Red Sparrow: Spookily Good Spy Fiction for a Vicarious Double Life

“God, she’s serious, thought Nate. Typical Russian, afraid of putting a foot wrong. But he liked her reserve, her underlying sensuality, the way she looked at him with her blue eyes. He especially liked the way she pronounced his name, “Neyt.”
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

As today is #WorldBookDay, I thought it timely to share my thoughts on Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews.

There are plenty of suspenseful and harrowing scenes in this book, and from page one my heart lurched from my chest to my mouth where it remained for 547 pages. It was like John le Carré on steroids, it totally gripped me!

The writing itself wasn’t quite on par with le Carré, but still a very accomplished debut novel. I thought the characters and plot were totally plausible, and that’s probably because the author was involved in CIA operations for 33 years. The intelligence community may lie and steal for a living, but they put their lives on the line regularly; all so the balance of world power can be precariously preserved…

I deliberately haven’t seen the film yet, but I doubt it can match the book, which is brilliant. However, it was knowledge of the film that put the book on my radar.

I do think that Jennifer Lawrence is a good choice for the titular character, Dominika Egorova, aka Red Sparrow. She seems to embody her character’s essence from the book.

I found myself liking and sympathising with the beautiful, spirited and feisty Dominika. Her dream was ballet, (and I love that her mother is a professional violinist), but a cruel attack resulting in a broken foot ends her promising dance career with the Bolshoi, and she is left devastated and disillusioned when she is approached by her late father’s brother, Uncle Vanya. He has a small request to ask of her.

Not so dear Uncle Vanya is the deceptive and ambitious First Deputy Director of the SVR, who times his contact with his niece when she is most vulnerable. Needless to say, he does not love and respect Dominika like a normal uncle would.

Jason Matthews paints a picture of a modern Russia whose intelligence service (now the SVR instead of the KGB), which despite new names, appearances and PR, is very much rooted in the methods and attitudes of the ‘old times’.

Dominika has a ‘prodigious memory’, is physically stunning, strong, idealistic, cultured and determined – but she has a short fuse like her mother. With Uncle Vanya threatening her mother’s welfare she has no choice but to do his bidding and join the SVR.

After her traumatic job for her uncle Dominika is thrown among the wolves, but decides to run with the pack and beat them at their own game.

Her resentment at being a pawn for her boss is perfectly understandable; she is lied to, used and hindered in her progress, and her life is considered expendable in a revolting system that does not value its operatives beyond the glory they can bestow on their political masters and the State.

She is betrayed by her uncle when early in her training he sends her against her will to Sparrow School, where she and others are subjected to the vile methods of State sponsored seduction and ‘sexpionage’.  She survives humiliation after humiliation and uses her experiences to build her inner strength and fuel her anger against ‘them’.

Dominika is the first female agent to be recruited into the SVR, but her internal struggle to be seen as anything more than a ‘Sparrow’ is a challenge she must  overcome. She clashes with Soviet era forces within the Centre on her first case involving Simon Delon, a French embassy diplomat in Moscow whose daughter in the French military is the ultimate goal for passing classified information.

The only friend she has at Yasenevo (other than her self-serving uncle), is the kind and distinguished, but ageing General Korchnoi, who is head of the Americas Department.

The sections of brutal torture are not easy to read, but it is not just physical violence that is an ever present threat for the characters, but the psychological manipulation that drives their decisions and actions.

The most chilling, blood-run-cold encounters all include Sergey Matorin, Moscow’s most efficient grim reaper from the Centre’s F Line. He is the kind of ruthless, soulless assassin you would never hope to meet, a literal killing machine, who takes great pleasure from his work.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Cold War hasn’t really ended after reading this novel.

It seems to have morphed into something even more complicated. Whether it’s done for dramatic purposes, or whether there is any basis in reality, only those sequestered in secret government buildings know the truth.

Red Sparrow is as smart, edgy, authentic, compelling and realistic as spy fiction gets. I was transported to a clandestine world of surveillance, subterfuge, street survival, (being ‘black’), mole hunts and forbidden love; quite a literary ride…

In the course of escalating emotions and events I discovered canary traps, barium meals, spy dust, whore school, burst transmissions, spy training, torture, murder and treason.

It also seems that spies can be foodies, and in Red Sparrow they do a lot of ‘business’ over dinner or in restaurants. The author (unusually for the genre), gives a recipe from the action at the end of each chapter. Whilst I’m not against this, I probably didn’t need to know everything they consumed in every chapter, so at times it came across as contrived, and had the effect of distracting me temporarily from the story.

KADDO BOWRANI—AFGHAN PUMPKIN
Deeply brown large chunks of peeled sugar pumpkin, cover liberally with sugar, and bake covered in medium oven until tender and caramelized. Serve over thick meat sauce of sautéed ground beef, diced onions, garlic, tomato sauce, and water. Garnish with sauce of drained yogurt, dill, and puréed garlic.
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Locations include, Moscow, Washington, Helsinki, Rome and Athens. Matthews’s knowledge of these cities is impressive, as is the everyday life of the CIA Case Handler, Nathaniel (Nate) Nash. Wanting to take control of his own destiny rather than be sucked into the family business like his older brothers, Nate feels the need to prove himself in espionage rather than law.

As agent handlers go, Nate is enthusiastic and honourable, and his main concern is always to protect his agent’s life from constant danger. He is the kind of man you can trust if you are looking to spill state secrets…

After a near fatal brush with the FSB during a meeting with his Moscow agent (code name MARBLE), who happens to be the CIA’s most valuable asset, his stellar career falters. Gutsy, street savvy and fluent in Russian, Nate is now at odds with his chief of Station in Moscow. With his cover blown, he ends up in what he considers a bit of spy backwater, Helsinki.

However, his expectations change rapidly when he is tasked with making contact with Dominika. He ‘meets’ her in a public swimming pool, initially unaware that she has also been sent to ‘befriend’ him and discover the identity of his informant in Moscow.

Anatomy of a scene with film director Francis Lawrence:

From there the plot really twists and turns, and I don’t want to give too much away, other than to say that Nate cannot help falling for Dominika (code name DIVA), even though he strives to always be professional, but their passion risks the mission and their lives.

I thought it was original and a nice touch that Jason Matthews gifted Dominika’s character with Synesthesia, so when she hears music she also sees colours (Bach is red to her), and in her dealings with other operatives she can see the colours they emit, which helps her intuit their thoughts and intentions.

Quite a handy skill for a spy, to almost be able to read minds, to know when you are being lied to!

“I want to feel that sometimes we leave the operation behind, that there is just you and me.” Her bossom heaved in her brassiere. He stood up and put his arms around her. His mind was a riptide of damage control battling the stirring of his passion for her. He smelled her hair, and felt her body.
“Dominika,” he said, and the rushing in his ears started, the old danger signal.
“Will you break your rules again?” she asked. She saw his purple lust, it lit up the darkened room.
“I want you to violate your rules … with me… not your agent, me” said Dominika.”
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Only three of the men in the novel (including her lover, Nate), have purple halos, deemed by Dominika to be ‘true’, the safest and most sincere, the ones she trusts the most, but even their actions cause her to question everything…

Some scenes in this novel are truly shocking and provoked a visceral reaction in me, others are thought provoking and pertinent to current affairs.

This spy thriller is not just a seat of your pants roller-coaster ride; it stimulates deeper, more meaningful questions about the nature of international politics and its impact on all of us. The human motivations are insightfully portrayed and sensitively stereotyped, as the characters move in a world which is not black and white but mostly grey, where the lines of right and wrong are blurred, even in the CIA.

“She was tired of being used like a pump handle by all of them, the vlasti, the inheritors of the former Soviet Union, General Korchnoi, the Americans, Nate, telling her what was expedient, indicating what had to be done. She needed something more from them all. She was weary of having her feelings denied to her.”
~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow encompasses first rate storytelling that evokes the life of a spook in startling detail. It left me breathless. It’s also the first novel in a trilogy, but I need to wait a while and let my nerves settle down before embarking on part two: Palace of Treason.

I’m leaving it there, because it would be criminal to spoil this superb book for you!

“It’s quite simple,” said MARBLE. “Dominika will discover I am the spy and turn me in.” ~ Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

Book Review: Ghost Variations – Schumann’s Spirit Communicates from Beyond the Grave 💀🎻🎼

“My name is Jelly d’Arányi. I am the only woman who has ever had my name. I am the only woman who shall ever live my life. And live it I have, and I do, and I shall.” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

Ghost Variations: The Strangest Detective Story in Music is a perfect book for Halloween.

This book is not a traditional ghost story replete with creepy sounds that go bump in the night; Ghost Variations is derived from an actual occult experience in 1933, during which an important message from a genius musical spirit ‘speaks’ at a private séance conducted with a Ouija board.

An original Ouija board

As I was researching the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, I came across Jessica Duchen’s fabulous novel, which is narrated predominantly from the point of view of the violinist Jelly d’Arányi, a siren Hungarian virtuoso, who as grand niece of Joseph Joachim, made a name for herself as a soloist based in London.

I was totally absorbed in the book from the outset. It is beautifully written,  impeccably researched, as well as being musically and historically authentic. The colourful characters (both real and fictional), come off the pages in high definition life.

It’s hard enough to write fictional characters, but to base a work of fiction on mostly real people and events must be even more so…

I read Ghost Variations in a handful of sittings; it totally drew me in to the fictional tale of this real life violinist – slightly past her prime – living an extraordinary life in the Art Deco zeitgeist.

Based on her character in the novel I would love to have met Jelly d’Arányi. I feel Jessica captured her ‘essence’ perfectly: vivacious, glamorous, gracious, kind, musically brilliant but not a diva, vulnerable, courageous, and paradoxically both naïve and worldly.

She has known love, but is dedicated to her Bergonzi violin and her art: music.

The novel is set in the late thirties; Jelly is unmarried and approaching forty with arthritic joints that hamper her playing.  She finds her own fame fading simultaneously with the rise of the young violin superstar, Yehudi Menuhin based in America.

Jelly lives with her sister Adila Fachiri, her lawyer husband Alex, daughter Adrienne and pet dog Caesar in Netherton Grove. Their home is affectionately dubbed Hurricane House, a warm and bohemian base for Jelly as she travels across the UK for her paid concerts as well as a series of cathedral charity concerts during the depression.

Portrait of Jelly d’Aranyi by Charles Geoffroy Dechaume

The story begins after a concert when Jelly, her secretary Anna and their hosts, play a glass game. Jelly, although skeptical, still takes part, but when the spirit of composer Robert Schumann mentions her sister, she gets cold feet and leaves the room. At first she cannot accept the spirit messages are real, and tries to put the episode out of her thoughts.

However, events conspire and in a glass game with her sister Adila (known for her psychic abilities), and their close family friend and spiritualist, the Swedish Ambassador, Baron Erik Palmstierna, the voice of Robert Schumann comes through to Jelly, telling her to find and play his forgotten violin concerto.  Although still troubled, this time, Jelly cannot ignore it.

The paranormal nature of its emergence adds all the more mystery and conflict to the story, an imagining of what it must have been like for the talented Hungarian sisters in a time when psychic phenomena was frowned upon.

Jelly and Adila start to research the concerto, the last significant composition by Schumann before he descended into apparent madness, written for their revered great uncle Joachim. After Schumann’s death alone in the sanatorium, Brahms, Joachim and Clara decide not to publish the work, and it is placed in the Prussian State Library in Berlin by Joachim’s heirs, with the instruction that it not be performed for at least 100 years.

1850 photograph of Robert Schumann

When Jelly tells her musical companions about the circumstances preceding its rediscovery, she is met with mixed reactions. Donald Francis Tovey decides that the music itself is the most important thing, not its method of discovery, and helps her locate the score with the help of established German publishers Schott.

Baron Palmstierna visits the Prussian State Library expecting access to the suppressed manuscript, only to be told of its strict embargo, which Schumann’s last remaining daughter, the elderly Eugenie Schumann is adamant should remain unplayed…

Meanwhile Jelly is losing another love, Tom Spring-Rice to a fatal illness (after having lost Australian Olympic athlete, pianist and composer, Sep Kelly during the First World War). She is emotionally fragile, and comes to believe that by performing the world premiere of a long lost violin concerto she can also regain her dignity and rediscover herself.

However, in the wake of the baron’s visit to Berlin, knowledge of the concerto has come to the attention of the Nazi’s, who wish to use it for their own sickening nationalistic purposes, and the world premiere of the piece is awarded by Goebbels to a state sanctioned musician, Georg Kulenkampff, after it has been extensively edited by him, and also secretly by Paul Hindemith.

“Sleeping beauty had been awoken by the wrong prince. Could the spirits not see into the future? Could they not have known, when they chose to speak through the glass game, that the first person on whose ear the concerto would fall might be Adolf Hitler?” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

There is a brilliant and chilling scene towards the end of the novel in which the Strecker brothers, Ludwig and Willy and their colleague Ulli Schultheiss from Schott meet with Goebbels and members of the Reich regarding its publication and performances.

They know that their competitor Breitkopf & Härtel are also angling for first publication of the concerto, and so propose that Yehudi Menuhin also play it in America. Ulli puts his neck on the line to push for Jelly d’Arányi’s moral right to play the London premiere, being the grand niece of its dedicatee.

Being the vile Nazi pig he is, Goebbels is unhappy with his suggestion and threatens Ulli with his demise; but he ultimately agrees, as the music will by then be in the public domain.

Other scenes that reduced me to jelly (if you excuse the pronunciation and pun), is when she receives a visit from Moshe Menuhin, Yehudi’s formidable father. He brusquely asks her to give up the London premiere so Yehudi can be the first to play the concerto in London instead. Jelly refuses.

“Would you save a beloved friend’s life only to see him taken prisoner? I know Yehudi will play it well, but that concerto is not home again until it is here with me.” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

After the publication of Horizons of Immortality by Erik Palmstierna in conjunction with Adila Fachiri in 1937, in which a whole chapter is devoted to the story behind Jelly finding the ‘lost’ Schumann concerto, there is a media frenzy and backlash against her, and Jelly’s nerves are shredded even before she is due to perform the London premiere with Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

As Hitler ramps up his anti-Jewish activities and propaganda, Jelly is subject to increasing racial animosity in London as her foreign accent is being noticed and commented on more frequently. The pre-war situation becomes more tense, but it is nothing compared to the vitriolic reaction to her revelation of ‘voices from the other side’.

The man she loves is trapped in Germany, sitting in the Charlottenburg Opera House, dreading Kulenkampff’s world premiere on 26th November 1937, at which Goebbels and the Führer are also present; knowing deep down he must somehow escape the abhorrent pall of Nazi Germany.

Opernhaus, Berlin c. 1912

Ulli’s despair is poignant, when in London he had promised Jelly that she would be the first to play the concerto, but power and politics have deemed otherwise:

“If Kulenkampff and Böhm, those most rational musicians could not make sense of the concerto, how could anybody?
And yet… within this musical jungle lay a naked beauty so exposed that it seemed almost indecent. Schumann’s soul might be damaged and suffering, but he still gave its entirety. Could it ever have been right to leave this music unheard?
And yet, and yet… there was madness here, a precipice lying ahead in the fog and snow; a spirit filled with love, but lost, unable to master itself. For the first time Ulli began to wonder what happens when insanity is unleashed through art into the soul of others. What exactly did Joachim and Clara know about this piece that made them put it to sleep?”
The transition sounded and the Polonaise emerged into the daylight. The Führer was smiling.
Ulli forced himself to listen to the detail. Kulenkampff’s version was considerably altered, wheras Yehudi had eagerly declared that he wanted to play every note exactly as Schumann had written it, without even the hushed-up Hindemith adaptations. Kulenkampff, ignoring Schumann’s funereal metronome mark, played it as a true Polonaise; yet though his delivery was graceful and elegant, its triumph felt empty. Everything would be alright, it seemed to say, when Ulli knew full well that it would not: only a few months after creating the blazing conclusion, Schumann threw himself off the Dusselforf bridge into the black Rhine.
Final chord. Kulenkampff, domed forehead shining with sweat, his bow aloft, gaze locked for an instant with Böhm’s. The orchestra standing, tired, inscrutable. The Führer, on his feet. The whole audience rising to ape him. And applause. And… Ulli sensed sensed their puzzlement. This was no triumph. That slow movement, exquisite, yet out of kilter; was this concerto after all an insane work for an insane land? What had they done, letting it out?” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

The Kulenkampff recording:

Sadly there was no recording of Jelly’s London performance. Menuhin’s American recording from 1938:

It is 16th February 1938, the date of Jelly’s London premiere of the concerto, described in a crescendo of emotion which has been building throughout the book; fascinating for musicians and non-musicians alike.

Ghost Variations has a strong literary and musical theme, but it is written like a psychological thriller. This is something I also tried to achieve with my novel, The Virtuoso.

I’m in awe at Jessica Duchen’s deft vocabulary and skill in layering in her protagonist’s emotional and musical challenges against the backdrop of a violent time in history: the two are clearly inseparable for Jelly. The novel leaves you rooting for victory and redemption for our gutsy heroine.

We meet Jelly’s real cohorts in music, the larger than life pianist Dame Myra Hess and the indefatigable pianist and music professor, Sir Donald Francis Tovey.

Jelly and Myra in a BBC studio on World Violin Day in 1928

There are so many wonderful touches in the story, from how the sisters talk to each other in their everyday dialogue, the affectionate terms such as ‘Sai’ and ‘Onkel Jo’, to learning about how Bartók had written his violin sonatas for the sisters, and how Jelly had been muse to French composer, Maurice Ravel, who composed Tzigane, his gypsy themed, Czardas type melodies in his virtuosic showpiece for her. Jelly was also a muse to Elgar and Holst.

Ulli’s greetings to the bust of Wagner at Schott’s headquarters in Mainz are entirely plausible, since the Strecker brothers’ father had actually been a close personal friend of the composer.

Jessica explains more about the title of the novel:

Also in 1939, another previously unknown work by Robert Schumann was finally released to the public. It was a set of solo piano variations on the theme that Brahms had adopted from his own Opus 23 Variations (as played to Jelly by Myra in chapter 5). It became known as Geistervariationen – Ghost Variations – because Schumann believed the melody had been dictated to him in his sleep by spirits. What Schumann, in his disturbed state of mind, seemed to have forgotten is that he had already written the germ of this melody himself, in the slow movement of his violin concerto. He was writing the variations when he made his suicide attempt in February 1854.  The day after his rescue from the Rhine, he gave the manuscript to Clara. She preferred to leave it unpublished.

Score of Geistervariationen.

Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations), or Theme and Variations in E-flat major for piano, WoO 24:

The suppression of the concerto after Schumann’s death was probably on balance a good thing, after all it led to a grand unveiling of a piece that may have been more maligned in the direct aftermath of Schumann’s illness, not to mention making a wonderful premise for a modern work of fiction!

It’s as though Schumann’s spirit had re-emerged triumphant after eighty years to right the musical injustice of his unheard violin concerto in D minor.

To put it using Sir Donald Francis Tovey’s vernacular from the novel: there’s no nuff and stonsense in this musical, literary gem!

“She had to be no more tonight than the active component of her violin. No extraneous emotion – and no rustling dress – must upset the flow from Schumann’s mind to the audience’s. A musician is the truest medium there is. She, her technique and the Bergonzi were his channel now from world to world.
She let her sister massage her hands, one at a time. In the hall the orchestra was warming up; some overture was opening the programme, she couldn’t remember which. She tried to blot out all that was extraneous, all that was physical. The concerto existed in sound alone, nothing that could be seen, claimed and owned. Everyone wanted to pierce it with a pin and fix it to a velvet board, but it belonged to everybody and nobody. It was the sum total of all that had passed: imagined by Schumann, nurtured by Clara, fired up by Brahms, twisted by Onkel Jo, guarded by all those gatekeepers, meddled with by Goebbels and Hindemith and even perhaps Ulli. Yehudi, she knew would play it perfectly – so perhaps she and he were allies after all, desiring the best for the work – and whenever it was played, it would be born anew.”

 

Jessica very helpfully elucidates on which characters are real and which are fictional, as well as factual information about Jelly’s life and the fate of her family, friends and colleagues, at the end of the book, plus her extensive bibliography.

It’s well worth reading, and was listed as John Suchet’s favourite read of 2016. Ghost Variations on Unbound.

The Strad 125 Years: Pioneering Female String Players

I’ll bid you a ghostly farewell with a vintage recording of Jelly and Adila playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto:

Book Review: le Carré Carried me Away With The Mission Song

Whenever I read David Cornwell – better known by his pen name of John le Carré – I am left open-mouthed with awe at his storytelling prowess. He is the kind of writer I aspire to be; a lofty and unattainable benchmark for a newbie novelist!

The undisputed master of espionage and geopolitical thrillers, perhaps more psychological than action oriented; le Carré is gifted with a rapier sharp intellect, his characterisations are thorough and utterly believable, his plots are clever and complex but at the same time could be lifted from real life, and his use of vocabulary and descriptive powers are unmatched, in my humble opinion.

He can weave all of this together seamlessly with the knock-out punch of over-arching relevant social themes that leave you reeling with moral dilemmas and unease afterwards.

That is exactly what The Mission Song did to me. My children occasionally interrupted me as my nose was buried within its compelling pages for interminable periods over the weekend.

I became engrossed in the life of Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo, a top interpreter in the languages of Africa and the Eastern Congo.

I haven’t read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but I feel it’s highly likely that le Carré drew inspiration from his tale of Belgian exploitation of the Congo.

Conrad’s quote precedes chapter one::

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. “ – Marlow

King Leopold is mentioned only once in The Mission Song, but it does highlight the ongoing plight of the Eastern Congo: corruption, tribal rivalries, their suspicion and hatred of Rwandans, outside interference from greedy developed nations seeking to take advantage of the local strife so they can plunder its considerable natural resources under the veiled auspices of schools, hospitals and bounty for all.

The opening few pages on audio book of The Mission Song, read by David Oyelowo:

I’ll try not to give away too many spoilers in this review, more a taste of the book’s many virtues. The beginning was a slow burn for me, but after the first couple of chapters I was completely hooked.

I empathised with and was beguiled by Salvo’s essentially ambitious but innocent nature. In the early pages he tells of his rather sad and unorthodox childhood; the son of a Northern Irish missionary and a beautiful Congolese woman, born out of wedlock and in sin, fitting in nowhere, he is brought up in various mission schools and becomes fluent in Swahili, French, Shi, Bembe, Kinyarwanda and of course his adopted nation’s tongue: English.

After the death of his father Salvo is duly shipped to Britain courtesy of the Holy See, and comes under the wing of Brother Michael at The Sanctuary, a boarding school for Catholic orphans. They grow close, and later Salvo is supported financially and lives with their wealthy Aunt Imelda in Somerset.

Salvo is impressionable, idealistic, diligent and naïve. His physical attributes are of a confident, tall, muscular, light brown skinned man eager to impress his clients, and so from humble beginnings he has found his niche as a top interpreter.

He is called a zebra later in the novel, a derogatory reference to his mixed race parentage. However, Salvo adopts the sobriquet and uses it in his own motivational way as he pits himself secretly against some Congolese delegates, and later, after his moral paradigm shift, his no-name, ruthless employers.

 

Salvo has married a smart, upper class journalist named Penelope, against the wishes of her authoritarian father. Their marriage is doomed from the start.

Lately he has been doing some under the radar translation work for Her Majesty’s Government in Mr Anderson’s Chat Room. His knowledge of African languages makes him indispensable.

Salvo doesn’t know it yet but his life is about to get a whole lot more exciting and complicated!

The night before he becomes a part-time spy, Salvo meets Hannah, a young Congolese nurse, who needs him to translate her advice to a dying African patient. They fall in love at first sight. Hannah has a young son, Noah, living back in Uganda with her aunt so that Hannah can continue to further her nursing experience and send back money.

They are perfect for each other, and in his guilty heart Salvo knows that his bourgeois life with Penelope is over. Having consummated his love and passion with Hannah, Salvo is still infused with a post coital afterglow when he is summoned to meet with his Chat Room boss, Mr Anderson, about a ‘special’ mission that requires a change of identity and complete deniability.

Given new, but somewhat shabby clothes in comparison to his usual attire, his identity is changed to Brian Sinclair. He signs the Official Secrets Act. His task: to be a top interpreter for a no-name syndicate between tribal warlords and a businessman of the Eastern Congo.

Before they leave, Bruno is taken to a large London townhouse where he meets his immediate boss, ex-special forces tough man, Maxie, who reminds him of his long-dead maths teacher from The Sanctuary. Prominent politicians and business leaders are coming and going, including a hero of his, Lord Brinkley.

Soon our boy is being whisked by helicopter from London to Luton airport where he boards a private charter with Maxie and his spy cohorts: Spider, Anton and Benny, various security detail Salvo calls ‘anoraks’ and the syndicate’s contract writer, a shady French Lawyer, Jasper Albin.

Salvo’s phone has been commandeered temporarily by British Intelligence, so he cannot call Hannah to tell her he will be away for the weekend, or his wife to apologise for leaving her party early, and also their faltering marriage.

It is during the flight to a mysterious island in the North Sea on this heightened tide of emotions that he is briefed with what he needs to know by the laconic and foul-mouthed Maxie, whom he (and everyone else on the mission), refers to as Skipper.

Salvo learns that the top secret conference has been arranged by an accomplished servant of the Crown, the silvery haired and persuasive Philip, and that in his vital role as their interpreter, Brian Sinclair, he is not to divulge that he speaks the lesser known Shi and Kinyarwanda.

The Congo – Lake Kivu

This information seems incidental at first, but as the story progresses the significance of Maxie’s explicit instructions become fundamental to the plot:

“Suppose we put it out that you speak English, French and Swahili and call it a day? That’s more than enough for anybody. And we keep your little ones to ourselves. How would that grab you? Different kind of challenge for you. New.”

Salvo is less than impressed that ‘above the waterline’ he only speaks English, French and Swahili, and ‘below the waterline’ the languages that he is most proud of such as Shi, Bembe and Kinyarwanda must be kept under wraps, unless he is specifically asked to use them. He nonetheless undertakes his ‘above the waterline’ rendering of Philip, the Mwangaza and Maxie with alacrity.

The Mwangaza is a beloved spiritual leader of the Congo’s ‘middle path’, accompanied by his henchman Felix Tabizi, (aka Tabby), a feared former warrior, and his acolyte the Dolphin.

The three delegates consist of a gnarled general of the Mai Mai and ‘former Mobotu thug’ Franco, and his natural enemy, the aid’s ridden warlord Dieudonné of the despised and persecuted Banyamulenge tribe, and thorn in the British side is the arrogant and slick Haj, son of Luc, a long-time friend of the Mwangaza based in Goma, who has sent Haj as his proxy.

In Salvo’s words: “Haj, the egregious Sorbonne-educated, uncrowned merchant prince of Bukavu: but with such disdain, such foppery, and such determined distance from his fellows, that I was tempted to wonder whether he was having second thoughts about standing in for his father.”

Bukavu – dawn on Lake Kivu

Le Carré’s genius is that I was sucked in with Salvo in his wanting to do a good job of interpreting and for their mission to be a success. In the recesses of the conference, rather than socialise and solicit with the delegates, Salvo has been instructed to go into the basement where Spider has put together a comprehensive listening station that links in to all the rooms in the house and the outdoor bugs scattered at key points throughout the grounds.

The conference organiser and boss, Philip is banking on loose tongues to wag while their unpredictable guests are out of earshot of their hosts…

The illicit listening is where Salvo hears himself being called ‘a pretty zebra’ by a recalcitrant Haj, who is doing his best to talk Franco and Dieudonné out of getting involved with the syndicate. They are speaking (and the inference is deliberately) in Kinyarwanda, not knowing their interpreter is eavesdropping on one of his ‘below the line’ languages.

 

As the syndicate’s chief ‘sound thief’, Salvo translates their conversations and reports back to the well-spoken Sam via the radio, who frequently starts her sentences with, “Brian dear…”

It is apparent to Salvo (and therefore to the reader), that Skipper wholeheartedly believes their secret conference will make them the saviours of the Eastern Congo. In his less than salubrious language Maxie explains:

“Congo’s been bleeding to death for five centuries,” he went on distractedly. “F***** by the Arab slavers, fellow Africans, the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, the mineral companies, half the world’s carpetbaggers, their own government in Kinshasa, and any minute now they’re going to be f***** by the oil companies.“

As the conference unfolds, it becomes obvious that the well-meaning secret syndicate will support the three leaders to publicly support each other and the Mwangaza in a pre-arranged coup, although it’s portrayed more as a temporary disturbance by Maxie to downplay any violence, prior to the elections in Kinshasa.

Maxie takes great pains to explain that the wealth of the mines and minerals will be distributed to the well deserving people, after the syndicate and its partners take their cut.

The Congo gets its popular, altruistic leader, a newly formed peace united under the Mwangaza, and the delegates and the syndicate get rich. It’s a win-win according to Skipper.

 

Haj is the subversive element of their plan, and through Salvo’s clandestine listening in of Tabby torturing Haj with the assistance of Anton and Benny, (something his employers did not want him to know about), Salvo himself, now disillusioned and wary of the coming war that Maxie and the syndicate plan to unleash, and that Haj has protested about, secretly becomes the unlikely linchpin of the entire operation.

From one of the Mission Song’s most shocking scenes the book’s moving title then becomes clear.

Le Carré’s escalation and tension crescendos magnificently, so much so that you feel like you are a rookie spy, in the thick of it with Salvo, torn between his loyalty to Queen and country, his missionary’s conscience and his homeland, as well as his love for Hannah who he knows also adores the Eastern Congo and the Mwangaza. Their beleaguered nation, once again at the mercy of ruthless state-sponsored greed…

The twist at the end is heartbreaking and breathtaking. It’s so utterly brilliant I had a swell of emotion! I was screaming in my mind at Salvo not to be so naïve. He is a zebra surrounded by lions.

This is realistic spy fiction which makes it all the more impactful in my humble opinion. I was left with very unpatriotic thoughts and disquiet, I felt quite sullied actually. I don’t read le Carré for a light-hearted romp, because that’s not his style – it’s gritty, hard hitting, lyrical (you wouldn’t believe the man’s vocabulary), cynical and visceral.

“John Le Carré turns espionage into existentialism. His canvas is betrayal — of the realm and of the heart. His greatness comes from the personal nature of that exploration.” ~ David Farr

Endings are a tricky thing to master: to achieve a balance whereby the reader is both surprised and satisfied with an outcome that is unforeseen and yet can be the only logical conclusion to the story. Yet again The Mission Song left me breathless.

My thanks to John le Carré for inspiring me to once again get stuck in to writing my psychological thriller that has been rattling around my head for far too long.

I found this a fascinating and entertaining debate between author Anthony Horowitz and screenwriter David Farr – Ian Fleming vs John le Carré:

If you want an intelligent summer read full of authentic details in the world of espionage, covert national malfeasance, interpreting, dialogue to die for and edge-of-your-seat, emotional storytelling, The Mission Song won’t let you down!

For a deeper insight into the man and his writing this is a great interview (on le Carré’s part at least) filmed with BBC Radio 3:

For fans you may wish to know that the author will be speaking at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 7th September discussing his career and new novel, A Legacy of Spies, reprising his best loved character: George Smiley. It has been billed by The Guardian as the literary event of the year.

The kids will only just be back at school, but I must be there!!