Guardian Fiction Prize-winner Judd (The Devil’s Own Work, 1994), returns with a twisty, accomplished, and engaging Cold War thriller set in London of the 1970s, back when you knew where you stood—even if it turned out you were wrong.
Charlie Thoroughgood, stationed in Belfast in A Breed of Heroes (1981), has recently mustered out of the army and signed on with MI6. Very much like Clarice Starling, he’s pulled from his class of eager trainees and asked to take on a case; like her, his history and relative naiveté become a resource in the larger picture. The chummy collegiality of Charlie’s classmates extends upstairs; his superiors, the blustery, unnuanced Hugo March and the polished, self-contained Hookey, head of Soviet block operations, are both clubby gentlemen playing devious games. Russian agent Viktor Koslov, whom Charlie knew slightly at Oxford, is working out of the Soviet embassy, and his affair with a London prostitute (a Cabinet minister among her clients recalls the Profumo scandal) suggests he might be turned. When approached, though, Viktor delivers the gut-punch revelation that Charlie’s late father had been working for his side, and he attempts to bring Charlie over as well. Troubled, Charlie reports all, and feint and parry follow as MI6 plays his emotional turmoil as another card it’s been dealt. When the case is frozen to prevent exposure of the philandering Cabinet minister, Charlie resigns and strikes out on his own, determined to discover the truth about Dad. Amid a smooth blend of high drama and homely detail, secrets within secrets are uncovered, flirtations come and go, honor and duty are discussed (amusingly, Viktor and Hookey deliver similar lectures of self-indulgence: to Viktor a symptom of the West, to Hookey a sign of the times), and Charlie learns more about the sort of man he really is.
The conclusion plays out a bit too neatly, but, still: savory, cozy, nicely textured, and very British.