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Envoy, The by Edward Wilson
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Envoy, The (edition 2009)

by Edward Wilson

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263415,071 (4.5)None
Member:Alastair
Title:Envoy, The
Authors:Edward Wilson
Info:ARCADIA BOOKS (2009), Paperback, 280 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:fiction, espionage, Cold War, H Bomb, UK, USSR, USA, MI5, KGB, CIA

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The Envoy by Edward Wilson

1950s (1) 2013 (1) British fiction (1) CIA (2) Cold War (5) England (1) espionage (7) fiction (4) H Bomb (1) historical fiction (1) historical thriller (1) history (1) KGB (1) London (2) MI5 (2) MI6 (1) NIL (1) politics (1) read (1) read in 2008 (1) Soviet Union (1) spy (3) to-read (1) UK (1) USA (1)
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Kit Fournier, the protagonist of Edward Wilson's excellent espionage novel, is the CIA's 'Head of Station' within the American Embassy in London in the 1950s. Britain is still riven with post-war austerity and is struggling to retain its self-image as an international power. Both America and the USSR have tested nuclear weapons, and Britain wants to join the club. America, however, is less keen on such a step and refuses to share the technology, preferring to use Britain as a fixed aircraft carrier for its own nuclear deterrent.

Fournier is essentially patriotic, fervently supporting America's interests though occasionally his conscience pains him. As the novel develops he launches his own operations to confound the Soviets, but also to try to distance his British counterparts.

Wilson expertly weaves historical figures into his novel, which is as intricate and elaborate as le Carre at his best. There are cameo appearances from John Profumo, John F Kennedy and Sir Dick White (at different times head of both MI5 and MI6). Real events are woven into the story, too, including the visit to Portsmouth of the Soviet destroyer Ordzhonikidze and the ill-fated expedition by veteran diver Buster Crabb to explore its hull looking for evidence of any super new technology.

The use of real characters and events helps to give a deep verisimilitude, and the plot is developed with great care. All told, a very successful and gripping novel. ( )
1 vote Eyejaybee | Sep 15, 2014 |
The author, Edward Wilson, has a unique background. A decorated special forces officer in Vietnam, he became a permanent expatriate after he left the army and lost his US citizenship in 1986. He is now a British resident.

Interestingly, the main character’s father, was always losing his job, described as going slightly batty, after doing something honorable and honest, but unwise politically. Certainly, Kit, the diplomat who is moved into the OSS after pissing off Joseph Kennedy, has a similar streak, and one wonders what might be the relationship between those activities and Wilson’s own expatriation.

Wilson is the ultimate cynic. At one point Kit describes espionage as a “sick place: a wilderness of mirrors inhabited by haunted minds that see only images and lies. The more plausible a truth the more cunning the deception.”

There are numerous caustic portraits of real individuals. In one piece the Dulles brothers, Foster and Allen are making fun of Edens, the Prime Minister. Kit notes that neither of the brothers had ever heard a shot fired in anger while Edens had lost two brothers and a son in the wars and won the Military Cross in 1916. They scorned his foreign policy of diplomacy and discussion while neither spoke a foreign language. Edens was fluent in German, Persian, and French and “could tell stories and tell proverbs in Arabic,” not to mention converse in Russian.

Kit’s task is to foment dissension between the British and Russians and to subvert Eden’s foreign policy. The U.S. wants to force Britain to accept hydrogen bombs on their soil. The U.S. also realizes that Britain might be the first to be vaporized in any attack. Kit is also haunted by his lust for his cousin, Jennifer, whose husband works for Britain’s own bomb project and Kit wants Jennifer to spy on him. Soon things begin to spiral out-of-control as the labyrinth of lies, deception and blackmail become overwhelming. I won't spoil things by even hinting at more.

Some great lines: “”Sorry,” [he said] That’s the thing about being born a Catholic: you always feel guilty even if it isn’t your fault. You can stop believing--it’s all infantile nonsense after all--but you can’t stop the guilt..” There’s a great scene when the Dulles brothers are trying to pry some gossip out of Kit. He tells them about this great looking woman he saw at a Washington party only to realize when he got closer and saw the hint of stubble that it was J. Edgar Hoover. Kit left the party and “heard that the party turned pretty raunchy and that the blond boys gave Hoover a hand job -- but I can’t confirm that.” Later that night Kit broke into the embassy’s taping room and erased the tape of that portion of his conversation with the Dulles boys. Kit notes late that Foster Dulles “goes about international diplomacy with all the grace of a trained chimpanzee putting out a grass fire with a wet sack.”

Or this line that sums up the book. Kit is describing a painting he likes: “the beautiful eighteenth-century house was set in an early American Arcadia. The house lies on a slight rise above the Potomac River; the thickly wooded banks are turning autumnal; there are dogs and horse-drawn carriages in the foreground, boats with sails in the background. The house was demolished in 1949 to build a four-lane highway.”

An excellent read. I’m very surprised Wilson hasn’t received more recognition. The book has a verisimilitude about it that’s quite refreshing, if not totally depressing. Actual events and people are woven into the story. The author insists that even though real people and events are mentioned, the story is fiction. One event, for example, the crash of a B-47 into a storage shed housing nuclear weapons in 1956 theoretically had the potential to wipe out much of England. All the reports I read of it assured the reader there was no chance of a nuclear explosion; then again, given the prevarication and mendacity of everyone in this book, one has to wonder.....

Possibly the best spy novel I have ever read. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
It’s the 1950s and the Cold War is at its height. Kit Fournier is the CIA Chief of Station in London. He is a seasoned spy, having served in OSS in Vietnam, then as a diplomat in France, before moving to the dark side so to speak. Now his life is devoted to information and manipulation – sifting through it all to get to the truth and then filtering or doctoring it appropriately onwards towards his bosses and contacts – one of whom is his Russian KGB counterpart, Vasili. They chat at a diplomatic function …

" ‘Have you heard,’ said Vasili, ‘the one about my friend Boris?’
‘No.’
‘Boris hasn’t been feeling very well lately – and he’s been making some mistakes, so he’s called back to Dzerzhinsky Square to see the chief. The chief says, ‘How are you feeling, Boris?’ Boris says, ‘To be honest, I’m not feeling too good today.’ ‘Well Boris,’ says the chief, ‘would you like to hear the good news?’ ‘Yes,’ says Boris, ‘what’s the good news?’ ‘The good news, Boris, is that you feel better today than you will tomorrow.’
As Wilson writes, ‘The tightrope that Vasili walked didn’t have a safety net.’ "

Meanwhile Anglo-US relations are difficult, especially since Burgess and MacLean. The US Chief of Staff thinks that the British are trying to play above their position in the new world order in which they’re an empire no longer. It is rumoured that the British want an H-bomb of their own, and there is much covert activity in Suffolk at Orford Ness. Then there is a visiting Soviet warship that hides new technology under its waterline that the Brits want to see – they plan to send in a diver. The US would rather scupper this and damage GB-Russo relations and show them who’s in charge – this operation is Kit’s.

There is also a love interest. Kit is desperately in love with his cousin Jennifer, who happens to be married to one of the scientists at Orford Ness. He should know better, but can’t help himself, he would do anything for her – not a good situation for a spy. Kit is a conflicted and cynical man, in his personal life as well as at work. His whole life is effectively a sham, the job is a love-hate relationship that is moving ever towards hate.

"The next day Kit’s secretary passed on a strange message, Someone had rung from a phone box claiming to be Kit’s ‘spiritual adviser’ and recommending him to meet ‘at the customary place’ at ‘the customary time’. At half past three, Kit left the embassy and hailed a black taxi. He thought about telling the driver to take him straight to the rendevous point, but then he remembered what had happened the previous evening. He was weary of counter-surveillance games and all the other puerile spy games. But he had to continue playing them because he was trapped in a deadly adult playground from which there was no escape. Kit told the taxi driver to take him to Harrods. The store with its many entrances and exits was one of the best places in London to shake off a tail. And then from Harrods, a quick hop on the Underground to South Kensington.
The detailed descriptions of the spy’s tradecraft are one of this book’s real high points. Dead letter drops, coded messages, shaking tails, clandestine meetings – they all feel authentic. Wilson, who was in the US special forces knows his stuff. Equally, the scenes set in Suffolk, where the author, a naturalised Brit lives, are evocative of this tranquil county."

Like Kit, the plot is richly complex, you’re never quite sure who’s exploiting whom. The first half lays out all the groundwork in a leisurely fashion, then in the second it unfolds with precise timing to a surprising denouement that appears to come out of left field, yet is totally consistent with what has gone before. The world of spies portrayed is endlessly fascinating, and utterly devoid of good intention. No wonder Kit has been corrupted by it.

While I don’t think the writing in this novel is as good as Le Carré – the minor characters are rather one-dimensional on the whole, and some of the dialogue is a little stilted, the story however, is sophisticated and page-turning. I would definitely read more spy novels by this author. ( )
1 vote gaskella | Dec 26, 2011 |
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As an H-bomb apocalypse hangs over London, Kit Fournier faces a crisis of the soul. The unveiling of his own dark personal secret proves more deadly than his coded despatches.

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