Tag Archives: spies

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2020 (23 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hitler's Secret by Rory ClementsHitler’s Secret is the fourth novel in Rory Clements’ Tom Wilde historical spy thriller series. I think that this novel stands alone perhaps better than the others but I would still suggest that you read the others first. It’s certainly worth it as this is one of my most favourite series of recent years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is Autumn 1941 and the war is not going well for the allies. The position of America is critical as it wavers between war and no war, with those sympathetic to fascism in powerful posts. Britain must use all means at its disposal to influence the outcome and that means spies and subterfuge. Tom Wilde, an American in England, a Professor of Elizabethan history at Cambridge University, is a man that Britain’s secret service regularly calls on and he is perfect for their latest mission. They want to send him into Berlin as an American-German industrialist with Nazi sympathies and there he must obtain a ‘package’ that must be smuggled out of Germany at all cost. There are powerful men who will do everything in their power to stop it leaving Germany and Wilde must overcome them. It’s obviously a deadly mission and life has moved on for Wilde. He’s now living with Lydia and they have a child. But he is driven to do it.

Germany is every bit as challenging as he would expect and there he meets people both charismatic and dangerous, including Anton Offerbach, Sunny Somerfeld, the widow of a German hero, Martin Boorman, Hitler’s henchman, and many others. Wilde can trust none of them although he’ll need the help of some to discover the package. And when he does everything changes. There may well be no way back for Tom Wilde.

Hitler’s Secret was a very pleasant surprise to me, to put it mildly. I had falsely assumed that this was a trilogy and that last year’s Nemesis was the third and final novel. How glad I am I was wrong. Time has moved on for Professor Wilde but, now that England is in real danger of losing a war that Tom Wilde has worked so hard to try and prevent, his services are required once more. The result is another beautifully written, extremely well-plotted spy thriller, which is tense from start to finish but is also a genuine puzzler that makes you think. Everyone in it has their own agenda, their own secrets, their own limits – how far will each go to achieve their target? This shifts constantly. People are complicated in this novel as they are in real life. It can be impossible to predict how they’ll behave when faced with certain circumstances. And this is every bit as true for Wilde as it is for other characters in the novel.

The sense of danger is palpable as Tom Wilde finds himself in disguise in the lion’s den, in Berlin itself, having meetings with some of the most important figures in Hitler’s Reich. The tension is almost overpowering, as is Tom Wild’s bravery. But Wilde is also a very clever man. Unfortunately, he is up against some of the most ruthless and determined people in Nazi Germany and it’s not long before they all want him dead and a trail of blood is left across the land. It’s compelling and riveting.

But the novel also has a great deal of heart as Wilde must reflect on what’s important to him morally and he must make decisions accordingly. Although Hitler’s Secret is the most linear and possibly the most straightforward of the four novels, it is extremely well-written, as we’d expect from master storyteller Rory Clements, and very clever, with its dark and dangerous world brilliantly depicted. Tom Wilde is an exceptional character, bridging both American and British worlds, an outsider, someone who can make himself fit almost anywhere because of his deep insight into human behaviour and his expert knowledge of the lessons that history can teach us. I adore this series, it’s always one of the reading highlights of the year and, now that I know that this is not a trilogy, I really hope there’ll be more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus
Nemesis

Joe Country by Mick Herron

John Murray | 2019 (20 June) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Joe Country by Mick HerronWarning!: This review assumes that you’ve read the earlier books in this superb series.

Slough House is full of ghosts and they haunt in an atmosphere of disappointment, bitterness, grief, boredom and slovenliness. It is the place where failed secret agents, the slow horses, are sent to rot and decay. Sometimes they die there, at other times they kill there, both adding blood to the stains on the carpets and walls. It all adds to the malaise of Slough House and its unhappy occupants. One slow horse is new. Alec Wincinski has been dismissed from the secret service headquarters in Regents Park for crimes so heinous that even his colleagues in Slough House will despise him. And he has to share an office with Roddy Ho, an extreme punishment in itself. Wincinski is a bitter man. He knows he is innocent. He will stop at nothing to expose the plot that has ruined him.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Slough House, Louisa Guy mourns a colleague and the pain intensifies when she learns that his teenage son is missing. According to the colleague’s ex-wife, the least Louisa can do is find him. Louisa knows she’s right. And so begins her secret investigation into whatever trouble it is that has caused the boy to run. It will lead her to snowlocked Pembrokeshire and following her will be other slow horses because, when all is said and done, she is one of their own and they’re not going to let her make a mess of it on her own. They can do a far better job of it together. But before that there must be a funeral. One of the big names in the spy world has died. Secrets will emerge. Everyone will go that funeral to watch who else moves among the gravestones.

As the front of this truly brilliant novel exclaims, Mick Herron is undoubtedly the master of the contemporary spy novel. He has created an extraordinary thing in Slough House. This building that is described so evocatively as if it were almost alive, a corrupt, brooding presence, inhabited by damaged, cast off men and women, has such a power to it. There is nothing like these novels. The secret service world is turned upside down and revealed in all of its power-seeking malignancy. Slough House has a fitting boss – Jackson Lamb, a corpulent, rude, obnoxious and toxic man, who oozes cleverness, slyness, decay and, perhaps, care for his ‘team’. But it’s not just about Slough House. The rot in the Secret Agence comes down from on high, from First Desk Diana Taverner in Regent’s Park, who has the ear of the Prime Minister and has to wrestle with the dirty world of politics. But if they’re dirty, she’s dirtier.

The Slough House operatives are each revealed in their glory as they wrestle with their own demons, whether they’re drink, delusion, grief or guilt. My favourite character, Roddy Ho, is on top form here and is absolutely despicable in his self-belief, bathing in slime. Mick Herron is such a witty writer! I laughed so many times. But then I also cried. There are moments here of such outrage and waste, it’s heartbreaking. Mick Herron writes with power. His sentences always hit the mark. And then there are the moments that simply shock.

There are a world of emotions in Joe Country. There’s also a world of danger and we’re taken into its centre and thrown around in the whirlpool of it all. This series is remarkable. It’s very clever and witty, full of abominable people, and yet Mick Herron makes us care intensely for a fair few of them. It seems as if every human failing can be found in Slough House, the place where disgraced spies are sent to be forgotten, not to mention a fair few tragedies and ghosts, but there’s a warmth to be found in the least likely of places. This book will undoubtedly be among my top books of 2019.

I’m very grateful to David at BlueBookBalloon for his spare copy! You can read David’s review of Joe Country here.

Other review
London Rules

Secret Service by Tom Bradby

Bantam Press | 2019 (30 May) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Secret Service by Tom BradbyKate Henderson has a lot on her plate. She’s got a full family life with two teenage children and a mother stricken by dementia, who also happens to be an extremely unpleasant woman. And then there’s the busy job, which involves a great deal of travel, often at short notice. For Kate is a senior officer in Britain’s Secret Service, M16, with responsibility for the Russia desk. A tip off has sent her and her small team to Turkey where it is believed that some of the most important members of Russia’s own secret service are gathering on a yacht. Kate has recruited someone to plant a bug on that yacht and what they overhear throws the UK and Russia back into the freeze of a cold war. They hear that the British Prime Minister is about to resign through ill health and that one of the candidates in his Cabinet is a Russian agent. As if this isn’t bad enough, this also tells Kate that there is a mole in M16. But who is it?

I love spy thrillers and I really liked the sound of this one. Tom Bradby is a journalist and author who now presents the ITV News at Ten. He definitely knows his stuff but, just as important as that, he really knows how to tell a good story. Secret Service is a brilliantly clever and thrilling read from start to finish. For some reason, perhaps because I’ve visited and like the country very much indeed, I particularly enjoy spy thrillers with a Russian element. They might be traditional but Tom Bradby shows here that this long-held friction still continues – and suspicions that Russia’s secret service has meddled in elections are extremely topical. And then there’s the matter of a British Prime Minister resigning, resulting in a leadership battle… that sounds rather familiar. Secret Service is undoubtedly a topical and timely thriller.

Kate Henderson is very much at the centre of the novel. She’s not presented as some cold, calculating spy master. Kate is a fully rounded human being, a woman who has to juggle family and work, with all of the guilt and demands that this entails. We spend time with Kate’s family as she has to deal with troublesome kids, a really nasty mother, and a husband who is accommodating and caring but has a pressing job of his own. Kate’s job involves a lot of soul searching as well as sacrifice. She has to decide how far she is prepared to go to protect her country, to do her job. How much will she risk? Who is she prepared to endanger? And how will she live with the consequences? The novel is full of personal stories and Kate is responsible for the lives of many of these people. It’s an engrossing and involving novel.

In a spy thriller you want puzzles, action and (as you’d expect) thrills. Secret Service provides all of these. On top of this there’s politics and the ambition of senior politicians, not to mention the ambition of Kate’s immediate superiors at M16. There is intense rivalry across the board and Kate is caught somewhere in the middle. Secret Service is intricately plotted, tense and full of menace, and at its centre is a very appealing, likeable character who has to make the most difficult of decisions, each of which has consequences. If I had a recipe of what I would put into a spy thriller, Secret Service has the lot.

Nemesis by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2019 (24 January) | 324p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nemesis by Rory ClementsIt’s August 1939 and the world is keeping more than one nervous eye on the aggression of Germany. Tom Wilde, an American Professor of History at Cambridge University, is on holiday in sunny France with his lover, Lydia. It’s almost as if everyone is taking a breath while they wait to see what will happen next. But the holiday comes to a sudden and difficult end when Tom is contacted by a stranger who tells him that Tom’s brilliant student Marcus Marfield, who is also a chorister with the voice of an angel, is imprisoned in a camp near the Pyrenees. Marcus had left England to join the fight against fascism in Spain but his idealism has ended in disaster. It’s a race against time for Wilde to get Marcus out of France before war is declared.

Meanwhile, the Americans are hedging their bets over whether to get involved in the conflict or not. Joe Kennedy is American ambassador to the UK. His allegiance is suspect. Spies are busier than ever, getting into position, moving their pieces, manipulating events, exposing themselves to deadly danger. The stakes have never been higher. And when a U-boat sinks a liner, full of European and American civilian passengers, in the Atlantic, the war of words explodes. The Nazis claim that Churchill blew up the ship to lure America into the war. But for those who must endure the agony of waiting to discover if their missing loved ones are drowned or saved, there is a terrible human cost to this tragedy. As for Tom Wilde, he is now in great personal danger. Keeping Marcus Mayfield safe may prove the death of him.

Nemesis completes Rory Clements’ stunning historical spy trilogy. Beginning with Corpus and continuing with Nucleus, this series is extraordinary. Although linked through the characters of Tom Wilde and Lydia, the books are each distinct and reflect on another aspect of the tense progress to war, illuminating such topics as the abdication of Edward VII and the race to achieve nuclear weapons first. Tom Wilde is a sometime reluctant spy for British and American intelligence. He knows the personal cost. Murder invariably follows. In Nemesis, Wilde once again finds himself caught up in international intrigue. Its focus this time is the devastatingly handsome, charismatic and talented Marcus Marfield – he attracts trouble. But why?

Wilde and Lydia unite all three books. If you’ve followed them from the beginning, then you’ll know how difficult their relationship has been, not to mention dangerous at times. They’re so easy to like. In these difficult days in the lead up to war, when motives exist to be distrusted, Wilde and Lydia are two people we can hang on to. We know they’re decent, caring and courageous human beings. They’re also extremely likeable as well as fascinating. Tom is an expert on the Elizabethan spymaster, Walsingham, which gives him real insight into contemporary spies. Lydia is a poet and, in many ways, at odds with the world around her. Their privileged Cambridge academic environment is a striking contrast to the rise of Nazi Germany but, as Tom Wilde knows only to well, there are many places to hide in Cambridge.

I love Rory Clements’ Elizabethan spy novels and I really like how he continues themes and ideas into this 1930s’ series. The plot of Nemesis, and the others, is complex, compelling and genius. We’re used to enigmatic figures in this series and Marcus Marfield continues the tradition. It’s difficult to tear your eyes away from the page as Tom is led on a lethal dance during some of the most tense days of the 20th century.

There’s also a personal story here and one of the most poignant threads is that to do with the sinking of the Athenia. This story alone had me on the edge of my seat. Also, one of the spymasters continues to pay a high price for his actions following an assassination attempt. And then there are those whose deaths Tom must investigate. Were they suicide or murder? If suicide, what could have driven them to such desperation? As the tanks roll into Poland, we’re shown war’s intimate, personal cost.

Rory Clements is a superb writer. His plots are second to none while his understanding of character and motive is exemplary. Nemesis is such an exciting thriller! It grips and intrigues from the very beginning, not least because the very future of the world is at stake. I can’t praise these books enough. They’re always among my top books of the year. I cannot wait to see where Rory Clements takes us next. Whether we go back to the 16th century or 20th century, or any other period of history, it will be essential reading.

Other reviews
Corpus
Nucleus
Holy Spy

Penguin Modern Classics: A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

A Small Town in Germany by John Le CarreOn 27 September 2018, Penguin completed its nine-year project to publish 21 of John Le Carré’s novels as Penguin Modern Classics, making him the living author with the greatest number of works awarded this classics status. New to the list will be Little Drummer Girl, which the BBC is about to bring to our small screens. I’m really proud to have been invited to take part in the blog tour to celebrate the project, as well as the BBC series of Little Drummer Girl. It’s my role to introduce you to A Small Town In Germany, which, like so many in the Le Carré Penguin Modern Classics has such a gorgeous, striking cover.

A Small Town in Germany was published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2011 but the book itself first appeared in print back in 1968 and is one of the spy novels that doesn’t feature George Smiley. Here is a little of what the novel is about:

West Germany, a simmering cauldron of radical protests, has produced a new danger to Britain: Karfeld, menacing leader of the opposition. At the same time Leo Harting, a Second Secretary in the British Embassy, has gone missing – along with more than forty Confidential embassy files. Alan Turner of the Foreign Office must travel to Bonn to recover them, facing riots, Nazi secrets and the delicate machinations of an unstable Europe in the throes of the Cold War.

As Turner gets closer to the truth of Harting’s disappearance, he will discover that the face of International relations – and the attentions of the British Ministry itself – is uglier that he could possibly have imagined.

The small German town in question is Bonn, West Germany, and it’s a foggy, wet place – a dangerous place in this time of Cold War and suspicion. It is a time when Europe is trying to draw closer together, to tighten its Union, in the face of a considerable amount of instability and hostility. Alan Turner isn’t keen to visit but he has no choice. It’s in Bonn that he must look for the missing British Embassy Secretary, Leo, a man that remains elusive throughout the novel.

The Little Drummer Girl by John Le CarreA Small Town in Germany is one of Le Carre’s earliest novels and takes place without the presence of George Smiley. Nevertheless, it still contains the hallmarks of Le Carré’s skill – his ability to describe in great detail without giving much away, keeping the reader as much in the dark as his agents. The time and place are evoked with great clarity, despite the puzzles that haunt each page.

I’ve read most of Le Carré’s novels over the years and I would definitely call myself a fan. I do think that A Small Town in Germany is one of the more challenging of the books – it takes a while to establish in which direction it’s heading and it can, at times, confuse – but it is so steeped in the times, which seem particularly pertinent now.

I have a spare copy of A Small Town in Germany to give away, so if you’d like to read it, please leave a comment here or on Twitter.

This is such an exciting blog tour to be a part of, with each stop focusing on a different book. A spy book bonanza! For the other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster.

John le Carre - Blog Tour Card

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday | 2018 (6 September) | 337p | Review copy | Buy the book

Transcription by Kate AtkinsonIn 1940 Juliet Armstrong, a young woman of just 18 years old, is recruited by the secret service to monitor a group of Fifth Columnists. They regularly meet in London and are led by Godfrey Toby, a man they believe to be a Nazi spy but who is in fact working for the British secret service. It will be Juliet’s job to transcribe their bugged and recorded conversations, a task that both bores and thrills Juliet. She also wants to impress her boss, the enigmatic and curious Peregrine Gibbons. But soon Juliet is given a more active role, undercover, becoming perilously involved with the fascists she must spy upon.

In 1950 the war is long over but any hopes that Juliet might have that the past is behind her are terrifyingly crushed. The work of the secret service continues, fighting a different kind of war with a new enemy, and Juliet, now a producer working at the BBC, is about to get entangled again. She begins to see faces from the past and she knows that they are due a reckoning.

I fell in love with Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. I knew that Transcription, a novel I’ve longed to read, would be every bit as good and I was not disappointed. This is an author who writes literary fiction that is also accessible, warm and wise, witty and clever, despairing and loving – and Transcription confirms all of this. A thrilling and compelling plot is wrapped up in a time-shifting, multi-layered narrative in which Juliet’s life, and all of the people who made it what it was, is revealed before us. It demands an emotional response from the reader while at the same time he or she will marvel at just how much there is to be found in this book. It’s an extraordinary achievement for so much to be packed in to a novel shorter than 350 pages.

I’m so pleased that Kate Atkinson returned to the Second World War for Transcription. I can’t get enough of World War Two spy thrillers at the moment and so this was perfectly timed and reminded me in such a good way of the pleasure I recently had reading Our Friends in Berlin. On the surface Transcription is a fine war thriller but it also digs deeply into the motivations of people who desperately want to retain for themselves their inner beliefs. Much here is suppressed, whether it’s a political allegiances or an affair of the heart. This is a time of secrets and a time when people were paid to hunt them out.

Juliet is a wonderful main character. Her youth initially marks her out as almost naive and there’s much pleasure to be had in the chapters in which she tries to make sense of the conversations she is transcribing. These transcriptions can be found throughout the book, reinforcing the historical context of the novel while also lifting the mood. And that is arguably what the book is about – how do you transcribe people? How do you work them out when there is so much interference between you and them? For Juliet has so much more to understand than the words of Fifth Columnists.

Juliet is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters, some larger than life, others quietly existing in the background, others whose lives are pinched out. It’s fascinating as well as tense watching these relationships work themselves out.

Kate Atkinson’s writing is so beautiful. It’s elegant and warm. It reflects how well she understands the people she has brought to life, their aspirations and their fears. And yet wit and elegance can hide something else far darker and this is shown so well in the contrast between the politeness and manners of many of the novel’s characters with the ugliness of some of their secret thoughts and the brutal actions that they can spur. This is war after all.

The novel takes place over several years, moving backwards and forwards between them, and so it pays to stay alert. This is a book that rewards the reader – there are moments here that astounded me as well as others that profoundly moved me.

Kate Atkinson is consistently one of the very finest authors around today – very clever but also accessible – and Transcription demonstrates yet again why. Don’t miss it. I must also mention that the hardback, complete with ribbon, is a thing of beauty.

Other reviews
Life After Life
A God in Ruins

Night Flight to Paris by David Gilman

Head of Zeus | 2018 (9 August) | 486p | Review copy | Buy the book

Night Flight to Paris by David GilmanIt is February 1943 and the German Occupation of France has Paris in its grip. The city’s Resistance cell is on the run, the Nazis on its tail. Men and women will be captured, they will be tortured for information, there will be deaths. Allied intelligence has no choice. They must send someone to Paris to pick up the pieces, to form another cell, and to complete the vanquished cell’s unfinished business – to find a man hunted by Germans and allies alike. He has information that could change the course of the war. The man to be sent to Paris is Harry Mitchell. He’s perfect for the job. He’s a mathematician and codebreaker at Bletchley Park but he also used to live in Paris before he had to flee in 1941 leaving his wife and daughter behind. And now they’re in the hands of the Gestapo. Mitchell is determined to get them back.

Occupied Paris is a city at war with itself. The Nazis are not the only enemy. Informers, spies, collaborators, and competing Resistance factions have made Paris even more lethal. The leaders of the SS and the Gestapo, also fighting amongst themselves for dominance, are infiltrating Parisian society, enjoying the cultural perks of the French capital, Parisian mistresses on their arm and in their bed, before descending into the city’s most frightening spaces to torture members of the Resistance. Harry Mitchell has no illusions about how dangerous Paris will be. He knows he will probably be killed and nastily. But first he has to get to Paris and his night flight will test his endurance to the limit.

David Gilman is well known for his Master of War series – a series I love – set during the Hundred Years War of the 14th century. In this standalone novel, David Gilman moves forward 600 years to another conflict and the result, Night Flight to Paris, is every bit as good, if not even better, than his medieval series. This is a very clever novel, its complex, tense plot beautifully crafted and gripping throughout. It starts off running and the pace doesn’t slacken once.

Harry Mitchell is a fascinating, likeable, courageous and potentially ruthless protagonist. For much of the time he is almost literally in the dark, forming his cell of Resistance fighters out of strangers, aware that any one of them could be a traitor, and yet camaraderie draws them together. Ultimately, Mitchell is a spy, his whole life in France and Paris is built on secrets and lies and he holds it all together with his cunning and genius. And not a little luck. There are others here that we grow attached to, even though we’re not quite sure if they can be trusted, and they are wonderfully portrayed by David Gilman, each a character in their own right, men and women, young and old, especially a radio operator whose courage is extraordinary.

I urge you to read this novel and meet these fantastic characters. To feel the tension of following them through the danger of missions and just in daily life, which can be every bit as terrifying, waiting for a car to screech to a halt outside the door, for the sound of boots running up the stairs, the bang on the door, the guns in the face.

Night Flight to Paris is a magnificent war spy thriller. I couldn’t read it fast enough. Clever, complex, gripping, emotionally engaging, terrifying. And so much more. A stand out novel of the year for me and one that kept me reading late into the summer night.

I must also mention that this is another of those gorgeous Head of Zeus hadbacks, complete with a ribbon! I do love a ribbon…

Other reviews
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death (Master of War 2)
Gate of the Dead (Master of War 3) – review and interview
Guest post – War in The Last Horseman
Viper’s Blood (Master of War 4)
Extract from Vipers Blood
Scourge of Wolves (Master of War 5)