James Wolff writes a different kind of spy novel, and his new one, The Man in the Corduroy Suit, is no exception. Wolff’s British intelligence agents are renegades. Jonas Worth, whose antics were the subject of the first book in the series, Beside the Syrian Sea, and agent-runner August Drummond from How to Betray Your Country, the second, both found themselves at odds with their bureaucracies. Wolff’s storytelling skills are such that you adopt these oddball characters and want them to succeed, despite the parallel imperative for the system to function. There’s no formula evident in Wolff’s stories; each is a plunge into the unknown.
The protagonist of this story, Leonard Flood, has acquired a reputation: blunt and prickly. If he comes up short on social skills, he’s also a relentless questioner, who through sheer persistence can pry information out of an interviewee. Or an unwilling colleague. In other words, he can be a pain in the neck. Wolff draws Leonard’s—and his other characters’—personalities with an artist’s eye for the telling detail, including the corduroy suit Leonard favors, irrespective of weather.
Reading about Wolff’s bureaucratic misfits, you may be reminded of Mick Herron’s Slough House series. The difference is that, flawed though Herron’s characters are, they do form something of a team. And they can hold it together to resolve a problem. Wolff’s characters skate out onto the thin ice mostly alone, and the problems to be solved are, if not wholly of their own making, specific to them. Like Herron, Wolff has a finely-honed ability to skewer the absurdities of bureaucratic life and the foibles of his oh-so-human characters.
The head of an MI5 unit called Gatekeeping, which covertly investigates the agency’s own personnel, asks Flood to look into the activities of a retired officer, Willa Karlsson, who has been struck down by a mysterious illness. Alarmingly, she seems to have been the victim of some hard-to-detect Russian poison. Karlsson for many years worked in New Recruit Vetting. She is, in fact, the very person who vetted Flood. As the boss is quick to point out, she also vetted intelligence analyst Jonas Worth and agent-runner August Drummond from books one and two. Their wandering off the straight-and-narrow still stings. Worse, how many other dodgy personnel did Karlsson approve? Was she on a deliberate campaign to undermine the agency? To introduce people whose personal weaknesses would make them vulnerable? In short, how many bad apples are in the MI5 barrel?
Flood doesn’t have much time to figure it out, either. Once he thinks he has, the atmosphere of the story darkens, and you can’t be sure whom he should trust or what he can risk taking for granted. When so recently in real life, a young American man let loose into the world a large cache of international intelligence, this book can make you think hard about whether you ever do or can know enough about the people called upon to protect a nation’s closest secrets.
While I won’t go into specifics about the ending, it’s one of those satisfyingly unexpected but well laid out scenarios, much like one the late John le Carré might devise. I thoroughly enjoyed this cerebral book—the quirky personalities, the clever plot, the sly tone. Although even Leonard doesn’t figure out Willa Karlsson’s motive, I suspect you will.
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