‘The Envoy’ by Edward Wilson

This was a strong read that faltered in the final chapters when the style and the timescales changed.

Most of the book is an immersive experience. The reader lives inside Kit Fournier’s head. It’s not a pleasant place to be, he’s not a pleasant man, but it’s vivid and it feels real. Kit is the CIA Chief of Station in the American Embassy in London in 1955. He’s an odd man. He’s an isolated, self-contained man, with no friends, limited contact with his family and no lovers. He’s in the grip of a long-term sexual obsession with a female cousin who he grew up with. He’s a man with inherited wealth that he refuses to use. He has a talent for languages, an appreciation of foreign cultures, a contempt for the vulgar business-oriented policies of his political bosses and no strong political ideology.

What hooks him into being a spy? Well, that’s what a lot of the book is about.

One of the things that drew me to the book was the way Wilson brought the insanity of the 1950’s arms race to life. This is the first novel I’ve seen in a while that shows the threat that America, under Eisenhower, posed to the world. The US had the H-bomb. The Russian’s were just developing one. Neither the Brits nor the French had one and America wouldn’t share. The US was the only country to have used a nuclear weapon. Now they had a weapon a thousand times more powerful than the two bombs they’d dropped on Japan, They had a President who saw the H-bomb as an extension of his armoury that gave a tactical advantage in the war against communism and a military leadership that was recommending a pre-emptive strike on Russia with Europe as an acceptable tactical loss.

Wilson turns this background from a history lesson into something much more threatening by letting us see it through the eyes of Kit Fournier, a man who knows all the players and where the bodies are buried. We watch him running schemes to destroy detente between the USSR and the UK and to subvert British efforts to have their own H-bomb. The book is rich in historical detail and anecdotes about public figures that never make it into the schoolbooks.

None of the characters in the book is pleasant but somehow the Americans come across as worse than the rest. It displays an American political elite that was arrogant, aggressive and corrupt. This was the white supremacist America of McCarthy and Hoover. Think Trump, only competent.

I liked Wilson’s writing. His people are real, drawn perhaps with more insight than empathy but still real. His evocation of the Suffolk coast is very vivid. He clearly loves it. The voice he gives to Fournier manages to engage and repel at the same time. I believed in this man as much as I disliked him.

The plot is complicated and populated with people for whom betrayal, violence and deception are their stock in trade. It had several twists in it that I didn’t see coming and enough momentum to make me eager to turn the pages.

Then the pace changed. Suddenly we were covering decades in a few pages and getting political outlines dumped as case reports. It was like moving from close up shots of faces with intense dialogue to aerial shots of a football game with a play by play commentary. It worked, but I didn’t enjoy it. I’d have been happier if the book had finished a few chapters earlier, even though that would have left a few things up in the air.

Even so, I want to read more of Wilson’s books. GoodReads and Amazon both list ‘The Envoy’ as the first book of Catesby spy series but it isn’t. ‘The Envoy’ is a standalone book. The next Edward Wilson book I’ll read will be the first Catesby book, ‘The Darkling Spy’. Published two years after ‘The Envoy’ and set in 1956, it introduces Catesby, a British spy on a mission in Eastern Europe.

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