The Oligarch by Joseph Clyde, book review: Authentic spy yarn lacks Le Carré's touch

A romp around a parallel universe that exists not a million miles from our own

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If the worlds of London's "new" Russians, MI5, international summit meetings and Vladimir Putin have ever impinged on yours, however peripherally, this is the thriller for you. And if they haven't, well, you can sit back in wonderment and enjoy this romp around a parallel universe that exists – I assure you, it does – not a million miles from our own. The author, Joseph Clyde, is actually the former diplomat, former MP and polyglot, George Walden, and serves up a treat of acute observation and dead-pan humour that testifies to a highly-informed eye. From the Chelsea flat, to the cars, to the restored trophy castle, from the hedonism to the paranoia – some warranted, much not – the atmospherics largely ring true.

For sheer virtuosity, savour chapter four, when Tony Underwood, a prematurely pensioned-off MI5 mid-ranker, meets Mikhail, the factotum for his new boss, an ailing Russian oligarch, Arshile Grekov. Underwood's job entails organising Grekov's security, and that of Sasha, his drug-taking, champagne-swilling, promiscuous, Putin-hating son.

The geography is painstakingly accurate. I can vouch not only for the UK side, but for the sequences set in the Camargue, which happens to be one of my favourite places in all the world, as it would appear to be for this author, too. The snatches of Russian and French are a bit showy-offy but reinforce the cosmopolitan feel.

Even as the details mostly convince, however, the plot does not satisfy to the same degree. Overly schematic, it lacks subtlety and surprise. Le Carré this isn't.

You will learn a lot about duck hunting – probably too much – and Clyde seems far more at home with Underwood, his security milieu and his London Russians than he does in the impoverished Chechen-Georgian cabal he concocts in the south of France.

The character of Putin as macho President works well but the contemporary political context – post-Crimea, pre-parliamentary elections – while authentic, may date the story. Nor is it ever quite clear what makes the female lead, Svetlana, tick.

Every now and again, Clyde lets the mask slip to reveal Walden, the professional diplomat and observer, fascinated by the perversity of history. At the funeral of his oligarch, Underwood is made to meditate thus: "Grekov had been born into an atheistic, anti-monarchist, anti-capitalist regime... yet he'd died a rich man, a royalist and a believer... Tony had come into the world as a Christian in a free country and spent a fair part of his career in the anti-communist struggle. At the end of it, he'd found himself an atheist in the service of a Christian oligarch who had been his enemy..." Clyde seems to be looking for a plot worthy of Walden's insight.