The Wealth of Shadows by Graham Moore

What an ingenious idea. Imagine a plot to undermine the Nazi war machine shortly after Germany’s invasion of Poland, but this time the ragged team of adventurers is not made up of intrepid saboteurs or double agents. No, the group of misfits are a handful of lawyers and accountants and a sole economist secretly working for the Treasury Department above a dingy furniture store in Washington, D.C. Graham Moore, a best-selling novelist and screenwriter who won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Imitation Game, weaves fact and fiction to wondrous effect in The Wealth of Shadows. Yes, every major character in the book existed, and is told from the perspective of the little-known Ansel Luxford, who, like a real Zelig, pops up in an amazing number of high-level meetings. Treachery awaits this plucky group as the war grinds on, but its feat of financing an Allied war machine before a neutral U.S. even entered the war remains a singular achievement. The Wealth of Shadows is historical fiction at its finest.

From the Moment They Met It Was Murder: Double Indemnity and the Rise of Film Noir by Alain Silver and James Ursini

Is there a better film noir than Double Indemnity, the 1944 film based on the James Cain novel and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray? The tale of the murderous wife and life-insurance salesman who team up to murder the husband and make it look like an accident to collect on his policy has inspired imitations, most notably Body Heat with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, but it has never been equaled. This book brims with fascinating detail about the making of the classic, including the fraught relationship between director Billy Wilder and co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler and the difficulties with censors. Mid-shoot, Wilder realized Stanwyck’s blond wig (re-used from a Marlene Dietrich film) made her look too tacky, but he had no choice but to stick with it. Pay close enough attention and you will spot Chandler in a cameo, sitting in a chair as MacMurray walks by the office of his boss.

To Run The World: The Kremlin’s Cold War Bid for Global Power by Sergey Radchenko

Anyone who wishes to understand Vladimir Putin’s Russia should read this book, a superb history of Moscow’s role in the Cold War, which was driven not just by paranoia but by insecurity and a desperate need to be taken seriously by the United States. Détente gave the Soviet Union respite, according to Sergey Radchenko, since in Russians’ eyes it placed their country on the same level as America. One could be forgiven for feeling nostalgic for the days of Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, leaders who surprisingly got along. One irritation for Brezhnev turned out to be Nixon’s toast on his historic trip to Beijing, when he noted that the U.S. and China “hold the future of the world in our hands.” China had become an obsession for Brezhnev, who saw himself as European and viewed the Chinese as “exceptionally sly and perfidious.” It is a measure of how much the world has changed that Putin and Xi exchanged bear hugs last week in Beijing, just one more sign of an alliance that Nixon would never have let happen.

Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

Mark Twain and Charles Dickens have a similar problem: they were such prolific authors that today their top hits get most of the attention, leaving some of their books in the shade no matter how wonderful they are. Thanks to the Mark Twain project, which has published authoritative editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as well as multiple volumes of his letters, we now have the definitive and original version of Pudd’nhead Wilson, without the subsequent changes forced on the author by friends and publishers. We also have the revised version in this volume, so readers can see how the tale of the slave who switched her baby, who is 1/32 black, with the son of her master evolved under Twain’s pen. Part satire, part crime story, the book achieves its resolution thanks to the title character, a lawyer named David Wilson who is nicknamed “Pudd’nhead” partly for his weird fascination with (spoiler alert!) fingerprints.

Jim Kelly is the Books Editor at AIR MAIL