FIRST and even second novels tell you little about whether a writer will develop and build a career. Sometimes they are written from personal experience and have exhausted it.
THE SUICIDE CLUB
Hodder & Stoughton, 360pp, £17.99
Sometimes they are like the seed sown on stony ground. The Suicide Club is Andrew Williams’s fourth novel, and it removes any doubts. It establishes him as an unusually accomplished craftsman, a master of the intelligent historical spy thriller. His research is thorough and has been absorbed; it never obtrudes. His imagination works in harmony with his powers of observation. His plotting is intricate and coherent. The narrative drives compellingly along.
It is set in 1917 , during the terrible battle of Passchendaele, but, though we get enough of its horrors, most of the action takes place either behind the lines or in German-occupied Belgium. The hero, Alexander Innes, a captain in the Cameron Highlanders, has been withdrawn from frontline service after being badly wounded at the Somme. At the beginning of the novel, seconded to the Secret Service, he is working with the Resistance in Belgium. Then he is called to London and given a new assignment at Field-Marshal Haig’s headquarters.
He is sent there as a spy. There is tension between London and the Army, between the Prime Minister, Lloyd George and Haig, and there is concern about the quality of the intelligence being delivered to the High Command. Is it reliable? Is it too optimistic? Innes’s job is to find out. That he is given this assignment is evidence of the distrust endemic in the fog of war, but distrust which is peculiarly acute at this critical moment in the conflict. The intelligence, he learns, suggests that the German army is on the point of collapse. This intelligence, fed to Haig, confirms him in his belief that one more push, one more frontal attack, will result in the long hoped-for breakthrough, to be exploited by the cavalry massed in waiting behind the battle.
Innes finds that other senior officers at HQ share his doubts about the quality of the intelligence and the ability of Brigadier Charteris, the Head of Intelligence. Much of it seems to come from one source, codenamed Faust. Faust tells Charteris and Charteris tells Haig what each man wants to believe. These sceptical officers, however, differ from London in that they nevertheless believe that the Field-Marshal is the only man who can win the war. So there is political tension, and Innes can never be sure who is using him and for what purpose. Eventually, to investigate the reliability of Faust, he is once again sent undercover to Belgium to join up with his old Resistance network, at which point the thriller element of the novel takes over; and does so very grippingly.
The novel is, in a sense, a hybrid. At GHQ in France, Innes is in a world familiar to readers of John Le Carré, where different parts of the intelligence services have their own agenda that clashes with that of other parts, where little can be taken on trust, where almost nothing that is said can be taken at face value. All may share the same aim – victory – but there are departmental jealousies and intrigues as men struggle to secure and defend their own position or to advance their own view of how to achieve that aim. Then Innes‘s return to Belgium and the dangers he runs there are pure John Buchan (though Williams grants him a more convincing love affair than Buchan ever gave Richard Hannay).
Williams never glosses over the horrors of war. Nor does he shrink from showing that resistance in an occupied country, however admirable, even noble, will almost always have terrible consequences for innocent people and bit players caught up in the activities of resistance groups. Waging war imposes heavy responsibilities on those in authority, and requires them to make appalling ethical choices – sending men to their deaths for purposes they may barely understand. In this context he is fair to the much-maligned Haig, seen here through the eyes of fictional characters, in the way in which Scott portrayed real-life figures like Claverhouse in his novels.
One of the many achievements of this splendid novel is that, while sensible always of the view of the 1914-18 war which we have formed from the work of poets such as Owen and Sassoon, he shows why few actively engaged in it at the time ever doubted its necessity and the necessity of winning it. The question then was “how?”, not “why?”