Monday, January 21, 2013

Review of Icelight by Aly Monroe (John Murray, 2011)


The winter of 1947 and London is in the grip of a big freeze, with limited fuel supplies and food and clothes restricted by rationing.  Peter Cotton has been reassigned from colonial intelligence in the Foreign Office’s Colonial Service to Operation Sea-snake, designed to try and protect valuable assets from American pressure to tighten security and the homophobic and paranoid attentions of MI5, MI6 and a MP who has established his own intelligence network.  One such asset is Alexander Watson, an atomic scientist who is vital to Britain’s attempts to join the nuclear age, who picks up men for fleeting sexual encounters.  Aided by Derek, a rent-boy in South London, and Sergeant Dickie Dawkins of Special Branch, Cotton tries to keep a watching brief on Watson and others, but then the scientist is arrested and he is pulled into the murky world of inter-agency rivalries and their hired help in the form of a pair of Glasgow razor boys.  The issue is no longer simply protecting Watson, but how to also protect himself.

Icelight plunges the reader into the frosty world of London in the Winter of 1947 and the emerging cold war.  Monroe creates a vivid sense of place and of social history, with the shortages of just about everything, the black market, and the feeling that Britain is teetering on the edge of a new age, shorn of its empire and beholden to its ‘special relationship’ with America.  And as relations with the Soviet Union sour and a new political war starts, Monroe focuses on the tensions, rivalries and paranoia that flower within and between British intelligence agencies.  She does so through a captivating but, at times, complex and convoluted plot that involves a fairly large cast of characters.  I don’t mind admitting that occasionally I felt I was wandering in icelight, and at a couple of points I stopped and backtracked to reposition my bearings.  What holds the book together is the premise, some lovely passages of writing (I thought the scene with Cherkesov in a restaurant was wonderful), a general sense of social and historical realism, and some nice characterisation.  Cotton is an interesting lead character, who is worldly, shrewd and standoffish, and is complemented by the more earthy Dawkins, and the other characters are well penned.  Overall and intriguing and entertaining read, that whilst complex is thought provoking and nicely resolved.

3 comments:

jiescribano said...

Rob, Am glad you've enjoyed this one. How does it work without having read the first two books in the series?
I wonder if I could start reading this first.

Dr. Evangelicus said...

Police Sergeant Richard Dawkins? That's an image guaranteed to send shivers down the spine!

Aly Monroe said...

Ahh - finally somebody noticed!I have a number of these sprinkled through my books and it's the first time anyone has commented ...