In its heyday, authors in the literary espionage genre produced nuanced, elegant writing with moral complexities in advance of most other literary fiction. But the spy novel withered at the end of the Cold War, and two key practitioners, John le Carré and Len Deighton, appeared to be cast adrift by international events.
But this was to prove a hiatus rather than a termination, and writers learned to adjust to a new political landscape with new threats, forging fresh challenges for their protagonists. Le Carré was energised by the nefarious activities of multinational corporations and an all-consuming loathing of Anglo-US unilateralism, and he and newer writers also found mileage in such areas as fundamentalist terrorism. Meanwhile, Henry Porter and Robert Wilson wove new fabrics out of the legacy of Nazi and Soviet ambitions, often spanning parallel historical and contemporary plotlines.
Edward Wilson, however, is something of a hothouse flower among current espionage novelists, closer (if anything) to the quirkiness and sardonic wit of Len Deighton than the more sombre Le Carré furrow that Charles Cumming ploughs. The Whitehall Mandarin is a distinctly unorthodox Cold War novel, set in 1957, whose cast members spend as much time scratching their sexual itches as they do on espionage tradecraft.
Wilson's recurring sort-of-hero, William Catesby, is an MI6 operative keeping a close watch on Cauldwell, an American cultural attaché in London. There is a suspicion that Cauldwell is supplying the Russians with compromising photographs of British officials – not difficult when the British Secret Service is as much at the service of its gonads as the protection of the realm.
As in earlier Wilson novels, Catesby is a spook who never takes the easy option, and the elaborate minuets he dances around the equally elaborate terpsichore of his opponents provides great satisfaction for the reader. We attempt to second-guess both Catesby and his crafty creator, and are soundly outfoxed at every turn.
There are some richly characterised players here, such as the titular Whitehall mandarin – a woman with a ruinous secret – and her rebellious proto-hippy daughter. Catesby, too, is sharply drawn, and notably unlike other Secret Service types in the spy novel redux. The only orthodoxy here is the standard tarring of East and West with evenly spread moral disapprobation – but Wilson is now firmly ensconced in the new firmament of espionage writing.