Written by Tom Bradby — With a plot that would have seemed far-fetched just a few years ago, Tom Bradby’s latest political thriller feels like it could have been ripped from the headlines. Deception, betrayal and the ethical vulnerability that compromise Western political leaders are here turned into a gripping, all-too-believable tale.
Bradby’s protagonist Kate Henderson is head of MI6’s Russia Desk and an experienced operative. She has a small team of trusted subordinates, a colleague perpetually trying to undermine he, and a boss whose private thoughts are as secret as they come. Kate’s loving and very patient spouse covers for her when she suddenly flies somewhere, and she has two teenagers who think they should be the centre of her attention and a mother full of resentments who lives in a nearby London care home.
Kate also has a past. She spent time in Moscow as a student and met and fell in love with a man named Sergei. She didn’t act on those feelings, being already committed to Stuart, but she’s never forgotten them. That was 20 years ago. Now Sergei has turned up in London at a diplomatic event she attends and Kate finds that those long-buried feelings still simmer.
Then Sergei feeds her some startling and actionable information about a meeting of top Russian intelligence operatives on a private yacht moored on the Bosporus. Kate sidesteps telling her superiors the source of her information, which would be hopelessly suspect. A bit skeptically, they approve her plan to eavesdrop on this parley. Listening devices in place, Kate and her team hear the Russians discuss the shocking news that the UK prime minister has prostate cancer and will resign soon, and one of the top candidates to replace him is in the pay of the Russian foreign intelligence service.
But which candidate is it? And who is the British source called Viper? And is this information just another example of Russian disinformation? And what’s different about Western-Russian espionage today that makes this such exciting reading? Bradby himself sums it up nicely when Kate says, ‘In the old days, it seemed like a fair match, didn’t it? We faced off against the KGB. The two intelligence services, each at the heart of their respective establishments, locked in combat, with a succession of victories and defeats. As long as we could spot their feints and sleights of hand, we could go home reasonably secure in the knowledge that our world – the safe, civilised, free West – would continue along its relatively well-maintained tram tracks. It isn’t like that any more.’
She continues: ‘They go behind us and around us and beyond us to the people and the country at large, whipping up hostility and division and dissent, their tentacles reaching down a thousand different alleyways.’
Unhappily, validation of the Russians’ information comes in a very short time, when the PM does reveal his illness and promptly resigns. Two candidates emerge as the front-runners to replace him: the current foreign secretary, a notorious womaniser whom no one in MI6 trusts, and Kate’s long-time friend and Stuart’s employer, the education secretary.
Bradby does a good job controlling his narrative and, without ever becoming tedious or heavy-handed, he subtly helps you remember who knows what, who trusts whom and with what information, and how much each person knows. None of the characters, including the PM candidates, is totally candid, nor can MI6 tip its hand by revealing its investigation of them. Not to mention the bureaucratic difficulty that they’ve concealed this investigation from MI5, which by rights should be conducting it. The title, Secret Service, turns out to have multiple meanings.
As a result of all these complications, you feel as if Kate is tiptoeing through a minefield, since the original intelligence about the shipboard meeting came from a dubious (to her colleagues) source. Yet her trust in Sergei is unshakeable, and I couldn’t help hoping it would be justified.
There’s plenty of action to keep the pages flying too. As Kate’s attempts to uncover the mole Viper become more determined, the secrets being shared with the Russians prove deadly for people close to her. Bradby doesn’t let you forget for a moment that the Russians will happily send a “wet team” to harm Kate or her family, in London or anywhere else in the world she may be.
I especially enjoyed the totally believable way Bradby presents the complicated inter-generational dynamics in Kate’s family. This side of her life strengthens the development of Kate as a character. She’s a brilliant operative, but also a mom and daughter you can relate to. The members of Kate’s team have complicated personal lives, as well. Though they are less developed, they pose potential security risks.
All in all, a story to get lost in that may make you raise an eyebrow when next you hear about some major Western politician’s unaccountable behaviour. No naming names here.
For a wry look inside British intelligence also see Mick Herron’s Slough House series.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars