Thursday, November 3, 2016

How do you discover the identify of a spy...who has been dead for nearly a century?

Who could have predicted I'd be reading books about colonial/revolutionary American history by choice? This is what you've done, Hamilton. Though I guess really, since I finally gave Hamilton a chance because of Vowell's Lafayette, it's really her fault. ANYWAY, this is how I found my way to George Washington's Secret Six about a spy ring operating during the war, care of a friend.*

Upfront, I was looking up information about the authors to fill out my super cool spreadsheet and learned that Brian Kilmeade** is a "Fox News personality" and keeping the eye rolls to a minimum was HARD. This definitely colored things and while I think I'd still ultimately have the same feelings about the book, I wish I had learned that after the fact. Damn my need to record these details.

The book is about the Culper spy ring which, as the subtitle tells us "saved the American Revolution." Kilmeade and Yaeger look at the people who made up this ring and the dangerous work they did and offer up portraits of the men whose names we now know (and the one woman who is still only known as Agent 355) to show how they helped secure victory for George Washington and the US.

The Good

  • Spy stuff is fun, and there are some suspenseful(ish) moments when you think a spy is about to get caught.
  • It's an easy read that doesn't get dry which is always a worry for history and nonfiction books in general.
  • There are parts that are directly quoted from primary sources.

The Bad

  • It feels like a dumbed down history book and Chernow's Hamilton was just as readable but more enjoyable.
  • They repeated a few times how important the spy ring was, but they never actually showed the important information that directly led to victories. Maybe it's because we don't have that information, but in that case, you're going to need to restructure this book.
  • There are weird moments where we suddenly get conversations between the characters that I guess was supposed to "bring to life" the people in history, but instead awkwardly felt like the authors actually wanted to write historical fiction and then decided they wanted credit for all the research and were going to write a "serious book". On the one hand, this really only happens through the first half of the book, but even that just means it feels even more awkward.***
  • One of the praise quotes is from Donald Trump. So.

Ultimately, I don't know that I learned much about the spy ring other than it existed and it makes me want to read a book someone else wrote about it. OR, I'd even take a historical fiction novel about the ring. Or specifically Agent 355. I could totally get behind something like that. It's not terrible (not all of it, though those weird fake convos between spies were...not good) but certainly not great.

Gif rating:

*In return, among a couple other things, I also lent her Lafayette because this nerdiness must be spread around. I am also writing this review now rather than tackling some of the other books I've had on my list so I can return the book.
**I should stress here that my friend did not know about this when she read it or when she lent it to me SO it's likely this makes less of a deal than I think but I couldn't get it out of my head while reading it.
***There is an author note that says the dialogue is fictional (OBVIOUSLY) but then says it's based on actual conversations do not know that. Hence the fiction part. Maybe it happened. Maybe it happened exactly as written. But like, prob not and feels super awkward when they happen. I could maybe have gotten behind a version that alternated between narrative story and history chapters. That is not what we get here.

Title quote from page xvii

Kilmeade, Brian and Don Yaeger. George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved The American Revolution. Sentinel, 2013.