Title: The Spy and the Traitor
Author: Ben McIntyre
Pps: 366 including notes and index
Publication date: September 20 2018
“The best true spy story I have ever read.”
Who could ask for more than a commendation like that from John Le Carré, the undisputed master of spy fiction since the early 1960s?
I almost ripped this book out of the arms of the postman when he arrived this morning, his trademark loud knock announcing that he had a parcel that would not fit through the letterbox.
I have read several of Ben McIntyre’s books, including Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, Doublecross and SAS Rogue Heroes, and on doing a quick Google search for confirmation of those titles am delighted to see that there are several others I haven’t even seen yet, including one about James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
The raw material of this latest title takes us into less familiar territory, telling the story of a senior KGB officer who, as the blurb tells us, for more than a decade “had supplied his British spymasters with a stream of priceless secrets from deep within the Soviet intelligence machine”.
Standing on the pavement of a busy street in Moscow, the Safeway plastic carrier bag he was holding “was a signal: to activate his escape plan to be smuggled out of Soviet Russia” (a rather more nuanced move than the way suggested by Peter Cook in the best of the Derek and Clive live recordings).
Ben McIntyre is a very good writer. He writes simply and communicates quickly and effectively. Even his introduction is breathtaking: by the bottom of its second page any lingering doubt that I might have had about the subject matter.
He introduces Colonel Oleg Antonyevich Gordievsky, newly promoted to be head of the KGB station in London (a plum posting he reminds us) and returning to a flat in Moscow that has just had KGB eyes and ears installed throughout and radioactive dust sprinkled on the clothes and shoes in the wardrobe (I instinctively prefer that to the ‘closet’ but that is as much of a quibble as I will utter here).
I don’t think I have ever read an introduction with such a teaser of an ending. “The fears of the previous week crystallized [sic] in a freezing rush…he was under suspicion. Someone had betrayed him. The KGB was watching him. The spy was being spied upon by his fellow spies.”
Fast forward to page 188 and it is difficult not to smile at the investigation into the suicides of two Soviet citizens in London in 1984. The bodies were returned to Moscow with orders to determine whether they had been poisoned..“which the KGB scientists obediently confirmed – even though one had hanged himself and the other had thrown herself off a balcony”.
This is almost literally gallows humour and I know what I’m going to carry on reading over the weekend. I only glimpsed at the extracts in The Sunday Times last weekend and only vaguely registered an assertion about former Labour party leader Michael Foot being a Soviet agent (Agent BOOT), but seeing it in context, with the proper use of his Right Honourable title, it takes on a whole new aspect.
It’s becoming a bit of a cliché of my recent reviews, but I have to say it. This is another excellent Christmas/birthday or unbirthday present for anyone you know who is a fan of the genre.