A talky thriller of rogues repeating half-truths in the hopes of manufacturing reality; a terrific story starring Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin.
Freemantle’s Muffin man returns for the 15th time, and the story seems to take up where his Red Star Rising (2010, etc.) left off. Charlie Muffin is in a safe house, out of the game, aching to return. Turns out Muffin has a wife and child in Russia. His wife, a Federal Security Service agent, charged with debriefing him after his faked defection, fell for him instead. After persuading his MI5 handlers that his wife and child are worth saving, Muffin makes himself indispensable to the team tasked with saving them. But there is no shortage of enemies, as many at home in England as in Russia. At least a double cross is on, if not a triple, and there’s genuine suspense in the unfolding origami. The book’s principal pleasure is the survey of mendacity in all its forms, from the self-serving, Shakespeare-spouting director of one of several intelligence services with skin in the game, to Cabinet Secretary Sir Archibald Bland. Even if the action is typical of the genre, the characters’ motives have an atypical excess of plausibility: These folks operate and backbite in a believable milieu of toxic office politics. If only Freemantle had the same confidence in his readers. The majority of the book is dialogue, and almost every speech appears in the equivalent of a color-coded thought bubble: Smith “echoed”; Bland “refused”; Palmer “stumbled.” This is a source of frustration for those of us who, completely engaged, want to intuit the tone of speeches that might be arch, but just might be heartfelt, the speaker actually believing what turns out to be utterly false a few pages later.
But to his fans, this is no more than a quibble: Muffin is back, and his followers will herald his return.