy-cold of Canada, delivers a fresh, new perspective on the game of espionage in his two novels: The Berlin Assignment (2006) and Borderless Deceit (2007). These are not bang and boom spy thrillers, but are rather novels with spies in them. The Berlin Assignment plays out against the backdrop of post-wall Berlin and the problems of German reunification. Borderless Deceit is the tale of the Canadian role in the intelligence war against illicit weapons trafficking and money laundering that begins with the same kind of cyber attack that was launched on Georgia before the Russians invaded in August 2008. The world of fiction was ahead of the real world on this one. Borderless Deceit came out before the attack became a fact.
Both novels share the same story line, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage to the reader. The advantage is that the common story line provides de Hoog more time to develop his excellent psychological portraits of the characters. The disadvantage is that the reader can guess how Borderless Deceit ends before the final chapter is read. The reason that the story lines share so many parallels, explains De Hoog, is that he rather enjoyed constructing the interplay of the story elements when he was working on The Berlin Assignment, but after a number of years passed without the novel finding a publisher, he concluded that "it would never be published and then thought [he] might as well use that structure again." That is not to say that the one novel is a simple retelling of the other. No. The details of the stories are subtly varied, creating new interesting visions of the same motif.
The main attraction of De Hoog’s novels are the people who inhabit them. His visual portraits are economic, but his psychological profiles are detailed and filled with subtle brush strokes. In both the novels, the main show is a search to understand the relationships between the characters. The central characters of the story line are an introverted male lead and an extroverted female lead. The key issue in their relationship is best reflected in one of the questions that the female lead in Borderless Deceit asks herself: “Where lies the line between being alone and being lonely?” (BD p. 179) De Hoog’s novels explore the consequences of crossing this line.
The moral of both stories is perhaps best expressed by a Gorbachev quote found in The Berlin Assignment. When asked what he thinks of the Honecker regime on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev replies, "History punishes those who act too late." (TBA p. 420) In Borderless Deceit, the heroine connects loneliness and time when she tells the male lead that "you suffered from some form of monomania and the tragedy is you allowed it to waste precious years." (BD p. 317) For the heroine, time is fleeting, but "good memories are the return on an investment of time," and she already has had a good return on her investment in her Vienna years. (BD p. 173) To the contemplative reader, the clear implication of her conclusion is that the male lead has invested unwisely.
The element of espionage comes into play in both novels in the attempts of outsiders to understand the complex relationships of the two leading characters. When viewed in a certain light, their relationships have all the makings of a spy drama. Thanks to the narrator, however, the reader knows the "truth" of these relationships, making the outsiders' efforts to uncover the counter intelligence (CI) aspect of the couple's relationship seem like full-blown cases of paranoia.
In The Berlin Assignment, the investigation of the couple's relationship is set against the backdrop of East Germany's Stasi past. This backdrop serves to highlight the parallels between the analytical methods and motivations of the Stasi and those of the retiring British Chief of Station in Berlin, who wants a CI coup to close his career and believes that the starring couple of the novel will be it.
De Hoog comments on this with subtle indirectness. When the male lead of The Berlin Assignment finishes reviewing his Stasi file, he makes an observation about the great amounts of insignificant detail that fill the file, meticulously kept for year after year. "A Stasi specialty," says the archivist. "They lacked feedback loops telling them they were on a wild goose chase. Once they started, they couldn't stop." (TBA pp. 326, 477) The attentive reader soon sees that the same is true of the British Chief of Station.
In Borderless Deceit, De Hoog has a marvelous characterization of the motivation for continuing to believe the CI analysis of the main characters' relationship, and for further pursuing an investigation of it. The chief inquisitor is confronted by the female co-star of the novel, who calls his CI analysis "pseudo-intellectual trotting around," the purpose of which is to "spice up" his "own ego" (BD p. 203). The "wild goose chase that could not be stopped" and the "spice of pseudo-intellectual trotting around" are simply two sides of the same coin.
The irony of all this is that the character who defends the male lead in The Berlin Assignment from the witch hunt of the British Chief of Station is the same one, who in Borderless Deceit is leading the witch hunt to spice up his own ego.
The exploration of the CI aspects of the leading characters' relationships leads to the issue of the truth, which is a key one in the shadowy CI world where things are never as they seem. In The Berlin Assignment, the male lead says that Canadians are "selfless white knights, all of us. The truth first, self-preservation second" (TBA p. 436), and it appears so, because the "bad guy" is a Brit. In Borderless Deceit, the actions of the male lead confirm this positive assessment Canadians, and the lead turns into a "knight errant" (BD p. 349). The actions of the chief inquisitor, however, demonstrate that not all Canadians have a good handle on the truth, and that the truth has a certain malleability in some circles.
Recommended for those looking for something more than boom and bang in their spy fiction. These are "literary" spy novels that make you think. The Berlin Assignment is especially interesting for its illumination of the social dynamics of post-wall Berlin. Borderless Deceit will appeal to those with an appetite for stories of the intricacies of technical intelligence collection and analysis. A translation of the novels to the silver screen could produce films that would rival The Lives of Others and The Quiet American. I hope that this will not be too long in happening.
The Ottawa Citizen
While Adrian de Hoog may not be a household name yet, he’s probably well on his way with the release of his second tale of political intrigue, Borderless Deceit.
De Hoog, an Ottawa writer who turned to mystery after a 30-year career as a Canadian diplomat in countries as varied as Kenya and Germany, received critical acclaim for his first book, The Berlin Assignment, a story rooted in German reunification, which was released in 2006.
With Borderless Deceit, de Hoog ramps up the intrigue, going behind the scenes in the bunkers of the Pearson Building on Sussex Drive — the old External Affairs complex — where a computer virus has destroyed the communications network of the entire diplomatic service.
De Hoog shows just how such a virus could be fed into the Canadian network by a malcontent in some remote area of the world.
The story centres on a reclusive intelligence analyst at the Pearson complex, a brilliant and beautiful young diplomat he obsesses over, a punkish but savvy techie called in to repair the system and a boorish service operations boss determined to sink the analyst’s career.
De Hoog’s story not only offers fascinating insight into the foibles of diplomatic service but serves as a warning to anyone who thinks there is still some privacy left in the world.
Hackers, he shows, can worm their way into anywhere — and do. There is virtually nowhere left on the planet to hide, in fact, should authorities want to find you.
Borderless Deceit, clearly, is a book with brains.
The Current Magazine
Okay, I admit up front that I have a bit of a paranoid streak running through me. This paranoia usually involves computers and how some day I will be working away on a critical but as-of-yet-notbacked- up document, when the screen will suddenly go black or grey or whatever awful colour a computer's screen goes when the machine is wiped clean by a virus, and I will be left staring at my reflection, wondering what the hell I'm supposed to do now. Given this, I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about reading Borderless Deceit, a novel about a virus that destroys the communication network of the Canadian diplomatic service. I read the book, though, and am glad that I did. Borderless Deceit is an enjoyable read.
The novel begins with the bug, which "arrived in stealth … and … was … so bad that some - the closet mystics amongst us - supposed it sprang from the occult." When, quickly after, the bugs origin was discovered - "an ancient, deserted monastery in Transylvania" - I was hooked.
Borderless Deceit is fast-paced, with lots of pageturning intrigue. There are enough twists and turns to the plot to keep you reading and, generally, the characters are a sympathetic bunch (maybe it's the curse of being 'nice Canadians'). There's some love interest, too, and, of course, there is the world of computers, which still seems fantastical to me, at times.
But the computer world is real and the communication network is in a really bad state after the virus hits. It's so bad in fact that when the analysts' computers start crashing, the analysts themselves, in their state of shock, just gather around, seeming to wait for the joke to be revealed. (I believe that this is how I would react if my computer were ever attacked.)
The joke doesn't come but the realization that this is more than serious, it's a catastrophe that comes quickly.
Implicated in this catastrophe is Carson Pryce, an analyst who has access to too much information, particularly about Rachel Dunn, a diplomat with whom he's obsessed. Pryce knows so much about her that it is chilling. Rachel, too, is implicated, and as things go from bad to worse, both she and Carson end up hiding at the same villa in Costa Rica. There is also Irving Heywood, who runs the "Service Operations with an absolutist's touch which had earned him the corridor nickname Czar." It's Irving who offers the book's final image - that of him going round and round, "dancing out a momentum gathering pirouette" - which is disturbingly reminiscent of my anti-virus icon that goes round and round every time I start a new program or go to a new website.
The novel is a whirlwind journey, with Ottawa, San Francisco, Berlin, Egypt, and Transylvania just some of the stops along the way.
Adrian De Hoog knows about the diplomatic service as only an insider could. He was a Canadian diplomat for 30 years. Borderless Deceit is his second novel. His first, The Berlin Assignment, was published in 2006. It, too, is filled with intrigue but has German re-unification as its hook. De Hoog has a knack for choosing interesting topics.
Although I was afraid that the computer angle might monopolize the novel, or the technical aspects make it a plodding read, I didn't need to worry. De Hoog skillfully weaves enough computer information into the story to make it credible but not so much to make it leaden.
If you want a good book for a weekend read, Borderless Deceit is just the thing.
Bout de papier
I begin reading a book with a sense of wonder. Wonder for what is to be expected. For many authors experience has shown what I can expect. Wayne Johnson’s books will always have a combination of geography, climate and character as its central features; Ian Rankin can be expected to deliver a whodunit where the detective deduces largely from the inside of a decent whisky bottle; and Robertson Davies can be trusted to detail the human condition in any of many frailties and hopefully an occasional success.
A new novelist, as is Mr de Hoog, has a more limited track on which to judge what to expect. His first novel Berlin Assignment published last year capped a thirty year career in Canada’s foreign service, and following the advice of all handbooks to write about what you know, Mr de Hoog’s first novel detailed aspects of Canada’s foreign service against the destruction of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany. If that was all it was, it would still be a most readable and insightful book.
It was much more; it was fine satire in the great traditions of that style. His new book, Borderless Deceit is very much of same style.
There are not many novels extant that deal with the foreign services of the countries of the world. What there is largely deal with secret missions carried out by people with cloaks and daggers in total disregard for the structures and protocols that gives some measure of order to today’s often chaotic world. The only exceptions of any note are the four delightful books of Lawrence Durrell (Esprit de Corps, Stiff Upper Lip, Sauve Que Peut and Antrobus Complete) detailing his experiences in a British embassy in central Europe after the Second World War. His was satire of a rare high order.
This lacuna is surprising since a constant theme of today’s world is the need for vision and action to create a world where the worth of the individual far exceeds, hopefully, the needs of the nation state; after all the UN charter begins “We the peoples of the United Nations. . . .” No one despite the heaving and sighing of many (for example the fascination of a former prime minister for the New York Times) has been able to create a world where national and international diplomats do not have a central and unique role. The increasingly flabbiness of the military muscle of the United States in the face of unique opposition merely demonstrates the point even more strongly. Even North Korea and Libya succumbed to the blandishments of diplomats.
All the more reason to welcome Mr de Hoog’s literary light into the recesses of Canadian diplomacy. Borderless Deceit is the story of four diplomats, three of whom haunt the halls of the “Service” in Ottawa. The fourth, Rachael, a “high flyer” in the language of the “Service,” moves from the mission in Vienna to Geneva and finally is appointed as the Ambassador to Romania, the youngest in the history of the “Service.” Two of the three in Ottawa are timeworn caricatures of any diplomatic service, and all the more accurate for that. One is a “Czar” of various foreign “Operations” while the other is a brilliant analyst of arcane intelligence working closely with the Americans.
The third one in Ottawa is a computer geek who is bought in to save the Service when a foreign-sourced virus (a refused immigration applicant) invades and wipes out in seconds the departmental records and its ability to communicate with its far-flung foreign empire. She is sui generis and her generational uniqueness provides freshness and flip that adds new features to the character of her two Ottawa colleagues. The book plays with the interactions of these four characters with humour, depth and sensitivity and in that alone is of considerable value.
However, while the characters are significant, the satire that permeates Mr de Hoog’s writing is what gives the book lasting and unique value. The Canadian foreign service is not known for its openness or frankness in dealing with the public and for many there is an ancient religiosity about its work and processes. Mr de Hoog picked up on this aspect in his first book and now in his second, he again provides his own titles for the various offices of the foreign service in Ottawa. For the most part these are taken from the world of the church, convent and monastery. The author’s deputy minister, Étienne des Étoiles and head of the “High Council” is characteristic of the many around Ottawa who know less and less about more and more and have a shelf life less than a piece of pop music.
The collapse of the communications network brings its own religiosity and Mr de Hoog shows unusual command of its arcanely nature.
The bug arrived in stealth, without warning. And it was virulent, so bad that some – the closet mystics amongst us – supposed it spring from the occult. A visitation?
. . .
Cyberspace velocity and a voracious appetite for ruination – these were the overt symptoms. But the bug also possessed an inner wizardry, because it was precisely targeted, like a smart bomb.
Vital spirits gushed from the Service as water through a burst dam. Ten thousand linked computers scattered over all the diplomatic outposts were sabotaged with one stroke. . . . Our shocked techies stood by, helpless and slack-jawed. Outside in the rest of the world all the other networks went about their business in robust good health. Why us? Why no one else?
Of course the diplomat outside of Ottawa, Rachael, continues her work and search for personal salvation, seemingly indifferent to the cataclysmic events in Ottawa. For those in Ottawa, the world stopped for a few weeks and it was only with the restoration of the network through the display of technical artistry that is only available in a good novel that life returns to normal. However, for the four characters it is a new life and the ending provides the surprise that can be expected only from a good novelist.
When I began to read Adrian de Hoog's second mystery novel, its plot seemed a bit farfetched. Then I learned that, given the right circumstances, what he sets out in Borderless Deceit could happen—theoretically—but is highly unlikely. I learned this from a friend during a conversation about this story. He has more knowledge about the world of computers, and how the Internet works, than most people can acquire in several lifetimes. He assured me, though, that it could happen only under very specific circumstances, and needs far more than the perpetrator in this novel had at his command.
Still, there is a bit of a thrill knowing that when reading Borderless Deceit, de Hoog did not go beyond the possible. His book is not science fiction as such, though fiction it is, and the science of computers and cyberspace has been stretched just a bit. The book's story, in a nutshell, is about a virus that destroys the global communications network of the Canadian diplomatic service. The novel's protagonist is Carson Pryce, an intelligence analyst, who also happens to be obsessed with Rachel Dunn, a diplomat with a track record of humanitarian work. Pryce's obsession is not a sinister one, but one that in cyberspace could have consequences.
De Hoog, himself an ex-diplomat, takes his readers on quite a journey in this book. While the seat of events is Ottawa, we also find ourselves in San Francisco, Vienna, Berlin, Egypt, Transylvania, Kenya, and Costa Rica, to mention a few places. There is plenty of intrigue, much diplomatic wrangling, and even some love interest in this tale, aside from the world of computers. One enjoys the great monikers de Hook hangs onto the various players in this diplomatic-cum-civil-service-world. Carson Pryce's most obnoxious civil service opponent is known as the Czar by his colleagues, a character one hopes will get his comeuppance somewhere along the story.
Borderless Deceit makes is a good, easy and fast read. It is perfect for a wintry weekend snuggled up to a nice wood-burning fireplace. I am glad de Hoog has come back for a second novel after his Berlin Assignment.
Republic of Words
December 30, 2007
Borderless Deceit is Adrian de Hoog’s espionage follow-up to The Berlin Assignment, with some crossover in dramatis personae, most notably Heywood Irving, high-ranking bureaucrat, longstanding foreign service mandarin and czar of subterfuge.
The story opens with a massive computer virus taking out the entire Canadian diplomatic system. Its origin is a mystery – as is the malice behind such total intelligence devastation...
Irving is charged with solving the puzzle, and his team includes an engaging cyber-pixie named Jaime. Analyst Carson Pryce is also playing detective, for complicated reasons of his own, partly involving his relationship to an American counterpart.
Any answers they find seem only to merge deeper into the truly unknown codes of the human heart and its desires.
Borderless Deceit is a character-driven, cerebral read. The narrative unfolds in a counter punctual point of view: that of Irvin, vain, experienced, with an excellent sense of survival; and of Carson, aloof, brilliant and obsessed.
Like The Berlin Assignment, Borderless Deceit mixes some exotic scenes with grey wintry Ottawa. De Hoog knows the civil service territory and, for example, can make the skirmishes of a departmental meeting as full of thrust and parries as a lethal duel, where a memo or file becomes a weapon as finely honed as a stiletto.
A lot of this novel is a pleasure to read. But it does have some problems with structure. The book is simply too long and much of the action is too underscored, and there are some strange time jumps that flummox the reader.
Still, de Hoog seems well-launched on his own cycle of Ottawa-to-Geneva spy-vs.-spy.
The Northeast Avalon Times
Those who enjoyed Adrian de Hoog’s debut novel The Berlin Assignment (and I was one) will be happy to know that in Borderless Deceit he returns to successfully mine the apparently plot-rich world of Canadian intelligence.
We enter the cubicles in Ottawa just about the time a massive virus has crashed the entire diplomatic computer system.
Reports, meetings and other important data seem irretrievably lost, and nobody knows who’s responsible, why it happened or, worse, how to fix it. Actually, one intelligence analyst figures it out, but for his own reasons shares his info with the American allies.
That analyst, Carson Pryce, has been in love with Rachel Dunn for a decade, and has used his considerable skills to keep track of her throughout her brilliant diplomatic career and her interesting love life.
Rachel has been rising through the ranks of the foreign service, carving out a reputation as a humanitarian, thanks in no small part to her married German-banker lover.
If you read The Berlin Assignment, you’ll be happy to know that the pompous, game-playing “Czar” Irving Heywood returns, in a larger and even less likeable role than he held in de Hoog’s first novel.
Heywood, who’s been one of those proud Luddite types, is introduced to the marvels of electronic infiltration by Jaime, the young computer genius who solves the computer crash, and Heywood becomes hooked on snooping through the cyberfiles of his co-workers.
The book takes place, variously, in Ottawa, Berlin, Vienna, Costa Rica, Kenya and San Francisco, and on buses, trains, boats and planes en route to one place or the other.
De Hoog has a knack for creating realistic settings with minimal brush strokes. He creates the crisp frigidity of an Ontario ski trail as fluidly as a sultry game park in Africa.
As with any good spy story, Borderless Deceit is a novel in which deception plays a large role. None of these characters are ever perfectly honest with each other – even the good guys.
And figuring out who exactly the good guys (and gals) are becomes no easier with each passing plot turn.
De Hoog has produced another hard-to-put-down novel that is both gritty and human.