A.S. “Sid” Fleischman (1920-2010) is best remembered as a very successful children’s book author but he wrote quite a few mysteries and thrillers as well. Born in New York, he was a professional magician who took up professional writing after the Second World War.
His first spy thriller was Shanghai Flame, published by Gold Medal in 1951. He had spent the war in the Navy and therefore had some familiarity with exotic places such as the Far East and he put this knowledge to good use in his spy fiction. Counterspy Express takes place in Italy.
American agent Victor Welles (using the same Jim Cabot) arrives in Genoa. To keep things simply I’ll call him Cabot in this review since that’s the name by which the other characters address him. Cabot has to find out why another American agent, a guy called Max, was killed. But mostly he has to find a Russian defector, Borsilov.
Things start going wrong quickly. On arrival in Genoa he realises he’s picked up a tail, a French girl by the name of Duvivier. There’s been a leak somewhere. She knows too much about him already and she’s laid a trap for him. He gives the slip and goes to meet Jackson, his contact, but the subsequent hail of gunfire suggests that Jackson is blown and Cabot is blown and probably the while damned mission is blown.
His only lead is a girl night-club singer named Pia. He has to get to her before the Red do, and before Major Ricasoli does. Of course Major Ricasoli could be a communist. It also occurs to Cabot that he might be a fascist. Who the hell knows what the major is. Victor Cabot sure doesn’t know. But he figures that Ricasoli is a problem, one of the many problems he now has on his hands.
He’s not quite sure which side Pia is on. He’s not quite sure which side Major Ricasoli is on. He’s not entirely certain which side Max was on. And then a new player, Jardine, enter the game. Which side is he on? And then there’s Kurt. Kurt was in love with Pia. Kurt was a player in the game but again there’s doubt about which side he was on. Some of these people are almost certain freelancers, on nobody’s side but their own.
He also has to decide what to do with Pia. She’s in big trouble. He needs information from her it’s not really his responsibility to look after her. But she is a nice girl and she is beautiful. Cabot doesn’t want to get her into bed, or at least he thinks he doesn’t want to get her into bed but she’s the kind of girl who could easily change a man’s mind on that subject.
There have already been several double-crosses and there’s obviously the potential here for just about everybody to double-cross everybody else.
There’s plenty of action as Cabot blunders about following up leads, with someone else invariably one step ahead.
Cabot is pretty much a stock-standard spy hero. He’s a decent guy and fairly tough but he’s not really a super-spy. He’s a professional but he makes the occasional mistake. He has a touch of ruthlessness to his character but he’s no sadist.
Borsilov is a kind of McGuffin. He has some secret knowledge but we don’t need to know what it is and Fleischman is not the kind of writer who gets bogged down with unnecessary details. He tells us that Pia’s apartment is too expensive for a small-time night-club singer to afford on her own and that her dresses are too expensive for her to be able to buy for herself because we need to know that. We don’t need to know what colour the kitchen bench-top is or who designed her dresses. This is a short novel but it has plenty of plot, mostly because the author just gets on with the story. There is just enough time for romance to bloom between Cabot and Pia but that’s central to the plot as well. Fleischman is a very efficient story-teller.
He wants to tell us a cracking good adventure yarn. That’s all he wants to do and he does a good job of it. We get plenty of plot twists and counter-twists at the end, there’s some nice hardboiled dialogue, a hint of sex and quite a bit of not-very-graphic violence.
Counterspy Express adds nothing new to the genre but it powers along very entertainingly indeed and it’s highly recommended.
Stark House Noir have paired this one with the equally good Shanghai Flame in a two-novel paperback edition.