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The choice of editors for MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA PRESENTS ICE COLD is nothing less than a stroke of genius. Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson are the only two American authors thus far who have been selected by Ian Fleming’s estate to pen original James Bond novels. Bond, of course, is an icon of the intrigue of the Cold War between East and West that began after World War II and ended (though, in light of recent events, it might be more correct to say “paused”) with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Cold War is a common thread that runs through all 20 original stories that comprise ICE COLD, yet each of them is diverse and distinct from its fellows, ranging in topic from suspected spies to the traitors within, from domestic and foreign intrigue to the enemy without, to what Walt Kelly so brilliantly characterized in the phrase “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” It is a must-have volume for your bookshelf.
ICE COLD begins with a dialogue between Deaver and Benson that serves as an introduction to the collection. If you are in the habit of skipping such fare, please do not ignore this one; it is relatively short in length, deep in substance and quite entertaining. The collected stories themselves are bookended by contributions from Deaver and Benson.
Deaver’s offering, “Comrade 35,” uses the assassination of John F. Kennedy as story fodder for fresh purpose; if you thought that JFK’s death had been explored and exploited from every possible angle over the five decades since its occurrence, think again. Deaver demonstrates here that not only can he see around corners from fresh angles, he is also capable of building new corners out of very substantial material.
Benson’s “Ghosts” closes ICE COLD, and what a closing it is. It’s not a long story, but it’s a chilling one, set in 1956 during the Soviet invasion of Hungary. An American CIA agent in Vienna is charged with transporting a high-level Hungarian refugee and his family to safety. It is all but certain that nothing can go wrong, but it does, and inexplicably so. Benson manages with great subtlety to include suspense, terror, horror and mystery into one story of 16 or so pages without a wasted word.
A treasure trove of talent lies between those two stories. John Lescroart takes his considerable game and raises it a notch or two in “The Last Confession.” It’s not an espionage tale, but if you went to Catholic high school in the early 1960s, you will feel size 14 boots treading on your grave as you read this story of the well-intended but nonetheless mean-spirited actions of a priest that result in a chain reaction of death and revenge. J. A. Jance is included as well, in a story titled “His Mother’s Son,” which serves as a coda of sorts to her fine novel, JUDGMENT CALL. Set in 1978, it is a tragic tale of a mother’s disappointment and a son’s apparent betrayal of his country, both of which result in potential danger to a young innocent who knows too much and unintentionally created the grim cascade of events that follow.
My favorite story? Nice of me to ask. “Side Effects” by T. Jefferson Parker is the rose whose stem was just a bit longer than the others in this collection. Parker’s name does not immediately come to mind when one thinks of espionage or political thrillers, and “Side Effects” does not necessarily fall into either of those classifications, but it perfectly captures the mindset of the early to mid-1960s, when mutually assured destruction was indeed all but assured and everyone knew what the term “fallout shelter” meant. However, Parker’s villain of the piece is not who you would expect; sometimes the most dangerous folks are right next door, the ones you shouldn’t trust at all. There are layers upon layers of paranoia here, as well as a hero or two, as a teenage boy displays the right stuff when it’s time to stand up and be counted.
I have gone on for far too long here. There are many other worthy stories, including “Police Report” by the absent-for-too-long Joseph Finder, Gayle Lynds collaborating with John C. Sheldon on “A Card for Mother” (Gayle, you have been MIA for too long as well), and riveting tales from Katherine Neville, Sara Paretsky, Katia Lief and Bev Vincent, among others. The stories are not long, but run deep and are memorable, particularly for those of us who remember the dawn of that cold conflict.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub