The Reading Room

Big Herbie Kruger

John Gardner’s Spy hero…..

Herbie Kruger was the fictional spy hero of John Gardner, the author behind the first of the post-Ian Fleming Bond novels and a man well versed in the Cold War and its theatre in East Germany. John Gardner (1926-2007) was a prolific author with some fifty fictional books to his name, including sixteen in the James Bond series. In the ‘Herbie Kruger novels’ we see the anti-hero appear in five books; The Nostradamus Traitor (1979) The Garden of Weapons (1980) The Quiet Dogs (1982) Maestro (1993) and Confessor (1995) He also appeared in The Secret Houses (1988) and The Secret Families (1989)

So who is Herbie Kruger? Well, he was to Gardner what Bernard Samson was to Len Deighton in his nine volume epic (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Game, Spy Hook, Spy Line, Spy Sinker, Faith, Hope, Charity) Like Samson, Kruger is an unlikely hero, a big, overweight German whose dress sense and overall appearance could not be further from the James Bond style of secret agent. Kruger is the archetypal old school spy; beaten down by the politics of the era and the conflicts with his superiors he finds solace in the music of Gustav Mahler and, like Bond, a vodka or three.

The novels centre around Kruger and the network of intelligence gathers he set up in East Germany, Gardner knew his stuff in this regard, he supplies enough real information to give the reader an authentic sense of time and place and with it a better understanding of how the inner sanctums of the espionage world actually worked. There are plenty of references to Berlin, its streets and buildings which housed the intelligence workers on both sides of the divide and the types of people who carried out that work. Gardner places his Kruger novels somewhere in the middle between Deighton and Fleming and there are moments of what was to come in his future Bond novels such as microphones disguised as cufflinks and homing devices following a visit to the stores department a la Q in the Bond films.

In The Garden of Weapons Gardner comes to the fore with his description of Kruger’s interrogation of a KGB Captain who has defected to the West. The interplay between the two men is quite compelling and believable. To see a confident Kruger flattened by the Soviet’s revelation that his network was blown years ago by a double agent sets the reader up for an intriguing end, Gardner exposes Kruger’s vulnerabilities and, along with his charming ways with the ladies, makes him all the more endearing.

Having read Gardner’s earlier novels from the sixties and his later James Bond novels it is clear to me that this period was Gardner’s best. His knowledge of the Cold War is without question, it was lost in the mix in the Boysie Oakes and Bond series but the first three Kruger novels show us that Cold War Berlin was familiar territory for the author and his spy was a worthy member of an elite club of master spy fiction heroes.

Categories: The Reading Room

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