Book Review

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The Bourne Treachery, by Brian Freeman

Strictly speaking, this is Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Treachery, because the original author has to be credited when a character’s arc is continued; this is Freeman’s second novel in this canon, and an author called Eric Van Lustbader has also written twelve [count them!], in addition to the, by comparison somewhat paltry, three originals. They all have a noun associated with the character’s name, so they are surely soon going to run out of credible options? I suppose we could have The Bourne Tea Party, but I digress 😉 This one was published last year, so Covid is known about, but it doesn’t play a significant rôle in the plot. These stories are pulp, to a large extent, and if you’ve seen any of the films [given that this is a very profitable franchise (aka money-making machine)] you know pretty much what to expect, but as long as you can accept some questionable ethics when justice is dispensed, they make reasonably enjoyable, albeit undemanding reading.

If you’re not familiar with the character, Jason Bourne is a skilled assassin who works for a highly secret [aren’t they all?] ’Black Ops’ organisation, called Treadstone, funded by the American government, but ultimately deniable, and it is tasked with keeping “The Free World” [i.e., America] safe, which generally involves killing people indiscriminately, if they are perceived as presenting a credible threat. Incidentally, there has recently been a television series called Treadstone, which purported to present the organisation’s origin, but I found it very confusing, the way it bounced back & forth in time, and it was difficult to keep track of all the characters, of which there were many, so I gave up on it after about half a dozen episodes. At some point in Bourne’s past, he has suffered an injury or a medical procedure which has robbed him of his long-term memory, which is a very useful plot device, because it means that characters from his past can be introduced, and he won’t know them until it’s possibly too late; although we should know by now that Bourne is a character who can’t be written off too quickly.

At the beginning of this story, Bourne is living in Paris, still unclear about much of his past, and his habits are too regular, but it is almost as if he is tempting possible assassins; Treadstone, from which he is estranged, being one of the candidates; to come after him. He does keep in touch with a particular Treadstone agent though, and through Nash Rollins he learns that his particular skill-set is wanted to neutralise a threat to one of the speakers at the forthcoming annual meeting of the World Trade Organisation in London. The threat comes from a highly skilled & dangerous assassin called Lennon, who three years ago was responsible for murdering a turncoat ex-KGB man named Kotov, whom Bourne & his erstwhile partner and lover, Nova, were exfiltrating from Tallinn, except that the ferry he was travelling on was blown up, killing many innocent people in addition to the target. This action is described in a prologue; Lennon also seems to know an uncomfortable amount of personal information about Bourne himself.

Most of the action which follows is set in London [thankfully, not London, England], and there is even a section located in a north-east coast town I know very well: Whitby! There is the obligatory Dracula reference, of course, but it is only really in passing, and it doesn’t have any bearing on the story; being an actor of ‘a certain age’, I can see that I would be just right for one of the minor characters there, were this episode to make it to the big screen [must call my agent………]. Not a classic of English literature, by any standards, but a good & engaging yarn, so if you like this sort of scenario, I would quite happily recommend this entry in the Bourne canon. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Head of Zeus Ltd., part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, ISBN 978-1-7895-4658-3.

Book Review

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Silverview, by John le Carré

This is the “last complete masterwork from the greatest chronicler of our age”, according to the reliably hyperbolic blurb on the inside front cover, and it was published posthumously; this also implies that there was, or were, other works of greater or lesser merit in preparation at the time of his death on 12 December 2020. This is a relatively slight volume of 208 pages, and the eponymous Silverview is a “big house on the edge of town”; the town being an anonymous “small English [east Anglian] seaside town.” The protagonist is the thirty-something Julian Lawndsley, who has relinquished his former life as a “high-flying” City financier for the more cerebral vocation of owing a bookshop. At the beginning of the story, we encounter Lily, who has an infant son in a pushchair, delivering a secret written message to a house in South Audley Street, London, on behalf of her dying mother; the recipient of the message, Proctor, is presumably a member of the British security service. There is some doubt as to Lily’s relationship with her father, and it is not until some time after Julian has encountered the enigmatic Edward Avon in his bookshop that we are able to make the connection with Lily & her mother, Deborah: she & Edward reside at Silverview.

Avon affects English mannerisms, but Julian is immediately aware that this could be a cover for a foreign origin—and, indeed, he is revealed to be of Polish extraction, despite referring to himself as “a British mongrel, retired, a former academic of no merit and one of life’s odd-job men.” Avon persuades Julian to turn his shop’s basement into a reading room, to be called The Republic of Literature, and Avon volunteers his services to trawl the internet for rare, valuable, and possibly even abstruse volumes, for which a computer will be required: Julian is more than happy to oblige. After making the acquaintance of one of his fellow shop-keepers, Celia, he learns that Avon might possibly also have acted as a handler for some, or all, of his wife’s valuable china collection. We also learn more about Stewart Proctor, who is, indeed, in the security service, MI6 to be specific, and he has served in several locations abroad with his wife, also an operative, but who is now actively studying archaeology.

It becomes apparent that Edward Avon is under investigation, but understandably this is kept very low-key, and Proctor only introduces himself to Julian after some protracted internal debate. The element of complication in the situation is that Avon’s wife Deborah was also the Service’s star Middle East analyst until debilitated by her illness; the house belonged to her father, who was active in the Service in the second world war, and it had communications connections with the local Air Force base: these connections are still active with a more recent strategic base, although Deborah has requested that these be severed because her condition is terminal. This is about as much as can be revealed here, but it is worth noting that le Carré focuses on older operatives in this story; also, to some extent, whether Proctor considers Avon, despite his possible unreliability, or even explicit treachery, to be a better man than he, as a result of all the troubles he has survived, which Proctor has managed to avoid? Proctor’s reservations about the Service also very possibly manifest David Cornwell’s own views: I am fairly certain that he has expressed his ambivalence in interviews over the years. This is possibly a somewhat low-key swan-song; although le Carré very possibly hoped to be able to continue working for some more years, not anticipating his demise; but it is nevertheless a competent and, consequently, enjoyable completion of his canon, so I have no reservations in recommending it. The hardback I read was published in 2021 by Penguin Viking, ISBN 978-0-241-55006-9.

Book Review

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The War in the Dark, by Nick Setchfield

This is the author’s first novel, but it is a very accomplished introduction; he is no stranger to writing, as he is a writer & features editor for a “best-selling magazine of genre entertainment in film, TV and books [SFX].” This background shouldn’t automatically suggest an inspiration for the subject matter of this story, but he has evidently embraced it enthusiastically. Christopher Winter thinks he knows how the world works, at the beginning of the narrative, but he is very quickly disabused of that notion. It is October 1963, and he is an MI6 assassin, who can kill spies & traitors, seemingly without compunction, at the behest of his masters. His latest contract, a priest who is suspected of selling state secrets to the Russians, presents him with a worrying development; for a start, he doesn’t just accept his fate, like the majority of Winters’s victims, but when Winters does kill the man, after a fight in which Winters is knifed in the arm, the priest dissolves into something altogether unholy as he dies.

Thereafter, the plot becomes increasingly gothic. According to Christopher’s erstwhile mentor, and now MI6 colleague, Malcolm Hands, the priest was trading not state secrets to the Russians, but esoteric runes: apparently, secrets more powerful than the atomic bomb, and his cutout is a third man in Vienna. Sound familiar? I prefer to interpret this as a reverential ‘borrow’, rather than a lazy ‘steal’: it is a fact that Vienna was a seething hub of espionage in the cold war years, so this is not an implausible plot device. Things take a distinct turn for the weird when Winters’s ‘echo man’ [field backup] is murdered, but then his corpse appears to be still alive, and intent on killing his colleague! To add to this catalogue of calamity, Hands is ritualistically murdered, but as Christopher hopes, he must have anticipated this turn of events, and has left a clue to a dead letter drop for Winters to collect. While he is doing this, he thinks he spots his wife, Joyce, observing him, but there is something about her that also seems wrong; this disquiet is amplified exponentially when Joyce subsequently tries to kill him!

This isn’t a ‘Steampunk’ world per se, but the gothic aspects of the story do suggest some sort of overlap; as mentioned, this is effectively the real world, but the story asks the question: do we really know the world, or is there much that remains just out of sight, but lurking in wait for the unsuspecting? Chris’s world is undoubtedly falling apart, and it is morphing into something demonic. Into this mix is thrown a character known only as Hart, but in a slightly earlier time period: he is a warlock, who seems to be obsessively searching for something, and he is also disturbingly capable of killing to facilitate his quest, using bone and blood magic. There are also, probably unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, references to Elizabeth the first’s spymaster, Walsingham, his alchemist associate Dr John Dee, and Sir Edward Kelly, who was employed for the ability to scry beyond the material curtain, a facility which was, frustratingly, unavailable to Dee. A supernatural being known as the Widow of Kursk is introduced, and she seems to know Christopher, calling him Tobias: how can this be? Winter also encounters an exotic [of course!] female spy by the name of Karina, and this proves to be a fateful connection for him.

Revealing any more would undoubtedly spoil a somewhat convoluted, but nevertheless enjoyable plot, which can be a refreshing alternative to perhaps more mundane spy thrillers & police procedurals; there is also the distinct possibility that this narrative could be continued in a further story, although that is not explicitly stated. If you enjoy a dark read, which might even be ever so slightly frightening, I can recommend this book: with the special effects available to the film industry today, I think it could also make a decent film, given all the appropriate prerequisites: good casting, production, and direction. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Titan Books, London, ISBN 978-1-785-65709-2.

Book Review

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The Crocodile Hunter, by Gerald Seymour

I have capitalised the title, to give it a conventional appearance, contrary to how it is shown on the cover of the book; I know I can sometimes shun convention, but showing the title of a book in all lower case [but not the author’s name] just looks affected to me: sorry. If the author’s name looks familiar, to those of my readers ‘of a certain age’, that is because he was a reporter for the ITN [International Television News] company in Britain for fifteen years, covering America’s war in Viet Nam, and the Middle East; he has been a full-time writer since 1978, and is probably best known for Harry’s Game, which was successfully dramatised for television, based on his experience in Northern Ireland, including witnessing Bloody Sunday. This is his thirty-seventh novel. I have read the aforementioned Harry’s Game, a few years ago now, so I can’t remember if the writing style of the illustrious precursor was the same as that utilised in this narrative, where the mostly third-person description of the action is somewhat clipped, by the intermittent omission of articles, definite & indefinite [the, a, an], and personal pronouns, to indicate a thought process, often rushed: this can be effective, but I have to confess that it felt slightly overused in this narrative, which does become tiresome after a while.

This concern aside, the story and its dénouement are well played out. This book is evidently one of a series; a new story, The Foot Soldiers [again correctively capitalised]  is due out next month, March 2022; but it is impossible to discern, from the publications list at the front of the book, how many previous Jonas Merrick novels there have been. That notwithstanding, the character is sightly unusual in being initially at the end of his security service career; he is a ‘Fiver’, but he does bear some characteristic similarities with an illustrious fictional colleague, albeit across the river from Thames House, George Smiley: the reasons for this similarity are impossible to know, but it is a useful similarity, and far be it from me to speculate that it is any sort of ‘crib’. Merrick’s nickname among his colleagues is The Eternal Flame, because he never goes out [i.e.: leave his office]: he revels in slow, deliberate, painstaking research, seeking out potential threats to the security of Britain and, although in the early stages of his career, field work would have been barred to him, latterly it has been a matter of choice, preferring to confer the privilege of the more prestigious, albeit secret, and for internal acknowledgment only, surveillance & capture of targets on younger & fitter operatives.

However, on the evening of his leaving party, his 60th birthday, which signifies his retirement, he does something uncharacteristic: he has no positive expectations of the event, so he exits the building to give him a breathing space, and after a short walk along the river, completely by chance [and fortuitously for the story] he encounters a potential suicide bomber, whom he recognises from his research; but a very nervous, young, white radicalised British lad by the name of Winston Gunn, the product of a Caucasian, lorry-driver father and a Quetta, Pakistan-born mother. Exercising icy calm, he talks to the lad and, when he has gained Gunn’s trust, he defuses the explosive device. This act of conspicuous bravery, for which he is subsequently [but discreetly] awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal, which his wife Vera keeps at the bottom of her knicker drawer, earns him a reprieve from retirement, towards which he seemed to have no strong feelings either way: he & Vera enjoy their touring caravan holidays [and Jonas is blithely unconcerned about the traffic tailbacks this activity inevitably generates], but he also enjoys his work, which he considers to be ever more necessary, regrettably. His continuation of employment brings with it a new respect & concomitant status: the AssDepDG [Assistant Deputy Director General of the Service] now reads every memo from Jonas, instead of routinely giving them barely more than a cursory glance; and he has acquired a new sobriquet, ‘Wobby’, meaning the AssDepDG’s ‘Wise Old Bird’.

The eponymous crocodile is a new target: a potentially very dangerous individual; a returning jihadi, but a white British one, who could very easily go to ground on his return, and metaphorically lurk below the surface while preparing to strike at a significant target. Jonas reduces the candidate list of known possibilities to the one who seems most likely, in very short order, and begins his methodical research, whilst at the same time being painfully aware that rumours of a lethally destructive weapon being brought over land to Britain could signify an imminent & devastating revenge attack by this individual. Unfortunately, resources are stretched, because of a multiplicity of domestic operations, so Jonas is assigned two new and rather raw recruits for his field work. Jonas realises that his dispassionate expertise is needed out in the field, so he travels to Canterbury, just outside which the target originates from, and meets the two local tactical weapons officers who have been somewhat grudgingly told to assist him on the ground, but who initially regard him from appearances & personality as ineffectual. Interspersed within this narrative is an exposition of the back story of the target; his family background, his disenchantment with conventional British society, and his enjoyment of military action with trusted ‘brothers’ in Syria, fighting under the black flag.

The dénouement is satisfying, which is a great relief to Jonas, because his reputation, and that of ‘Five’, are very much on the line here; as the IRA famously said: “We only need to be lucky once.” Given the protagonist’s age, his future career must be somewhat limited, but nevertheless, it should be possible to conceive of a few new stories on this canon, so I will keep my eyes open for them; or any previous ones, come to that. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 978-1-529-38604-2.

Book Review

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Blackout, by Simon Scarrow

This is a book which, in my humble opinion, does live up to its hype, with reviews from Anthony Horowitz & Damien Lewis, no less. It could be seen as an analogue of SS-GB, by Len Deighton; although the main difference, apart from the location, is that the former is set in the real world, albeit a fictional protagonist, whereas the latter is set in the imagined ‘alternate reality’ of a Britain conquered by Germany in 1940. This book is one of a numerous series of books on the subject of conflict and/or warfare in different timeframes by this author: he has also co-authored with Lee Francis & T J Andrews. The protagonist in Blackout, published in 2021 by Headline Publishing Group, ISBN 978-1-4722-5856-4 [paperback], is Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kripo [Kriminalpolizei]; Scarrow uses British terminology wherever possible, even down to the inexorably ubiquitous Nazi Party salutation “Hail Hitler”, but since there are few direct equivalents of military ranks, Scarrow does use the German terms.

It is December 1939 in Berlin, which is a sensible timeframe for a murder thriller story set there, because the country is now at war, with all the consequent exigencies & paranoia, but it is before the shock & physical effects of an Allied fightback started to appear; whether Scarrow has one or more sequels in mind as the war progresses is not indicated. Schenke has avoided military service, to his shame, because he has a permanently injured knee, courtesy of an accident during his former career as a driver for the prestigious Silver Arrows Mercedes-Benz racing team: he was lucky to survive the crash, but it left him with a game leg. He is, however, a diligent & moderately successful police officer, and he is “requested” by Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo [Geheime Staatspolizei, State secret police] to investigate the death of Gerda Korzeny, aka Gerda Schnee, a once-famous actress whose career ended somewhat abruptly when she married a rich Berlin lawyer. Schenke is confused as to why he has been conscripted in this way, because the death did not occur in his area; however, he has so far resisted pressure to join the Party, which has been assuming ever more influence over all aspects of German life, including the police, and he quickly realises that, as well as having no obvious allegiance to any of the fractious factions which Hitler’s system has produced, he could be a very convenient fall guy if he discovers anything the Party deems inconvenient.

Schenke is initially unamused to be assigned an “assistant”, who just happens to be an SS Scharführer [sergeant] by Müller, and he sees it as an obvious device to keep tabs on him & his investigation [the officer’s name is Liebwitz, which I think is a nice little in-joke for German speakers, as the young officer has no sense of humour]; however, on reflection, Schenk realises that this could actually be an advantage, given the clout that even a sergeant in the Gestapo with SS accreditation can wield; he also shows assiduous diligence in his work. Also, Müller gives Schenk a letter of authority, which proves to be useful a few times. When another woman is murdered in almost identical circumstances, Schenk begins to wonder if, perhaps, this isn’t an investigation of one murder which could prove to be uncomfortably sensitive but, instead, one of a series by a psychopathic killer willing to take advantage of the wartime blackouts; further investigation by one of Schenk’s team suggests that this could, indeed, be the case… This is as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but the tension as the investigation nears its conclusion is very well built, and the dénouement is very plausible, so if you enjoy a thriller with a wartime historical context, I can heartily recommend this book, and I would not be sorry to see a sequel.

Book Review

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The Mitford Trial, by Jessica Fellowes

When I saw the name Mitford in the title of this book, my mind immediately suggested a connection with Oswald Mosley, who was a very prominent personality in my book Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, the biography of my grand uncle Wilfred Risdon, who worked closely with OM from 1930 until just before the start of the second world war. This book being reviewed is actually one of a series by this author, featuring the Mitford family, but this particular one does have a tangential connection with Mosley, hence my interest was piqued. If the author’s family name is familiar, it is because she is the niece of the author Julian Fellowes, who created, according to Ms Fellowes’s website, the television series Downton Abbey, with which many people [not including me, however, for ideological reasons] will be familiar; although how many of these would be able to name the writer is another matter. Without wishing to cast any aspersions, the success of the television production was very useful for Ms Fellowes, as she has written five “official companion books”. The first book in the Mitford series, The Mitford Murders, was her tenth book, and the book under review here is her fifth Mitford book. From the information given on her website, it would appear that the lady is very much part of the upper classes so, presumably, she knows of what she writes.

This also begs another question—how close is her relationship with the Mitford family, because it might be considered incautious to write about the albeit avowedly fictional exploits of a real family, without some sort of dispensation, especially as a family such as this might tend toward the litigious if its reputation should be impugned, notwithstanding real & documented historical events. This closeness or otherwise is not stated, so can only be guessed at. In this story, former lady’s maid Louisa Cannon is asked to spy on Diana Mitford; who later went on to marry Oswald Mosley, despite his known philandering; and her younger sister Unity, a fervent supporter of Hitler from around the time of his accession to the post of Chancellor in Germany. This spying is to take place on a cruise to Italy, and Louisa is unenthusiastic about the idea, especially as the man who persuades her to do it, “Iain”, is not prepared to reveal for whom he is working [but it is probably fairly safe to assume that it must be MI5]; his only ammunition for expecting her to comply is to play on her patriotism, telling her bluntly that Germany is preparing for war, which must be prevented at all costs, and the Mitfords’ possible knowledge of, and connection with these preparations could be vital to the British government. Despite having only just married a detective sergeant with Scotland Yard, the excitement she feels at being asked to undertake this underhand mission overrules her misgivings, especially as she is exhorted to reveal nothing of her task to her new husband.

The narrative appears to be historically accurate; I would have been surprised if it had not been; there are precious few direct references to Mosley’s political activities, but one is right at the beginning of the book, on Louisa’s wedding day: a rally at Trafalgar Square on the 15th of October 1932, only a couple of weeks after the founding of the British Union of Fascists at the former New Party office in Great George Street, London. Apparently, “the crowds are bigger and more rowdy than expected…”, so all police leave is cancelled, and Guy, Louisa’s new husband, must accompany his superior, DCI Stiles, in a car to the meeting. Stiles seems biased against Mosley for no discernible reason, although perhaps this is just a reflection of his copper’s innate fears of public disorder, if the lower orders are given something to encourage them to be rebellious: “I don’t like the idea of that many people [at a London rally] thinking the BUF has got something to offer them.” This is endorsed by the reaction of a cockney beat copper, who happens to be in the car with them: “Sounds all right to me, if you ask, guv: [Ramsay] MacDonald’s a shower, isn’t he? A traitor to the Labour party. We need a real leader, someone who believes in the Brits and the working man.” I’m not sure about that term “Brits”, but I don’t have the time for the research to prove that an anachronism.

There is a murder on the cruise, and it just so happens that Guy is, fortuitously, also available to help unmask the perpetrator, because he joined the cruise in mid-stream [although not literally], as he couldn’t bear to be parted from his new wife for so long so, because the death occurred in international waters, he assumes control of the investigation. The relationships involved with the murder suspects are somewhat murky, and there is also a historical element to them, so they take quite some untangling, and the added complication is that Louisa is not able to reveal her reason for being less than forthcoming with information about the Mitfords. The murder, and the consequent trial, is based on a real murder which took place in 1935, but I will reveal no details of this, as it could easily prove to be a plot spoiler; the character of “Iain” is loosely based on Maxwell Knight, of MI5 and, according to Fellowes, the MI5 file on Mosley was opened in 1933, “with a report from Detective Constable Edward Pierpoint, who had been at a fascist public meeting in Manchester.” I would question if a public meeting can be described as “fascist”, but no matter; what I am reasonably sure of is that, as Mosley’s first Director of Propaganda, Wilfred Risdon would have been responsible for organising this meeting.

This is quite a decent ‘whodunnit’, aside from any observations on class in early 20th century British society; then again, it is almost impossible to escape those, especially if one includes the epitome of this genre, Agatha Christie, so they can be seen as background colour, which helps to shape the characters. This book was published in paperback by Sphere [Little, Brown Book Group] in 2021 [2020], ISBN 978-0-7515-7397-8.

Book Review

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The Consequences of Fear, by Jacqueline Winspear

This is a Maisie Dobbs novel, and it is one of at least fourteen by this author; there is some confusion about this number between the biography at the back of the book, and the publications list at the front, but no matter: suffice to say that this character has had plenty of outings, presumably in the same time period, which is in the early years of the second world war. She is also known as Lady Margaret, courtesy of her late husband, who died in the previous war, but for her professional work, that of an investigator, she prefers to be known by her maiden name. She lives part of the time in close proximity to her late husband’s parents, in rural Kent, but she also keeps a small flat in London, for when she is working. She also has a gentleman friend, “a diplomat of sorts. An American, working at the embassy”, but they are rather like the proverbial “ships which pass in the night”, so understandably, she worries how much longer the relationship can last.

This case starts with an apparent murder being committed on a bomb site, during the blackout on a dark night, and observed by a young messenger runner; apparently, in reality, during the war, young boys [and only boys] who could run very fast were chosen to run messages between Air Raid Precautions [ARP] dépôts, which was dangerous, especially as they were expected to continue even during bombing raids. This character was actually suggested by the work of the author’s own father, and in the story, messages are also carried between government departments and private addresses.

The boy, Freddie Hackett, tells the police what he saw, but he isn’t believed, so when the opportunity arises to tell Maisie Dobbs, he does so. Maisie also happens to work for a “secret government department spearheading covert operations against the Nazis [sic]”; again, the lazy association of the Nazis with all wartime German forces, but this is all too common, I regret to say; Maisie instinctively believes the boy, taking the commendable view that children should be listened to, counter to the still predominantly prevailing view that children should be seen and not heard. Unfortunately, nearly everybody whom Maisie tells about the incident, people she knows she can trust, tend to the view that the boy is either exaggerating, or that he dreamed the whole thing up during the stress of a bombing raid.

As the narrative progresses, and the plot unfolds, more information becomes available to Maisie to support young Freddie’s assertion, but she still encounters some official opposition, especially because her covert work is so secret that nothing can be allowed to compromise it, especially when it involves sending SOE agents into occupied France. The period feel of the story is realised well, and it is reasonable to make the main character a woman of some substance, given the timeframe, albeit not too high in society to arouse resentment when dealing with the lower orders; she is also very caring when it comes to trying to help the boy’s family escape from an abusive husband & father. Maisie finds the killer in the end, but the resolution is not as satisfactory as she could have hoped for. The paperback I read was published by Allison & Busby, London, in 2021, ISBN 978-0-7490-2668-4.

Book Review

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Double Agent, by Tom Bradby

This author’s name might already be familiar to some of my British readers, given that he has worked extensively as a journalist & correspondent for the Independent Television Network, and that work has encompassed political affairs, so at the very least, it can be said that he knows of what he writes: much more than your present humble blogger, anyway. In addition to the Kate Henderson series, of which this is the second member, he has also written six other novels which, notwithstanding that he had, to 2020, been with ITN for thirty years [which is slightly belied by his annoyingly youthful-looking photograph accompanying the bio on the inside back cover], does beg the question of how demanding his ‘day job’ must be, but to be fair, and with no disrespect intended, authors who churn out piles of books, seemingly on a conveyor belt, tend to be part of a committee, rather than independent scribblers, slaving away in a garret, so it’s probably not too difficult to find a spare hour or so to commit some thoughts to an electronic record, which can then be scrutinised & knocked into shape by editors & proofreaders.

As stated, this book is the sequel to the story which introduced the character, Secret Service [possibly rather too generic a title, but no matter], but that is no impediment to an enjoyment of this story because the backstory is either detailed right at the beginning, or nuggets are drip-fed into the narrative as it progresses; this is a very common device, and perfectly acceptable, and has been adopted by television drama for story arcs [although the somewhat irritating practice of previewing the next episode at the end of the current one, “Next time!”, is now very common, and it is even more irritating in ‘real-life’ documentaries & travelogues, where it is used at the end of each segment, “Coming up!”, before the commercial break!]. That said, I would be happy to read the previous story, even though I now know the ending: there is a school of thought that we enjoy a story more when we already know the ending, so perhaps this proves it.

Kate Henderson is a senior Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI6, officer; head of the Russia Desk; and, although it is presumably more common now for women to hold senior positions in the security services, she is perhaps unusual in that her husband was also an MI6 operative, but defected to Russia because he was unmasked as a mole, codenamed Viper. This was understandably traumatic for her, so at the beginning of this story, she is still suffering the effects of the fallout from this bombshell, and only just managing to hold her work together. She is, however, lucky [possibly implausibly so?] that her aunt is the head of the Personnel Department, and spends a lot of time at her home, to help look after Kate’s two children; also an old and close friend works with her in the same department. One major fly in the ointment is that Kate has been assigned a deputy, Suzy Spencer; “slim, pretty, northern, state-educated and half Vietnamese”, who has been seconded from 5 to replace her former deputy & friend, Rav, who was killed at the unsuccessful end of the previous mission, “Operation Sigma”. This is quite clearly the result of her husband’s treachery, so it is just one more thing for Kate to be concerned about.

The ‘meat’ of the story concerns the potential defection of a senior Russian Intelligence officer, Mikhail Borodin, as well as his father, Igor, the former head of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, and his wife. This has come about by having fallen out of favour somewhat, as a result of tensions between the SVR [the successor to the KGB] & the GRU, Russia’s military espionage agency: apparently, Igor has been ousted in a coup, orchestrated by the GRU, and his colleague, Vasily Durov, is already under arrest. What would sweeten the deal is that they would supply allegedly categorical evidence that the current British Prime Minister is an agent for Russia, and has been for many years; this evidence would include financial payments, and video footage showing the man engaging in sex with underage girls, when he was a soldier in Kosovo. Naturally, there is always the chance that this evidence could be faked, so Kate knows she has to proceed very carefully, but this awareness is complicated by her suspicion that at least one of her current colleagues could also be a mole. During the action, Kate meets up with an erstwhile colleague [and old flame, natch] from her time at University in Russia, and even endures a somewhat awkward overnight stay with her estranged husband in Moscow. It’s not a bad yarn, as spy stories go, so I will keep my eyes open for other publications by Bradby. The Penguin paperback I read was published in 2020 by Bantam Press, ISBN 978-0-5521-7553-1.

Book Review

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Defend or Die, by Tom Marcus

Tom Marcus doesn’t exist: given that he is a former member of MI5, the use of a nom de plume must surely be not only recommended, but essential, for reasons too obvious to list. This book is his second novel, succeeding Capture or Kill, and they both follow his first book, Soldier Spy which, according to the bio at the front of the book, was cleared & vetted for publication by his former employer, so it must be a safe assumption that the two novels were too. I will refrain from further comment about his background, not least because of my beliefs about the way national security is manipulated globally, but murderous outrages have been perpetrated around the world and will continue to be, whatever the security services do, so whatever can be done [within reasonable limits] to prevent them should be done, failing more accommodation at a global level of differing belief systems, which I fear will only arrive very slowly, and probably painfully. While reading this book, I had to suspend my dislike of authoritarianism, and see it as a street-level spy yarn, which I did.

Matt Logan is a member of a British ’black’ government organisation [i.e.: totally secret & deniable] known as Blindeye; which is certainly not an original idea; and it is tasked with neutralising threats to the UK’s national security. The latest threat [because there always is one, isn’t there?] comes from our favourite bête noir, Russia, so the prime candidate, a billionaire oligarch living in London, is put under surveillance. At the same time, but seemingly unconnected, initially, two people with prior connections to MI5 have died from a heart attack and a car accident, but at least one of the team finds this suspicious: the problem is finding evidence linking their deaths & the circumstances surrounding them. There is a network around the oligarch, including the inevitable security operatives, but surveillance doesn’t immediately reveal anything obviously suspicious. Logan is compromised to some extent, because he is still traumatised by the recent deaths of his wife & young son, whom he ‘sees’ and talks to when he is on his own, but he manages to operate at a tolerable level of efficiency, even when he has to undergo total isolation to facilitate a ‘spiritual cleansing’ as part of the latest undercover operation.

It takes a while for the reality of the threat to be discovered, but when it is, inevitably there is a race against time to neutralise it: Logan is totally lacking in scruples or emotion when it comes to dispatching people who stand in his way, but he hasn’t completely lost his humanity in the process. How believable the characters in this story are is very difficult to assess: there is no shortage of previous associated fiction with which to make comparisons, but given that we are never going to learn the true extent of how any country’s security services work, we have to treat such stories as fiction with an arguably greater or lesser degree of truth to them. For my own part, I think I enjoy reading this genre more if I think the fiction quotient is higher, because it is easy to become prey to so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ [many of which subsequently are found to be true, incidentally, when more evidence comes to light] when grains of truth of governments’ duplicity, deception & thuggery are revealed. This story was published in 2020, by Macmillan, and as yet, no sequel is in evidence; the paperback, ISBN 978-1-5098-6364-8, was published in 2021 by Pan Books, London.

Book Review


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Paris Spring, by James Naughtie

Listeners to BBC Radio Four (of whom I have to confess I am not one) will very likely be familiar with this name, but as a presenter, rather than an author (unless either or both of his novels to 2016 has/have been reviewed on that august station). His previous, first, novel was called The Madness of July, and it also featured this book’s main character, Will Flemyng, and was set in the mid-1970s; it garnered a 2.78 star rating on Goodreads. This current book is a prequel to the first, being set in 1968, and Flemyng is stationed in Paris, at a very volatile time for the world in general, but for Paris in particular, with revolution in the air. A handful of years later, Flemyng will be a Foreign Office minister, but the use of the term stationed should indicate that previously, he was, according to the blurb on the back of Paris Spring, a “secret servant at the British Embassy”. Will has two brothers: Mungo, who lives at the ancestral home (not a mansion, however) in Scotland, and lives a relatively hermetic life; and Abel, who does a similar job to Will, but for the Americans, for reasons which are best explained by the narrative.

The primary element of the narrative is the contact that is established between Will and a young man who presents himself as being implicitly East German, and who obviously wants to either set himself up as a contact on the communist side for the British, or who perhaps even wants to defect. This is where the aspect of the book which I found slightly irritating is evident; it soon becomes apparent that the young man is not what he seems, but establishing exactly what he is becomes complicated by the elliptical nature of the dialogue: by this, I mean that people & situations tend to be alluded to, rather than specified clearly. Perhaps Naughtie is trying to emulate the author who must indubitably be a guide for him in these endeavours: John le Carré, given that there is a cast of Secret Intelligence Service bods who don’t seem to be able to operate without letting their own tensions and social resentments influence their activities. Having said that, Flemyng’s superior, Freddy Craven, as well as being experienced & capable is a likeable and avuncular figure who is very protective towards Will, and is clearly and easily worth whatever he might have been paid, not that he would have accepted that this was the primary motive for his employment.

The irritating nature of the dialogue aside, the tension in the story develops quite nicely, building on a slightly unexpected murder in a world-famous location, and the revelation of the identity of the young man who makes contact with Will on a local train at the beginning is something of a surprise; this is after the three brothers have spent more time together intermittently than the schedules of the two peripatetic siblings have allowed hitherto, and this is something of a relief for the predominantly homebound brother, who is almost permanently concerned about Will; although his lifestyle, and at best sporadic contact were primary causative reasons for that. I found the dénouement, with the death of one of the main characters genuinely moving, so overall I would say that this novel is a success, and I would relish reading the first book ‘in the right order’, chronologically speaking; other readers might not find the elliptical dialogue quite so irritating! Paris Spring was published by Head Of Zeus Ltd. in 2016, ISBN 9781784080211 .