Passport to Peril, by Robert Bogardus Parker

The Hard Case Crime imprint has several books by authors who based their fiction off of a previous career: in the government, as a spy or as a police detective. I previously gave some (moderately) positive comments about Daniel Boyd’s Easy Death, so there’s an encouraging history with HCC novels of this type.

Passport to Peril (1951) was the second out of only three books published by Robert Bogardus Parker (1905-1955), whose writing career was cut short by heart disease. Obviously, he’s not that Robert B. Parker of Spenser fame, although the HCC cover has some fun with the coincidence:

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Gregory Manchess cover for Hard Case Crime. http://www.hardcasecrime.com

A look at the book’s ending biographical note (as well as this useful review) provides some background about who this Robert B. Parker was: Parker was a war correspondent based in Budapest prior to his recruitment an OSS agent. One wonders if he was picked out for this kind of work my virtue of his unusual name, which has deep patriotic roots, but apparently many newspapermen situated in Eastern Europe were recruited for propaganda service at the time. Lacking access to his 1954 memoir Headquarters Budapest, I do not know what kind of day-to-day danger Parker experienced during the war, but it obviously inspired the plot and tone of his fiction. In this way Parker’s wartime-spy-turned-writer turn resembles that of the far more famous Ian Fleming, although this book predates Fleming’s 007 series.*

P2P‘s story begins with John Stodder riding a train from Austria to Budapest with a fake passport and documents. He is trying to learn the fate of his brother, a fighter pilot who disappeared during war. His seat is the one booked by the actual owner of John’s passport, a Viennese clock trader whose secretary, Maria Torres, joins his compartment. Maria is convincingly terrified about her own fate, after concluding the worst about her old boss. There is a lot of exposition-via-dialogue during this train ride, and again after they jump off the train and go running through the snow. This makes the first 50 or so pages the weakest part of the book, except for the narrow escape from a Russian patrol:

I suppose we’d put a hundred yards or so between us and the fence when we heard the guard’s carbine blast the padlock off the gate. We started to run again, and the siren went off; there must have been a switch in the sentry box. We ran until Maria tripped, let go my hand, and fell heavily. I picked her up and we heard the sound of a car coming toward us and saw the long beams of the headlights slashing into the shadows of the trees at the bend in the road ahead. The rising scream of the siren and the moving light and the throb of the car’s engine seemed to freeze us where we stood, locked in each other’s arms.

The Manchess cover painting (above) interprets, with some liberties, the action with one of the most eye-catching covers of the entire HCC series. Maria is seen in the path of a 1940’s era sedan while trying to run through the snow – it’s an image that captures her plight as a helpless character that John holds in his mind, even through his fears and doubts, throughout the rest of the book. The woman-dressed-in-nightshirt in front of an oncoming pair of headlights is a design seen in other paperback covers, although Maria seems to be making a more earnest attempt at survival than the ballet turn shown in the cover for John D. McDonald’s The Long Lavender Look:

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On second thought, maybe it’s a double Lutz without skates. Gold Medal edition. flickr.com

Stodder and Maria are captured by a pair of German agents, who take from Maria an envelope stuffed with papers related to the location of “underground” German scientists. The location and (in the case of the Soviets, forcible) recruitment of these scientists in post-war Europe was the focus of intrigue and tension – see Operation Paperclip and Operation Osoaviakhim – and provided the backdrop for P2P. Resuming their train ride to Budapest, they meet a pair of Americans who, of course, are far more sophisticated than the first look and figure heavily into the rest of the story. Maybe these other OSS agents seem to arrive just when they are needed (not in the least, by the plot), but I think Parker does a decent job selling the idea that neither the German criminals, Russians or the Americans were particularly skilled in keeping their movements secret from each other in this emerging age of post-war intelligence.

Soon, Stodder is separated from Maria by the Germans – a thug named Otto and a Nazi doctor Schmidt – and the plot of the book accelerates with the various characters in pursuit of the envelope, and each other. Stodder agrees to help the Germans, and later, the Americans, in exchange for Maria’s return to him. While our protagonist is driven by love and guilt, he operates on a more rational level. Intentionally or not, his colder and more analytical side serves the reader well with more efficient descriptions and less large dark eyes to look into, and so on.

The series of captures, chases and escapes in an around Budapest are clearly described, and it’s easy to appreciate why P2P has such a positive reputation. Parker seems to be writing from a combination of first-hand experience and an intimate familiarity with the adventures of spies around him. More often than not, the various spies are committing and recovering from mistake after mistake, but we get to understand what went wrong at every turn. When we encounter the Countess Orlovska, a Polish double agent who has an important Soviet lieutenant wrapped around her finger, it happens in a way that seems just too strange to be purely invented for a spy novel. The subsequent interrogation by the officer’s underlings also has a believable strangeness:

I automatically started out the door to be handed over to the gendarmes, but Lavrentiev’s orderly steered me into the doorkeeper’s room, hard by the exit. He sat me down in the chair.

“Let’s see your passport,” he said.

I handed him the John Stodder-Geneva document. He read the statistics out loud.

“You’ve got plenty of nerve,” he said, laughing. He threw the passport into my lap.

I could have told him I was frightened stiff. Why didn’t he hand me over to the gendarmes? The Russians must have who I was the moment I first stepped into the Arizona.

Such near-misses keep us off guard when the real trouble does arrive. It serves to feed the unpredictability and suspense of the novel. P2P does not make Cold War spying seem like a harmless thrill ride, however, and many of the characters end up punished for their missteps.

I was not a big fan of the way the story began, but aside from that P2P is a fine, fast-paced novel of post-war intrigue. It benefits from Parker’s familiarity with Budapest and its denizens, but does not indulge in window dressing. We get to know some characters better than others, but as genre entertainment P2P is another solid entry in the Hard Case Crime series. 6/10.

* I haven’t read any Fleming novels to date, and therefore don’t have any opinion about whether that author’s actual accomplishments in the intelligence informs his fiction in good faith, justifies to some degree the rampant sexism of the 007 movies, etc.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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