THE BEST OF OUR SPIES by ALEX GERLIS: Review
Alex Gerliis’ first novel starts with a bang and keeps the reader gripped until the final page. The setting is the Second World War in Europe, mostly in the time before, during and after the D-Day landings of June 6th. 1944. It is essentially a story of deception in more ways than one. The tale could easily have slotted into Ben McIntyre’s : Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies and, having swallowed McIntyre’s extraordinary narrative, Gerlis’ story becomes very credible indeed.
The background to the plot is Operation Fortitude, the plan created to persuade the Germans that the target area for the Second Front landings in Northern France was the Pas de Calais and not the Normandy beaches. Even trickier was to convince the Nazis that, even after the June 6th. landings, these were just a feint and the real attack would come in North-East France sometime later, thus preventing the main units of the Wehrmacht dashing westwards on June 7th. Had that happened, the allied armies may well not have broken out of Normandy and the consequences of that are too depressing to contemplate.
Its not giving the plot away to remind readers that these deception operations succeeded beyond their creators’ wildest dreams, but I’m anxious not to include any more plot spoilers in this post because it’s purpose is to persuade people to buy the book. It really is very good.
The characters are both complex and interesting. The hero is a young naval officer and the heroine a refugee from wartime France who is also a trained nurse. The people who create and put into place the deception plan include a kindly old World War One naval officer and a small number of utterly ruthless agents whose sole task is to win the war by whatever means necessary. This is not, however, a traditional heroic spy story and the way in which the personalities of the central players change as the tension mounts and the stakes rise is fascinating. Woven round this is a very convincing and moving love story.
The plot is, of course, full of twists and turns and demands careful reading. Several times I found myself predicting what would happen next only to be totally wrong. There is one short use of flashback when the earlier adolescent life of the hero is sketched in. This is essential to help the reader to understand his later actions. Wartime London is very well-drawn and I got a real sense of being there. This is also true of Northern France in the aftermath of the invasion: chaos, tragedy, revenge, relief and confusion. Here we’re introduced to another set of interesting people: resisters, collaborators, good Germans and bad Nazis, families and the bereaved.
The Best of Our Spies has a contemporary feel and, apart from one or two appropriate acts of violence, could have been written in 1945. There’s no padding in the narrative. It’s superbly pared to the bone. Both sides, British and German, use deceit and cruelty as well as a weary professionalism. They’re very good spies, but tired of the war. A device that Gerlis uses particularly well is the blending together of real and fictional characters. I did the same in my novel The Blue Pencil and I felt then, as Gerlis perhaps thinks here, that this helps to lend both credibility and menace to the tale.
Many years ago I saw a film called Circle of Deception. The plot is about a young American agent sent into occupied Europe before D-Day carrying top secret coded plans (I can’t recall the precise details). He’s given a deadly cyanide capsule which he’s told he must bite into if he’s caught so that he won’t reveal the secrets. People at our end make sure he’s picked up by the Germans and he takes the pill which is, of course, harmless. Under torture he gives away the codes, the Germans read the plans, swallow them hook, line and sinker and march off in the wrong direction. It’s an old chestnut, frequently re-heated but none the less gripping. The same is true of Alex Gerlis’ novel The Best of Our Spies. It’s extremely well-written, exciting and very satisfying. It’s a brilliant must-read.