Political thrillers can be either validated or overtaken by real events. Charles McCarry (1930-2019), a great Catholic writer who died recently, wrote a kind of legislative sci-fi. The Better Angels (1979) predicted both the use of passenger planes as terrorist weapons, and the possibility of elections being stolen by technology, more than two decades before these scenarios became American reality.
Tom Bradby, who daylights as a thriller writer when not presenting ITN’s News at Ten, has had McCarry-like luck with his terrific, topical seventh novel, Secret Service (Bantam Press, 368pp, £12.99/$16.99), in which a populist, controversial foreign secretary is the front-runner in a party leadership election that will make the winner prime minister. The book was published in the same week that Theresa May announced her departure date, triggering Boris Johnson’s latest attempt at Number 10.
In Bradby’s book, James Ryan, an erratic would-be Churchillian occupant of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is running against education secretary Imogen Conrad, rather than, as in what passes for real political life, the premiership depending on a battle between ex-FCO and current FCO overlords.
And, as Bradby is writing a thriller rather than a Trollopian political novel, Ryan is facing a suspicion avoided even by the scrape-prone Johnson. An MI6 operation, led by Russia desk officer Kate Henderson, eavesdrops on Putin-friendly oligarchs on a yacht boasting that one of the leading contenders for British PM is a Moscow agent.
This is a stupendous set-up for a thriller. As Kate immediately realises, the salty gossip might be kompromat, false information released to confuse the other side. However, another remark recorded on the boat suggests that the Russians do indeed have a mole in the cabinet. Ryan is the most likely candidate to be Putin’s invisible running mate, but it might be Conrad; and Bradby, being a skilled suspense operative, complicates things with a surprise late entrant to the race.
Spy Kate is an impressive creation, plausibly caught between professional duty and family guilt. The domestic scenes have an emotional strength rare in thrillers, and a subplot involving chronic insomnia appears to draw on the sleep difficulties that took Bradby off air last year. The prose sometimes lets down the plot: the editor should have asked for alternatives to off-the-peg sentences such as “the first fingers of light felt their way over the horizon”. Otherwise, though, Secret Service is the smart, classy beach read for this summer, giving readers an even better time than it already would because of its prescient timing.
A less successfully prophetic political narrative is The Friends of Harry Perkins (Scribner, 192pp, £12/$15), Chris Mullin’s markedly belated sequel to A Very British Coup, his 1982 bestseller that has twice been televised. The publishers scheduled its publication for March 29 of this year, a thematic genuflection to its setting in a post-Brexit Britain. Unfortunately, for reasons widely covered in the media, the book’s version of the UK will now remain false at least until Halloween. Another odd contra-historical element is that – as in David Hare’s weird recent National Theatre play, I’m Not Running – the Blair-ites seem to have regained control of the Labour Party.
Mullin, though, remains worth reading for his deep understanding of parliamentary procedures (a useful primer for Commons deadlocks), and a powerfully emotive sub-plot about the impact of a family illness.
Another thriller timed and marketed to coincide with the UK’s planned departure date from the EU, Accidental Agent (Simon & Shuster, 272pp, £14.99/$15), also suffers from having taken on trust Theresa May’s promise that Brexit would mean Brexit. The 14th novel by Alan Judd takes place in the run-up to March 29, 2019, with MI6 boss Charles Thoroughgood receiving a tip-off of what will be the bottom line in the EU negotiating position. But – in a version of the problem faced by the protagonist of the Bradby book – he has to ascertain whether the leak may be misinformation.
While this might work well as the premise of a story about nuclear de-escalation talks between the US and Russia or North Korea, it doesn’t really fit Brexit, which was never going to be a standard negotiation, as the probable outcome was desired by only one side. And the European negotiating position – in sequencing of talks and the importance of the Irish backstop – became clear so soon, through public statements and media leaks, that Thoroughgood’s real-life counterparts wouldn’t need a secret agent to find it out.
However, a second plot strand – about the suspicion of terrorist links falling on someone Thoroughgood knows – is compelling, and, as with Mullin’s novel, chronological miscalculation is offset by compelling insider detail – in this case, of how espionage operates. One fascinating revelation is that the UK security forces are apparently forbidden from spying on other EU countries.
If Brexit ever happens, there must surely be a tremendous book for Judd in the consequences of the dropping of that protocol.