James Wolff writes a different kind of spy novel. His British intelligence agents are renegades. Jonas Worth and August Drummond, the protagonists of Beside the Syrian Sea and How to Betray Your Country, respectively, both found themselves at odds with their bureaucracies. Wolff’s storytelling skills are such that you adopt these oddball characters and want them to succeed, despite the parallel need for the system to function. There’s no formula in Wolff’s stories, each is a plunge into the unknown.
In the third book in the series, The Man in the Corduroy Suit, we meet Leonard Flood, a spy with acquired a reputation for being blunt and prickly. If he comes up short on social skills, he’s also known as a relentless questioner, an interviewer who through sheer persistence can pry information out of a subject. Or an unwilling colleague. In other words, he can be a pain in the neck. Wolff draws Leonard’s personality with an artist’s eye for the telling detail, including the corduroy suit Leonard favours, irrespective of weather.
You may be reminded of Mick Herron’s Slough House series. The difference is that, flawed though Herron’s characters are, they do form something of a team. And they can hold it together to resolve a problem. Wolff’s characters are skating out onto the thin ice mostly alone and the problems to be solved are, if not wholly of their own making, not societal ones, but specific to them. Like Herron, Wolff has a finely-honed ability to skewer the absurdities of bureaucratic life and the foibles of his oh-so-human characters. As an example, you learn that a principal preoccupation of one high official, Charles Remnant, is getting himself of the list for Queen’s Honours.
Remnant, head of an MI5 unit called Gatekeeping that covertly investigates the agency’s own personnel, asks Flood to look into the activities of retired officer Willa Karlsson, who has been struck down by a mysterious illness. Alarmingly, she seems to have been the victim of some hard-to-detect Russian poison. For many years, Karlsson vetted new recruits, including Flood.
As Remnant is quick to point out, she also vetted intelligence analyst Jonas Worth and agent-runner August Drummond from the previous books. Those episodes still sting, and management is concerned. How many other dodgy personnel did she approve? Was she on a deliberate campaign to undermine the agency? Did she approve people whose personal weaknesses would make them vulnerable to threats or recruitment by rival spy agencies? In short, how many bad apples are out there?
Flood isn’t afforded much time to figure it out. To help, they’ve assigned him an assistant called Franny. Though Flood prefers being a lone wolf he has no choice but to take her on and, with her computer skills, Franny is quickly proves her worth. The morsels of information they discover lead them to travel to a small inn in Norfolk, which they soon establish is where Karlsson stayed on her infrequent trips out of the city. There, they believe, she met with her handler. Wolff’s rendition of the old inn and its carefully tended gardens seems an unlikely environment for espionage. On the other hand, maybe it’s the perfect setting.
Flood and Franny assemble an admirably coherent theory for Remnant, consistent with the facts and clues at their disposal. You may be convinced they’re correct, but it turns out that Flood, suddenly, is not. He sees an entirely different way to assemble the information, which throws the whole situation into a new light.
From there on, the atmosphere of the story darkens, and you can’t be sure whom Flood should trust or what he can risk taking for granted. At a time when, in real life, someone has apparently let loose into the world a large cache of international intelligence, this book can make you think hard about whether you ever do or can know enough about the people called upon to protect a nation’s closest secrets.
While I won’t go into specifics about the ending, it’s one of those satisfyingly unexpected but well laid out scenarios, much like one the late John le Carré might devise. I thoroughly enjoyed this cerebral book – the quirky personalities, the clever plot, the sly tone. Although even Flood doesn’t figure out Willa Karlsson’s motive, I suspect you will.
For more contemporary British espionage see Slow Horses. Read our interview with the author, here.
Bitter Lemon Press
CFL Rating: 5 Stars