Spy Book Review by James McShane – Station D.
Of all the genres I’ve read throughout my years, I always seem to return to the genre I started reading when I entered my teens: crime and spy fiction.
I remember going from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels at what one could call an impressionable age: I was 12 going on 13. I didn’t tell my parents; no doubt they’d have been horrified. I pretended I was still making my way through Agatha Christie’s back catalogue. So this brings me to where I am right now, well into my 50s, but happy in my reading.
The spy fiction genre continues to intrigue and comfort me in equal measures, with an almost infinite number of authors and titles to choose from. My Kindle is replete with myriad novels, and I’ll do my level best to read as many as I can.
All of this leads me to the book I’m reviewing now. Through Shane Whaley’s website, podcast, and Facebook group, Spybrary, I got offered the chance to read the debut spy fiction novel The Other Side of Trust by English author Neil Robinson. Released in May of this year by Burning Chair Publishing, The Other Side of Trust explores what happens when the ‘Special Relationship’ between UK and US intelligence agencies is tested to the point of almost complete breakdown.
This cleverly plotted and exciting thriller begins when three seemingly unrelated deaths in different parts of the world catch the attention of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Its head, ‘C’, asks a man known only as the Director for assistance.
The Director’s top man is Sebastian Friend, an enigmatic character about which we learn only what we need to know as we read through the chapters. He’s resourceful, somewhat maverick, but gets results, which at the end of the day is all that matters. His personal life, what little there is of it, is not a subject for discussion. When it becomes apparent at the early stages of the investigation, all three men were members of an Iranian dissident group called The Tehran Committee.
Over the course of a very short space of time, they are murdered and the names of British and American agents working undercover in Iran become public knowledge, with many of them rounded up by the Iranian government. Show trials are due to begin and there is very little hope of saving the people involved. What UK and US intelligence need to know is, how was this knowledge leaked? Was there a mole within The Tehran Committee itself?
Many spy thrillers nowadays are action-oriented (the current Amazon show The Terminal List being a prime example), but I prefer a bit more meat to a story, not just flash and bang hijinks.
While there is plenty of action in The Other Side of Trust, these setpieces are not the be-all-and-all-and-all of Robinson’s book. There is a deeply political feel to his characters and overall plot. It’s these elements that drew me in as I read.
Very few people in this book can be trusted, even the ones who’ve been dead for some time before the book begins. Former agents have been traumatised by operations that went badly wrong, their reputations in tatters. They yearn for lost love and lost hope, and while Friend understands this only too well, he’s got a job to do and if he has to destroy more reputations, then so be it. This operation, even if it succeeds, isn’t going to end well for a great many people.
As with all successful spy fiction and thriller novels, the stakes in The Other Side of Trust are both necessarily high and grounded in reality. While not exactly ripped from the front pages or conspiracy-minded Twitter feeds, Neil Robinson has created a story that feels like it might happen, if it hasn’t already. But we may never know, seeing that secrecy is the name of the game.
Robinson has written a fine debut. I’ve been reliably informed that he is currently working on his second novel, which will feature Sebastian Friend. I hope we gain a little more insight, a bit more nuance, into what makes him tick.
For now, though, in this crowded field of spy fiction, I recommend The Other Side of Trust to the discerning fan of the genre. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. I know I wasn’t.
Check out more of Jame's book reviews at The Aardvarkian