If the title sounds reminiscent of a James Bond novel, it’s no coincidence, for Mathews freely makes use of Ian Fleming’s World War II experience as an intelligence officer in Cairo and Tehran to create adventures in espionage and counterespionage.
A brief prologue establishes some significant facts about Fleming’s early life—that his father died a hero in the Great War, for example, and that his mother was far fonder of Ian’s brother, Peter. At an elite English prep school, Ian befriends American Michael Hudson and establishes the “Too Bad Club,” supposedly for those who are too bad to die. Skip ahead 26 years. Fleming has re-established his friendship with Hudson, and they’re both stationed in Cairo. Hudson’s job is vague but has something to do with Lend-Lease, while Fleming is involved in tracking down a spy known only as the Fencer, who’s in league with another spy called the Kitten. Mathews weaves a substantial and intricate tale involving an abundance of historical characters, including Stalin (crude), Churchill (wary) and Roosevelt (nervous), who are attending the Cairo and Tehran conferences in late November and early December 1943. Even more prominent in the action are Churchill’s wild daughter-in-law Pamela Digby Churchill—already involved with both Averell Harriman and Edward R. Murrow—Chiang Kai-shek and his cynical but commanding wife, May-Ling, and Alan Turing, the eccentric but brilliant scientist working on the Enigma machine to decode Nazi transmissions. Fleming lays the groundwork for his later success as a novelist by taking on the name—and to some extent, the persona—of James Bond, for he begins to introduce himself in this sly and suave way, and his adventures become increasingly dangerous the closer he gets to the Fencer.
Mathews writes well, keeps the pace brisk and has great fun re-creating historical personages.