As befits it’s late ’60’s setting (you can’t get much later ’60’s than 1969 I guess), this actually IS a real old-school, page-turning “spy thriller in the tradition of Len Deighton and Frederick Forsyth.” As Len Deighton also wrote a lot of cookery books, I’m guessing the person writing the blurb on the back was thinking more of Deighton’s spy thriller work, rather than one of his recipes for pasta sauce. Having said that, this is a succulent, spicy blend of thrills and spills, seasoned with deadly assassinations and brought to the boil in London, Italy and Istanbul.
Am I over-egging the pudding? Not at all.
The start of Song of Treason follows on almost directly from where the very excellent Free Agent left off. Paul Dark – a spy with more skeletons in his closet than he has closets – is still haunted by his actions in London and Nigeria, but looks to be getting away with it. As you might reasonably think, were you about to be promoted to a position at the top of the British spy/counterspy world. It’s all going quite manageably, if not totally stress-free, until a trip to St. Paul’s Cathedral. You’d have thought even a spy would be safe there, for goodness’ sake! Nope. Not if you’re Paul Dark, have worked for British intelligence AND the KGB for years and have, along the way, amassed enough enemies on both sides of the Iron Curtain to fill the afore-mentioned, Christopher Wren-designed edifice. Twice over.
So, in a what you might call a carefully and deftly plotted novel – were you a blurb writer for a really excellent thriller book – the Cold War suddenly becomes a little too hot for our man Paul Dark. What we then get is a frenetically-paced, down-hill when someone has cut the brakes to your (’60’s) sports car, adrenaline-rush of a read. Even though you do need to hold on tight while reading, understanding and then contemplating the sheer audacity of the ‘stay behind’ theme. In fact, I really liked that there was, amongst the murders and last-ditch rescues, also plenty of substance to get your teeth into. Plot possibilities kept on popping up in my mind. I do love a book where you sometimes end up staring into space thinking; “what if he’s not who they think he is, what if they’re working for them and not them, what if it’s a double, or triple, bluff – then that means that the whole business with them was…” All that.
To be honest, reading this sometimes felt a bit like watching an episode of ‘The Saint’ (the good version, with Roger Moore), with its exotic, late-60’s European locations, a trip to Istanbul and some decidedly dodgy Italian carabinieri. Couple that with the non-stop action of the brutal style of new-Bond (Casino Royale onwards – you know which bit I’m on about) and I think you’ve got the idea of how good a ‘Song of Treason’ sounds.
The story does have a couple of, shall we say, ‘fortuitous’ turns – stay away from Englishmen running towards you, you Vespa-riding Italian youth! And clearly, the way to get past the Vatican’s Swiss Guard is of course to have no identification on you at all, but to shout loudly “I’m with British Intelligence!!!” (probably in a Roger Moore accent and (probably like Roger Moore would) have a beautiful girl in a white dress behind you). But then once you’ve got your breath back at the end, I can absolutely recommend staying on and reading the very interesting ‘Author’s Note’. If you follow Jeremy on Twitter, you will know of his interest in and mastery of all things clandestine and secret and if nothing else, this final section of the book proves truth is indeed a good deal stranger than his excellent fiction.