It is the 1970s and we’re at the height of the Cold War when an American, Joe Manson, unaccountably arrives in London and dies in a House of Commons storeroom – although, with the connivance of Special Branch, the coroner and the public are given a different version of his demise. Somehow, Manson seems to be linked to Will Flemyng, a foreign office minister with a long, supplementary career in benign espionage. The cause of Manson’s death is a self-administered drugs overdose, obviously – except that there are powerful reasons why it can’t be.
Thus begins James Naughtie’s complex first spy novel which comes with all the convincing insider knowledge you’d expect from a political journalist with his experience on both sides of the Atlantic. Spying in fiction, as – presumably – in life, explores what Naughtie calls “the boundary between loyalty and deceit” so his characters are rarely straight with each other and talk in veiled hints and allusions without mentioning names. It is that smoke-screen writing which sustains the tension in this 380-page novel because the reader never stops wondering who, what and why.
Eventually there are reasonably rewarding dramatic surprises, although like many spy thrillers it’s a bit like solving a cryptic crossword or sorting out all the finer points of a particularly convoluted episode of Inspector Morse. A pat on the back if you manage to hang on to the plot all the way to the end.
Underneath the machinations of the spying is a (linked) sub plot about Flemyng’s two brothers, one of whom is in the same line of business in America, and their shared Scottish Highlands home, along with the historian brother’s discoveries about their late mother.
Some of the most entertaining passages are Naughtie’s vivid descriptions of his characters walking around London. He has a gift for colourful images such as “orange lights stretching from nose to tail of a winding crocodile of taxis”. And the character of the septuagenarian Babble, the family majordomo in Scotland, is a real delight. Decades beyond his London roots, he cooks, chauffeurs, advises and anticipates, and is attractive because alone of all the men in this novel (and there aren’t many women) he is more or less what he seems and a good foil to the conspiratorial, secretive cast of civil servants, Cabinet ministers and American officials.