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Thursday 22 June 2023

‘The Spy Across the Water’ by James Naughtie

Published by Head of Zeus,
2 March 2023.
ISBN: 978-178408023-5 (HB)

 “I’ve encountered a ghost.
And not just one, but two.”

The Spy Across the Water by James Naughtie opens as Will Flemyng, British Ambassador to Washington, attends a funeral in Brooklyn, New York.  In the early part of his career, Flemyng worked as a spy for the British Embassy and old habits die hard.  Thus, despite his personal grief during the ceremony, he instinctively scans the faces of those around him and is shocked to see a man he recognises - even though they have never met!  Flemyng cannot imagine why the man is amongst the mourners and becomes even more intrigued when this “ghost” from the past goes out of his way to ensure that Will has seen him.  As if that intrusion into the solemn proceedings was not enough, Flemyng also spots another old acquaintance.  This second “ghost” is an enemy agent with whom he’d had a fruitful but complicated clandestine association during his time in Northern Ireland.  Something’s afoot, Flemyng knows it, but what?

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Patrick Keane, has been newly promoted.  He is the latest spy to lead the Embassy’s secret service and is still cutting his teeth in the job.  As Keane prepares a briefing for Flemyng’s return he little expects that the ambassador’s recent encounters in the Big Apple will plunge them, their friends, and their families into jeopardy.  Northern Ireland’s troubled past is  threatening to reignite into widespread sectarian violence, a situation which becomes even more convoluted when a Soviet agent collaborating with the British Secret Service creates tension between the Anglo-American allies.

The plot unfolds against the background of true historical events.  Specifically, the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed at Hillsborough Castle and the exfiltration of Oleg Gordievsky who had been recalled to Russia after the Soviet’s suspected, correctly, that he was working as a double agent whilst stationed in London.  British Security Services had shared Gordievsky’s intelligence with their American counterparts but withheld his identity.  Both events took place in 1985 and  James Naughtie uses his profound understanding of the period to reimagine his characters within similar controversies as they threaten to disrupt diplomatic relations between Britain and America. 

The book is much more than a retelling of history though.  The plot is driven by the engaging portrayals of its central characters, and when the focus shifts to Scotland Naughtie’s description of the highlands is positively lyrical.  Yet beneath these lives and landscapes lurks the shady world of espionage.  Who can be trusted?  Who will be betrayed?

The Spy Across the Water is the third book in the Flemyng series and it works perfectly well as a standalone.  That said, I found Flemyng to be a compelling protagonist and it will be hard to resist going back to read the first two novels! 

A delight for those who enjoy espionage - both real and imagined.
Reviewer: Dot Marshall-Gent

James Naughtie was born in 1951 and brought up in Scotland. He began his career as a journalist in 1975, moving to Lindon in 1977. He presented Today on BBC Radio 4 for 21 years. He has made several radio documentaries and has written books on politics and music and an account of five decades of travel and work in the US. He Lives in Edinburgh and London.  

Dot Marshall-Gent
worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.

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