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2.6 out of 5 stars
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2.6 out of 5 stars
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on 13 May 2017
This was one of the worst books I have ever read. The story line seemed contrived and the characters were shallow. There was nothing in this book which I enjoyed, and it is the first time ever that I left the last page unread to go to sleep! A true shocker.
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on 16 June 2017
Thoroughly enjoyed this novel which, inter alia, covers events and atmosphere of the time.
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on 19 May 2017
very pleased
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on 11 August 2014
A well-known broadcaster has written a novel and it’s not very good. It’s probably only the identity of the author that would make you want to read it; if you hadn’t heard of him you’d probably not bother. I wonder if the publishers would have bothered with it if the author were an unknown.

The root of the problem is that it’s just dull – too many characters, none of whom you care about, a strangely elliptical, sometimes incomprehensible, style of dialogue, a plot that doesn’t engage your attention enough to make you want to figure it out. I can’t see how Kate Mosse was left (according to the front cover) hugely satisfied, thrilled and gripped.

Of course, none of this detracts from my opinion of the author as a broadcaster.
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on 18 May 2015
Knowing how smart James Naughtie is in his journalism, political writings, radio presentations, notably "Today", and other shows, for instance, "Book Club", where he chairs discussions with authors, it is puzzling why this first novel is so weak. Maybe he is too enthusiastic a student of fiction because "The Madness of July" seems to be over-influenced by other writers and genres; for instance, it is easy to see how much he gets from John Le Carré, one of the guests on "Book Club". The story is of a rising government minister who is drawn back into his previous career as a spy. Whatever the explanation, too many leading characters are introduced too quickly and credited with too many expressions of deep emotion, particularly because we have barely been introduced to them. The style is over-portentous, as if Naughtie is straining for significance. In just a few pages we have: "cross-currents flowed beyond his reach"; "darkness beyond"; "the earth turned on its axis"; "planets moved through their ethereal orbits"; "mystery and precision"; "there was hope, still"; "she was entering the locked room where he kept his secrets"; "in three days at most the damn would break"; "the fire was burning deep within his own government. The flames might consume them all. Something evil." That this is a confused mix of political novel, spy story and family drama - all at their most formulaic -- makes the language and over-heated plotting seem even more over-blown and these British ministers and top mandarins even more ridiculous. Characters aside, Naughtie catches quite well the atmosphere of Westminster politics in a hot July in the 1970s London as Parliament prepares to break up for the summer. And the manoeuvring of ministers and civil servants is effectively conveyed - knowing how thoughtful Naughtie is in his other political commentary, I can only assume that he deeply disapproves of this shallow slice of British society.

As it is, the novel falls between different genres: political novel, though, unfortunately, not a novel of political ideas which, one would think, James Naughtie could excel at; spy novel but, here, the convolutions are so badly managed that I started not to care what was at stake; and family novel, where, in spite of the potential for connecting mystery and close relations any semblance of depth in the characters is sacrificed to the over-busy plotting. I do hope that John Naughtie doesn't bring back his hero in a second novel but, instead, sorts out what kind of novel he really wants to write. I also hope his publisher shows more discrimination in quoting from critics and other authors, some of whom surely couldn't have read the book!
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on 5 April 2014
This novel has some promising ideas, but ultimately fails to deliver. The mystery about the Flemyngs' mother's lover and its impact on their family is never resolved. What does it have to do with the murder mystery? The character of the murderer is not developed fully enough to make his unmasking a surprise or indeed interesting. The other suspect simply never reappears - because his wife keeps him at home(!). The Berlin element of the plot remained quite opaque to me, I'm afraid, although there were pages and pages explaining it. However, I give the book two stars rather than one as I did enjoy the insider views of the House of Commons - who would have guessed there was a secret passage to it? - and the Royal Opera House - obviously areas of Naughtie's expertise. I tend to agree with other reviewers who suggest he should not give up the day job any time soon.
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on 13 December 2014
No, it's NOT a thriller, I'm afraid. It sparks our curiosity (Who killed the visiting American and stuffed him in a cupboard in House of Commons building?), but there's no tension in the narrative, and although some behavior is referred to as "evil" and though some lives are said to be in danger, at no point in the narrative is there anything close to a threat to anyone's life, nor do we really see a confrontation with "evil." It's an odd book, though, and I think Naughtie was trying something more ambitious than a standard thriller. For one thing, the problem, insofar as it relates to spying that the main characters face is the question of whether a spy in Berlin whom the British had thought of as "their" man is or isn't working for the Americans -- that's right, not the Soviets (the setting is the early 1970's), but the Americans. So it's really a kind of family difficulty. That fact is made manifest in the main British character Will Flemyng's brother Abel being an honest-to-God American spy. We learn in the course of the book why Will, an ex-spy, now a Government Minister, and Abel live and work on different continents. Their work isn't a secret to either, and many of their colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic know that they are brothers. There seems to be a degree of estrangement between them, but it doesn't seem difficult to overcome when Abel comes over to lend his expertise to the case of the murdered American (who happens to be a spy too).

There is a third Flemyng brother, Mungo, who lives in the Scottish Highlands and manages the family estate. Mungo has retired from academic life in his early fifties to write a family history. What he discovers about his parents is the focus of a long section in which the three brothers spend a weekend with Mungo and end up reaffirming and even strengthening the bond between them. So . . . the repairing of familial bonds and efforts to repair, or keep from loosening, the bonds of the transatlantic alliance: this is the big structuring parallel of the book. And I think it's potentially interesting, but there are two problems: the first is the aforementioned lack of suspense or tension in the plot. Most of the scenes not in Scotland are in offices in Whitehall and Downing Street. The second problem is one of language. Naughtie makes it clear frequently that world of spying and the world of politics are, like family relations, driven by emotion. I can't think of a "thriller" in which more male characters burst into tears or seem about to. That's fair enough, too -- but the language of interiority (and we have access to quite a few inner lives) needs to be more precise and interesting than what we get here -- a mass of doubt, worry, self-mistrust, sadness etc. It's not particularly fresh, and there's too much of it.

It turns out that the Americans (CIA, I suppose, though never identified as such) are worried that an ambassadorial appointment to Washington might cause problems and that the spy whose corpse turns up in Parliament might have known of that and (worse!) mentioned that to someone. Well, it all works out, but the wrap-up is very clumsy, with Will Flemyng explaining to a colleague who has been working on the matter with him things that that colleague has also worked out by this time and doesn't need to be told. But we (readers) do. I'm not at all convinced that the "clues" that have been dropped in the course of the narrative would enable even a deft thriller/mystery reader to have reached a conclusion before it's all explained. So . . . it's not a conventional thriller, and one could applaud the effort not to retell a familiar kind of story, but finally it isn't thrilling enough and as a psychological study, it isn't interesting enough.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 April 2014
Will Flemyng used to be a British Intelligence spy and is now a Minister in the Foreign Office. When the body of an American agent, presumed murdered, is discovered in the basement of the House of Commons with Flemyng's phone number in his pocket, the inevitable web of deceit threatens to unravel....and threatens....and threatens....and threatens...

James Naughtie is a published author but this is his first novel - and it shows. Although the writing itself is able, the portentous tone and ponderous shaping of the narrative is frustrating in the extreme. Remind me again what it is editors actually do for a living?

Beneath this long-winded story lies not only England's 'special relationship' with America but also Flemyng's special relationship with his two brothers and their special relationship with Scotland where James Naughtie's prose picks up and glimmers with a genuine tenderness. But otherwise, this tale is badly let down in the telling. There is a much quoted phrase in the book: "a surfeit of allies". I'm afraid this one left me feeling rather more of a foe.
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on 23 May 2015
The author's achievements elsewhere were what made me buy this book. I suspect that will be the case with ninety-plus percent of readers who, like me, will be sorry they did, and will find nothing but disappointment and frustration with it.
It is the most extraordinarily unrewarding and impenetrable rubbish. The dialogue is written in such an oblique style that it borders on the bizarre. Every character speaks virtually in riddles. Almost every other sentence hints at some dark secret of the past, some shared history of supposed achievements in earlier times, which are never properly explained and therefore not understandable. Consequently, the plot feels like is not just about the secrets of spies, but is a secret to the reader.
One word sums this book up - frustration. Don't waste any of your life reading it. It just isn't worth the effort.
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on 22 November 2014
The cover says 'echoes of John Buchan and John Le Carre.' Well if this is like Buchan then I'm Charles Dickens and as for Le Carre...only in Naughtie's naughiest dreams. I found this a spectacularly tedious, irritating read full of pomposity and pretension and some of the worst dialogue I have ever seen written down. I suspect Naughtie was yearning for the gripping slow burn tension of Le Carre's best but he's completely forgotten to give the reader a reason to turn the page. Nothing happens and I really couldn't give a monkeys about any of the cardboard characters, none of whom are remotely believable. I finished it mostly because I was agog at how bad it really was. I shall never hear his voice on Radio 4 without remembering this waffle, and shuddering.
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