Book Review


Photo by Aral Tasher on Unsplash

The Prodigal Daughter, by Jeffrey Archer

Before I commence this review, I have to state, hand on heart, that I have no affection for this author’s political affiliation, but I hope this shouldn’t preclude me from delivering an impartial review of this story, which must be one of his best known ones. I was in the mood for an undemanding read, after having read a few gripping stories, which I have sadly not had the time to review, thanks to circumstances which have required my full attention for a week or so; also, I do tend to become involved with the plot, which can be somewhat wearing, so the occasional undemanding read is a good antidote to that and, although I can’t speak for most of the rest of his oeuvre, without wishing to be in any way derogatory, this story is relatively pedestrian. It is also one of those ‘neither fish nor fowl’ mélanges of American terminology with British spelling but, given that the story concerns itself with the American version of the subject with which the author was well acquainted; i.e., politics; that is hardly surprising—indeed, I would even go so far as to say that it is appropriate.

Another of Archer’s books, Kane and Abel, with which I am not, hitherto, familiar, must, logically, deal with two of the principal characters featured in this book, yet no reference is made to it in this story so, given that this book details the life stories of both characters, as a prelude to the life of the eponymous daughter, I would be curious to know what else the other story might have to add. This is the story of old money [Kane] versus a Polish immigrant [Abel Rosnovski] who makes a roaring success of the hotel trade, as a result of sheer hard work [a characteristic always applauded in America], and his daughter, Florentyna, who harbours political ambitions, almost from birth, so it would seem; before these can be realised, however, she learns her father’s business, through practical experience, working as a shop assistant, after an exemplary education at one of America’s foremost women’s universities, where her outstanding intellect is nurtured. This intellect is encouraged, incidentally, by an English governess, Miss Winifred Tredgold; although Florentyna only discovers this given name after the formidable woman’s death, towards the end of the book.

Early in the story, an implacable enmity between the two men is created, when Kane, on behalf of his company’s bank [partly owned by his family], refuses a loan to Abel for the survival of the hotel group which he has just taken over, following the death of its previous owner; subsequent to this, the two men are metaphorically ‘daggers drawn’ with each other, although Florentyna’s actions will precipitate a meshing of the lives of the two families, which is not easily accepted. This does facilitate Florentyna’s political career, however, and many real characters in American politics are incorporated, to give the story plausibility; and people of my vintage should still be able to remember the political events from the 1960s onwards, psychedelic experiences notwithstanding, so there is a certain nostalgia element to the story as well. This is about as much as can be revealed without spoiling the plot, but if nothing else, this is an interesting lesson in American politics, although the venality & aspirational egotism incorporated therein should come as no great surprise. The praise for Archer on the book is characteristically hyperbolic, but I have no hesitation in commending this as a well-crafted and workmanlike narrative. The paperback I read was published in 2017 [original 1982] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-0870-0.

Book Review


Photo by Tom Geerts on Unsplash

The War of the Poor, by Éric Vuillard

This is a very short book; only 66 pages; and set in a large font [not specified, but probably at least 12pt] with wide line spacing; so it should possibly more accurately be described as a booklet or a tract; but no matter: the subject matter is important. It is essentially true, albeit with a certain amount of permissible embroidery, given its historical setting, for the sake of continuity & completeness; it was translated from the original French, La guerre des pauvres, first published in 2019, by an award-winning author in his own right, Mark Polizzotti. I have a few observations about the significance of the text, including a personal connection but, at the risk of appearing to opt for a lazy response, given the fact that this is a non-fiction narrative, there is no plot, as such, to spoil, so I hope my readers will forgive me for quoting in large part from the synopsis at the front of the book, on the inside front cover.

This story concerns a subject which is very important to me, and it is the story of a man whose “terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived — a moment when Europe was in flux and history was being written.” So far, so hyperbolic: here I could observe that Europe is again in flux [so what have we learned in between?], but surely, the writing of history is inevitable with the passage of time, so that statement is superfluous? “The history of inequality is a long and terrible one, and it’s not over yet [sadly, true]. The War of the Poor tells the story of a brutal episode from history, not as well known as tales of other popular uprisings, but one that deserves to be told [definitely]. Sixteenth century Europe: the Protestant Reformation takes on the powerful and the privileged. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer: a complex and controversial figure, who sided with neither Martin Luther, nor the Roman Catholic Church. Müntzer encouraged the poor to question why a god who apparently loved them seemed to be on the side of the rich.”

All well & good, and some of my observations could be seen as prejudice, for which I apologise, but they spring from my agnosticism, so I consider The Church, of any flavour, and religion in general, to be fair game. First & foremost, I was somewhat surprised, but also agreeably gratified, to read of a personal connection with the beginning of Müntzer’s ‘career’ in 1520 when, after emerging as a child from the trauma of his father’s execution, and reading The Bible which was produced with the new-fangled process called printing, “he enrolled as a student in Leipzig, then became a priest in Halberstadt  and Brunswick [Braunschweig], then a provost here and there, then, after considerable tribulations among the Lutherite plebeians, he emerged from his hole in 1520, when he was named a preacher in Zwickau.” The beginning of the next chapter nails it for me: “Outside the borders of Saxony [Sachsen], hardly anyone knows Zwickau. It’s just another backwater.” For non-German speakers, there’s an added complication: it’s difficult to pronounce—the combination of the ts consonants, followed by the v pronunciation of the German w is admittedly not easy, but not impossible, with practice. I was there for 6 months at the beginning of 1993; so, only two-and-a-bit years after one of the most momentous events of modern times, whose repercussions were to affect the whole of the soon to be reunited Germany for years to come, and the whole European continent, albeit somewhat less so, and to varying degrees in the different constituent countries. At the end of the GDR, Zwickau was where ‘Trabis’ were built, then VW took the plant over.

My overall concern with the story is that, although Müntzer was fighting for the rights of the common man, he was doing so within the confines of Christianity, and expecting his followers to be willing adherents also; it is reasonable to argue that those were the times in which they lived, when morality & religious observance were seen as inseparable, but he did set himself up as a fundamentalist demagogue: “He cited Luke: ‘Bring hither mine enemies, and slay them before me.’ He cited the psalms: ‘The Lord will smash down the old pots of clay with his rod of iron.’ … But … Müntzer introduced another populace, more invasive and tumultuous, a real populace, the poor laity and the peasants. This was a far cry from the catechistic generality of kindly Christian folk; now it was about ordinary people.” It all ended badly, of course: after several armed confrontations, and even a few victories, Müntzer was captured and beheaded, leaving history to be written by the victors. “These scurrilous legends come along to bow the heads of renegades only after they have been denied the right to speak. Their sole purpose is to make the tormenting voice sound within us, the voice of order, to which we are ultimately so attached that we surrender to its mysteries and hand it our lives.” Apparently, “Nietzsche took inspiration from him, from the Müntzerese gush and extravagance. But Müntzer is a man of action … He quotes Daniel: ‘Power will be given to the people.’ We’re a long way from Nietzsche.”

We’re also a long way from “Power [being] given to the people”, but at least the power of religion is being cumulatively reduced, although we still have some way to go. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-3855-2.

Book Review

Photo by Carlos Nunez on Unsplash

The Ghost, by Robert Harris

Even though I have seen the dramatised version of this story—I think it was a made-for-TV film, rather than a general release film or a TV serial—it was a while ago; unfortunately, the book, which was published in 2007, doesn’t mention this, so I’m guessing that it could have been at least five years since it was on TV, if not more, hence I can’t remember a lot about it. It is interesting to speculate if the publication date was chosen to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the election victory of the prime minister on whom the story is clearly based; or it could have been a complete coincidence. The premise is that a successful British ghostwriter is brought in, somewhat in spite of his own reservations, to complete the ‘autobiography’, or memoirs, of ex-prime minister Adam Lang, who is living temporarily in some seclusion in the Martha’s Vineyard residence of an American philanthropist, while the book is written. Unfortunately, Mike McAra, the former colleague of Lang who was writing the book for him, disappears, presumed drowned, from a ferry travelling back to the American mainland, hence the importation of the unnamed writer [he’s a ghost: geddit?] after a somewhat unconvincing interview process: more of a foregone conclusion.

He very quickly realises that all is not well in the Lang camp, but at first he’s not sure why. He can see that there are tensions between Lang and his wife, Ruth, who is arguably the more intellectually gifted of the pair, but chooses to stay in the background most of the time; she does make volubly clear her frustrations at being cooped up in back of beyond New England, however. A revelation that Lang could be indicted by the International Criminal Court [ICC] for complicity, while in office, in handing over four alleged Al Quaeda members, who were snatched in Pakistan, to the CIA for rendition & torture, during which one of the victims died, contributes to an exacerbation of the paranoia already felt by Lang, and an increase in the unease of the ghost about what he’s allowed himself to become involved with. He’s uncertain about how much he should trust Ruth Lang: she clearly adores her husband, but she appears to be concerned that all might not be right with him, mentally: there is a suggestion of the onset of dementia, and during a walk à deux on the nearby beach, Ruth confides in the writer that Lang seems lost, after having literally lost power, with the sense of impotence that this can bring about, but he can’t move on: he’s stuck—they’re both stuck. Unfortunately, the writer’s doubts about Ruth’s stability don’t help his concerns about his suitability for the task, either: “It was as if some tiny mechanism was missing from her brain: the bit that told you how to behave naturally with other people.”

For me, it goes without saying that a Robert Harris novel will be enjoyable, despite only having read a few hitherto; how much of his own opinion is incorporated in the story is debatable, but he writes convincingly, albeit in the voice of one of the main characters, about how beholden to the USA Britain has become, and the detailing of the many ways in which this is demonstrably true, as a result of action taken during the premiership of this fictional politician, clearly mirroring the one on which the story is based, is scarily accurate. There is a lot more I could say about this story, which reveals Harris’s analysis of the geopolitical landscape, but I don’t want to reveal more of the plot, because it is a very enjoyable read, with sufficient tension to retain the reader’s attention; there is also a neat little sting in the tail. This is a nice little conceit of a well established & demonstrably good writer casting himself in the rôle of a successful writer who dismisses the work of a bad writer [the original author]! There are also swipes at celebrity culture, and the hollowness of the trappings of power. The paperback edition I read was published in 2008 by Arrow Books, London [Hutchinson, 2007], ISBN 978-0-09-952749-7.

Book Review

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

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

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

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.

Website Update

With reference to my previous post, as a result of, sadly, inevitable postage price increases, and very probably an indirect result of Britain’s recently leaving the EU, it has become necessary to update the Wilfred Books website to reflect this, because the postal charges included for despatch of the print version of Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles have been insufficient, for all areas of the world, for some time now. I should also point out that the book’s retail purchase price has NOT increased, neither are there any plans for this to happen. To achieve this update, certain sections of the site have been ‘refactored’, as it’s called, but it has not been a simple matter of just editing a few items of text; the reason for this is that a new price group, specifically for delivery to the EU zone, needed to be introduced: previously, the first non-UK price group included Europe, but this is no longer the case. More details can be found on the website’s about page, where there is a link to the book’s own page, and there is also a purchase link there.

Another complication is that there is now a veritable plethora of possible screen sizes for all of the devices which people can now use to access websites, compared to when the book was first published, in 2013; and, indeed, there are now even narrower screens than the first smartphones had [which I find slightly incredible, but I’m old-fashioned, and prefer a laptop for accessing websites]; so, each possible screen size had to be checked, to make sure that the new layout of the page a buyer is taken to when purchasing a print version of the book, looks acceptable with the new EU postal delivery price group included, so although this was relatively straightforward, as mentioned above, it was not a quick undertaking!

I hope the page looks acceptable across all devices, but I must stress that I am not a professional website developer; although I was confident that I could produce a functional & attractive site to make my book available direct, with no middle-man in the process, other than PayPal, which processes the purchase securely. So, if I have missed a new device size, or slipped up when formatting the page for an existing device, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments.

Finally, dare I remind readers that a present-buying opportunity [in addition to normal impulse-buying] is rapidly approaching, so if you know of someone [or yourself!] who would enjoy reading a comprehensively-researched examination of the febrile inter-war period of the 1920s & -30s in Britain, please ensure that a purchase can be delivered in good time! The book focuses specifically on what made an ardent socialist like Wilfred Risdon from Bath, who saw action as a medical orderly in the first world war, and worked in the Tredegar coal mines alongside Aneurin Bevan [who, as we know, went on to a sparkling political career], drastically change his political allegiance to support Oswald Mosley who, although he started out also as a socialist with the best of intentions, fairly soon swung to the opposite side of the political spectrum before the second world war. During the war, after a short period of internment in Brixton Prison under the notorious Emergency Regulation 18B, Wilfred sensibly decided to leave politics behind as far as possible, and concentrate on his passion for animal welfare, advancing to the position of Secretary of the prestigious National Anti-Vivisection Society, before his death in 1967; before that, he engineered the bold [and confrontational!] move of the Society’s London headquarters to Harley Street, the heart of the British medical profession, that still [and continues to, sadly] relied upon animal testing, which involved [Wilfred would argue, unnecessary] hideous & painful procedures. Given the state of the world in general, and British politics in particular now, a knowledge of how we arrived at this point can be very illuminating, so I can heartily recommend Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles: but, then again, why wouldn’t I?

Book Review

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

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

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

Liberation Square, by Gareth Rubin

I really wanted to enjoy this story; it is the first novel by this author, whose CV is very brief, and his current work environment is somewhat contradictory: as well as being an author [possibly something of an exaggeration, given that as stated, this is his first novel], he is a journalist, who writes for the Observer and Daily Telegraph, which in my humble estimation, do not make obvious or comfortable bedfellows—perhaps he is just endeavouring to be even-handed? The cover of the paperback I read; published by Penguin Books, 2019, ISBN 978-1-405-93061-1 [originally published by Michael Joseph, 2018]; is a striking monochrome image of an imposing domed building, but the surmounted red star, vertical draped red banners, on the frontage, showing a white hammer & sickle under a white outline star and over a white surrounding wreath, on the road in front a red London double-decker bus with an upper-level banner showing Russian cyrillic script, and a woman [rear view, retreating] wearing a coat in the same hue of red, all seem somewhat superimposed, instead of being fully integrated into the scene: but perhaps that is a deliberate device to communicate the origin of the story? Background information under the book’s title is: “London, 1952. The wrong side of the Wall.”

This was a fascinating premise for me: as a refreshing change from the [albeit mostly enjoyable] alternate universe scenarios in which Britain lost WWII and ‘now’ is an outpost of the German Third Reich, this one posits that, although this initial prerequisite was satisfied, Germany was then ousted from England in short order by Russia, with assistance, albeit unsought, from America. A helpful pair of maps is provided at the front of the book, showing England divided into the Republic of Great Britain [presumably evoking an earlier age], which occupies the territory below a line arcing from the eastern tip of The Wash, through the border city of Oxford, to the Bristol Channel, approximately 15km [all metric now] above Bristol, and the Democratic United Kingdom, occupying the rest of the British Isles & Northern Ireland, as a result of American forces landing in Liverpool and preventing a wholesale Russification. An inset to this first map shows London divided, as an analogue of postwar Berlin in the ‘real’ world, with the RoGB occupying 2/3 in the north, east, and south, and the DUK occupying a rump in the north-west; the passageway between the London DUK and the remainder of the country is apparently a narrow corridor terminating in Oxford, known as “the Needle”. A second, larger-scale map shows central London, from the Tower of London in the east, to Hyde Park in the west, with the later dividing wall bisecting the Thames, running south from above Westminster Bridge, and west to the National Gallery, where there is a Checkpoint Charlie [not sure about the plausibility of that one, but whatever], then north west to curve around the northern periphery of Regent’s Park and onwards further north west toward the northern perimeter.

This should have been a good palette on which to paint a portrait of a postwar Soviet satellite, but unfortunately, it disappointed me for two reasons: firstly, notwithstanding that it is a fictional narrative, and not an alternative ‘real’ history, there was insufficient background information [except in a “Chronology” section at the end, which should have been superfluous] to support the premise that Russia had just been able to sail a warship up the Thames in 1947 and oust all the remaining German occupying force from the southern sector; and secondly, the meat of the story is a somewhat squalid tale of the death of a beloved British actress, Lorelei Cawson, who supported the new régime and made propaganda films for its benefit, and the quest of the second wife, Jane, of the actress’s first husband, Nick Cawson, to find out if she was actually murdered, and whether the husband had continued to see his ex-wife in secret. The story is narrated by Jane, and although this might seem a somewhat harsh assessment, I was continually irritated by how weak-minded she was, but I am prepared to concede that this might be an unfair judgment, given that she must have been traumatised by finding Lorelei dead in a bath, and suffering concussion when she blacked out & hit her head on the bath. When Nick is arrested by NatSec [National Security] on suspicion of causing Lorelei’s death, Jane has to take in Nick’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Hazel.

Jane manages to establish a working relationship with a police sergeant who was also present when Nick & Jane were first questioned, before Nick’s arrest; Tibbot is a “Blue”, one of the civilian police who deal with non security-related crime, including suspicious death and, although initially reticent, it soon becomes apparent that the Blues are made to feel subservient to NatSec, so he is not averse to working independently to help Jane, although he makes it very clear to her how careful they will have to be to ascertain the facts in this situation. A certain amount of the party apparatus is illustrated on the way to the dénouement; several names familiar to us from the period are used for authenticity: Anthony Blunt here is Comrade First Secretary, and other personalities are scattered about in various rôles, including Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Arthur Wynn, and John Cairncross. I wouldn’t want to deter potential readers from this book, but for me anyway, it could have been slightly better constructed; I would be willing to investigate any further efforts, in the hope that progress has been made.

Book Review

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

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


Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

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 .