Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review of The Darkling Spy by Edward Wilson (Arcadia Books, 2010)

1956 and the cold war is heating up.  The reputation of Britain’s intelligence services lies in tatters after the defection of Burgess and Maclean, with the suspicion of other traitorous spies still in place.  Henry Bone, a British spymaster, has discovered that a key East European spy, codenamed Butterfly, is about to defect to the Americans.  Butterfly has plagued Bone for two decades and carries secrets that would further damage Britain’s reputation.  To try and get to Butterfly first Bone turns to his protégé, William Catesby.  Catesby is already perceived by some to be a security risk given his Belgium mother, working class background and socialist sympathies.  After a mission to Budapest at the height of the uprising in 1956 and a personal scandal, Catesby is persuaded to be a plant defector to East Germany, hoping to identify Butterfly before he defects himself.  It’s a mission that places duty ahead of all else and Catesby’s hoping that he hasn’t made a fatal choice.

The Darkling Spy is a cold war spy story in the mould of John Le Carre – a dark, complex, layered tale of small heroic, compromising and treacherous acts and mind games, rather than the action, thrills and womanising of Fleming.  Wilson creates a world in which no-one quite trusts anyone else, even family, friends and allies; in which the wrong decisions can have fatal consequences.  It is a world of pervaded by lies, deception, mis- and dis-information, politics and ideology.  There is a strong sense of atmospherics and sense of place throughout and the story is told through an engaging voice.   Bone and Catesby are convincing characters with interesting back stories that are nicely portrayed and the other characters are well penned.  The plotting is very nicely done, with the various pieces of the jigsaw manoeuvred into place and the final picture only being revealed in the last few pages.  The denouement felt a little flat, although in keeping with the understated telling of the rest of the story.  Overall, a very good cold war spy tale.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Rob. This is one of the best things anyone has ever written about my writing. My next one, THE WHITEHALL MANDARIN, will be out early next you and I'm going to make sure you get a free review copy.

Anonymous said...

I meant 'next year' not 'next you'.
Edward Wilson

Rob Kitchin said...

Edward, thanks. I would be very interested in reading the next book, though I'm aware I need to catch up with The Midnight Swimmer first. If you haven't seen it, my review of The Envoy can be found at