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The Whitehall Mandarin – A Classic Spy Novel

The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson is a brilliant old fashioned sprinkled with historical facts, spy story. This is a classic spy story in the mould of John Le Carre rather than Ian Fleming, multi layered rather than flash bang wallop. William Catesby the hero of our story may not be James Bond but he is as efficient as Bond’s Walther PPK.

William Catesby has risen from being a working class boy through Cambridge to becoming a ranking member of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligent Service or for us peasants better known as Mi6. His knowledge and experiences are all Cold War based having worked out of Berlin as a Cultural Attaché. He is brought back to London to help catch an American double agent and long time colleague in Jeffers Caudwell, a man of many contradictions as the story evolves.

Lady Somers is rich and powerful and more importantly she is the first female Permanent under Secretary to head up the Ministry of Defence. Catesby is sent to find out her back story and bury it so deep it will never surface again. What we get is a fantastic tour of London Sex Scandals of the 60s, crossed with the ineptness of the CIA the downfall of Ministers and daft wars. We see the intelligence agency at times acting like kids in the playground not wanting to share their toys even with their friends or simply not trusting each other.

He is sent to Vietnam to find Miranda, Lady Somers daughter to make things harder she is working with Viet Cong rather than on the American’s side. Somehow he has to get from the American side of Vietnam to the other side and the risk of death very high. He has to place his life in the hands of people you wouldn’t ask you to help you across the road.

What we see in this classic spy novel is a wonderfully woven story that uses some of the biggest events in the 1950s and 60s as a backdrop and Catesby has been an influence somewhere during the event. We get a journey in this book that takes in some of the hotspots of Cuba, Moscow and Vietnam back to the ‘sedate’ streets of London.

This is a wonderful novel that ticks all the boxes that has been written so well the descriptions give such evocative imagery. This is a fast paced story that keeps the reader guessing all the way to the end. The plot is brilliant, there is an excellent research to make sure that the historical facts are woven in to the story so you cannot see the joins. This is a well written powerful story that just makes a fantastic spy novel.
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on 20 May 2015
William Catesby , SIS agent ,operates in a world where no one or nothing is as it seems to be . Tasked with discovering the source of leaked classified files concerning nuclear weaponry , he finds himself questioning who exactly he should be investigating .
Lady Penelope Somers is the first female to head up the Ministry of Defence . Wealthy and powerful but also with something to hide ,it falls to Catesby to find the secret and bury it .
The Whitehall Mandarin is set in the Cold War era spanning over a decade from the mid fifties to the late sixties and is a real classic spy story . The action moves from London to Moscow and eventually the conflict in Vietnam with various stops along the way .The main character ,William Catesby , works in a world of double-cross and counter-bluff where every person is suspected of spying, either for the Soviet KGB or the new rising power that is China . China’s rapid ascent to world super power poses serious questions to both the British secret services and the KGB as to how it acquired the ability to manufacture its own nuclear weaponry so quickly. A trip to Moscow for Catesby ends up leading to a search across South East Asia during the Vietnam war for the daughter of Lady Somers and the secret she has hidden for years.
Edward Wilson has written a cracker of a story here. He has set the story in the height of the Cold Ward crisis and used real time events as background to the events occurring in the novel .From the Bay of Pigs crisis through to the Profumo Scandal, Philby,Burgess and Maclean and the Vietnam War there is a definite sense of reality through the pages . The action takes place over a number of years and builds up to a dramatic ending with the writing well-paced .The character of Catesby is well developed and we see an outsider looking in at the peculiarities of the upper-class English who dominate officialdom and how their hedonism allows for them to be recruited by foreign espionage agents. It’s a clever story with plenty of twists and fans of classic spy novels by Le Carre will certainly enjoy this work.
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on 8 May 2014
Edward Wilson's latest novel about William Catesby is, yet again, a wonderfully creative blend of history and authors licence. Catesby is such an unlikely character to be intimately involved in the espionage world and he's certainly in the fast lane. In this tale Catesby is still at SIS in the 1960's with all of the scandals of that time breaking around him, but the kernel of the story is about the links between atomic weapons development and the communist world of the time. Wilson's novels are, in some ways, a historical treatise of the time leaving the reader wondering where fact ends and fiction begins. Catesby's namesake is often brought up in the wonderful dialogue between Henry Bone, Catesby's SIS boss and the current Catesby. The historic Catesby unfortunately lost his head through his involvement with Guy Fawkes, a point that Henry Bone never fails to make. This book, like the three preceding novels about William Catesby, is a wonderful read and experience.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 May 2014
With each new espionage novel by Edward Wilson, I kind of expect it not to get any better (they’re pretty stunning as it is) but with The Whitehall Mandarin, Wilson has excelled himself again. The plot was spectacular from start to finish, the fantastic character of Catesby returned (which is always a plus) and the suspense and mystery was at a complete high. The Whitehall Mandarin is a great spy thriller.

This was probably the busiest of Wilson’s spy novels – there was a lot of content packed into the 360+ pages but none of it disappointed. Complex plots seem to be a bit of a speciality of the author’s or at least complex plots which make perfect sense. I’ve learnt that you don’t need to worry about being confused with Wilson’s novels regardless of your knowledge (or lack of) the historical elements in his plots because his sublime writing ability makes it easy to understand and follow.

The Whitehall Mandarin was no different. Covering war and political events during the 50s, 60s amongst others takes you on a historical journey but the suspense and mystery in the fiction is what kept me turning the pages in anticipation. The twists were fantastic, the writing was too and the ending, as with all Wilson’s novels, was done to perfection.

I can’t really cover the plot without giving anything away but I can’t recommend The Whitehall Mandarin enough. The plot as it goes back and forth is at a faultless pace which makes the novel very captivating and easy to engage with. As the journey unfolds to uncovering the final secret, you’ll be wishing it had been drawn out longer, just so this great piece of writing doesn’t have to end so soon.


*Book gifted for honest review.
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on 9 September 2014
loved this complex plot covering so many major events of the 20th century. refreshingly anti-american with an ascerbic, sceptical and accurate take on the so-called 'special' relationship.this is the only book I've read covering the vietnam war with a realistic appraisal of the horrendous John foster Dulles's role which has been over-looked by other writers.

a sympathetic if slightly detached main character adds an authentic english post-war atmosphere of poverty, class, aspiration and a rather desperate hope in the future.

I enjoyed this book enormously ans will now llok out more by Edward wilson.
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on 18 August 2014
This is a very high quality sequel to The Envoy (although it can be read as a standalone) and for once the near-obligatory comparison with Le Carre is warranted. The writing is taut and the plotting complex. The skilled interweave of historical fact and fiction gives it a plausible and authentic feel – although it must be said that the central ‘secret’ is rather unconvincing. There is a relentless grimness in the Cold War power plays which is somewhat depressing but rings true, and Catesby (like Fournier in Envoy) is a good moral foil to the Machiavellian games of his bosses. The pick of this year’s crop of spy thrillers.
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on 26 July 2014
Was it all fact, or was it fiction. It was so realistic. An incredible insight into how things may well have been. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in modern history, an insight into the intelligence services, and drama.
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on 23 March 2015
Edward Wilson is in a class of his own. I've just finished 'The Whitehall Mandarin' and have now read all of his books, and they've given me a great deal of pleasure, as well as providing quite a bit of food for thought. I'd guess that some of the disgruntled reviewers take issue with Catesby's ideological stance and allow this disagreement to colour their reviews...
Perhaps my 5 stars indicate a diametrically opposed viewpoint?
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and can't wait for his next one.
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on 27 July 2014
Another enjoyable read from Wilson. Really this book should not have worked given the time span and the various locales over which it ranged. But it all held together and was an engrossing read. Wilson manages the complex plots and timelines of the characters faultlessly though I suspect that having read all his earlier books, does help.

However one thing for a "grumpyoldaussie" to note was the mess the author made of the conversation with the Australian woman at the leper camp! Clearly his own research and editors let him down and it was embarrassing reading the mistakes in the Australian idiom that he was trying to capture. For example you can speak of "tinnies" (but never "tinnies of beer") but then you never drink from the "tin" but from the "can". Next time the author tries to capture Australian idiom he would be well advised to have an Australian read it before publication!
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on 19 October 2015
An incredible romp through the sixties and the height of the Cold War. At first, it's not straightforward to piece all the components together but the story maintains momentum through the Cuban missile crisis, the Swinging Sixties and into the Vietnam war. It's fiction but always plausible against a murky backdrop of strained superpower relations. The british upper class get an almost prescient slaughtering for their sexual shenanigans - the references to Dolphin Square certainly make you think about present day allegations.

You root for Cathesby without necessarily liking him. His anti-establishment traces are endearing but he's clever and a survivor. He gets out of numerous scrapes mostly by cunning and intellect rather than a series of death-defying stunts as per the spy genre norm. I found the book prompted me to think about the events that have shaped recent history in a slightly different way. And the way places were evoked was astonishing, from Suffolk to Vietnam. And correct use of Vietnamese is an extraordinary thing to find. Well worth a read.
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