Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Whitehall Mandarin

The Whitehall Mandarin 
By Edward Wilson
Submitted by the publisher
$29.95, 362 pgs
The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
You know how you can tell you’re not reading just any old spy novel? There’s a bibliography included at the end.

The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson is a historical novel of espionage set in London when the Cold War was never colder. The story begins in 1957 in St. James Park where British spy William Catesby, an agent with SIS, is photographing a meet on a park bench between Jeffers Cauldwell, an American cultural attaché suspected of running a spy ring for the USSR, and an employee of the British Admiralty. The difficulty in reviewing spy novels is that almost anything I say will be a spoiler so please bear with me; this may seem a trifle vague. 

During the next fifteen years, Catesby makes his way from London to Moscow to the Laotian border searching for spies, protecting secrets, and guarding the United Kingdom from implosion. He has seen the enemy and it is them. You have to appreciate a spy whose preparation for a mission includes reading The Heart of Darkness. As Catesby wraps up spy rings, moles, and triple agents, a strange thing happens. The flow of nuclear secrets to Moscow dries up. Full stop. But Catesby knows the agents are still out there. What happened? Have they seen the error of their ways? Has everyone suddenly come down with a case of patriotism? Or has another player taken the field? While exploring these questions you must consider that communism was never some "monolithic international conspiracy." Keep in mind that subtlety and nuances (much to the consternation of George W. Bush) do exist; all communists are not necessarily the same. As Catesby says of the Vietnamese, “They weren’t merely walking a tightrope between Moscow and Peking; they were doing pirouettes on it.”

Edward Wilson
The characters and details are woven so tightly and creatively into historical events that I dare you to separate fact from fiction. It’s all here – Fidel Castro, Chairman Mao, Klaus Fuchs, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, the Profumo Affair. Speaking of honey traps, I now know way more about the “sexual circus” fetishes of Britain’s upper-classes than I’d really like to. There’s an entirely plausible conspiracy theory about the assassination of JFK that I’ve never heard before and I live in Texas. Those of us who are elderly enough to remember the Cold War, third-world countries as pawns on the global chessboard, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent relief and hope that all of that was behind us, will appreciate this novel. Younger readers who watched Maidan Square in Kiev on CNN and now hear the hymns to mother Russia issuing from Crimea on Victory Day would do well to read this book. As it turns out, this historical fiction spy novel is actually quite timely. The ultimate secret had my head spinning and by the end of this story I was gasping aloud. What if? The Whitehall Mandarin is a dream for book lovers – a smart, sophisticated spy novel.

The author is a fascinating character in his own right. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Edward Wilson studied International Relations on a US Army scholarship and served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam. His decorations include the Army Commendation Medal (with “V”) and the Bronze Star. Wilson left the Army and surrendered his US citizenship in favor of Britain where he taught English and Modern Languages for 30 years. The Whitehall Mandarin is his fifth novel.

I leave you with a question to ponder: Why did Nixon go to China?

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