I enjoyed this book tremendously. The character of Victor Maskell (the "mask" in Maskell representing a persona of Anthony Blunt) is complex and believable; the story is suspenseful, and Banville's prose can only be described as both luminous and effortless: "A huge, bone-white moon hung above the prostrate sea, and the ship's wake flashed and writhed like a great silver rope unravelling behind us." [p. 57]
And yet, since I have read biographies of Anthony Blunt and Louis MacNeice's autobiographical "The Strings are False" (not to mention every available book on the Cambridge Spies), I feel rather like Dorothy of Oz, who has glimpsed "that man behind the curtain" who should be ignored, if the magic is to be believed.
Those who have not read the literature on the Cambridge Spies will enjoy the book without reservation. Those who have will discover that "The Untouchable" represents a fascinating roman à clef. The boisterous Boy Bannister, who haunts the Gryphon [read Gargoyle] club, can only be Guy Burgess; Philip MacLeish, the "dour Scot" code named Castor [read Homer] can only represent Donald Maclean. Other characters are more equivocal. For instance, one detects a bit of MacNeice not only in Maskell but also in the character of Nick Brevoort. Furthermore, Banville's use of names of actual people who figured in Blunt's real Cambridge life (e.g. Leo, Victor, Sykes, Alistair) as ingredients mixed into his narrative, from which they emerge reborn into new characters, contributes to the verisimilitude of Maskell's character. Except for Boy Bannister, however, the other spies are composites. For instance, Alistair Sykes (who seems to be puffing on Kim Philby's pipe) is given a job at what passes for Bletchley Park, and he suffers Alan Turing's tragic demise. One is not so naïve, however, as to suppose that any resemblance between the "department" bureaucrat Querell, who finds Catholicism and writes "The Orient Express," the first of many "overrated Balkan thrillers" [p. 76], and SIS officer Graham Greene, who underwent a similar religious enlightenment and wrote "Stamboul Express," is strictly coincidental.
In Victor Maskell, Banville has portrayed a tragic anti-hero, grafting the life and persona of poet Louis MacNeice onto that of the art historian and (need one mention?) Soviet agent Anthony Blunt; both of their fathers were clergymen. Furthermore, Banvile has given Victor Maskell not only MacNeice's mentally challenged brother but also his stepmother, and his domineering governess; he has likewise provided him with MacNeice's Irish nationality, and he has even given him MacNeice's wife, Mariette, whom we meet in Maskell's wife, the enigmatically perverse "Vivienne." Banville also takes Maskell and Brevoort on a pre-war trip to Spain, a journey that Blunt actually took with Louis MacNeice. Banville's literary transplant, however, results in a beautifully rounded characterization that Blunt, whose personality was severely compartmentalized, could never have hoped to achieve in real life. Since MacNeice and Blunt were such close friends at Marlborough School, one can only imagine that as far as the character of Victor Maskell is concerned, Anthony Blunt would have been rather pleased with Banville's finished product.