Review: The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2015

edward wilson whitehall mandarinThe Whitehall Mandarin, Edward Wilson

The comparisons to John Le Carre are inevitable: who’s the mole in MI5 passing on secrets to the Russians? But if that sounds all a bit trite-and-tested a spy formula, don’t worry: The Whitehall Mandarin is too thoughtful, clever and fast-moving to be boring.

The protagonist is William Catesby, a Cambridge-educated working-class socialist who accommodates himself to working his way up MI6. His nemesis is Jeffers Caudwell, an American double agent who isn’t all that he seems. They’re united by their separate pursuits of Lady Somers, the first female Permanent under Secretary to head up the Ministry of Defence, who has her own well-concealed secret.

Much of the book is set against the backdrop of 1960s’ London with more than a passing nod to the always-fascinating Profumo Affair, and is gripping. The pace (to my taste) slackens once the story is re-located to Vietnam — and the big finale reveal feels somewhat contrived, with scant explanation of the mole’s past life-altering decision.

But these are minor quibbles: this is a well-researched, well-told, well-I-never thriller.

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