Ungentlemanly Warfare: a WW2 spy story

UnGentDespite what the title suggests, this is an entirely gentlemanly novel of behind-the-lines, undercover activity in occupied France during WW2. It’s an old-school espionage adventure which cleverly captures the classic vibe of films like The Great Escape. I almost expected Dickie Attenborough and Kenneth Moore to appear as character cameos…

…and in fact Howard Linskey, the author, couldn’t resist sneaking real-life people like Kim Philby and Ian Fleming into the sidelines of his story. We also meet the real-life inspiration for Q in the Bond books; a little bit of show-boating which was a lot of fun.

Apart from those obvious moments, Linskey incorporates factual information with subtle skill so that the historical background adds understated authenticity – without force-feeding the reader indigestible detail. This is one of those time-travel books which transports you back to the 1940s, and Linskey certainly plays the nostalgia card with some confidence. A Glenn Miller big-band soundtrack would be ideal!

We join the war at a crucial stage when Britain no longer stands alone, but the outcome is far from certain. One of Hitler’s technological ‘wonder weapons’ nears completion and could easily prove decisive. It’s being tested in northern France, so early versions of the British and American spook services – the Special Operations Executive and Office Of Strategic Services – plan a clandestine operation to sabotage the Nazi jet fighter programme by taking out its chief scientist.

This is a critical mission of international importance, so of course there’s a complicated reason why it’s given to Harry – a reckless, rebellious soldier-turned-spy who’s on the brink of burning out. His team of infiltrators includes an American and a Frenchman and Emma, the feisty female love interest. They must evade a particularly nasty gestapo officer who bears an old grudge, and recruit French maquis fighters to their cause.

But Harry and Emma could be betrayed at any time. They’re isolated and exposed, with compromised communications and few friends on the ground. Nazi spies might’ve penetrated their resistance cell. Local French supporters might crack under interrogation or unwittingly give the game away. And Harry doesn’t know who he can trust – not the Americans, not the locals, and definitely not his own organisation where he has few friends. This is an opportunity for Harry’s old enemies to settle some scores, putting the mission and Emma in peril…

Many wartime thrillers go heavy on existential angst (Alan Furst, Ben Pastor, Philip Kerr), but Ungentlemanly Warfare is more action-adventure than Berlin noir. It’s far from superficial, however, and Linskey makes some serious social observations about the British class system, for instance.

More James Bond than John le Carre, this is a perfect read for anyone who enjoys curling up on the sofa on a soggy Sunday afternoon to watch We Dive At Dawn or Reach For The Sky

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Ungentlemanly Warfare by Howard Linskey is available at Amazon


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