Written by Elizabeth Wilson — It is the summer of 1951, and despite the manufactured optimism of The Festival of Britain, London is finding it hard to shake off the downbeat mood of austerity. Jack McGovern is a detective working with Special Branch. There is an uneasy relationship between ‘The Branch’ and MI5, amid rumours that high level British diplomats have defected to the Russians. On the instructions of Miles Kingdom, an enigmatic MI5 officer, McGovern is given the job of investigating Colin Harris, a British communist who has recently returned from East Germany, leaving behind his fiancee, Frieda Schroder.
Harris is in London, and has made contact with his old friend Alan Wentworth, and his wife Dinah. Wentworth is a radio producer at the BBC, while Dinah works at the Courtald Institute, where the director is Dr Anthony Blunt. Wentworth is to make a programme about Konrad Eberhardt, an exiled German scientist, and uses the trip to Kent for the Ebehardt interview to spend a night away with his mistress. Harris also has visited the German, and the paths of all the characters cross when Eberhardt is found dead after the funeral of a famous left-wing writer.
Harris returns to Berlin, followed by McGovern, and it is here that the detective meets Frieda. She fascinates him, but he realises that layer after layer of her story must be peeled back before the truth is revealed. Back in London, the news has broken of Burgess and McLean’s defection, and the Courtald is besieged by reporters wanting to speak to Dr Blunt, as it is rumoured that he is involved. The death of Eberhardt remains unsolved, but MI5 suspects that he had been working on potentially damaging memoirs.
The book is skillfully paced, and the role of Miles Kingdom is pivotal. We are given the faintest of hints as to just how crucial he is, but I have to say that I only realised this retrospectively. The plot structure is complex, and the eventual outcome is all the more disturbing for being hidden behind several very enjoyable smokescreens. The real triumph here is the way the lives of the disparate characters convincingly mesh together. I make one small criticism; of all the character links, the only one which is slightly contrived is that between Wentworth and Kingdom. They seem to have met sometime, somewhere during the War: ” Wentworth! When did we last… 1945, was it?”
This novel operates on many levels. McGovern is a likeable man – determined, honest, but aware of his limitations. London and Berlin are portrayed as vital characters in the plot. The former is weary, grimy but upper lips are stiffened despite everything, while Berlin is politically divided with everyone – whether ex-Nazi or Russian liberator – doing whatever it takes to survive. Middle-class English life is beautifully captured, and the language and dialogue are pin-point precise. Attitudes towards sexuality and gender are explored, and although Elizabeth Wilson is a feminist, she has the lightest of touches when dealing with issues of homosexuality and the place of women in 1950s Britain.
The descriptions of how people at the time spoke and thought about marriage and sexuality are painfully accurate, and I write as one who was there, albeit a youngster listening to adult conversation. A good novel must make the reader care about what happens to the characters within. Amidst all the criminal activity, elegantly phrased mayhem, and dark international issues, I genuinely hoped that Wentworth’s infidelity would not destroy his marriage to the thoroughly admirable Dinah who, for me, is the real star of the show in this excellent book.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars