Review: Edward Wilson – The Whitehall Mandarin

the-whitehall-mandarinI’m a big fan of spy novels and it’s clear, looking at other bloggers’ websites, that spy books are enjoyed by many crime fiction readers. The most fruitful period for the genre is, of course, the Cold War and there have been some excellent books produced by both authors writing contemporaneously with events and current writers who are producing historical fiction. One of the best writers in the latter group is Edward Wilson. I reviewed The Envoy for back in 2010 and was struck by the quality of the writing. The Whitehall Mandarin continues the story of English spies working to control the ‘red menace’ but shifts its focus to the emergence of China as a strengthening enemy.

William Catesby is a British spy keeping an eye on Russian networks operating in the UK. He is beset by internal security problems which range from mutual distrust between British intelligence departments to the ever present suspicion that Soviet spies are operating as moles at the highest levels in MI6. But it soon becomes apparent that Russian intelligence has its own problems and that the secrets that traitors are selling could be ending up in China.

The Whitehall Mandarin is a multilayered book with a number of interweaving narratives. It’s a clever idea to look at the tensions between Russia and China in the context of the Cold War and the story foreshadows the emergence of China as a superpower.

British upper class society is portrayed as a hotbed of sexual deviancy and this provides the backdrop for much much of the intrigue that takes place. At the heart of the narrative is a secret which I found hard to believe could’ve have been kept hidden for so long but this didn’t in any way spoil my enjoyment of what became a complex story. It’s a shame that, with the exception of The Envoy, I haven’t read any of the other books featuring Catesby as he clearly has an interesting back story. I’ll hopefully catch up with them soon.

The cover of my book included a quote calling Wilson ‘The thinking person’s John Le Carre.’ I agree with this although the book reminded me more of Len Deighton’s Spy Hook, Line and Sinker series which I reviewed here. The Whitehall Mandarin captures perfectly the glamour and seediness of late fifties and sixties London society.

Thanks to Midas for sending me a copy of the novel which is published by Arcadia Books.

Review: Gunnar Staalesen – Cold Hearts

gunnarI’m a Gunnar Staalesen fan but his books are only slowly being translated into English. So I was delighted that the latest of Staalesen’s books to be published over here was submitted by its publisher, Arcadia Books, for the Petrona Award. Cold Hearts contains everything that I love from this writer. The cool dispassionate prose narrates a tale of exploitation and violence and, of course, Varg Veum is present to navigate his way around Bergen’s streets in the hunt for a killer.

The book opens with Veum visited by a prostitute who is concerned about the disappearance of one of her friends, Margrethe. The evening of her disappearance she had fled in terror when a curb crawler pulled up beside her and the girl who did enter the car was badly beaten up. Varg’s background as a social worker has led him to encounters with dysfunctional families such as Margrethe’s where lack of care spirals into abuse and prostitution. But Margethe’s brother in prison has also disappeared and when of the street girls turns up dead, Varg looks into the past for the roots of the spate of murders.

Staalesen is one of the best Scandinavian writers and deserves a wider audience in the UK. This is the second book in a row that I’ve read that deals with the murder of prostitutes and, once more, I found myself moved by the depiction of life on a city’s streets. In Cold Hearts  we get a sense of the failings of society that allows a clearly broken family to be ministered to by a group of do-gooders. Varg, with his social worker background, can see the flaws of this approach which allows him to unpick decades old events.

You always get a strong sense of place in Staalesen’s books and frosty Bergen, a place I’ve never visited, came alive. I hope we get to see much more of Varg Veum and this is the start of a wider readership for a writer who is one of the best.

I love the look of the new translation. The cover is very well designed and fits in perfectly with the tone of the book. The translation is by the excellent Don Bartlett. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book.