Moscow Exile by John Lawton @AtlanticBooks @shotsblog

Source: Review copy

Publication: 4 May 2023 from Grove Press UK

PP: 448

ISBN-13 : 978-1804710098

My thanks to Ayo Onatade and Grove Press for an advance copy for review.

Charlotte is a British expatriate who has recently settled in Washington, D.C. with her second husband, but enviable dinner parties aren’t the only thing she is planning. Meanwhile, Charlie Leigh-Hunt has been posted to Washington as a replacement for Guy Burgess, last seen disappearing around the corner and into the Soviet Union. Charlie is surprised to cross paths with Charlotte, an old flame of his, who, thanks to her gossipy parties, has a packed pocketbook full of secrets she is eager to share.

Two decades later, in 1969, Joe Wilderness is stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, held captive by the KGB, a chip in a game way above his pay grade – but his old friends Frank and Eddie are going to try to spring him out of the toughest prison in the world. All roads lead back to Berlin, and to the famous Bridge of Spies…

We begin in Berlin at The Bridge of Spies in 1969. The Glienicke Bridge was a restricted border crossing between the Eastern Bloc and the American sector of West Berlin. The Americans and Soviets used it for the exchange of captured spies during the Cold War. An exchange is to take place. Lord Freddie Troy, ex-Scotland Yard, and currently British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, is leading this transaction to get Jo Wilderness back on the right side of the Iron Curtain.

John Lawton’s book is replete with vivid characters who leap off the page. Not least of these is the serial marrier, the charming, multi lingual Charlotte Mawer-Churchill, who is first married to Hubert, a cousin of Winston Churchill. Then the future prime minister makes Charlotte’s husband his private secretary. Charlotte, who has not married for love, gets bored and falls for an American named Avery Shumacher, a Clark Gable lookalike, working for Franklin Roosevelt. After getting a divorce, Charlotte weds Avery and becomes the belle of Washington, where she becomes ‘Coky’ Schumacher, the socialite hostess with the mostest. Invitations to her soirées are highly sought after.

Charlie Leigh-Hunt knows Coky of old. He’s been sent to Washington to to replace Guy Burgess, recently defected to Russia. Charlie is finding that the cold shoulder of Washington has been firmly aimed at him after both Burgess and Donald Maclean were found to have been spying for the Soviets. The American view is that the British could and should have been a bit more careful about their choice of Embassy appointees – and they may have a point!

But Coky is not just an old friend, she is Charlie’s means of entry to Washington Society and all the insider gossip. The more so after Schumaker dies tragically and Coky remarries, this time to an odious ‘reds under the beds’ type, whose activities mirror those of McCarthy and the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee.

Lawton’s book is probably best read after reading a few in the series as there are clearly recurring characters whose backstory it would be useful to understand. But underneath the smart, snappy language and the gaiety of the Washington scene in particular, lie some interesting questions.

Why do people spy and who on earth ever thought half of these people would make competent spies? Some of these characters are reprehensible and their motives suspect, to say the least. And in truth, many of those rooting out such spies were less than competent.

Indeed Philby’s own story is so strange as to be hardly credible and it is no wonder the Americans were so livid when he was finally unmasked as the traitor he had been for half his life. The British class system simply could not accept that one of their own was a traitor despite being called out as the third man in the triangle that was Burgess, MacLean and Philby.

Some spy for idealistic reasons, but many are doing so for the opportunities it throws up to make money or to undermine the class system in their own country. Some get bullied into it whilst others do it for family reasons.

Whatever the reason, this is a rich seam for mining by Lawton who shows us the inter-connectedness of class and the easy acceptance of those with the right introductions. People can so easily work under the radar if they have attended the right parties and know the right people. Being a spy, or indeed, a double agent, was never been easier than during the Cold War

John Lawton explores the path that led to Freddie Troy picking up the cudgels for H.M.Government and becoming the Moscow Ambassador in order to get Joe Wilderness safely out of Soviet hands. The British class system is in full play here as Joe, whose war service and rise to prominence was largely achieved through the dodgy dealings that first brought him to the attention of the Secret Service and made him a useful slippery eel in a pool of hunting sharks.

The Soviets, too have their own ways of working the system. Joe’s exchange is being offered by General Volga Vasilievna Zolotukhina for a price and the case that Freddie Troy is carrying holds £25,000.

But where is Joe?

I confess to enjoying the women in Moscow Exile who do rather make a better fist of espionage than many of the men involved. Lawton does a terrific job of mixing fact and fiction to really ground this book in real world events and the atmosphere he conjures works so well. His dialogue sparkles, and he brings the era alive, especially in Washington, but also capturing the Soviet standards of living at the time so well.

Verdict: I’m going back to read the two series which brought these characters together. John Lawton’s writing is so easy to read and his characters stand out as colourful and three dimensional. Moscow Exile is a very vivid portrayal of a remarkable time in our history and of some of the frankly hard to believe – but true- shenanigans that went on during that time. Lawton brings it all to life in an excellent plot with humour and intrigue. I enjoyed it. Waterstones. HiveStores

John Lawton has written three previous novels starring Joe Wilderness–Then We Take Berlin, The Unfortunate Englishman, and Hammer to Fall–as well as eight Inspector Troy thrillers, one standalone novel, and a volume of history. His novels have been named Best Books of the Year by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times Book Review. He lives in England and Italy. Photo c. Nick Lockett

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Published by marypicken

Passionate book reader. Love all kind of books from 19th century novels to crime thrillers. My blog is predominantly crime, psychological thrillers and police procedurals with a good helping of literary fiction thrown in.

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