Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Alex Gerlis: The Best of Our Spies

Having mentioned this in the course of venting about Allied, I feel like I ought to flesh it out a bit. Simply put, The Best of Our Spies is a much more plausible story about a German spy setting up with an Allied officer and trying to steal all his secrets. It’s low key, and low stakes, and nobody blows up hardly anything from one end of it to the other. It’s one of those books I read a little chunk at a time, as I often do when the characters have been put together and then put in harm’s way. It’s the book reading equivalent of squinting at things through your fingers. You get invested, the characters start to feel like real people, all trying to do their best, and you just can’t bear to keep on looking as things get worse for them.

There is no big mystery; from the beginning we know that the spy we’re calling Nathalie has been working for the Germans, and so do the British high command. She’s not going to get caught, because she’s been caught without ever knowing it, rumbled when her radio operator gets caught and turned. From that point on, British Intelligence are playing her like a banjo, manipulating her and the poor schmuck they marry her off to. The game is cynical and simple; sure, they could turn Nathalie too, but if they keep her in play, letting her think she’s still spying, the intelligence she provides to the German will have a sense of authenticity to it which couldn’t be faked.

Once the game’s afoot, the tension is not whether Nathalie will get caught; it’s what will happen when all the contradictions collapse around her. Will she survive? Will she somehow be able to keep the fake life she’s built with her clueless Allied stooge? And perhaps the biggest mystery of all; how the hell did she even get into this mess? That’s as big a puzzle, right up to the end, as how the hell she’s going to get out of it.

It’s not quite Alan Furst, because, after all, what is? But it’s solid, and it’s heartfelt, and it never seems fantastical.

It would have been a perfect source text for a good movie with Marion Cotillard and some worthwhile, unflashy British actor, a McAvoy or a Whishaw or a McGregor. It was what I was half hoping Allied would turn out to be. Instead, I think that Allied has probably made sure that this much better story is always just going to be a book.

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