Beautiful Assassin

March 9, 2010

Michael C. White’s Beautiful Assassin showed up in my package of books from BookPage for April, and I glanced at the blurb only briefly before sidelining it with regard to BookPage’s Whodunit column (www.bookpage.com). After all, “a novel of love, loyalty, and intrigue set during World War II, in which a decorated Russian sniper finds herself caught between two suspicious allies”, didn’t seem to fit the brief of a mystery/suspense column. That said, I had every intention of reading it on my own time, and indeed it has been occupying most of my free moments for the past several days.

The story begins in 1996, or rather in a way it ends there, when reporter Elizabeth Meade pays a visit to one Irina Andreeva Bishop in a remote area of Colorado. Meade represents herself as a distant relative of Bishop’s deceased husband, but that is simply a ruse to get in the door. For as nearly as Meade can figure, Bishop is in fact Tat’yana Levchenko, a first-rate World War II sniper decorated for her bravery and marksmanship, and a key player in one of the greatest spy stories of the Roosevelt era, and a woman who dropped off the radar without a trace some fifty years before. Bishop’s claim of no knowledge regarding Levchenko quickly crumbles in the face of Meade’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and she grudgingly agrees to tell her story, but in her own way, and with certain conditions (i.e., from the beginning, no tape recorder allowed).

From then on, the narrative is related in the first person by Tat’yana Levchenko, the chronicle of her phoenix-like rise from the battle-scarred trenches of Sevastopol to the heady arena of wartime Washington, DC, where she was a friend and confidant of no less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt. To the American public, Tat’yana was a heroine, the Beautiful Assassin, the fiercely attractive face of struggle against the tyranny of Nazism; on a more private level, she was a political pawn, used to spread disinformation and to gather compromising intelligence that the Soviets hoped to use in postwar negotiations, sealing their position as a world power to be reckoned with.

Beautiful Assassin is a work of fiction, to be sure, but it draws from real life situations and characters: the siege of Sevastopol is factual, the Russian spy network did indeed infiltrate the highest circles of Washington’s elite, and the speculation about the nature Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with her constant companion Lorena Hickok continues even today. Painstakingly researched, relentlessly paced, Beautiful Assassin is a book you will not put down easily, and one that will resonate well past the closing pages.

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Shanghaied

March 9, 2010

A while back I wrote a Mysterious Orientations column about air travel in sensible countries, which engendered a fair bit of readership and some commentary as well. Due to visa renewal requirements, I am embarking today on a short trip out of Japan, this time to somewhere I have never been, Shanghai, China. I will be gone until the weekend, and will add posts to Mysterious Orientations en route if possible, but if not, I’m sure I will have plenty of column fodder upon my return.

This is one of those (in)famous Japanese short holidays, in which intrepid Tokyo-ites go huge distances in a short time, take several guided tours punctuated by arranged “shopping opportunities”, and arrive home wearier than when they left. Still, when you consider the price and the amenities, it is a heck of a deal: roundtrip airfare from Tokyo to Shanghai on China Airlines; four days of food, hotel, tours, and so on; transfers back and forth to the airport; and some other little stuff mentioned in the brochure. All for about $300 US.

There are some caveats: you cannot pick your flights, so you may have to go to the airport at oh-dark-thirty in the morning, or arrive home in the wee hours. Luckily, neither of those scenarios presented itself this time around. Also, you don’t get to pick your hotel and restaurants, which can be an issue, especially at that price point. So a few minutes ago, just for grins and interest, I logged on to the website of the hotel where I’ll be staying, the Vivasha Resort Hotel, and checked it out. You can see it at http://www.vivasha.com. On their opening page, a collage of Shanghai images, is their slogan: “It’s just too good to be true.” Indeed, upon having a look through the site, it appears to be a perfectly fine location from which to explore the city, not to mention a good deal more luxurious than either my apartment in Tokyo or the business hotels that I typically frequent when traveling. It will be interesting to see if it really is too good to be true.

In Hong Kong last year, the hotel (Kowloon’s Panda Hotel) more than lived up to its billing. It was fairly central, there was a shuttle from the front door of the hotel to the Star Ferry Terminal, and there was a French bakery with freshly-squeezed orange juice just across the street. That was another one of my cheapie visa runs, a week away from the Land of the Rising Yen, including hotel, air, and transfers for $350-odd. Only one tour, but that was fine with me. I can handle relatively few “shopping opportunities” without getting a bit cranky. One of my tour mates that time around was an Indian gentleman, by all appearances a wealthy one at that. We entered into the amethyst emporium “shop op”, and he proceeded to amass a small fortune’s worth of the semi-precious gems. When the shop assistant tallied up the total, it came to some large number with a seven at the front (70,000 or 700,000 Hong Kong dollars). She smiled winningly (and perhaps a bit flirtatiously) at her customer, and said demurely “How very fortunate; seven is a very lucky number in China.” No doubt as a result of years of honing his bargaining skills, he replied briskly “Indeed? In India, six is considered a very lucky number.” I didn’t stick around to see the resolution (I was too busy laughing), but he did indeed leave the building with a big grin and an even bigger bag o’ swag, so presumably the two came to some sort of accommodation.