Maybe, like me, you had high hopes when Stella Rimington started writing espionage adventure novels. After all, she was the first female head honcho at MI5. Surely her spy stories would be brilliant?
And maybe, like me, you were deeply disappointed by Rimington’s unremarkable early outings which fell far short of their tantalising potential. After the first couple of let-downs I stopped bothering with them. Instead I get my fix of contemporary espionage intrigue with wordsmiths like Mick Herron, Charles Cumming and Daniel Silva. It’s a relatively small selection from the much broader genre of historic spy fiction – there’s oodles of the stuff set in the Cold War, the Great War and the Great Patriotic War… but not so much written about the modern day. Finding a new author writing convincingly about current-day clandestine operations is a rare treat.
So I seized upon The Righteous Spy with a mix of exhilaration and trepidation. It’s a 21st century spy story which weaves together the critical threads of geopolitical crisis and inter-agency rivalry between supposed allies.
An older Mossad agent is tasked with running a dubious false flag operation to raise the agency’s standing with the CIA and MI6. He’s hampered by his own misgivings and an unconventional subordinate, an impulsive agent for whom the ends invariably justify hazardous means. On top of that, Eli has to deal with another asset whose domestic situation recently reached DefCon3 – just as he’s finally delivering crucial intelligence.
For Eli, it’s vital that his missions succeed. If he fails, then he’ll be washed up, past it and relegated to inconsequential low-grade analysis, where his talents and experience will be wasted. If he can pull off the near-impossible, then there’s a chance he could become head of London station. And for Eli, painted as a genuine patriot and not a career-ladder climber, that means he could dedicate himself to his country’s best interests. This is his make or break moment, and it’s fraught with moral complexity.
All this, mixed in to an ominous narrative of young people in the UK being manipulated and radicalised; of repercussions from overseas interventions bringing violence back to Britain’s streets. Can Eli prevent a terrorist atrocity… or not?
One thing’s for sure, author Merle Nygate definitely delivers across the board. The Righteous Spy is as close to perfect a spy story as I’ve read for many years. I have to think back to the streamlined simplicity of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold to recall a tale as elegant and well-constructed. Nygate combines three-dimensional characters, people who fluidly escape the usual genre and gender boundaries, with an extensive exploration of detailed tradecraft. It’s a captivating read.
Ambiguous, intricate and deliberately deceptive, The Righteous Spy should satisfy any true espionage enthusiast. It’s the literary equivalent of a painstaking jigsaw puzzle: one where you can’t see the true picture until the very last piece is in place…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Righteous Spy by Merle Nygate is available at Amazon