The Great War is over. Representatives of the victors meet to negotiate the terms of peace in Paris in the spring of 1919. Among them is Sir Henry Maxted, a British diplomat pulled out of retirement to use his experience learned in the courts of St Petersburg and Tokyo. Several of the men he knew from those times and places are also gathered in Paris, each pushing forward the advantages of their nation, in the conference rooms of the city’s grandest hotels as well as in more secret places. Sir Henry slips. He falls to his death, apparently accidentally, from the roof of a building in a less desirable district of Paris. His son, James (known to most as Max) arrives with his elder brother Ashley – now Sir Ashley – to fetch their father home.
Max, though, doesn’t leave. An ace fighter pilot who survived the Western Front, his reflexes are sharp. He recognises the clues and states quite firmly that his father did not fall of his own accord and he will discover the truth. From that moment on, nothing will be the same for Max. No-one will watch him in the same way. If he lives to walk away from Paris, it will be a miracle.
The Ways of the World is a story of spies at a time (and in the place) in which countries scrambled for precedence, the fighting on the killing fields of France and Belgium now done. The hotels of Paris are filled with politicians and diplomats from Britain, America, France, Japan, Russia and more. While Germany’s debt is debated, behind the scenes spies and agents barter secrets, some manipulated, rather ironically, by the master spy of the country now vanquished. So what caused Sir Henry Maxted to fall to his death? And can his son, Max, untie the knots?
One thing is clear. The reader of The Ways of the World must keep his or her wits about them. You might want to scribble down notes in one of those little notebook diaries kept so carefully in the inner pockets of the diplomats. From almost the very beginning we follow on the heels of Max as he works his way around the network of police, diplomats and mistresses who all have something to hide but also have something to reveal. There are many games being played here, most lethal. It’s fortunate that Max is the man he is. Max is a pilot, not a spy, but he learns quickly and we follow him just a step or two behind.
Parallel with the story in international intrigue is the more human tale of Max’s need to prove that his father did not meet an accidental death. The diplomatic games are mirrored by the intrigues of the Maxted family. Sir Henry might not be all that he seemed but it’s not likely he’s alone in that. Side by side with Max is his trusty flight engineer, Sam. The war has left a legacy that ties Max and Sam together, despite their different social class. The war has also shifted the social position of many women and we see that too.
I found Max an extremely sympathetic young hero. His cause is a good one. There are other characters I enjoyed but many are only briefly glimpsed. It’s mostly Max that we get to know although his mother is fascinating and I would like to know much more about her.
Paris is brought alive. We journey through the streets on foot and by car, spying and being spied upon. We are given the impression of a city closely and easily connected to London, its hotels filled with diplomats and its districts filled by newly classless individuals and refugees, especially from revolutionary Russia. However, I did find The Ways of the World to be largely an intellectual exercise. Despite the frequent mentions of Max’s war background, I didn’t feel much of a connection to the First World War in this world. There are references to lost sons throughout but they’re references, not much more than that. Max is driven to uncover the truth about his father but it is a mostly dispassionate tale. It isn’t fed by the horror of war.
The Ways of the World is an excellent intelligent historical spy story which does the brain nothing but good. It won’t be easy for Max – the book is all the better for that. Just remember to keep jotting down those notes.