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on 20 January 2013
I began on Robert Wilson's novels because of the attractiveness of Seville, which is the setting for his four Inspector Falcon books. They're hugely impressive, not least for how they reach out beyond Andalusia and into the tangled past of criminal relations between Spain and Morocco. But it was a while before I came upon this amazing book, which opens up much more sweeping and extraordinary perspectives, and is close to a history of cross-European spying, as well as a brilliantly focused study of how women are made use of by the spying organisations. It's to an extent John Le Carré territory, but in its study of women's lives more searching and disturbing.

It begins with a young Oxford maths graduate, Anna, recruited to be a British spy in 1940s Portugal, her mission to watch how Germans and others engage with Portugal's neutral government in moves to acquire metals crucial to building tanks. Then after the war, she stays on in Lisbon, marrying an army officer. When her husband and son are killed in Portugal's colonial wars, she's drawn into the Communist Party's revolutionary brigade, which is working towards the overthrow of Salazar, Portugal's dictator and leader. We're not yet half-way through the novel.

So far, much of the action is low-key, even the chases and the scenes of tense interrogation. What's unusual and remarkable is that the central protagonist is a woman with a very well-realised everyday life. The novel moves on, bringing Anna back to the UK, first of all through her reawakened interest in mathematics, and then for her to be re-recruited by the spymasters and sent to Germany, where a key figure from her Lisbon past (and the true father of her son who's now dead) holds a new prominence. The plotting is intense and intricate and utterly engaging. It focuses throughout on the pressures and dilemmas that face Anna, but while doing this opens up a telling vista of the webs of intrigue that have been the story of Europe from the 1940s to the end of the c20th. It remaps the history we may imagine we "know".

I moved on to read Robert Wilson's other novels. There's four, each quite short, set in West Africa, each bringing to life what it's like to be a young Englishman working in a world utterly foreign to most of us. Again, stretching our sense of the world. And there's his much-praised "A Small death in Lisbon", which jumps between the everyday present-day and the war-time past of Portugal, and its involvement with German banking. It too is alive and eduational, but seems simplistic in its construction when you begin on The Company of Strangers.

There a sense, a good sense, in which this novel echoes and draws on the mode of Graham Green and Le Carre. But this long novel has too a tenderness that develops throughout - which is in itself beguiling, and which in its quiet way underlines the utter disgustingness that spying actually is.

Outstanding. Warmly and highly recommended.
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Wilson's unusual ability to create fascinating and fully drawn characters within the confines of a plot-driven espionage novel make this novel particularly enjoyable. Andrea/Anne is a character who grows from a protected and naive twenty-year-old to a pragmatic spy and, later in life, to a committed political activist. Karl Voss and his family are "good Germans," disillusioned by Hitler's callous disregard for his soldiers and by his monomaniacal plans, and they believe they can serve their country best by betraying its Nazi leadership. As Karl makes contact with British intelligence and with Anne and other agents based in Lisbon, the reader watches their characters unfold as they respond to the intricacies of spy/counterspy maneuvering.
More than half the novel consists of this Anne/Karl story during the waning days of World War II, a tightly drawn, tension-filled, and often genuinely moving interplay of characters and the forces which motivate them. Part II further develops the story of Anne in 1968 in London, with the short Part III taking place in 1989. These latter two sections, while intriguing and consistent with the author's themes, seemed to me to lack the immediacy and excitement of the earlier Lisbon section. The broad scope and intensity of World War II are sacrificed in favor of subtler, more abstract maneuvering during the Cold War in Part II. The motivations of the characters are fuzzier, the consequences of their behavior seem less cataclysmic, and what action there is feels a bit arthritic. The concluding Part III narrows the scope even more to a handful of characters in a country cottage setting, and while it is dramatic and probably realistic, I found it disappointing--as if the author himself were performing some double agent trickery on me, the reader.
Like the best of the espionage novels, this one has plenty of action and excitement to keep the reader occupied, especially in Part I, but the book also seems to straddle a line. Because the author is also intent on developing character over an extended period of time, an unusual objective in a thriller, he also needs to include the less exciting Parts II and III which show the characters in their maturity and bring the story and themes full circle, an unusual structure and a fascinating attempt by the author to "have it all." Mary Whipple
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HALL OF FAMEon 6 March 2003
Author Robert Wilson has written 5 novels; unfortunately for readers this is only the second that has been offered The U.S. His debut, 'A Small Death Is Lisbon', was a very good book and was recognized with literary honors. 'The Company Of Strangers', elevates his work to an even higher level, which if he continues to maintain will place him amongst the great writers of espionage/thriller/mystery. For those unfamiliar with his work I believe the best comparison would be Mr. John LeCarre's earlier works, and some of the best that Mr. Robert Ludlum ever wrote. These are not techno-thrillers where plot and theme are replaced by endless descriptions of military hardware. Mr. Wilson writes detailed character studies that are as complex as the situations he places them in; when these aspects are combined with the talent to tell a great story that spans decades, this is an author who gives a reader all that can be expected from a great novel.

The time line will take you from London of WWII, to the dawning of Glasnost in The Soviet Union, with stops in Berlin East and West, Lisbon and other locales. The book is about spies, very human, not the 007 Hollywood varieties. The motivation of why they work for a cause or country, what may make them turn, and sometimes turn once again is beautifully written and marvelously complex. The writer explores what takes place when an agent during a war finds that the country he once served, or perhaps betrayed, once the war concludes is now in the enemy's camp. Who is his new master, who does he deceive this time if deception is the choice? Does an agent serving a foreign power that becomes the victor continue to serve, or are the ideals he thought were being served proving to have been a fraud and new choices are made?

The agents that take center stage in this book are all presented in various levels of detail, however none are vague. In the midst of the wild swings in world politics a variety of people have their beliefs confirmed, betrayed, and have their personal motives subjected to doubt. Do they spy as an act of revenge, a perceived wrong that was inflicted, is the spying based on theology, or is it monetary, or is it the game itself that is the attraction?

In addition to all that I have mentioned, there is much more, and there are few authors who could carry out the complexity of plot without it become cloudy, and he includes revelations that in most hands would be cliché© at best, and more than likely laughable.

'The Company Of Strangers', does not wind down as the end arrives. The author literally brings his story to the conclusion on the final page. Mr. Wilson also has not succumbed to churning out work and presenting it in a brief and incomplete manner. He takes all the time he needs, and if that requires the better part of 500 pages, that is what he uses. You have the sense that you are reading exactly what the writer intended. His goal was to produce a great book, not a shallow utilitarian read, written with an eye toward a screenplay, or any other secondary use.

This man is a brilliant writer; I recommend his work without condition.
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on 9 December 2010
After enjoying "A small death in lisbon" I found "the company of strangers" to be disappointing. The characters are sterotyped and in some cases unbelievable and some of the situations are very contrived. There is very little to distinquish this book from the legion of wartime thrillers that have written over the years.
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on 18 October 2015
This is not a book I'd normally choose to read but it was recommended to me so I thought it worth trying. I enjoyed it very much though it is a bleak and sad story. I found I had to re-read parts because the story was so complex, but it was worth the effort. Going by this novel the life of a spy is not an easy or happy one. Others have given details of the plot so I'll not mention it. If you like spy stories, I'm sure you will like this. It's also a moving love story. I've just bought another of Robert Wilson's books and I hope it is as good as this one.
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on 2 July 2002
Having read 'A Small Death in Lisbon', I found this book almost immediately more satisfying. His earlier novel I found to be somewhat contrived, disjointed and unapproachable. By contrast, in 'The Company of Strangers' Wilson has manged to bridge my criticisms of the previous book by presenting a more understanding level of the human and individual response to the chaos of war and deception. This is love amongst the ruins, but it is nevertheless a realistic portrayal of the personal, working for the State; the private and the political; and the ultimate timeless conclusion that there can only ever be one winner. If I was to nitpick, then I would be at odds with one or two of Wilson's use of imagery and simile, but that would be perhaps to misunderstand his motive. Overall, the range of his narrative techniques have improved to the point where although we might guess at where the story might end, we are never quite sure how his characters will react when they get there. I would highly recommend this book, and look forward to the next.
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on 29 May 2002
Normally I race through thrillers, but this one was the perfect soporific. Every time I tried it again I couldn't remember who any of the characters were. The style was a curious blend of Mills and Boon and Enid Blyton (our heroine hears secrets by listening at a chimney!) and the author uses corny creative writing school tricks (the weather is always appropriate to the mood - thunderstorms when dark secrets are being disclosed, drizzle for funerals etc). There are stylistic anchronisms: would an Englishwoman in her 70s in the 1960s ask for "a tad" more gin? A mathematician appears, so naturally he has worked "with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park" - as if, in the 1960s, everyone knew about Turing and Bletchley. And so on.
I enjoyed a Small Death in Lisbon but this wasn't in the same league.
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on 4 November 2014
Cover 4/5 Matched the contents

Contents

I liked a Small Death in Lisbon and when I saw this on the charity book shelf I felt ready to read more Robert Wilson.

An excellent often mystical read ruined for me by the last two pages seemingly a desire by the author to dot the 'i's and 't's

My review against my own reading criteria for a good read:-

*Engrossing and interesting - Really good page turner not really knowing what would come next or where the story would end up.

*Enjoyment and entertainment - Until the last two pages up with the best of my reading over the last two years.

*Emotional - One became bound up with Karl and Andrea.

*Educational – Some interesting new information about WW2 and intelligence services.

*Ease of reading - The writing flowed well, despite some very deep description, making the book hard to put down.

Endings are important to me and generally I do not like the happily ever after variety. Although that was never going to happen here I would have preferred the book to have stopped at - I'm dumping the paper now.
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on 22 August 2013
I have only just received this book but as I love all this author's work I am sure I will love this one as well!
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on 29 January 2016
I gave up on this about a third of the way through. It is far too long and resembles a mixture of a Mills and Boon romance and a sub-Greene/Ambler spy story. The characters are one-dimensional and ultimately I just did not care what happened to them. Also the pedant in me cannot resist mentioning that it is Oswald Mosley not Moseley.
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