A SPY OF THE OLD SCHOOL by Julian Rathbone


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Back in 1948, British Intelligence realized that someone was leaking ENIGMA and ULTRA secrets to the Soviets during WW II; and the blame was put on young Lord Riversdale, who was apparently being blackmailed (photos of homosexual S/M turn up) into spying before he disappeared, presumed dead, during a 1944 London-bombing. But now, 32 years later, it appears that the spying continued after Lord R.'s disappearance. So aging agent William Cargill re-opens the files, asks a few questions. . . and all the evidence points to Sir Richard Austen, now a celebrity-archaeologist, as the real spy who framed Lord R. Is Austen guilty? He is indeed: Rathbone (A Raving Monarchist, The Euro-Killers) moves back and forth between Cargill's inquiries and Austen's thoughts, attempting to provide something like a psychological case-history of a 1930s-Marxist traitor in the Burgess/Philby mode. There are impressionistic glimpses of Austen's ""emotionally starved"" childhood, his guilts about sex, his oppressive clergyman-father, his exposure to boys'-school cruelty, his contacts with working-folk, etc. There are excerpts from his arch memoirs. And there are his current thoughts about being a Soviet agent: he'd rather not help ""the reactionary, bureaucratic elements in the Eastern bloc"" to put down the workers--which he's currently doing by secretly aiding a sale of British computers to the USSR. Cargill, in fact, is called off the case because of this deal: commerce is more important to the UK than security. But he pursues it on his own--and soon Austen is on the run (a CIA agent is also threatening to expose him), with a bit of bloodshed before the three governments involved work out a practical hush-up compromise, Austen's feeble idealistic moves having failed. (""Well, so be it. The struggle of the proletariat to win class hegemony doesn't, and never will, depend on the likes of me!"") Unfortunately, however, despite the psycho-biographic bits and the gussied-up flashbacks, Austen isn't either compelling, sympathetic, or especially convincing as a British/Communist-spy prototype--a species on far more vivid display elsewhere. And the character-study material, some of it slightly pretentious, slows up what little suspense-action there is here. Dozens of nice, always-literate touches along the way, then (including a postwar Philby/Austen encounter), but an unsatisfying hybrid overall--chiefly of interest for its sophisticated, jaundiced politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon