Cold War novels by Francis Bennett..
Usually one waits to review a book until they have finished reading it but in Francis Bennett I feel confident enough to write in warm and glowing expectation of what lies ahead. Whilst I read his first novel, Making Enemies I know I have stumbled upon an author who has the gift to grab and hold one’s attention for hundreds of pages. It is a rarer commodity that might be thought.
Making Enemies is book one in a trilogy of Cold War novels. It goes without saying that the blurb on the cover likens him to Le Carré and Deighton, a standing joke amongst espionage fiction lovers I would imagine, but in Francis Bennett it seems true. What is clear is that like Le Carré he has a gift for the construction of the espionage storyline and its characters, it has a certain reserved subtlety but manages to keep the reader’s attention whilst revealing much about the reality of the Cold War years from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
What I particularly like is his choice of characters, they are unremarkable pawns in a greater game. Be they scientists wrestling with their own conscience or intelligence agents attempting to make sense of paranoid scenarios with potentially life threatening consequences they are believable and historically accurate. The story skips between various locations; Cambridge, Russia, Berlin, Washington and Finland with atmospheric descriptions of the landscape, a train journey or the standard Soviet state apartment.
Like Le Carré and Deighton he gives further credence to the argument for giving the espionage novel greater credit. When it is written well there is little to beat it. Truly great spy fiction gives little credence to guns, bombs and girls, the beauty is in the complexity of the story and the characters that so often find themselves dragged into the plot without a shred of bravado. Within the pages they reveal the suffering of the ordinary, the sacrifices of the forgotten and the stupidity of the rewarded elite. Romance usually ends in heartbreak, victory remains confidential and questionable in a genre where the lines between fact and fiction are incomparably blurred.
Volume Two moves onto the Hungarian uprising in 1956 in ‘Secret Kingdom’ and finishes with ‘Dr Berlin’ set in 1960. There is little information on Mr Bennett or any (if any) forthcoming novels. The third novel was published in 2001 which would suggest he is unlikely to write again. If that is the case then it is most certainly our loss.
Categories: The Reading Room