On the morning of 28 June 1914, one hundred years ago today, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were shot dead in the streets of Sarajevo, an act that set the world alight with war. The descent into war was, though, far from straightforward – the principle powers of the day played a complicated game, in secret, using diplomats and spies rather than the soldiers that were to replace them in just weeks. Published today to mark the centenary of the assassinations, The Spider of Sarajevo, brings the shady world of the spies to the fore, focusing on the weeks which led up to the events of 28 June 1914, moving between the men (and occasional woman) who dealt in lies and secrets across Europe’s borders and yet were themselves pawns – or bait.
The oldest, most secretive and respected of all spy offices – the Comptroller-General for Scrutiny and Survey in London – has a problem. Opposing him across the Channel is a new spymaster with extraordinary reach and control, extending from Berlin and Austria to the unstable Balkans and beyond. Nameless, he is known to the Old Man in London as the Spider. The war they fight is more than personal, it will have deadly consequences.
Four young people are hired as spies to tempt out the Spider. They are each very different – anthropologist Ballentyne, businessman Cade, charmer Duval and the fiercely clever Hathaway, the sole woman amongst the four. The agent responsible for their safety is Major Knox, a man who realises before most the extent of the danger they are all in. Dispatched across the continent, from France to Constantinople and St Petersburg, the four spies chase shadows, creating their own networks and relationships from the men and women that they encounter in cafes, dinner parties, diplomatic functions, or in the mountain villages of the Balkans. With four leading figures to follow, it’s quite likely that some will become favourites and brave Ballentyne and fierce Hathaway are mine.
The Spider of Sarajevo is a deliciously complicated affair – its opening list of individuals ‘named in the dossier’ is invaluable and I frequently referred back to it. Each of our spies has an increasingly large circle around them while the influence of the Spider becomes ever more noticeable as the heat of his hunt intensifies. The reader must have his or her wits about them as they follow the trail. But the characters have more than enough warmth in their veins for the reader to engage with more than just their brain. I cared very deeply about the fate of our four spies, especially as all of the clues, from the title and the publication date onwards, remind us what lies in store.
This sense of countdown is strong and it intensifies the tension, which is also heightened by a series of action moments which are extremely thrilling and dramatic, including one in a submarine base and another during a great regatta of German and British battleships at Kiel, an event which seems almost preposterous when one thinks how close this is to war.
Robert Wilton’s prose is as superb as his plotting and there is an irony and detachment in its tone that is especially effective during the moments of greatest tension. Surprises and shocks are delivered with impeccable timing. There are also some pleasingly witty asides, especially during our chapters in the company of Hathaway. This is a skillful narrative, mixed up within it are letters, cryptic telegrams, notes and reports drawn from the archives of the Comptroller-General for Scrutiny and Survey. Some characters we meet only briefly but they make for some terrific portraits nonetheless – I particularly enjoyed the mysterious Valfierno and his verbal duel with one of our four during a memorable railway journey. The persona of the author, and his relationship to his subjects and his readers, is likewise intriguing.
Even though the outcome for Europe is never in doubt, the pace is fierce and there are surprises in store within these pages and it is necessary for the reader to pay the closest of attention in order to reap the rewards of the shocks and twists. The Spider of Sarajevo is the third novel in Robert Wilton’s Comptroller-General series, set several hundred years after the Civil War events of its predecessor, the masterpiece Traitor’s Field. Yet again, Robert Wilton proves he is not only a fine storyteller but also a master of untangling our history during its most complicated and perilous episodes, whatever the century.