Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite
Beer and Gasoline is an historical fiction thriller written by John Knoerle. The fact that his boss, CIA’s Counterintelligence Chief of Staff, James J. Angleton, had sent him on an assignment that would ordinarily have been assigned to one of his field agents, had senior Case Officer Hal Schroeder trying to figure out just what his brilliant if eccentric boss had in mind. Schroeder didn’t really mind the assignment. The open expanses of the Mojave Desert and the small town of Needles were welcome changes from the close confines of Washington, DC and the need to constantly be undercover. He also liked working with Needles Police Officer, Tom Bell, as they tried to find out just what happened to Jeremiah McLemore, a trash hauler who had contracted with the government to pick up refuse from Camp X, a top-secret army training facility. Bell was a friend of McLemore, and he had recounted the hauler’s tale about being approached by a foreigner who was willing to pay the hauler for access to Camp X’s garbage. After McLemore’s body was found in a remote part of the Mojave Desert where he and Bell had frequently gone to relax and have a few beers, Schroeder began to find the story of the KGB’s involvement to be increasingly less persuasive and he began to wonder if the whole setup, including his assignment there, was not more, and less, than what it seemed.
John Knoerle’s historical fiction thriller, Beer and Gasoline, begins with an introduction by an anonymous editor, who states that the documents that follow tell an important story. What follows is a collection of journal entries, transcripts and letters that collectively form one of the most engrossing and exciting Cold War thrillers I’ve read in some time. I grew up loving Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and his Smiley books, seeing in them a much more accurate look at the lives of secret agents than the fictionalized glamour of James Bond. Le Carre’s heroes were lonely, deeply introspective, flawed beings who were cast in the most difficult and isolating situations, and Knoerle’s engrossing hero and his story rank right up there with Le Carre’s work. Knoerle’s Hal Schroeder is a one-off in the fact that he’s happily married with a teenage daughter, even if his six-week imposed absence while on assignment recreates the isolation that field officers do their work in. His partnership with Officer Tom Bell is a joy to behold as the two very different individuals become an empathetic and tightly knit team. The setting in Needles and the Mojave Desert is marvelous. As a desert dweller, I appreciated the way Knoerle brings the savage and often harsh beauty of the Mojave so vividly to life. Knoerle’s plot is a thinking reader’s dream, filled with twists and turns as the veteran spook faces the most significant assignment of his career. Beer and Gasoline is the kind of book you can’t bear to put down, and then regret when the last page is read. This first-rate espionage thriller is most highly recommended.