Corvus | 2017 (7 September) | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1792 and the age of the mob has brought violence and chaos to the streets of Paris, in particular the Place de la Révolution where Madame Guillotine holds centre stage. All of Europe reels from it, especially England which is still enduring the aftermath of the recent American Revolution. These are the early days of The Terror, the King and Queen of France are only recently imprisoned and the National Convention, the revolutionary ruling body of France, doesn’t quite know what to do with them. The Ministers, several of whom held position under King Louis, are anxious. A wrong word uttered, a whiff of sentimental nostalgia, the slightest slip is enough to consign even the most powerful to a public, humiliating death.
As the Ministers juggle for power and safety, their wives play the society game – politics now plays out almost as much in the drawing rooms and ballrooms of the fashionable as in the governmental hall of the Tuileries Palace. Intrigue competes with flirtation, and spies hide in plain sight. And behind the glamour and wit, there lurks the dirty reality of revolution – the torturer, the murderer, the joy of the hunt.
Joseph Fouché is a member of the National Convention and its master spy. He suspects everyone but more than anything he wants to find the lost correspondence of King Louis. These letters are believed to contain the names and details of the Revolution’s enemies, all ripe for the blade. But this is a bigger game than Fouché might have first suspected. The imprisonment of the king, the turmoil of France, is an international concern and there are other spies at work in Paris, from England, Prussia and elsewhere. A cat and mouse hunt is underway but which is the cat?
Treason’s Spring is the first novel in a new trilogy from Robert Wilton but it continues a theme that has filled all of his novels and made them unique and extraordinarily clever and rewarding. This, and the other novels, are presented as the archives of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey – in other words, the secret records of the English government’s chief spy. Past novels have taken us to Napoleonic France, the English Civil War and the outbreak of World War 1. Each stands alone but the structure and appeal is the same. The archives themselves, such as letters and interviews are combined with a dramatised narrative of what was learned at the time and since. This is an omnipotent author, writing with the benefit of hindsight, but his interjections are few and far between. Instead, the spies, their lovers, their masters and their victims are allowed to speak for themselves. And they tell fascinating tales, providing an irresistible perspective on some of the most tumultuous events in recent centuries.
The cast of Treason’s Spring is large and complex and the narrative moves between them all, sometimes in past tense, occasionally in present tense. One man in particular is believed to hold the secret of what has happened to Louis’ letters and also to his stolen jewels, a British man called Henry Greene. And everyone is in pursuit of Greene. He moves like a shadow across the novel, barely seen, but the subject of whisper and rumour. And so too are the men and women who seek him. Their lives regularly cross. They speak the language of lies and deceit.
Nobody is quite what they seem. Identities are easy to borrow, lives just as easy to lose. You’d have thought from this that it would be hard for the reader to grow attached to any of the people of this novel, but this is far from true. Robert Wilton is a masterly writer. These are all well-rounded personalities and I was attached to many of the characters – in fact, I was concerned for all of them. With the exception of Fouché and his torturing thug. I was going to list the characters I enjoyed the most when I realised that this is almost everyone on the list of dramatis personae that can be found at the start of the book. But I must point out that the women are as important as the men in this novel and the role they play is vital and every bit as dangerous, perhaps more so because they have so much more to lose.
Treason’s Spring is an enormous achievement. It is immensely clever, controlled and ambitious and it succeeds in all of its aims. I was engrossed. I admired its intellectual brilliance while also being moved to tears by the horror and sadness of events. Personal tragedies were played out time and time again during The Terror and this novel captures so well the fear and uncertainty of these bloody, chaotic months. Revolutionary Paris is itself brought to life. This opening novel suggests that we are embarking on a trilogy of significance and I will drop everything to read the succeeding novel, Treason’s Flood, which we’re told will take us to the field of Waterloo. I cannot wait!