Silva’s first book, written before the famous Gabriel Allon series, surprised me with its heavy emphasis on history and much more nuanced characters than his later books offer. I found myself impressed both by Silva’s successful handling of an oft-told if fascinating period of history, and by effective combining of a satisfying political thriller with the personal stories he managed to weave so effectively into the intrigue of the times.
The Unlikely Spy takes place in 1944 in England, where the outcome of the Second World War now relies heavily on the quality of the intelligence and counter-intelligence each side can draw on. History professor Alfred Vicary has been drafted into MI-5 by none other than Churchill himself to run a dis-information operation against the Germany. He is in charge of turning captured Nazi spies, and using them to feed disinformation to German intelligence. He learns that there is a long-buried “sleeper” agent in London who has been activated to uncover the time and place of the Allied landing in France, and must identify the agent while protecting “Operation Mulberry” at all cost.
Vicary is a fascinating character, not one of the political elite but an unassuming professorial sort with a laser-like intelligencel. He has discovered to his surprise that he has a real talent for covert intelligence, but is constantly frustrated by the roadblocks deliberately thrown in his path by his immediate superior at MI-5, Sir Basil Boothby, who appears to be hiding some serious secrets. At the same time, we get to meet a cast of historical figures on the German side, from Hitler, Himmler, and Rommel, to Canaris and Schellenberg, and watch their deadly rivalries play out against the backdrop of war.
And then there is “Catherine Blake,” the beautiful and murderous sleeper agent who almost—but not quite—gets to throw WWII’s victory to the Nazis through her seduction of Operation Mulberry’s chief engineer, American Peter Jordan. Although Silva takes pains to give us an in-depth picture of Blake’s own history, including the fact that she has been blackmailed by the Nazis into becoming one of their super-agents inside England, Blake is nonetheless a scary stone-cold killer who never wins our sympathy. She also never strays too far from the cliché of the femme fatale, which is a notable weakness in Silva’s plot.
Perhaps most fascinating, for me, was the stunning wrap-up at the end of the book, where we not only discover the much deeper waters than ran under the intrigue Vicary was striving so mightily to unravel, but also what lengths the British were willing to go to deploy their psychological spycraft against their own, all in the name of what Kipling so famously called “The Game.” Well done, Mr. Silva.