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A spy thriller set in 1980s America and the Scottish Highlands

30th March 2023

The Spy Across The Water by James Naughtie, a spy thriller set in 1980s America and the Scottish Highlands.

A spy thriller set in 1980s America and the Scottish Highlands

The Spy Across The Water is an intelligent and complex spy thriller. It is, in many ways, reminiscent of John le Carré. The book is the third in the Will Flemyng spy series by Naughtie – the others are Paris Spring set in 1968 and The Madness of July set in the 1970s. All are very well worth reading.

In The Spy Across The Water, Flemyng is now the British Ambassador in Washington. He has moved up in the diplomatic world, but has not completely severed his intelligence links. He learns that his brother, Abel, has been found shot dead in a less than salubrious part of Chicago. Abel worked for a section of US intelligence and, although the brothers were in many ways close, they saw each other but rarely and – for obvious reasons – could not discuss their work in any depth when they did. Will did not know what Abel had been involved in, or why he had been murdered. At the funeral Will encountered two faces from his past… that surprised, and worried, him.

He is dragged back in his mind to a time years previously working as an MI5 officer in Northern Ireland. It was a time of double agents and intrigue. Were past connections surfacing in Chicago as the Irish American community there went about their business of fund raising and shipping arms to Belfast? Would one of his very oldest friends – a senior IRA double agent with whom he had, perhaps strangely, built a relationship of trust and mutual affection – be about to reappear after many years?

At the same time a parallel story is developing. There is highly placed British double agent operating in Moscow. He sends back valuable cold war intelligence – some of which is shared with Washington. Washington, though, gets both greedy and leaky. US intelligence works out the name of the person concerned in the hope they too can exploit him. And they also get leaky. The name of the agent circulates in Washington where Russia is hiring spies for money (as opposed to ideology) and there are fears that Moscow, too, will soon identify the person. Will Flemyng is one of very few people associated with UK intelligence who knows the name of the person and is in a position to facilitate an extraction as necessary

There is a third Flemyng brother, Mungo, who lives on the family estate in the quite beautiful Highlands of Scotland where all the boys were brought up. He is an historian and knows a little (not any real detail) about the lives of Will and Abel. The estate provides an ideal location for clandestine meetings. The peace and quiet of a walk around the loch or up into the hills is in stark contrast to an earlier adrenaline powered gun chase through the streets of Chicago. The change of pace and location works really well. You can really tell that Naughtie loves his native Scotland. He is a BBC radio correspondent and presenter who has spent several decades travelling the world as a journalist. He writes with authority both on international espionage and diplomacy – and also on the Scottish countryside that is so dear to him.

The Spy Across The Water is a work of fiction. But it could very well be fact. References to events of the time (for example the Kim Philby spy exposé, and its impact on the intelligence services) add to the illusion.

The Spy Across The Water is a beautifully crafted, and very worthwhile work.

Tony for the TripFiction team

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