Source: Review copy
Publication: December 6th from Severn House
My thanks to Severn House for an advance copy for review
Cordelia Hemlock is teetering on the verge of joining MI6 when she meets the enigmatic Walt, a high-ranking member of the Secret Intelligence Service, who tells her: They won’t want you to do well. They won’t ever trust you. They don’t trust me and I’m one of them. She takes this as a challenge rather than a warning. She wants to protect the nation. Serve Queen and country. Who would turn down such a glorious opportunity?
Fourteen years later, Cordelia is desk-bound after finishing an undercover operation and going quietly mad with boredom. So when the call comes through on the top-secret Pandora line – so-called after the locked-box the telephone is kept in – she answers it.
It’s Walt. No longer officially MI6, he still inhabits the murky world of intelligence, where information always comes with a price. He tells her he has a secret to share with her – and only her. And once she knows it, nothing will ever be the same again . . .
Way back in 2019 I reviewed The Mausoleum, (now re-titled The Burying Ground) a stand-alone novel from David Mark; a beautifully conceived and well executed historical tale full of exceptionally well-drawn characters, with a tense and claustrophobic setting and a feel for sharp cruelty.
Now David Mark has brought back his two principal characters from that book, Cordelia Hemlock and Felicity Goose, in a novel that can easily be read as a stand- alone. Cordelia Hemlock rose through the ranks of the intelligence community to become Head of MI6. Now retired, she has gained her peerage and she and her long standing friend, Felicity Goose are talking over old times with an investigative reporter.
Felicity and Cordelia met in Gilsland, a small village just on the wrong side of the Scottish Border. Cordelia still keeps her large house in the area and Felicity and her husband John make sure it is kept in good condition when she is not there.
Cordelia reminisces about meeting her friend and mentor, Walt, who rose through the ranks of the intelligence service and guided her career. Told in the voices of Cordelia and Felicity, this is a reminiscence that is both violent and gripping, reaching back 34 years to the time when Gilsland played host to a team determined to uncover some dreadful truths.
David Mark’s novel highlights one of the most appalling and seldom discussed atrocities– the appalling genocide committed in Guatemala and the role of the British Government in supporting a murderous right wing dictatorship in that country. It is a deeply shameful episode in Britain’s foreign policy (though by no means the only one). In 1983, Britain had soldiers stationed in neighbouring Belize, a former UK colony. Politicians in Westminster and the public thought that the British army was out there to stop Guatemala invading Belize. In secret, however, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was enabling our troops to help the Guatemalan military dictatorship eliminate its opponents.
Based on real events, Mark takes the role of the intelligence services both in the UK and the US and spins them into an incredibly twisty and hugely compelling tale of deceit, duplicity, double dealing and gross moral turpitude. It is also a portrait of enduring friendship, betrayal and it demonstrates what having a moral core really looks like.
Verdict: David Mark paints strong and vivid characters with depth and feeling. His fascinating and horrific premise for this spy thriller is gripping and instructive and you can’t really ask for more than that. The contrast between the sleepy borders village of Gilsland and the Guatemalan atrocities is beautifully done and makes for a deeply dramatic scenario when the two come together in a final, violent, destructive clash. Highly recommended.
David Mark spent seven years as crime reporter for the Yorkshire Post and now writes full-time. The first novel in his DS McAvoy series, Dark Winter, was selected for the Harrogate New Blood panel (where he was Reader in Residence) and was a Richard & Judy pick and a Sunday Times bestseller. Dead Pretty was longlisted for the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 2016. He lives in Northumberland with his family.