The world has just heard the latest from Edward Snowden. Holed up in a Moscow hotel room, he told The Guardian his thoughts on the security services and surveillance and his bizarre new existence in Russia. His story, it goes without saying, is one to test the imagination of even the most creative writer.
When the Snowden revelations appeared last May, the staggering level of governmental surveillance on public life caused global dismay. Yet, two months earlier, a former Swedish civil servant had also revealed the capabilities of GCHQ’s signals intelligence to little notice except for in the review pages of Swedish newspapers.
That was because these insights come not via a leaked tranche of files, but the thriller section.
Following in the steps of John Le Carre, Ian Fleming, Stella Rimington et al in moving from the corridors of classified power into the bestsellers’ list is Andreas Norman. His debut, translated into English by Ian Giles, provides a modern take on the spy thriller. On with noisy echoes of the Snowden case.
Of course, that’s not entirely a coincidence. Norman worked in the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s counter-terrorism unit as an analyst and much of what appears here - vast, transcontinental surveillance by the British and Americans; extrajudicial interrogation methods, Islamophobia within the security services - is taken from his time there. Indeed, Norman suggested in an interview with his publisher that the book his “own reality” turned into a thriller - something far away from Bond and one which was realistic enough that you could find your way around his old office using the details in the book.
Unlike Snowden, Norman’s protagonist isn’t an idealist. Carina Dymek is a hard-working civil servant in the foreign ministry who stumbles into a secret service shitstorm. We follow Dymek as she travels to Brussels for a committee meeting, whereupon she meets ‘Jean’, a man claiming to work inside the EU Commission who hands her a USB drive containing secret documents pertaining to the creation of a European-wide security agency.
What Dymek does next is the one major slip here. Norman sets her up as a canny operator, gunning for promotion or a foreign embassy transfer - yet upon being given the files Dymek barely reads them and glibly emails them to the relevant department in the Swedish government, as well as her Egyptian-born boyfriend Jamal. It’s an action integral to the plot, but are we really supposed to believe she’d take that course of action so glibly?
What follows is relatively predictable, though far from formulaic and helped by the tidy precision of Norman’s prose. After passing on the file, Dymek is enveloped by agency chicanery when the Swedish intelligence agency are told by their MI6 allies that her ‘leak’ was a deliberate act of sabotage, and one done at the behest of her boyfriend, whose Egyptian uncle appears to be an influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo.
What follows is both a kinetic dash around Stockholm and Brussels and a parable about the dangers of mass surveillance - particular the signals intelligence operation at GCHQ. Norman’s British intelligence officers aren’t too delicately painted, but here they’re the puppet masters - controlling the chase for Dymek. In the writer’s phrase, it’s the British and Americans who “create the weather”, the Swedes can merely predict it.
Norman’s warning is a clear message to the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” camp who challenged the import of the Snowden revelations. Our digital personalities encompass so many varied threads that it’s possible to select a few at random and tie them in a knot of implication. That’s, in essence what happens to one of the leads here - with no-one able to stop it, until a final action by Dymek (involving a certain British newspaper) resolves matters with a deus ex machina efficiency.
You’d hope that Norman’s debut rides both the wave of interest in Scandinavian crime fiction (be it written, or televised) as well as the continuing hum of the Snowden fall-out. Once you get past slightly wonkish explanations of the intricacies of the various EU agencies and Swedish departments Into A Raging Blaze becomes a Le Carre-esque yarn that’s rooted in verisimilitude . No faint praise that.