I had a slow start to 2020 for all the right reasons. I’d sent the first draft (mentioned in my last post) to my agent, which was nothing short of a miracle. Editorial work was steady and of exceptional quality, but I wasn’t rushed off my feet. A rarity, I had time to stand and stare, except I didn’t. When not walking, visiting and generally catching up on all things domestic, I read several novels, two of which stand out like shooting stars on a dark night: ‘London Rules’, by Mick Herron and the utterly sublime, ‘A Treachery of Spies’ by Manda Scott.
Already a committed fan of the ‘Slough House’ crew, I had moments during London Rules’ when I laughed out loud, but don’t be fooled by the hilarity and elegant writing. With terrorism and assassination attempts, there is plenty here that feels serious, contemporary and chilling. Plotting, as ever, is meticulous. Herron is a dab hand at persuading you to look one way when you should be staring at what’s right in front of you. Fast-paced, it’s the kind of story that you can polish off in an uninterrupted day.
‘A Treachery of Spies’ is a different beast. The story begins with a very old woman found dead in a car in France. The gruesome and puzzling circumstances of her death leads Ines Picaut, a lead detective, on a trail that travels back to the Second World War. The dual narrative is one of the brilliant aspects of the story as it switches from present day France to the activities of the British and the Maquis during the French resistance. To say I was gripped was an understatement. The story resonated more strongly as I’d read Damien Lewis’s ‘The Nazi Hunters’ last year.
As the title suggests, betrayal and the difficulties of who to trust in a situation, in which one false move can mean a swift death sentence, (if you’re lucky) powers the narrative. Consequently, Scott’s cast of characters are intriguing and complex, and tension is on a knife-edge throughout. At times, I wanted my imagination to shut down such is the brutality displayed towards those caught by the Nazis, as well as those French deemed to be collaborators by their countrymen. It’s a massive tribute to Scott’s writing that she tells it how it was, without gratuitousness or sensationalism. While the story may be fictional, the courage and commitment of those who fought against occupation and a cruel invader are never in doubt. But this is not a tale of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Human frailty on all sides is laid bare in unflinching detail. If espionage is your thing, go and buy.