A Very British Ending by Edward Wilson

Many thanks to the team at Arcadia for my copy of this gorgeous book. And to Edward Wilson, whose hard work never disappoints.

A Very British EndingThis is the latest in a series of deeply intelligent, well-researched spy novels following grammar school educated spy, William Catesby. If you have read any other of the wonderful books in the series, you may be pleased to hear that he is haunted by yet further ghosts of the past, and that we are given tender insights into the relationship with his wife, from whom he is separated. She herself works for MI5, and the way in which the two of them engage in tongue-in-cheek spy games with each other is fascinating, not least because the playful tone of conversation belies the gravity of their discussions as they keep each other (dis)informed.

The book starts by informing us that Catesby has been summoned to appear before the Cabinet Secretary. He doesn’t yet know which of the bodies he didn’t bury deeply enough, and as parts of the novel reveal, there are a few of them which were rotting before he tried. This happens in 1976, but we are left hanging, the novel jumping back to 1951, leaving the sword of Damocles over its protagonist’s head. In an odd kind of way, this suits both Catesby’s character and the plot. He is generally pessimistic about the direction his country is taking, becoming more so as his political views evolve, and at one point he admits to himself that, after all the espionage and counter-espionage, the double-bluff and disinformation, he sometimes can’t be sure of the effect he’s having. The plot centres on Harold Wilson’s deposition, and the part which the American secret service played in it. Already knowing that the plot succeeded, impending doom is the primary reading mode; it’s only added to as Catesby becomes more and more sympathetic to the Labour Prime Minister.

The event is placed in its larger Cold War context as the novel spans twenty-five years and jumps to various different settings. It is incredibly likely that this book will teach you how little you knew about the period, as well as fleshing out what you thought you did know. That said, you have to be paying attention. Much of the novel is very cinematic, leaving you to infer the political repercussions of interactions between various spies and assets. This might not be new to Wilson’s work, but I do think that this latest is the hardest to follow. Unfortunately, I have fears that it is, at times, so intelligent that it could prevent the series from achieving the popularity it deserves. On the other hand, it is so intelligent in its weaving of fiction and reality, of entertainment and poignancy, and of shock and sensitivity, that Wilson’s work must undoubtedly be considered the most masterful of its genre.

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