More a meditation on bureaucracy and day to day company politics than a thriller. Also a bit of a spin on the lady-killer trope.
Perhaps this is a foil for James Bond stuff – which was in its peak of silliness in the 80s – I think there’s even one of those incongruous lines in a fictional spy novel where a character says something like, “I’m not James Bond.” There are resonances though, particularly in the primacy of the hero’s attitude to women (I’m thinking way more about Casino Royale than the Roger Moore farcical stuff) – issues of betrayal, grief, need. Despite the usual of Anders being able to effortlessly attract any nearby babe, whether she’s working class or a princess, beneath the self-possession is also something of a little boy lost.
Despite the classic context of cold war machinations (I know that’s a cliché: it was meant to be) – hi-tech poisonous umbrella, cold assassinations, crossing the Berlin wall, bleak-grey East German and Russian settings, prisoner exchange, torture – there is very (very!) little action in this book. Allbeury is considerably more interested in kicking around the motivations, frustrations and resentments of his main character (a character whose name is uncoincidentally very similar to his own, and who does the same work Allbeury did professionally). Is Allbeury working through some of his own demons?
There is a theme here. The Western intelligence service is shown to be anything but simple, united, immensely proficient, and morally radiant. You can hear Allbeury’s frustration with poorly planned operations, lack of support, internal bickering, egos, unprofessionalism – the same sort of vibe that I hear in just about anyone talking about a place they’ve worked for any length of time, whether for a government department, a bank, a school, a hospital, the police department – all these places are staffed with humans, and humans bring baggage with them, whether they’re helping lepers or marching armies against the free world. Wodehouse couldn’t help but see the human face of the Germans whose invasion of France happened to coincide with his holiday – but it was monumentally unwise of him to say this out loud at a time where the enemy had to be utterly stereotyped. Tarantino played with this in ‘Pulp Fiction’, running with the idea that even ruthless hitmen had to go to the toilet sometimes, or argue about baseball teams or whatever. So, sure, in some ways it’s refreshing to have this insider perspective. But Allbeury doesn’t go off the deep end the other way – as there is now a whole genre of books and films doing – where the President of the head of the FBI or the CIA or whoever is evil incarnate, at least as bad as or worse than whoever the ‘enemy’ is. No, his ‘good-guys’ are way less than perfect, but they are not amoral automatons. The pivot of the book treats as incidental the dramatic events of torture, escape, murder. Rather the key is: will Anders keep some sort of faith in the system he serves? [Spoiler: he does. And that’s the theme. The SIS guys are not perfect, but they do come through where it really counts, and they are a world better than the alternative. The Russian he is sent to kill is not – merely – a vicious killer: he desperately loves his wife and child, he is a pawn … but he is a fool, and his wife is used to show that he inexcusably denies how the system he serves is irredeemably immoral. Somehow Anders can keep his world-weary cynicism and be in a place to go back for future missions for the government].
Again, much as with Casino Royale, the other major concern of the book is romance. Spoilers here too. Anders starts appearing aloof and distant – not cruel to the women who fawn on him, he doesn’t merely use them – but not dependent on them either; he could walk away in a heartbeat. But by the end he’s proposed to both of them! He’s casting about for some reassurance, some grounding – and they’re the ones that hesitate to take him up.
So I suppose I find this book interesting as a part of discussion of this genre – how this fits in the context. And it’s capably written – I’ve got a good deal of respect for Allbeury, and think it’s a shame that he appears neglected these days next to some significantly inferior popular writers. But nothing much leapt out at me to stun or wow me. There’s no action ride. The reflective aspect is distinctive – moreso given Allbeury’s own background – but not wildly entertaining. I think I’d only have relished this if I was coming out of a heap of more conventional spy novels – maybe in the early 80s. But I’m not, and these ideas are not so novel to me.