I used to read a great deal of spy fiction. When I was younger I would read through the back catalog of classics like John le Carré and Len Deighton (who I have recently re-read) and others. Which is probably why I enjoy the work of friend of the blog Olen Steinhauer so much.
I have recently added James Wolff to the list. So I was thrilled when I found out he had a novel coming out in 2023 and was able to get an advanced copy.
And what better day to offer my thoughts on The Man in the Corduroy Suit than pub day (today). Here is the description from the publisher:
The story of an internal investigation into the past of a British spy suspected of having been turned by Russian agents. British intelligence is in a state of panic. Cracks are appearing, or so a run of disciplinary cases would suggest. To cap it all, Willa Karlsson, a retired secret services officer collapses, the victim of what looks like a Russian poisoning.
Leonard Flood is ordered to investigate – and quickly. Notorious for his sharp elbows and blunt manner, Leonard’s only objective is to get the job done, whatever the cost. When Leonard discovers that he is also a suspect in the investigation and that Willa’s story is less a story of betrayal than one of friendship and a deep sense of duty, he must decide whether to hand her to her masters or to help her to escape.
The third in the espionage trilogy The Discipline Files, after the acclaimed debut Beside the Syrian Sea, and its follow-on novel How to Betray Your Country.
As soon as I was finished with the third book I felt like I needed to go back and read the first two books. Which I did (more on that later). It reinforced what I noted above, literary, intelligent espionage fiction is something I just love to read and Wolff is a great example.
What makes Wolff great? Fascinating characters, suspenseful with high stakes, yet carefully and creatively written. Wolff makes you feel like you are working a case yourself in some ways, with memos and documents from the past. Painting a picture and allowing the reader to put together the puzzle (to mix metaphors). Somehow he does all this with a sense of humor and a light hand even as the subject is frequently dark or at least comes from a world of cynicism and weary politics.
There is an author note on the publishers website that really sets up this series perfectly:
Picture the MI5 archives, if you will – a gloomy, dusty catacomb devoted to the interment of a hundred years’ worth of classified documents. In the corner, a locked door, because although everything down here is secret, the contents of this room are really secret. A sign on the door reads THE DISCIPLINE FILES. Inside, there is clearly more material than anyone ever anticipated. Shelves are buckling, cardboard boxes spilling their contents onto the floor. Because they have a discipline problem, our spies, or so recent history would suggest.
In Beside the Syrian Sea, an analyst steals hundreds of stolen documents and resurfaces in Beirut, desperate to negotiate for the release of his kidnapped father…
In How to Betray Your Country, a disgraced agent-runner in emotional free fall tries to build a new life in Istanbul, only to stumble across a mysterious Islamic State figure who is not quite what he seems…
In The Man in the Corduroy Suit, a talented interrogator looks into the suspected poisoning of a retired colleague, but a startling discovery forces him to choose between obeying his masters or his own conscience…
Three stand-alone stories, three spies, one very serious problem. In this day and age, with the meaning of duty, tradition and loyalty increasingly open to interpretation, how do you make sure your spies do what they’re told? And what do you do when they don’t?
In the New York Times, Sarah Weinmann (who back in the golden days of this blog, was a Lit Blogger I read regularly) captures something important
It comes down to a single question, one with no easy answer: Who is worth the loyalty that people — and governments — extend?
“Some spies are all about warmth, others are a blast of cold Arctic air.” The same description applies equally to Wolff’s prose, all sharp edges and abrupt surprises, keeping the reader in a state of edgy discomfort.
Perhaps this gets at the heart of what I enjoy about the more literary side of espionage fiction. These books explore fundamental issue of trust and loyalty, of character and morality. These can be difficult issues in normal times but in extremes they become life altering fault lines.
Wolff places his characters in unique and extreme circumstances and allows the reader to see how they react. As you read you are trying to work out who you can trust and what is “true” even as the main character tries to figure out the very same issues. The reader and the character examine and interrogate their motivations and instincts asking “Exactly what kind of person am I?”
If you have not read James Wolff, I highly recommend this series. You can get Beyond the Syrian Sea for $1.99 on Kindle! Look for my thoughts on the first two books in this series soon.