Review: Aly Monroe – Icelight

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m a big fan of historical crime fiction. I’m not particularly choosy about the period in which the novel is set but it does need to be well written. One award that recognises excellence in this genre is the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger which announced last week its 2012 winner, Icelight by Aly Monroe. I had only reviewed one book on the list, the excellent Prague Fatale so I was keen to read the winner.

Icelight is set in 1947 London, the winter of the deep freeze. Forget everything that you have read in Scandinavian crime fiction about the romance of a cold climate. In post-war Britain, it is unrelentingly grim. Water is freezing in taps, fires are unlit due to a coal shortage and coats and scarves are worn inside the house for warmth. Against this backdrop of harsh deprivation we enter the world of counter-intelligence where Russian and American officials dine in luxury at London’s top class hotels on food of dubious provenance.

Peter Cotton is working on the Malayan Desk in the Colonial Department when he is seconded to Operation Sea-snake. His task is to rout out homosexuals in key positions in British society who are considered to be a security risk. An atomic scientist commits suicide after losing his security clearance and to investigate the man’s death, Cotton has to negotiate the inner workings of both British intelligence services, Special Branch, MPs and Glasgow gangs.

I have to admit a weakness for spy stories and I enjoyed this book very much. It took a while to get going; there was plenty of background information on Peter Cotton going about his job and lunching with various agencies in an attempt to gauge what exactly was the security risk posed by homosexuals. The wonderful descriptions of government bureaucracy, establishment suspicion of the post-war Labour government and attempts by ordinary people to feed their families occasionally overshadowed what was a fairly complex plot.

The character of Peter Cotton was very engaging. Icelight is the first book I’ve read by this writer, but it is the third in the series. There were occasional references to the two previous books, particularly to Cotton’s sojourn in the US but it didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book. In fact I am likely to go back and read the first two in the series. He has an romance in Icelight with a young Czech girl working in the theatre which is a transient affair and serves merely to highlight the situation of refugees seeking a new life in Britain and the suspicion that they worked under.

Overall I thought the book excellent and although the blurb made comparisons to Le Carre, I thought it more in the vein of the novels of Alan Furst. The book’s greatest strength in my opinion was to show how much Britain has moved on as a society since 1947 with the legalisation of homosexuality, the expectation of a national health service and the acceptance of a Labour government in mainstream politics.

The book has also been reviewed at Crime Scraps and Eurocrime.

Review: William Boyd – Waiting for Sunrise

William Boyd is the author of one of the best spy books of the last decade, Restless, a story of espionage in Nazi occupied France and the subsequent ramifications of a great betrayal. It wonderfully combined both historical detail and modern day disengagement with some of the more difficult parts of the Second World War. Although I enjoyed his follow up thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms I was looking forward to Boyd returning to historical espionage in his latest book.

Waiting for Sunrise is the story of Lysander Rief, an actor and son of a famous British stage legend and an Austrian mother. Engaged to be married, he travels to 1913 Vienna to seek help for an embarrassing sexual problem and is treated by psychologist Dr Bensimon. On his visit to the clinic he encounters the beautiful cocaine addicted Hettie Bull and embarks on a passionate affair. Convinced he is cured of his sexual dysfunction, Hettie then accuses him of rape and with the help of the British Embassy in Vienna he escapes to England.

As war breaks out, his experiences leave him open to blackmail and manipulation and he is recruited by the original people who helped him flee his accusers to find a traitor in the high echelons on the British War Office given the codename Andromeda.

Boyd is an excellent writer who uses differences in tone and narrative voice to separate passages of his book. It gives the book a strange distracted air, which works well given the subject matter dealing with the secrets of espionage and the mental travels of psychoanalysis. Boyd is also a writer who is able to take the reader into the heart of the world he creates. 1913 Vienna, 1914 London, 1915 Geneva, the period comes alive as the Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrates and a new world emerges.

As a spy novel I found it less satisfactory. Like Restless there is a hunt for a traitor but I cared less about the identity of mole in this book. As perhaps befitting a novel with psychoanalysis as its theme, Lysander’s mother plays a significant role in the book but I found it difficult to untangle her involvement in the espionage. There are also some plot lines left unresolved, including the fate of Lysander’s son with Hettie Bull and the true causes of his original sexual problem.

It was, as I would expect from William Boyd, a good quality book but it read better as a historical thriller than a period spy novel. For that I would have to go back to Alan Furst and I have second book, Dark Star, waiting on my shelves to read.

Waiting for Sunrise has been reviewed by most of the major newspapers and by book bloggers Random Jottings and Book Munch.