Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review of The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson (Arcadia, 2014)

William Catesby has risen from working class Suffolk lad via Cambridge and SOE to a SIS player.  Jeffers Cauldwell is a rich American from the deep south, cultural attache in London, and a communist spy.  Cauldwell and his network of agents are Catesby’s target. Cauldwell is soon caught, but his network remain at large.  When a Russian spy offers his services to British intelligence he reveals that the KGB’s network in Britain has apparently been taken over, most probably by communists who have swapped allegiance to the Chinese.  Moreover, SIS suspect that there’s a spy somewhere near the very top of Whitehall, quite possibly Lady Penelope Somers.  Catesby travels to Moscow and then Vietnam seeking answers, knowing that he is putting his own life in danger.

The Whitehall Mandarin is the fourth in Edward Wilson’s spy novels set in the 1950s/60s.  The premise is an intriguing one – how did the Chinese manage to catch up in the nuclear arms race so quickly?  Wilson’s answer weaves an expansive plot that criss-crosses the UK, United States, Cuba, Russia and Vietnam - touching on events such as the Bay of Pigs, the Profumo affair and British upper class sex scandals, the start of the Vietnam war - with William Catesby seeking to solve the puzzle and plug the leaking of UK secrets.  It’s an ambitious plot and while the book is very readable, the story is somewhat uneven in pace and concentration with some scenes/escapades short and punchy and others drawn out, and the credibility of the plot is stretched to breaking point a few times, not least in the denouement.  The result is an entertaining spy tale, but one that veers towards Frederick Forsyth when it might have better to have stuck more with the John Le Carre undertones.  Nonetheless, I’m looking to the next in the loose series, A Very British Ending.

No comments: