The Reading Room

The Envoy

Review of Edward Wilson’s ‘The Envoy’

Edward Wilson’s second novel, The Envoy, first published in 2008 introduced the spy fiction world to one of its greatest characters of the last forty years. in Kit Fournier, a CIA Head of Station dressed up as a senior American diplomat based in London we find a character with all of the personal and professional complexities such a role inevitably brings to bear and the indelible lifelong marks it leaves upon those caught up in the dirty, unforgiving world of espionage.

There are, however, few writers who can successfully narrate such complexities, fewer still those who can weave historical fact with believable fiction. The modern day curse of a novel founded and stuck fast in a moment in history, devoid of original content and coupled with poorly delivered snippets of Wikipedia-esque information gives the reader serious cause for concern.

Wilson strikes the right balance; his previous incarnation as a decorated American Special Services soldier in Vietnam confirms the perfectly delivered nuances in operational details. He touches on the art of spycraft in throwaway lines which serve their purpose whilst avoiding the pitfalls of endless, dull diatribes on the mechanics of a gun or nuclear submarine and in Fournier we are given a believable character intrinsically flawed yet all the more compelling for it.

The novel is based primarily in London during the Cold War of the 1950s with occasional flits to America and the English coast. Fournier introduces us to the upper echelons of the British, American and Soviet intelligence services with cleverly interwoven cameos from renowned real-life key players such as Philby, Burgess and Maclean, Dulles and Hoover along with Anthony Eden and the Kennedy’s. Wilson offers a riveting plot based around Britain’s initial forays into developing its first H-bomb and America’s desire to limit, indeed frustrate their ambitions for their own geopolitical gains. Key events from the Cold War are expertly covered, perhaps none more so than the author’s take on the sensational story of Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, the Royal Naval diver who ‘vanished’ during a reconnaissance swim around a Soviet cruiser moored at Portsmouth harbour in 1956.

Romance is no stranger to spy fiction and few, as in real life, have a happy ending. Wilson deftly incorporates the phenomenon of husband and wife double agents, defections to both sides of the iron curtain and the heartbreak of deception and lies in the name of the state apparatus. Wilson’s spy is short on heroics and platitudes, his outcome is remarkable for its bleak sentencing and that the story’s end comes when it does leaves the reader wanting more, far more and that, surely, is the highest form of praise one can give a novel.

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