Every Spy A Traitor by Alex Gerlis


Alex Gerlis is a veteran espionage author with three series already behind him, but with Every Spy a Traitor he launches a new series. This time it’s a classic fish out of water story, similar to those written by Eric Ambler, but with a twist. Ambler (The Mask Of Dimitrios, Journey Into Fear) was a thriller writer who made great play out of placing ordinary people at the heart of clandestine battles between waring nations, with protagonists unequipped for the situation they found themselves in providing much of the entertainment. Gerlis flips the setup with his latest creation. We meet Charles Cooper, who has the necessary personality type – not just to survive but to flourish.

The story begins in 1936 England and spans the continent, ending just before the outbreak of World War II. Cooper, a journalist in his mid-20s, has just inherited the princely sum of £357 and makes a plan to travel the continent researching the novel he plans one day to write. This becomes a running gag through much of the book as Cooper people watches in various exotic locations, does research or some other form of procrastination, but manages to write very little.

He travels first to Paris, then on to Geneva and Zurich, searching for inspiration which never quite comes. He does meet an older German couple, Ernst and Ida, who advise him to visit Berlin if he wants to discover what is really happening on the continent. Cooper’s travels allow the author to build up a picture of Europe teetering on the brink of war, giving the novel an atmosphere of insecurity. It feels like anything could happen, if the individual is unlucky enough.

Cooper is approached and recruited as a spy for the OMS and later the NKVD, both competing arms of the Soviet intelligence services. he has no particular politics, but the recruitment is more of a pressgang and impossible to get out of at that point. Gerlis is very good on this; there are other scenes where a British academic is recruited by MI6, and an unnamed British man is recruited as a double agent by the NKVD – and given the codename Archie. Relying on persuasion, the British approach may seem less threatening but behind the veneer of civility the British are just as ruthless.

As the novel develops, two main storylines emerge. Firstly, there is the gradual realisation that a mole is highly placed within the British war-effort. Secondly, we follow Cooper’s attempts to keep the Russians and the British secret service off his back. The former storyline is slightly disappointing. Throughout, we never learn Archie’s identity, though it does become clear he is a significant player in British intelligence. This is a major plot of the book, but without a payoff, at least in this novel. Presumably, we will have to wait for the next instalment to see it developed.

Thankfully, Cooper’s story is much more significant. Throughout the novel he is put in testing situations and is always up to the task. It gradually becomes apparent as he cheats his mother out of money, murders an innocent witness and organises the killing of a Russian spy that our hero might just be a psychopath. It’s a brave and smart choice by the author, and further evidence of how well thought through his novel is. It’s a refreshing change for the protagonist in these kinds of stories to be every bit as dangerous as the foreign agents. It helps to set the novel apart from a crowded field.

There is enough going on in Every Spy A Traitor – danger, intrigue, a revealing glimpse of pre-war European politics, even a dash of sex – to make the novel an enjoyable read. I will be revisiting Cooper’s exploits in the next book, I just hope Archie’s storyline is better developed.

If you enjoy spy fiction, might we recommend the novels of David McCloskey? We have reviewed Damascus Station and Moscow X.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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