Phew! This is a good one.
I would suggest (again) that John le Carré defined the British spy novel – and even the names and terms of the (real) world of espionage in many people’s understanding of such things. More than James Bond – at least until recently. But, le Carré’s classics, whilst still being classics, are a bit old-school, aren’t they? He’s good, but all a bit last century? But because the world le Carré created is quite probably the world that many readers think actually exists, it must be difficult to try to move into ‘his territory’ and write a 21st Century spy novel. Difficult to say things are/were different and sound convincing.
Unless, it seems, you’re Jon Stock. His ‘Games Traitors Play’ is the first of his novels I have read – but it will absolutely not be the last.
‘Games Traitors Play’ plunges immediately headlong into a thoroughly believable and satisfyingly confusing, switch-back story of cross-, double-cross – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I didn’t miss a triple cross somewhere along the line. Talk about not being able to put it down, I couldn’t. Didn’t dare. It was glued to my hands. Didn’t dare feel like I’d missed something, misinterpreted someone somewhere double crossing someone somewhere else. You can’t take your eyes off this one for a moment. I love a book where you really need to pay attention.
So, he seems to have effortlessly and immediately created a believable – background history and all – spy world. Gone of course, is the Cold War. But the tensions and aftershocks are still being felt. International terrorism is the ‘new Russia’, of course, but the old Russia is still alive and kicking. And part of the fall-out from the Cold War, is new tension based on old rivalries, between the UK and US spy and counter-spy cultures. No matter how satisfying it is, as a British reader, to see the Yank intelligence people get their comeuppance from time to time, you do have to remind yourself sometimes that we’re supposed to be on the same side here! And who is on the other side? Who knows! A thoroughly confusing, shifting, shapeless world of terrorists cells, individuals and Jihadists, each using each other and their allegiances to each other and no one, to create an unidentifiable moving target for today’s secret agents to try and aim at. In the good old days, you knew that everyone on this side of the Iron Curtain was on your side, everyone on the other side, wasn’t, didn’t you? Everyone on both sides, knew which rules to play by; they’d all been to the same English Public Schools after all! That’s all changed. I don’t envy today’s spies, that’s for sure.
The book rushes round the espionage world at a satisfyingly controlled breakneck pace, taking in amongst other places, Morocco and the Atlas Mountains, Sardinia and deepest, darkest Russia. But it is mainly centred on Britain, British spies now and then and London and MI6’s headquarters. No longer of course ‘The Circus’, but the much more modern ‘Legoland’ (if you’ve seen the latest James Bond ‘Skyfall’, you’ll know why). Also and a first in my reading experience, the genteel town of Cheltenham and it’s GCHQ ‘doughnut’ get some well-deserved recognition.
In the end, ‘Games Traitors Play’ is a book all about relationships. Uneasy, troubled, but necessary relationships. Between MI5 and MI6, between the UK and the US and especially their respective ways of doing things. Between family, father and son, brothers and of course, the past and the present, between old-school and new-school spying.
As i said, I couldn’t put it down. Even when I’d finished. Kept hoping there was more. There are more, so Amazon will be getting an order as soon as my pocket money arrives in the new year.
Remember that song?
Suppose you need to be of a certain age.