2 May 2023

#Blogtour #Review - #MoscowExile by John Lawton

Moscow Exile (Joe Wilderness, 4)
Cover for book "Moscow Exile" by John Lawton. Black and while photograph. In the foreground, a man with his back to us, long coat, hands held behind his back, tousled hair. he is looking at a building in the middle distance: perhaps an Orthodox church, with an onion dome surmounted by a cross, another cross visible under a row of arches to the man's left.
John Lawton
Grove Press UK, 4 May 2023, 
Available as: HB, 435pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781804710098

I'm grateful to Ayo for sending me a copy of Moscow Exile to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Moscow Exile is a treat, featuring as it does both Joe Wilderness and Inspector Troy (well, ex-Inspector Troy now) and fleshing out their complicated world. That world exists in a web of relationships which cuts between politics, Society, and espionage, meanwhile  hacking into the private corridors, the dining rooms, and some seedy motels of the mid 20th century.

The book covers lots of ground both physically and temporally. We visit Winston Churchill's inner circle in his wilderness years (no pun intended). There's the Attlee and Wilson Labour governments,  postwar Washington in its pomp, with the US still a rising power, and late 60s Moscow, the USSR's decay well advanced. 

Tying all this together are two fascinating characters. Charlie Leigh-Hunt, field agent for MI6 and a bit of a rogue (he has a scam going passing useless intel back to the KGB, for cash) is posted suddenly to Moscow to replace the disgraced Guy Burgess. (But replace him as what, exactly?) Charlotte Mayer-Churchill, a socialite who burns through husbands like party candles, formerly accompanied HG Wells on his travels, including to Moscow, and her Washington parties are now legendary. The story that emerges when the two meet dovetails with Lawton's previous evolving world, forming part of a work that begins to remind me of CP Snow's Strangers and Brothers sequence, but for espionage rather than straight politics. (I don't think you'd get a Cold War prisoner swap on Glienicke Bridge in Snow, still less that that goes as spectacularly wrong wrong as this).

That said... yes, I say "for espionage" but the thing about this sequence is that while the context, the legend, to borrow a spooky term, may be espionage (and related forms of criminality) what's really going on here is much more about the heart. These books form a wonderfully nested collection of personal stories. For example, the motivations for shifting loyalties, as exposed here, are deeply labyrinthine. A spy's work-life balance must permit some happiness, mustn't it? Some downtime, some compensation? The various British figures seen here, caught in the amber of 60s Moscow, are all caught in enforced downtime. Whether they sought to be there or are trapped by circumstances, whether they are wanted there by their Soviet hosts, or wherever their residence will be permanent or short term, they are all, as it were, on the bench, watching the game but not playing it. How they deal with that struggle, some adapting well, some consumed by homesickness (for a home that no longer exists), by drink, or regret - it's all finely nuanced and meticulously explored.

The focus here is on the intimate, on people not big events, and the victories and defeats chronicle here for the different factions of spooks are marginal ones at best, the particular intelligence scooped up and passed on pretty much anonymous and the results of betrayal by this asset or exposure of that one far form there centre of the story. It's the people that matter, their histories, choices and plans as much as they're worth in an exchange or left in place. 

I felt everybody - will nearly everybody, perhaps not Senator Redmaine, the leftie-baiting McCarthy like figure who features in the second quarter of the book - was treated with some sympathy. Equally, nobody has completely clean hands: events which have been described in earlier books leave them all compromised or trapped, unable to rise to every occasion as they might wish. From racketeering in post war Berlin to scams such as the one Charlie is running here to outright murder, there are secrets here which also have a value and it's anybody's guess how long they will remain secrets.

All in all, an absorbing, intricate and beautifully paced thriller which I greatly enjoyed reading.

For more information about Moscow Exile, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below.

You can buy Moscow Exile from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

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