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The Envoy by Edward Wilson

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Edward Wilson inviting me to a signing he was doing in Ipswich.  I replied saying that Oxford was too far for me to come, but wished him well with his new book. I also told him that I had one of his titles on my shelves. He replied apologising saying he had thought I lived in Colchester – then the penny dropped – he’d mixed me up with Elaine at Random Jottings – who is also partial to spy thrillers.  I decided to read the book I already had anyway …

It’s the 1950s and the Cold War is at its height.  Kit Fournier is the CIA Chief of Station in London. He is a seasoned spy, having served in OSS in Vietnam, then as a diplomat in France, before moving to the dark side so to speak. Now his life is devoted to information and manipulation – sifting through it all to get to the truth and then filtering or doctoring it appropriately onwards towards his bosses and contacts – one of whom is his Russian KGB counterpart, Vasili. They chat at a diplomatic function …

‘Have you heard,’ said Vasili, ‘the one about my friend Boris?’
‘No.’
‘Boris hasn’t been feeling very well lately – and he’s been making some mistakes, so he’s called back to Dzerzhinsky Square to see the chief. The chief says, ‘How are you feeling, Boris?’ Boris says, ‘To be honest, I’m not feeling too good today.’ ‘Well Boris,’ says the chief, ‘would you like to hear the good news?’ ‘Yes,’ says Boris, ‘what’s the good news?’ ‘The good news, Boris, is that you feel better today than you will tomorrow.’

As Wilson writes, ‘The tightrope that Vasili walked didn’t have a safety net.’

Meanwhile Anglo-US relations are difficult, especially since Burgess and MacLean. The US Chief of Staff thinks that the British are trying to play above their position in the new world order in which they’re an empire no longer. It is rumoured that the British want an H-bomb of their own, and there is much covert activity in Suffolk at Orford Ness. Then there is a visiting Soviet warship that hides new technology under its waterline that the Brits want to see – they plan to send in a diver. The US would rather scupper this and damage GB-Russo relations and show them who’s in charge – this operation is Kit’s.

There is also a love interest.  Kit is desperately in love with his cousin Jennifer, who happens to be married to one of the scientists at Orford Ness. He should know better, but can’t help himself, he would do anything for her – not a good situation for a spy.  Kit is a conflicted and cynical man, in his personal life as well as at work.  His whole life is effectively a sham, the job is a love-hate relationship that is moving ever towards hate.

The next day Kit’s secretary passed on a strange message, Someone had rung from a phone box claiming to be Kit’s ‘spiritual adviser’ and recommending him to meet ‘at the customary place’ at ‘the customary time’. At half past three, Kit left the embassy and hailed a black taxi. He thought about telling the driver to take him straight to the rendevous point, but then he remembered what had happened the previous evening. He was weary of counter-surveillance games and all the other puerile spy games. But he had to continue playing them because he was trapped in a deadly adult playground from which there was no escape. Kit told the taxi driver to take him to Harrods. The store with its many entrances and exits was one of the best places in London to shake off a tail. And then from Harrods, a quick hop on the Underground to South Kensington.

The detailed descriptions of the spy’s tradecraft are one of this book’s real high points. Dead letter drops, coded messages, shaking tails, clandestine meetings – they all feel authentic.  Wilson, who was in the US special forces knows his stuff. Equally, the scenes set in Suffolk, where the author, a naturalised Brit lives, are evocative of this tranquil county.

Like Kit, the plot is richly complex, you’re never quite sure who’s exploiting whom. The first half lays out all the groundwork in a leisurely fashion, then in the second it unfolds with precise timing to a surprising denouement that appears to come out of left field, yet is totally consistent with what has gone before.  The world of spies portrayed is endlessly fascinating, and utterly devoid of good intention. No wonder Kit has been corrupted by it.

While I don’t think the writing in this novel is as good as Le Carré – the minor characters are rather one-dimensional on the whole, and some of the dialogue is a little stilted, the story however, is sophisticated and page-turning. I would definitely read more spy novels by this author.  (8/10)

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