BOOK REVIEW / Spying on a very friendly special relationship: 'Special Relations' - Tim Sebastian: Orion, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
EVER SINCE the Cold War ended, the race has been on to produce the first genuine spy thriller that does not require its well- known context. In Special Relations, Tim Sebastian has probably come closer than anyone else so far - and produced a cracking good read to boot.

His tale proceeds from what would appear at first sight to be an improbable premise: that a new (Republican) president of the United States and a new (Labour, woman) prime minister of Britain once enjoyed a brief and passionate affair in their salad days at Oxford. They meet again at an international summit meeting, and the old amour is revived with a vengeance.

The coincidence may seem far- fetched; but think about it: if Margaret Thatcher had been 20 years younger . . . or Bill Clinton 20 years older . . .

One day, with easier transatlantic travel, the increasing internationalisation of higher education, the rise of more women to positions of power, something of the sort could just happen.

The long-buried affair - and its aftermath, an accident that seriously injured the heroine, Alison Lane - gradually infuses the plot until it bursts on to the scene, thanks to a burrowing investigative journalist and a completely understandable indiscretion on the part of Prime Minister Lane's proud parents. Hardly bearable personal tension between two leaders battling old emotions combines with escalating international tension as Russia and Ukraine move close to war over control of obsolescent nuclear warheads.

The Russian leader collapses at the crucial moment; Ms Lane dashes off to Moscow on a unilateral peace mission; US President David Bradley tries to convene the UN Security Council, then finds himself underwriting the by now successful enterprise of Ms Lane.

There is material enough here for news and politics junkies, arms control freaks, the women's lobby - and, in the neat conclusion, for the romantics as well. Most remarkably, perhaps, Sebastian's scene-setting rings true: from the chilly reception rooms of state leaders, to the procedural niceties of summits meetings, through the musty drabness of former Soviet missile control rooms. His years as an international reporter were not wasted.

And while the legacy of the Cold War is still evident in the Russo- Ukrainian strand of the plot, the only real spies in the story belong truly to the post-cold war era: they are the intelligence services of Britain and America, spying on, and on behalf of, their own leaders.

It is unfortunate that the least credible episode is also the hinge of the plot. When the television journalists get their first whiff of a possible link between the two national leaders, Alison Lane is asked a straight question live on air. First she fumbles; then, fatally, she lies. Would this practised politician really lie (we are not talking euphemism or dissembling here), and thus sow the seed of her downfall? Try as Sebastian might, and he tries very hard, he cannot quite explain her mistake away.

One or two other quibbles might include the banality of the names - surely an inventive author such as Sebastian could do better than Alison Lane and David Bradley; the highly episodic structure that suggests he has more than half an eye on the film rights, and his penchant for American-style one-liners which, while speeding the narrative along, occasionally become tiresome. I also found the geography of the missile silo highly confusing at its first appearance.

All in all, though, Special Relations offers an extremely satisfying few hours of entertainment and its spies, who tend to come from 'our' side, rather than 'theirs', offer other writers of spy thrillers a way of dispensing with the Cold War altogether.