Friends and Traitors by John Lawton - What a start. One of the Cambridge Five spies, Guy Burgess, is a friend of Inspector Frederick Troy and his family in the mid-1930’s. It was a surprising and intriguing opening. Burgess creates an immediate impression as a heavy drinker with a “high-pitched snort” of a giggle. He is also known as “one of the most notorious buggers in London”.
They muddle through the war with Burgess living a flamboyant lifestyle.
In 1951 Burgess leaves for Russia. Troy describes him as “a queer buffon”. It is ill-suited to the grim life of Soviet Russia.
The plot was drifting until Burgess approaches Troy in Vienna about wanting to return to England. In a brilliant passage Lawton evokes the longing of an exile:
“I miss it all. I miss London. I miss the pubs. I miss the Dog & Duck. I miss the Salisbury. I miss the Reform. I miss the RAC. I miss the Gargoyle. I miss that bloke in the pub in Holborn who could farth the national anthem. I miss Tommy Trinder. I miss Max Miller. I miss Billy Cotton. I miss Mantovani. I miss my mother. Oh God. I miss my mother. I miss my flannelette stripy pyjama. I miss the weather. I miss fog. I miss drizzle. Who would ever think anyone in their right mind could miss drizzle? I miss Penguin books. I miss the pelicans in St. James’s Park. I miss the blow jobs in St. James’s Park. I miss the News of the World. I miss The Daily Mirror. I miss sniffing the fresh inkiness of the late edition London evening papers. I miss The Beano. I miss Desperate Dan. I miss Wilfred Pickles and Mabel. I miss Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. I miss Kenneth Horne. I miss Stinker Murdoch. I miss Arthur Askey. I miss Mrs. Dale’s Diary. I still worry about Jim. I miss Pathe News. I miss Bob Danvers-Walker. I miss the Proms. I miss Malcolm Sargent. I miss Pomp and Circumstance. I miss the Gang Show. I haven’t had a “ging gang goolie goolie wotcha” in years. I miss nipping down east for jellied eels and a bit of rough …..”
Burgess professes to want a quiet life of anonymity. Troy is unconvinced Burgess has the personality to ever fade away from public attention.
Jordan Younghusband from MI5 muses can a spy de-defect?
Does England want him back?
British spies would love to know if he will provide the identities of other Russian spies. Troy gains some information. Burgess names of all of the Cambridge Five. When Troy moves to the question of a Sixth spy Burgess drunkenly avoids an answer. (I discussed the question of the potential Sixth spy in a post I wrote after reading Trinity Six by Charles Cumming. Here is a link (https://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2015/11/trinity-six-by-charles-cumming.html). What might he say if he were properly de-briefed?
Later there is a name for a Sixth spy. It appears to be a fictional name unlike the names of the other actual spies.
Back in London Prime Minister Harold MacMillan succientely advises that he does “not want Burgess back - at any price”.
I had not thought about the challenges of a defector intent on return. He is a traitor. Should he be prosecuted? What will be the public reaction to the return of Burgess? More important what will the Establishment, of which Burgess was a member, think of their betrayer returning to England?
And then there is a killing of a British agent in Vienna.
In official England officialdom focuses on Troy. Could he be a spy? Paranoia has risen after the embarrassment of the Cambridge Five.
It is a spy story with no spying. Friends and Traitors sets out the everyday lives of spies and those who chase them. For these spies and spycatchers it is the routine of ordinary folk who are members of the British Establishment. There is no discussion of secrets obtained and passed on. There is no analysis of mole hunting.
Based on this book few in MI5 would catch a spy. Many are aptly called “plods”. There is precious little of the ruthless subtlety set out by John Le Carre. There is one nondescript spycatcher who is actually a master interrogator. As with the best questioners he gathers all the information possible about the subject before starting an interrogation.
Late in the book there happens to be a murder.
Lawton is a gifted writer. I enjoyed the book but did not find it compelling. Burgess disappears much too early from the plot.