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Books: The spy who came out from the pub

Suspicion by Robert McCrum Macmillan, pounds 15.99; Michael Arditti on a genre-defying tale of warring brothers with a European sweep
Fraternal rivalry has been a fictional mainstay from Aeschylus to Jeffrey Archer. Julian and Raymond Whyte, the protagonists of Robert McCrum's new novel, represent an attractive addition to the genre. Not simply a rich man and a poor man but a pragmatist and an idealist, a liberal and a communist, and a bachelor and a married man, they provide a neat study of the contrasts in European personal and political life since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Julian, a provincial lawyer and, significantly, a part-time coroner, is pleased by the news of Raymond's return to England after nearly 30 years in the GDR. He has hitherto lived a placid bachelor existence to the time-honoured rhythms of Sussex village life. His well-ordered precision is expressed most clearly in his narrative voice, reminiscent of Graham Greene's retired bank manager, Henry Pulling. Like Pulling, his world is torn apart by exposure to his more exotic relative, although with less benign results.

Raymond arrives home with little luggage but a great deal of psychological and political baggage. He also brings his third wife, Kristina, and their two young children. Julian's hopes of an extended family life are, however, dashed by his unexpectedly passionate feelings for Kristina. Like many men whose romantic experience is limited, he confuses love with obsession. His probity, professionalism, even his bank balance are compromised. But his newly awakened emotions lead him to uncover an unsuspected infidelity during an inquest.

The locus of the novel is the village, with a focus even narrower than the three or four families favoured by Jane Austen. Until the crucial final section, the only significant character outside Julian and Raymond's households is Julian's former girlfriend, Susan. Only once do the characters stray beyond the Sussex boundaries. But, within these provincial confines,McCrum is able to portray a much broader European struggle. Raymond and Kristina's domestic drama provides a microcosm of the collapse of communism and the loss of political ideals. Raymond's work as an informer for the Stasi is depicted less as a betrayal than a series of grubby compromises, the most tawdry of which is his revenge on his wife's lover.

This is an act from whose consequences he is not immune, even in England. Although it is the exiles who instigate the plot, McCrum's main subject, as in much of his work, is Englishness. On one level, this is seen in the richly detailed background of rural life, from flora and fauna to hunting and evensong. The book's four movements subtly reflect the changing seasons. Key events are set against popular festivals: Valentine's Day, Guy Fawkes Day, Hallowe'en. Even the village pub and the village shop are made to represent sources of tradition and health from which Raymond and Kristina remain alien.

And yet, beyond this, Julian's increasing corruption shows that the ascendance of the English brother owes more to an accident of geography (living on an island rather than in a divided city) than to any inherent moral superiority. Indeed, when he proclaims man to be a moral animal, Julian argues from a purely negative base: his need to be punished. His air of civilisation is shown to be a veneer; in the company of his fellow coroners, he enjoys official slide-shows of sexual asphyxiations and watches a police video of the Lockerbie disaster for fun.

Robert McCrum's achievement is to question ideologies and subvert moralities, by setting a John Le Carre drama in the world of Barbara Pym.