Beer and Gasoline
by John Knoerle
Blue Steel Press

"Feed the tyrant a credible story of evil plotting’s within the castle walls -- indeed even a half-way credible story -- and he will act accordingly."

Hal Schroeder is a long-time spy with CIA Counterintelligence that has worked with the group before it even became an officially sanctioned agency in the years following World War II. Now in 1968, he finds himself in the small town of Needles, CA, on assignment from his boss and the Chief of Counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton. Angleton assigns Schroeder to Needles on a rare field assignment to investigate the disappearance of a local man named Jeremiah McLemore. McLemore operates a for-hire trash disposal business and worked as the trash hauler for Camp X, a mysterious government outpost on the Arizona side of the border near Needles. Under the alias of Army Lieutenant Richard Nolan, Schroeder befriends a young local police officer named Thomas Bell to help locate McLemore. When Jeremiah’s body is found (with the aid of a helicopter pilot-for-hire and a locally famous Native American tracker), the grisly sight sets off all manner of speculation. Facedown in the sand, it appears that the scene of McLemore’s death is a set-up, and his report to Bell shortly before his disappearance that an Eastern European man offered him money to go through Camp X’s trash leads to Cold War speculation that the KGB may be involved in his death. But Schroeder has other theories, and one of them points to the possibility that Angleton might finally be too paranoid for his own good, or that he’s trying to set up Schroeder to take the fall and remove him from the picture.

When most people think of Cold War spy thrillers, images come to mind of the Berlin Wall and Eastern European cities frigid in both climate and in the temperament of the locals. By setting this story in southeastern California, Knoerle flips the genre around, offering up searing heat, desolate desert, and small-town Americana charm as the backdrop for espionage and double agents. This change works well, as the story is so character-driven that it does well to have a friendlier cast. Even the KGB agent, Petrov, who Schroeder dealt with on past dispatches, brings gifts and relaxes in a swimming pool, swapping stories and playing spy games even as both men angle for information from one another. All of this lends itself to an atmosphere that feels welcoming, offsetting the constant misdirection and the staring over one’s shoulder of the plot’s intrigue.

The storytelling itself is inventive and fresh, told through transcripts, personal journals, letters, telex messages, newspaper articles, and notes from an editor who is revealed later on in the book. Through these, Schroeder tells a story that he worried about getting out but felt needed to be told, highlighting the paranoid delusions of Soviet-era espionage. The author smartly uses a change of fonts to differentiate between each of these sources, and it works brilliantly, keeping the reader from drifting off in confusion between scenes. As far as suspense goes, the novel burns slow and steady but never once becomes dull or drawn out. As it ventures into double and triple crosses, it borders on being a bit confusing, but that’s just the life of a spy. Capturing the spirit of recent history and the timeless human elements, this book weaves a mystery of McLemore’s fate that quickly becomes irrelevant as it asks a larger question about what limits those in power should exercise when it comes to their subordinates and the people they serve.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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