STRANGER by Bryan Forbes


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Too bad that the real Fourth Man in Britain's Cambridge U. spy ring was recently unmasked; the hint of possible authenticity might have given a needed boost to this nicely written but rather shapeless and repetitive tale of respected novelist Theo Gittings' secret life (1930-1975) as semi-reluctant Soviet spy and half-in-the-closet homosexual. This double life is pieced together after Theo's death by his cousin and best friend, narrator Tony Stern, a rather lonely old spynovelist whose own life story emerges as he--amused, amazed, and disturbed--interleaves his memories with the confessional journal that Theo has left behind. Tony remembers how snaky Theo pretended to be an apolitical dandy up at Cambridge in the 1930s, and he discovers that the Communists insured Theo's loyalty by having him seduced and photographed in the unnatural act. He remembers bits of Theo's old behavior over the years and now finally understands all (especially about Theo's reaction to two deaths for which he felt responsible). He recalls his own impressions of Maclean, Philby, and Burgess (""I gather he groped at anything that moved""). And he remembers his own first love affair with gorgeous Cambridge waitress Judy (Theo, it turns out, also seduced her, out of spite); the sale of his first novel (a delightful scene with two canny, eccentric publishers); his brief experience, along with Theo, in Hollywood (an overdrawn portrait of a gross producer type). And all along there are musings on betrayal, friendship, secrecy, and the life of the sexual outlaw: Theo ""had to choose between the risk of betrayal and the risk of love."" In the end it turns out that Theo wasn't the Fourth Man--just a ""pawn""; but the fact/fiction interplay works against the novel nonetheless, especially since shrill Theo is far less interesting or likable than rather blurry Tony. Effective tone and atmosphere, then, a few very engaging characterizations and scenes (e.g., Theo bringing a female impersonator to tea with his sex-obsessed but puritanical father)--but finally somewhat lacking in pace, thrust, and focus,

Pub Date: April 25th, 1980
Publisher: Doubleday