An English professor becomes a spy in Egypt just before the Six-Day War in this novel.
While in London, Nicholas Hellyer, a professor of English literature, enjoys an amorous encounter with a stranger, who then convinces him to take a package back with him to Cambridge. The parcel turns out to be filled with illegal drugs, and Nick is arrested, with his future now in perilous doubt. But Sam Fuller, the dean of his college, offers him an unusual deal: He can make the criminal charges vanish if Nick agrees to works for British intelligence as a spy. Because the alternative is an immediate loss of livelihood, reputation, and freedom, Nick hastily consents, and is shipped off to Lebanon to undergo intensive training in Arabic, Morse code, and the complex craft of espionage. Then he’s sent to Alexandria, Egypt, to teach English literature at a university while clandestinely working as a spy. Nick is put to work quickly reconnoitering the movements of naval ships, which Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser now procures from Soviet-governed nations. Long before Nick’s adequately up to the task, he’s recruited by a German spy, Hans Fussmann, and forced to become a double agent, feeding the man carefully duplicitous reports. And despite rumors of his gay sexuality, Nick repeatedly finds himself thrust into amorous but imprudent trysts with beautiful women.
Prowse (Arman’s Journey, 2011, etc.) artfully captures Nick’s precarious position in Egypt as a spy—one of his handlers describes his principal virtue, his dispensability: “That’s why you’re so valuable to us. Can’t tell you how valuable because I don’t know. Can assure you that all this secure-room malarkey ain’t exactly routine. Time for you to get it—the key thing is that you’re deniable.” The author paints a vivid picture of the Middle East in 1967 right on the cusp of war—his description of Israeli Mirage III jets flying over Cairo as a show of strength is chilling. In addition, Nick’s lack of expertise as an intelligence operative actually makes him an unusually compelling protagonist—his perspective is not yet contaminated by the cynicism or moral indifference one might expect of a more seasoned agent. Prowse’s command of the general historical time as well as the particular cultural and political landscape of Egypt is also impressive, clearly the result of either personal experience or scrupulous research, or both. But the novel’s pace is sluggish for a spy thriller, and begins to feel like a prelude to action that comes tardily and unspectacularly. The author intends the book—barely over 200 pages—as the first in a series, and one gets the impression this installment is a prologue to a more eventful sequel. In addition, Prowse can’t resist the allure of timeworn espionage-novel tropes, which make the plot seem much more formulaic than it actually is. Too often someone says something like: “Listen, my friend, not everything is as it seems.”
A thoughtful, if sometimes lethargic, peek at the Middle East during its most volatile period.