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"The truth is a lot more complicated than you realise"
on 9 August 2010
1956. British spies Burgess and Maclean have defected to Russia leaving relations strained between the U.S. and Britain. Other "Cambridge" spies are suspected to still be at large. Who is "The Darkling Spy"? This is never quite answered, it is after all the Cold War.
Disinformation and double bluff are the rule of the day and practised by all Intelligence Services, East and West. "You were never certain if you were among those who would sheild you or those who would betray you." These are the thoughts of the novel's hero, Lowestoft born William Catesby, Intelligence Officer, SIS (known now as MI6). Catesby is sent on a mission by his enigmatic patron, superior SIS officer and Director Henry Bone. Catesby's brief is to track down dangerous agent provocateur "Butterfly" who works in the Eastern bloc. Britain's future relations with America are at stake as Butterfly has damaging information about other Cambridge spies. Catesby and Bone are on the same wavelength although Catesby is always a few steps behind, "he realised that he didn't know him (Bone) at all." As Catesby gleans snippets of information about "angel-faced" but devil hearted Rudolf Ralswiek, Butterfly, the reader is not left in the dark for long because Wilson regularly intersperses the action with dialogue between Bone and Catesby which helps slot the pieces together.
Edward Wilson as in "The Envoy" evokes 1950's London at the centre of power but also portrays its precarous position as Catesby ponders Britain's potential destruction in an East West nuclear holocaust, "the Thames will vanish in a hiss of steam like spilt water on a hot stove". Catesby is promoted to Head of Eastern Europe Section and his advice is now sought by the powers that be. The Suez crisis will require a Russian hard line response to the Hungarian uprising due to Kruschev not being able to appear weak following his secret speech denouncing Stalin. Why can't the Hungarian rebels see the bigger picture, who has been stirring up anti Soviet feeling there? Catesby is posted to revolution torn Budapest on the trail of Butterfly to the soundtrack of "the iconic clanking of steel treads (Russian tanks) on paving stones" and "the pounding rifle butts, fists and kicking boots" of the crowd as the mood turns ugly outside Secret Police H.Q.. The action switches to Berlin, "the espionage swamp" of a city where rumours run rife amongst the International community. Catesby's socialist leanings come in handy when he is ordered to defect. Catesby's fake defection and quest for Butterfly end in the dignified surroundings of elusive East German Spy Chief, Mischa Wolf's remote country mansion.
The bantering between Bone and Catesby is very enjoyable. Bone reminded me of grand puppet master Francis Urquhart in "House of Cards" in that he only tells Catesby everything "he needs to know" but becomes as mute and "as skeletal as his name" when Catesby asks a question too far. Catesby is a likeable hero who remains loyal to his superiors and to his country. Unlike James Bond, he shows family loyalty and human vulnerability. At times he appears as baffled as the reader as the plot twists and turns, "Catesby stared at the kitchen table. He wanted to find a grain of wood that didn't change is shape the more you looked at it". He knows that spying means "you got paid and promoted for lies and exploitation of others" and "no one could risk loving a spy" as he discovers at great personal cost.
This is an excellent novel with no obvious political goodies and baddies. East and West do not seem so far apart - are Mischa Wolf and Henry Bone in collusion with each other? It's all a matter of playing the game and walking a tightrope "that sways between loyalty and treason". John le Carre would approve.