Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Dark Game

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories
by Paul B. Janeczko

published by Candlewick Press
248 pages

Publisher's description:

Ever since George Washington used them to help topple the British, spies and their networks have helped and hurt America at key moments in history. In this fascinating collection, Paul B. Janeczko probes such stories as that of Elizabeth Van Lew, an aristocrat whose hatred of slavery drove her to be one of the most successful spies in the Civil War; the "Choctaw code talkers," Native Americans who were instrumental in sending secret messages during World War I; the staggering engineering behind a Cold War tunnel into East Berlin to tap Soviet phones (only to be compromised by a Soviet mole); and many more famous and less-known examples. Colorful personalities, daring missions, the feats of the loyal, and the damage of traitors are interspersed with a look at the technological advances that continue to change the rules of gathering intelligence. From clothesline codes to surveillance satellites and cyber espionage, Paul B. Janeczko uncovers two centuries’ worth of true spy stories in U.S. history.

My comments:

This book has not been on the shelf since it arrived at the library. I think the design and topic of the book have everything to do with this. In a departure from the typical coffee table book design of many nonfiction titles published for young adults, its sized and shaped like a novel. The jacket design plays on the sexy-dangerous appeal of spies. The novel-ish design continues inside, where text dominates the pages.

Six chapters cover the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War and domestic moles. The chapters are further divided into two main sections separated by two smaller "special" sections. A black and white cross-hair* motif decorates the the chapter headings and the special sections. There are quite a few images interspersed throughout the text including portraits of famous spies, intercepted messages and even a diagram of a listening device used to bug an ambassador's house in Moscow.

The writing overall is strong, but some sections are stronger than others. In Chapter 3, I was amazed by the section "Sabotage on U.S. Soil." There were details about World War I here that I had never read about before, like the blasts at Black Tom Island. The World War II story of double agent Juan Pujol (in Chapter 4) was similarly amazing. It was great to read about female spies like Mata Hari (was she a double agent?), Elizabeth Van Lew and Rose O'Neale Greenhow. The story of the Berlin Tunnel in chapter five is also fascinating. During the section on the Culper Spy Ring in the Chapter 1, however, I became a little frustrated that Janeczko focused more on speculation about spies' personal relationships than what they actually did to help win the revolution. The section on the Zimmerman Telegram in Chapter 3 also lost me a little.

One of my pet peeves with nonfiction are simple errors that render the factual infromation inaccurate or confusing. I found one such mistake in Chapter 5 that could have been easily fixed. It appears on page 180 in a paragraph about the effects of high altitude flight on the human body, and the special suits that were designed to protect U-2 pilots from drops in air pressure. Low pressure can cause the human body to expand, which is potentially fatal. The paragraph does a good job of explaining how inflatable tubes inside the pilot's suit would expand to protect the pilot if the pressure dropped; except for the first sentence. In the first sentence, instead of "low pressure" it says "high pressure." Maybe the sentence originally said "high altitude", which would also have been correct. This is an unfortunate mistake in an overall very enlightening and engaging book. Hopefully it will be fixed for a paperback edition.

While it is a fast and easy read, the book seems to assume that anyone venturing to the pages beyond the final chapter knows what they're doing. Back end materials include source notes, photography credits, a comprehensive index and a bibliography. The sources listed in the notes can all be found in the bibliography, which includes a blend of older and newer titles.

Official YALSA Award Finalist

*definitely not a surveying symbol

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