With the Great War over, the powers of the world assemble in Paris to decide on terms for victors and vanquished. While diplomats and ministers meet to discuss terms, agents and spies work to their masters' agendas, dealing in secrets, hiding sins, removing obstacles. Circumstances, though, have made a spy of James Maxted, known to most as Max. With his father Sir Henry murdered, found in Paris at the end of a steep drop, Max is after answers and vengeance. The more Max learns, the deeper he descends into a most perilous world. The cost of peace is immense and no-one knows this better than Max, the man who survived years as a pilot and then a prisoner of war.
The Corners of the Globe is the second in Robert Goddard's historical spy thriller series, begun so well with last year's The Ways of the World. There is no pause from the previous novel. Max is now determined on his course of action. His father's death might be less of a mystery now, proven to be murder and not suicide, but Max knows that Sir Henry's killer was just one small cog in a wheel that surrounds Paris. Vengeance on the murderer is not enough. Max is after the leaders and to take them on he plays a very dangerous game indeed.
As the novel begins, Max is on a `mission' for Germany's chief spymaster, to travel to Orkney to rescue a document from the interred German fleet. It contains secrets so powerful they can draw out spies from the shadows. As British and German agents search for Max, the British secret service is in danger of collapsing from the inside out, its double agents making themselves known in the desperate scramble for the document. Meanwhile in Paris, Max's old manservant, and now chauffeur to the British diplomats, Sam, is caught up in his own deadly game, mixed up in a power struggle amongst the Japanese delegation to Paris which strikes to the heart of what Sir Henry was up to in the city.
The result is an immense tangle of deceit and treachery. German, Japanese and British agents scramble for position, with Max pursued across Scotland and England to France and Sam fighting his own battle on the streets and rooftops of Paris. Both of them must decide who they are prepared to trust. Fortunately, they each encounter men and women prepared to help them, to stand up for what is right. But bodies fall on both sides.
The Corners of the Globe presents Max's transformation into spy. His humanity lessens as his heart hardens. He directly puts other people's lives in danger and he is prepared to live with the consequences, while they might not. There is one memorable scene where he comes across an old comrade from the war, begging on the streets, one leg missing. Max pretends he doesn't know the man when asked and so he must then watch the light of hope fade from his old friend's eyes. With so many lies and deaths, there is bound to be tragedy, and we encounter it in the sadness of bereaved lovers, sons, sisters and friends. It's an intriguing mix, this contradiction between Max's increasing hardness and the amount of suffering he meets, even causes.
Without doubt, The Corners of the Globe is a complicated novel. Fortunately, there are some recaps of what went on before in The Ways of the World and I found this vital. You could read this second novel without having read the first - enough is made clear - but a knowledge of The Ways of the World does add greatly to one's appreciation of Goddard's admirable plotting and the development of Max's character. While I enjoyed the first novel greatly, I enjoyed the second even more. There is much more focus on what matters, less attention given to Max's family in England, a greater number of puzzles, more danger and much more involvement by Max as the novel's driving force. The secondary characters are also given additional life.
It's all backed up by the most atmospheric and evocative worldbuilding. Paris in particular is given a life of its own, with rich descriptions of its famous streets and places, populated by a cast of characters from around the world, each of whom has his or her own agenda in the negotiations for peace and domination and revenge. The Great War itself gets little direct mention, except for the regular reminders and memories of shell-shocked, injured, dead servicemen. It is the trauma that overshadows all else.
My only complaint about this superb novel is its cliffhanger ending which is the most blatant cliffhanger that I've encountered and seems totally out of place in a book of such class. The novel as a whole makes me desperate to read the trilogy's conclusion (I love the direction in which it's heading), it doesn't need such a cheap gimmick. Nevertheless, this is a minor niggle and it only slightly marred my appreciation for a novel that is, especially during the second half, an unputdownable thrilling race for answers. I'm grateful for the review copy.