Tag Archives: Britain

The English Section: A Game of Spies by John Altman

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Disclaimer: This book review is brought to you by a reader of fantasy, comedy, Y.A. and occasional sci-fi. It is NOT brought to you by someone who usually reads – or watches – WW2 spy novels. I know relatively little about WW2 and much less about the business of spying. I haven’t even watched a James Bond movie. So there you go.

I bitched quite a lot about this book on Twitter.

However, now I’ve finished the book, I’m thinking my bitchiness was perhaps not entirely justified.

Now, I’m not saying anything in those tweets was false. There was, indeed, a total deus ex machina moment whereby Hobbs, the guy who got shot in the leg, just sort of woke up in his car and somehow managed to drive off. And I did have a teensy bit of trouble suspending disbelief at the fact that not only did he manage to get away with a bullet wound in his leg, but he also – after perfunctory care and a bit of bandaging – managed to drag himself, via various means, out into the countryside where he survives for several days alone, in the cold, with no change of bandages and no real help. In fact, without spoiling, the amount of things this guy manages to do with a bullet wound in his leg is pretty amazing, especially since, in all other aspects (and as mentioned above), he is spectacularly incompetent for an MI6 spy, and only manages to survive due to the even more spectacular incompetence of the Gestapo (whom I have been led to believe were far from incompetent in real life), and sheer luck.

However, a few things – clichés I expected to see played out – turned out not to be what I expected. You don’t see the passionate love affair the protagonist, Eva, and her “recruiter”, Hobbs, which happens before the story begins. And in fact, it’s not all that passionate, not in a sexual sense, anyway:

“[…] she had put terrific pressure on herself to enjoy the time spent in bed with him. When she had failed, she knew that she had disappointed them both.”

This, at the beginning of the book, is what made me think: Huh. Not exactly what the blurb had me expecting. And that intrigued me.

There are passages from the Nazi officers’ points of view, too. There’s Frick, who is not quite right in the head to begin with and who, as the story progresses, appears to be losing it completely. And then there’s his superior, Hagen, who seems like a normal guy just trying to do his job, who works too hard and badly needs a holiday. You almost sympathise with him sometimes. You kinda hope he’s secretly a goodie. Minor spoiler – he’s not.

The story doesn’t end the way I expected it to, either. Not by a mile. The plan both succeeds and fails, and – as we know from history – the war begins regardless. The characters are deeper than they originally appear, and the author isn’t afraid of killing one or two of your favourites just for the drama. The style, though not exceptional, is very readable and focuses on the action. All in all, despite the incoherences, it’s a good read.

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