For an old Cold War spy (novel-reading) warrior like me, I really can’t resist books that come with recommendations like, “The thinking person’s John le Carré” and especially when it is described as an “old fashioned spy story.” Drawback is, many of the ones I go through with that their outside, can’t deliver on the inside.
With The Whitehall Mandarin, Edward Wilson delivers. It’s a dramatic step up from the bright shiny, trashy, 'me-too’ thrillers one sees so (too) many of. There’s a depth of ambition, an understated confidence, an assurance and understanding of nuance, that makes it simply a delight to read. I was hooked (lined and sinkered) from the first page and kept spellbound to the last.
The story begins in 1957, though is still feeling echoes of the Second World War, 1948 and one Lady Penelope Somer’s time in Malaysia. She later becomes the first woman to be Permanent Under Secretary of State - effectively head - at the Ministry of Defence and is also the character around whom the story ultimately revolves. However, she’s not the story’s main figure, dare I say. That honour goes to William Catesby - he’s the one with most page-time here anyway. He shares his name with one of English history's most infamous traitors, Robert Catesby (I didn’t know that either), one of the ringleaders of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November, 1605. That slight ancestral problem aside, our Catesby is an SIS officer who, as his colleagues - on both sides - frequently point out, is a working class lad from a nondescript East Anglian fishing village, with slight socialist tendencies that are now somewhat at odds with his chosen profession and especially the social circles in which he now operates. He is, as opposed to his not so illustrious predecessor, employed to track spies and traitors down, rather than recruit them. Although, hmmm…maybe…Anyway, as the story begins, we do indeed find him working to uncover a traitor. An American one. One the scientists and Naval officers he’s recruited, think is passing their information on to the Americans. Their information is being passed it on alright - but to the Russians. And that first double blind, is it a double - or triple bluff - should set you up nicely in the frame of mind to wrestle with the twists and tangles the plot will have you tied up in later. Catesby and the British SIS roll the American and his network up and pass him over to the US authorities, who bundle him off back ‘home’ to the States for further ‘processing.’ End of problem. Except it isn’t. It’s just the start. And becomes a problem on both sides of the Atlantic and all the way over to the far East.
It is a beguiling and entrancing tale, that weaves itself deftly in and out of the main events and political flash-points of the late ’50’s and ’60’s. From the fall-out after World War II, the start of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs ‘debacle’ (depending on where you saw it from), to the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, the Profumo affair, the Paris riots and on to the disaster that was the corporate sponsored mess of the Vietnam War. A war the biggest superpower in the world couldn’t hope to win, but didn’t dare admit it. Especially to itself. The story snakes and twists its way along the corridors of power and through seedy parties in stately homes full of people who should know better, but had enough influence that they really didn’t need to worry whether they needed to care, to end up amid the jungles of Vietnam and finally, the minefields of Whitehall. Phew! There is undoubtedly a lot going on in and a lot to take from this wonderful novel. Primarily, I thought anyway, how an individuals idealism has to be sacrificed to ‘realpolitik’ when national strategy becomes involved. The price paid by individuals caught up in the great game - those further down the pile, as well as those at the top. That ‘realpolitik', as the book says a couple of times, derives in part from the mantra; ‘our enemy’s enemy is our friend.” When expedient reality intrudes on political ideals - as many of the characters, from Catesby to Cauldwell, to Miranda to the USA and Vietnam, find out. Often at the cost of a ‘Faustian pact with Satan.’ (I knew studying Christopher Marlowe at school would come in handy one day!).
The book treats you like an adult, WITH an attention span, is one way I thought of it whilst under way. It’s not all laid on a plate for you and you will have to rewind a few times to make sure you got it right. OK, just me then...It manages to be both modern and timeless at the same time. By being set in the past, dealing with past events, he has a chance to concentrate on the fears and contradictions bound up in what surely was the ‘golden age’ of spying. Without doubt, spies operated on a higher intellectual plane back then (in the books, anyway). Look nowadays, at the ‘Bourne’ films and their “get me eyes on him people, now!” - shouts person in control centre, to some nerd just out of college employed to press buttons. In 'The Whitehall Mandarin', technology is dependant on having enough coins in your pocket for the phone booth, hoping the people in the flat opposite can’t lip read and remembering the appropriate colour of drawing pin to leave in a park bench. American intelligence agencies might be rushing headlong into the future, but thankfully, the British secret service still reminds me of the well-meaning likes of Monty Python: “Can you keep a secret?” “Yes!” “Well you’re in then!” And if there’s one thing the book’s final premis is based around, it’s the British aristocracy’s ability to do just that. Keep a secret.
The Whitehall Mandarin certainly hits the sweet spot of style and substance, dead centre. Its messages come from the situations and mistakes of the past, but as those mistakes are still being made today, it is clearly still relevant, in the here and now. It all makes The Whitehall Mandarin an absolutely captivating read and a delight of anticipation to return to after being away. It’s superbly well-paced, with a balanced structure that not only helps to increase the reading pleasure, but must have been a joy, not to mention fantastic fun, to plan and then write. The feeling of satisfaction when Edward realised it was all going to come together, is only to be jealous of. Yes, there are some weighty themes from some of recent history’s pivotal periods dealt with here, but the book always seems to remember to be an enjoyable experience. And it is unquestionably exciting, not to mention extremely tense, as you try and make sense of all the clues, the lies and half truths, the double or triple bluffs, the what-ifs, buts and maybes, that lead to an almost breathless rush to try and keep up with Catesby as he nears the point of unlocking the story’s final secrets. I’m thinking that this will be the book I’ll be measuring all my other ‘thrillers’ against in the future. And most will be found wanting.
For sheer fun on the reader’s side, the post-WWII, Cold War generation of spying will surely never be equalled and I admit I purred like the cat that got the cream throughout reading The Whitehall Mandarin. In contrast to many others, this is a modern spy novel that does deserve to be compared with the greats of yesteryear on its cover. You really shouldn't let a book of this calibre, this level of satisfying enjoyment, pass you by. Do whatever you can to get hold of a copy. Have sex with a teddy bear if you have to - better still, go to a bookshop and buy one, how old fashioned is that?