Wilson’s latest follows William Catesby, high-ranking agent in Great Britain’s secret intelligence service, MI6, as he navigates the quicksand of the Cold War’s rabid anti-Communist hysteria.
An intense, tightly woven narrative begins with flashbacks to WWII and continues to the Thatcher years, hopscotching across time and place—France, Suffolk, Bonn, America, Beirut, and London’s corridors of power and posh neighborhoods. Catesby's ethos was formed by witnessing Nazi massacres as he aided the French Resistance. Years later, he took revenge by assassinating a former SS officer. Catesby is a self-doubting hero, lapsed Catholic, socialist, and admirer of Labour’s Harold Wilson, a politician seen in the U.S. as a Communist sympathizer because his name was attached to a 1940s trade that sent jet engines to the USSR. There are glimpses of Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, the "third man," and James Jesus Angleton, the architect of America’s panic-driven Soviet paranoia, is thoroughly dissected. Other historical figures—Queen Elizabeth, artist Lucien Freud, the Dulles brothers, and LBJ—receive insightful portraits. Wilson’s no slouch with fictional characters like a manipulative Nazi sympathizer who styles himself heir to Genghis Khan or Catesby’s boss, Henry Bone, who's cunning and calculating yet loyal. Wilson has a gift for the literary—he describes a novelist who writes with "the silkiness of an ironic mandarin." His plotting is Machiavellian—deep, layered, and disturbing, especially as it speculates that the best of intelligence agencies could be driven by disinformation or provoked by the machinations of personal agendas, especially the self-defeating warfare between MI6 (foreign intelligence) and the "demented swivel-eyed paranoiacs" of MI5 (internal surveillance), both rotten with class prejudices. The dialogue is spot-on, mostly English upper-crust or American colloquial, and the tension is unrelenting as the story speeds toward an unparalleled crisis narrowly avoided.
Weaving a literary maze of intrigue, betrayal, and deception, Wilson invites justifiable comparison with John le Carré.